How Not to Talk to a Childless Person

Credit: John Hain

Fertiles Behaving Badly

“Do you know the date?”  A woman to the left of me queried as I signed in at the office window.

“Uhhhhh, I’m usually the last person to know.  The 7th?  But don’t fully trust me on that.”

(Her) “The 7th?”

(Me) “Yeah, how does that sound?”

“Good enough I suppose” she said as we acknowledged each other with a knowing shrug and giggle.

Confirming it was indeed the seventh, she then pushed her phone into my line of vision.

“This is my husband” she stated.

I nodded and responded “Oh, okay”, leaving some space for what I sensed was to come.  

The disorientation and disinterest towards time had been the first hint.  Due to the offered picture, my internal sonar picked up another wisp of familiarity.

“He passed away.”

I had been going to physical therapy long enough to know the scene.  Set in a suburban town where its natives often return to raise their children, the waiting and physical therapy rooms are typically buzzing with talk of offspring.  My method of navigation?  Tune out conversations that don’t include me, and wouldn’t even if I were to try, and keep my head in my own game: rehabbing my shoulder so I can resume my full yoga practice and start teaching as part of my “new” life.

In this moment though, that reality faded to black and all I knew was that I was in the presence of a fellow griever.

(Me) “I’m so sorry.  When did this happen?”

(Her) “This past year”

“Oh my goodness, that’s so recent” I acknowledged as I tenderly placed my hand on her shoulder and felt her soften just a bit.  I then removed my hand.  I know all too well there’s only so much softening a fresh griever can take in public.

“We were married 67 years” she announced after I had left more space for the need to be seen and heard unfurl.

“Wow, what a shock to the system.  How are you doing today?”

“Hanging in there” she said as she turned her palms up in a ‘what the heck’ type fashion.  “What else can you do?”  

“Sometimes there really is nothing else.”  I nodded and smirked in camaraderie.  I’m a firm believer in holding space with other people’s pain.  I’m also dedicated, perhaps vehemently, to bearing witness to loss and facilitating mourning, the expression of grief, whenever I can.  These things are integral parts of life.  And I know all to well what it’s like to try to heal in their absence.

“Do you have any support?”

“Well, yes” she piped up, “I have two daughters and five grandchildren…..” and then went on to recite what seemed like every last detail about them, none of which I remember.  In my five plus years being an involuntarily childless infertility and IVF survivor, I’ve reprogrammed myself to tune these things out.  A compensatory coping strategy for society’s lack of awareness of the people to whom they might be speaking.

If she had been more to the point in noting the presence of her children and grandchildren, describing how having that support was helping her, I’d GLADLY have given her that.  A drop of gratitude and some acknowledgement for the luck involved in their existence wouldn’t have hurt either.  

And I must admit, I was a bit struck by her notion of support.  Not wrong, of course, but I found it to be quite provincial in light of what I’ve experienced.  No ready made support here in childless not by choice infertility survivor land.  I’ve Skyped over oceans, flown across continents and habitually educated those close to me in order to drum up an inkling of the support I need.  I know people who have written books and started groups because there were none.  Many in my tribe have also had to scour far and wide for a qualified counselor/therapist who will not end up inflicting more damage on them in the face of their very real grief.  But I digress.

What really struck me sideways was the tone of her soliloquy – it was rightfully happy, yes, but she also spoke of her progeny in an achievement, trophy – like manner.  In her mind justly earned, I got the sense.

And so I was faced with the moment that every involuntarily childless person knows all too well.  That moment where dialogue erodes into monologue, that moment where planet parent unabashedly takes front and center, as those present are rendered nothing more than dimly lit audience members.  That moment where your options for conversational participation become razor thin and worse, utterly self disrespecting.  Either chime in with “me too” vignettes (hint: this option is not available for people like me), or spew awe and amazement over that which you sought ferociously and lost.

So what did I do?  I opted for the option that isn’t really an option except for the fact that I don’t care that it’s not an option.  I offered myself and my perspective into the conversation.

And yes, I just felt the collective groan from tribe involuntarily childless.  Because we all know THAT never ends well.

Cutting in, a necessity with such onslaughts,  I said evenly “You know, my husband and I couldn’t have children, so I’m really going to have to prepare in case he goes first.”

And her response?

“My mother had twenty eight grandchildren!” she proclaimed, holding the same glazed expression that had been present throughout her monologue.

She exhibited a hypocrisy I encounter on a regular basis – she was fine disconnecting with me while simultaneously seeking my applause.  What on earth would make someone think they can have that one nine ways to Sunday?

Having become highly discerning as to what I will and won’t spend my energy on since losing my children five years ago, I promptly turned back to the window to facilitate my next appointment as she repeated herself “Twenty eight grandchildren. Can you believe it!!”  

I always thought it must be nice to walk around in the world expecting the same mindless chummy response to your (or in this case, her family’s) reproductive situation.  I mean, I wonder what THAT’S like.  When people don’t get the ovation they expect, they take on a “paper boy from the movie Better Off Dead” like quality.  “Twenty eight grandchildren” could have easily been interchanged with “Two dollars!  I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS!!” 

I’m not telling this story because it’s out of the ordinary.  I’m telling it because these types of interactions are all too normal.  They happen on a regular basis and are one of many debacles that result when childless people speak up.  The nails on a chalkboard reality is it would not have taken this woman much at all to keep things within the realm of appropriate.  An “I’m sorry” or “That must be tough if you wanted them”, or an acknowledgement such as “Sounds like you’ll have a different experience than me should your husband pass first” or even holding a thoughtful gaze, or a nod with a “mmm-hmm” – yes, even a mere utterance would have sufficed.

With my husband still alive I had no trouble setting aside my unearned privilege to companion her reality for a bit.  She however, was incompetent to even embark on doing similar.  When I bear witness to someone’s life altering loss, I expect nothing back, let me be clear.  But she didn’t have to give me an open bag of poop either. 

And yet, I have to hand it to her.  Yes.  This woman accomplished in minutes what takes me days, months, and even years of writing and ponderance demonstrate.

So thank you, lady at physical therapy.  Thank you for disproving in a single bound that childless people are the selfish ones.  Great job.

You also gave one bitchin clinic on the difference between regular and disenfranchised grief.  I would have healed exponentially faster and better had I been able to walk out in the world in my first few years of raw grief – speaking of my losses and shoving pictures of my embryo garden at people – and received one one hundredth of the compassion I showed you.  I could not have illustrated more clearly what it’s like to live this life forever changed by losing what many dare to consider to be nothing.

And as far as the myth that being a mom makes one a more compassionate person?  Well you sure busted that one.  Committing oneself to caring, connectedness and courage is what makes someone a compassionate person.  Regardless of their parent status.  Yes, that’s right.  And a bit of humility goes a long way in the equation too (don’t knock it ’til you try it).

The respectable bite you took out of the “being a mom is the toughest job on the planet” anthem also warrants a mention.  If it really were the toughest job on the planet, then you’d have had no trouble spending a few minutes in my shoes.  

It may seem, at a glance, that there are viable excuses for this kind of behavior.  People are prone to justifying that which is familiar, especially those patterns, words and actions that uphold patriarchy.

But let’s do a scenario swap and see how things hold.

If someone shared “I had a double mastectomy”, and the other person, under ANY circumstance, responded : “My daughter has double D’s – all real too!”, would we consider that acceptable?

Or try this:

“My husband died”

Response – “Oh, I just got back from a long, sex filled vacation with mine!!”

Is this woman’s MO working yet?  No?  Ok, maybe this:

“I lost my home in a fire”

Response – “We have three mansions.  Three! Can you believe it??”

I’ve spent the past few years going to great lengths attempting to off set society’s failures surrounding my demographic and experiences like mine.  I’ve developed an unwavering connection with myself.  As I’m dismissed, unseen and unheard on a regular basis, I know I can always return “home” to that which I’ve cultivated; my writing, my yoga practice, friendships with nurturing, validating people who get it, advocacy on behalf of my tribe, and yes, real live actual gardens.

Up until about a year and a half ago, responses like this would have incited rage in me, and I was not wrong in that.  Considerably more wounded and vulnerable then, I viscerally knew I needed the abidance of my fellow humans in order to heal.  Like having to run miles with a collapsed lung, encountering people such as this woman while in the throes of grief or traumatic grief does undeniable damage.  The injustice of it all was not lost on me either.  That my mangling experiences could be met with indifference from others perturbed me to my very core.  While it still does and probably always will, today I’m different.

In addition to disinterest, what comes up for me these days when confronted with people such as this woman is pity.  Pity for people who haven’t been challenged and opened as a result.  Pity for those who can’t attempt to entertain experiences other than their own in the human conversation.  Pity for people who think they are somehow better for having received what is in fact the all too random privilege of being able to reproduce.  I’ve come a long way in relearning this world, which is so different from the world I had thought it was.  I have downgraded my expectations of human beings accordingly, a level of calm and contentment has manifested as a result. 

In no way though does my evolution neutralize this woman’s behavior and behaviors like it.  The fact that I and people like me, who do make up about twenty percent of the worldwide population, are being syphoned from the human conversation – daily, perpetually – is as wrong as it ever was.  However I or anyone else  ends up coping, an effortless place in the human conversation and reciprocity in most human interactions are still losses that I live with.  It is exhausting. 

“Why do you flipping talk to people??” I’ll chide myself after such occurrences.  The true answer is that my children are the ones who widened these capacities in me – the capacities to listen, to abide, to empathize, to hold rough space.  It is the way my children that I’ll never get to meet breathe and speak through me, and I will not, I probably cannot, stop doing it.  And for no reason am I ever going to stop being myself, either.  Someone’s inability to receive me does not warrant the stifling of my authenticity.

One of this woman’s grandchildren will end up involuntarily childless, statistically speaking.  And chances are good one will have trouble or perhaps will not be able to conceive at all.  Will she be as willing to model how she’ll want for them to be treated out in the world as she is willing to prattle on about them to strangers? 

22 thoughts on “How Not to Talk to a Childless Person

    • Same here. Had me on the edge of my seat, even hoping for a rare symaphetic sojourner in life, but alas, no, just another self-absorbed matriarch. So well written!

      I feel so sorry her grankids if one turns out to be like me.

      • “Just another self absorbed matriarch” has been swirling about in my head – spot on description!! And now I can utter that to myself in future situations, it will make me feel better somehow so thanks for the mini coping mechanism!

  • You have such a powerful, direct and clear way of articulating the involuntary childless experience. This is so in-line with what I have experienced and I am deeply grateful for your willingness to share your perspective and wisdom. Thank you!

  • I was so hopeful at the beginning of this post. A fellow griever! But no, still worlds apart for what is considered okay to grieve and what isn’t.

    Your points and examples are spot on. But I’m also starting to wonder if active education is needed about grieving and how to acknowledge all grief. Because what happened to you isn’t okay.

    • I think a greater awarenesses of disenfranchised grief would definitely be a good thing. People also need to know that parenthood is something that one can loose, and that most people who wanted to be parents but don’t get to be are not complicit in their loss. Like you, I’m often questioning what is needed to change things for the better for those who follow. So many things, such little time, right??

  • Yeah, you could have said (a la the common insensitive miscarriage comment…) “hey at least you know you can get married!” or “don’t give up – you can try again! i know this lady who fell in love and got married again after her husband died!”

  • It’s sickening how we are denied empathy from others and then by people doing this, they then prevent us having an opportunity to voice our own grief. It’s like being gaslighted repeatedly, over and over and over again.
    Yet we’re usually the first to hold others in their grief, because this is a language we’re fluent in.
    I have noticed how older ladies will gloss over anything mentioned about loss. They fail to understand it’s not just the loss of our children, it’s a loss of a whole chapter of our lives and it’s loss upon loss upon loss.
    This is a great post, thank you for sharing and I am sorry your own story was negated, we are all worthy regardless of our childless status.

    • Yes, yes and yes! Grief – the language nobody ever wants to be fluent in, but we are anyway and then we’re not even recognized for that. Sheesh.

      I notice older generations are more into keeping up appearances when it comes to loss too. I think our generation tends to have a very different sense of what it means to be strong.

      Agreed too on the collateral damage – that for me has been at least as staggering as the loss of my children.

  • I’m really sorry your kindness and empathy was not reciprocated. Like you, I have come to expect much less from my fellow citizens, and as you have found, it brings a level of peace too. I think it is a part of how we process things – that we are at first deeply hurt, then insulted, then enraged, frustrated, and finally, when it ceases to surprise us, we can look at it from a distance. I love that you feel pity. It shows a compassion that they are often incapable of feeling. And compassion for me has been one of the great Gifts of Infertility (to reference my series). I’ve posted too about pitying those who can only talk about their children or grandchildren, or who are dependent on their children to provide them with a sense of worth. Their narrowness makes me feel sorry for them. Great post, Sarah!

    • Such a huge shift, isn’t it? To feel sorry for the folks who once enraged you. Too bad we can’t rush it, it comes when and how it comes. I can now see in the limits of others just how deep and far our experiences push and develop us. It’s high time involuntary childlessness be recognized for the adult developmental trajectory that it is. Good to know the path I’m on is normal, thanks Mali!

  • So much to say in response to this post. First of all, THANK YOU. I think it’s tricky to criticize a woman who is now a widow, but you make some really good points. I guess because of the way I’ve developed more compassion since going through my virtually invisible grief, I expect highly of others that they’ve done the same. This REALLY stood out to me: “I would have healed exponentially faster and better had I been able to walk out in the world in my first few years of raw grief.” YES YES YES. Omg yes. When we have to continually fight for the right to be sad about our grief, it makes it so much harder to heal, whereas people who have visible losses get more visibility, obvs. Get this: recently I found myself jealous of an acquaintance’s miscarriage. How messed up is that? But I felt jealous of the attention and community she received in sharing that loss. And on the other hand, I’m super super glad that things like that have garnered an appropriate response that will allow her to possibly heal faster.

    All in all, good on you, and on all of us, who continue to be present and show compassion for others’ grief, even if it’s not reciprocated. The very last thing I wanted out of this cluster is to become hardened and isolated from society. Instead, I will continue to choose vulnerability and openness. Agh, and now I’m tearing up. Thanks again lady for your amazing work in this space. ❤

    • You’re darned welcome!

      I too tend to expect a lot from people who have suffered a life altering loss. Something I definitely need to adjust, and quite often at that. And I totally get both the jealousy and compassion you mentioned. A perfect example of how we humans (if we’re brave and aware enough) can hold all sorts of different feelings simultaneously.

      I think we both teared up……

  • I really enjoyed your comment about how your children have taught you these compassionate lessons and so much more. I’ve never really considered it from that perspective but it warmed my heart knowing that my children have made me into a better a woman.

  • Thank you Sarah so much – I love how you have looked at this from every direction and pulled out what is so incredulous, you’ve nailed it as always. It helps me feel less enraged and less hard on myself for my reactions when in similar situations. I admire you so much for putting your heart on the line and bringing your perspective into the conversation and you inspire me all the time to keep trying (its easier not to engage with anyone – but not good long term).

    There was so much in this post but these lines particularly resonated with me:
    “When I bear witness to someone’s life altering loss, I expect nothing back, let me be clear. But she didn’t have to give me an open bag of poop either.” You actually made me laugh here!

    “That moment where your options for conversational participation become razor thin and worse, utterly self-disrespecting.”

    Sadly my encounters such as this are not from strangers or colleagues but my own mother mostly has me reeling – both the above lines I can relate to her whenever I speak my truth. She’s never acknowledged my loss not in 20 years but at 82 years and a widow herself I think I need to stop trying to have any co-participation on any topic – never mind loss, there is no co-participation on good stuff! Any tips on how to engage with someone who constantly weaves “self adulation” into every conversation?

    I love too that you credit your children with your resolve and being a better women and I will resolve to forgive those who cannot give me what I need or see beyond their own shoes (my children taught me that). Thank you Sarah

    • Sorry your Mom does not acknowledge your losses, Jane. Recognizing the limitations of our loved ones and then making decisions in our best interest surrounding that is such a though process. And no, I don’t really have any advice on the self adulation mongers, except to say that I try to be around people with that characteristic as little as possible. Easier said than done though, that’s for sure.

      I think it’s a matter of feeling out a balance between putting ourselves out there and not engaging. Always a challenging call. And it’s true, these situations can bring out such reactions in us as they are so absurd. We often end up getting entangled in our shock/judgement of our own reactions instead of focusing on how inappropriate and unreasonable people have been with us!

  • Thank you so much for your article. It makes me feel that I am not alone in facing so many ego-centered women that sometimes makes the burden of childlessness harder to bear.

    • Thanks for your comment, Annika. Our experiences will always be challenging, but you are right – the societal sidelining we experience no doubt makes things unnecessarily worse and more compounded than they ever need to be.

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