What to Say When People Ask Why You Aren’t Having Children
Nothing could have prepared me for the invasiveness I face about my fertility plans as a married woman in my late 30s.
What was once an occasional topic of conversation five years ago when I first dated Mike, now my husband, has become a full-blown speculative crisis since we tied the knot in April.
I understand the concern. In our youth, many of us were taught, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage.” There’s no asterisk after the ditty clarifying “these milestones might never be accomplished in this order, or at all.”
Well-meaning relatives touch my arm and ask when we’ll start a family. I bristle at the suggestion, as if me, my sweet fella and our delightful cat aren’t already a complete family. Their faces drop when I break the news that we plan to be child-free.
“What a shame,” they say. “You’d make such a great mom.”
Acquaintances are more blunt: When are you going to pop out a kid? “Two minutes after never,” I reply, which sucks the air out of the room. I pretend I don’t notice them exchanging worried looks. Even my primary care physician has an opinion on the matter, advising me last year to “keep an open mind” about having kids.
I was never sure what to say when people put me on the spot. After alternating between arguing, brooding and stewing, I now realize I don’t have to react in such a negative way. So when I want to keep my friendships (and my doctor), I take a breath and try to keep the following five things in mind:
Don’t get defensive
Most of my closest friends — all city-dwelling creative types — don’t have biological children. In fact, we rarely discuss our reasons for why we chose our child-free lifestyles.
I assume it’s for some of the same reasons as me, which range from the inane to the intense: We cherish our flexible lifestyles, children are time-consuming and expensive, child care costs are prohibitive, and we all have varying degrees of anxiety about our future. Why take the leap when so many aspects of parenthood feel so risky?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many like-minded women. If I still lived in my hometown, a tiny suburb outside of Albany, I’m not sure I’d have the same support. I moved away the summer before eighth grade and haven’t been back since. A quick scroll through my Facebook feed shows all my childhood friends with little ones in tow. I imagine the pressure to have children would’ve been much stronger if I’d stayed.
But when strangers ask about my plans for a child-free life, it can come off as if they’re really asking what kind of person I am.
It takes effort to keep my cool. After a few deep breaths, I run through my usual answers in a measured tone: Yes, I love children, but I don’t feel an urgent need to have my own. No, it’s not because I’m a selfish jerk.
I then politely assert that my husband and I are making decisions based on what’s right for us as a couple. I don’t elaborate more than that if I don’t want to.
For some, staying childless contradicts their worldview
When people push back about it, they seem to be more upset at having their sense of order questioned. Sometimes that can lead to interactions that feel hostile.
Many people assume that having children after marriage is the natural progression of life. They may even see my reluctance to have kids as a personal affront, as if I’m criticizing their choices.
Not only is it exasperating to justify myself to people who have no stake in the process, but people have rarely been enthusiastic about my decision unless they’ve decided to be child-free too.
“Sometimes one needs to remove oneself from situations where this is likely to come up,” said Dr. Maureen Kelly, medical director of Society Hill Reproductive Medicine. “So many patients over the years have told me that they avoid certain family gatherings because they are sure someone will ask dreaded questions.”
Trends are changing
It gives me comfort to know more women than ever are choosing the same course as me.
According to the latest data by the National Center for Health Statistics, the American fertility rate has fallen to 62 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 to 44. Living in a society that offers few safety nets for mothers (and considerable economic penalties), it’s becoming more common to either delay having children until your 30s or avoid having them altogether.
And while I feel compelled to articulate my reasons more than my husband does to other people, to be clear, this is a decision we arrived at together.
Fertility is a sensitive subject, for everyone
“People should not ask women about their fertility choices,” Dr. Kelly said. “This includes mothers, sisters, close friends, acquaintances and other family members. This is a highly personal topic and should be considered off limits unless someone brings it up.”
In light of the subject’s sensitive nature, Dr. Kelly recommends following the lead of the individual: “If she wants to discuss, do so on her terms and remain highly supportive and free of judgment.”
“If someone does confide” in you, she said, “do not bring up how easy it was for you or compare that individual’s struggles or decisions to yourself or anyone else.”
Having these painful discussions has heightened my sympathy for my loved ones struggling with their own fertility issues. I do my best to offer unconditional support for whatever outcome they are hoping for.
Honor the path taken
Sometimes I picture another version of me with children living in a parallel universe. She juggles play dates, organizes nap schedules and indulges requests to screen “Moana” several times in a row.
I imagine this woman in a quiet moment wondering what her life would’ve been like if she’d never had kids.
I would tell her as fulfilled as she is being a parent, I’m as satisfied with the child-free path I’ve chosen too.