This seems to come up every time there’s something in the media about women and reproductive rights. While it’s not the big news of the moment today, this is something I’ve been thinking about. Invariably, some (possibly) well-meaning person will write a (not) well-meaning blog post or op-ed about how awesome babies are and what a blessing they are. I like to hope (sort of) that these writings are just not coming across the way they were intended, but I doubt it. Anyway, today, I want to explain why you should probably (okay, definitely) not ask/pressure your child-free friends regarding their status as non-parents. Bear with me, I’m going to use a somewhat silly analogy, but I hope you’ll get my point.
I happen to like burritos. Specifically, I like Taco Bell 7-layer burritos. They are like a $2 bit of joy in my mouth. It’s kind of weird, as I usually dislike beans, and Taco Bell burritos are full of ‘em. If you ever come out to lunch at Taco Bell with me, and you happen not to like burritos at all, I promise our conversation will never look like this:
Me: Ooh! Burrito! Want one?
You: No, thanks. I really only like the tacos.
Me: But…but…burritos! They are super awesome! Don’t you want to experience the awesome?
You: Not really. I’m sure I just want a taco.
Yet that’s exactly how a lot of these conversations go when someone who is a parent can’t fathom why anyone would not want to have kids. There is always someone who finds it necessary to say, “But…but…babies! They’re so cuuuuute! And they’re little blessings from heaven!” Okay, maybe not quite like that, but you get the picture. Not only that, but there’s this belief that the reason people don’t want kids is because they just haven’t tried it yet–like they couldn’t possibly know what they do or don’t want.
I have some news for you. Your friends who have chosen not to have kids (or have chosen not to have biological kids) have probably given a lot more thought to it than, say, whether or not they like burritos. Unless they are very weird, like me, and spend time thinking up odd analogies for their blogs–in which case they might think deeply about burritos. I mean, eating the burrito or the taco (or skipping both and eating somewhere else) is a momentary decision based on current taste preference. Whether or not to parent is a pretty big decision. Sometimes it’s made for us by circumstances, but when it isn’t, it’s not really something people come to lightly.
The other thing you should know is that it’s not really okay to ask strangers on the Internet or friends in your offline life or people you meet at parties why they don’t have kids. You don’t know their story. It might be by choice, but it might not. You probably wouldn’t grill your friends and acquaintances about why they don’t like burritos. If you wouldn’t pressure them about something that innocuous, why do it about big things that clearly require more thought and attention and come with a lot deeper feelings?
See, here’s the deal. It’s not about you. Someone choosing not to have kids isn’t about thinking kids are awful or parenting sucks in a general sense applied to all people for all time; it’s about not wanting those things for oneself. Someone who cannot have children doesn’t need your “magic” advice about how to make it happen. Pretty much you should just lay off the judgment, and you certainly are not invited to ask nosy, personal questions about someone else’s life.
It’s also not okay to suggest that a person might not know what he or she wants or how to achieve that. It’s not okay to tie a person’s worth to the children he or she has (yes, I know this happens more with women, but I’ve seen it happen to men–why, hello there, “children are like arrows; blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them”). It is never okay to believe that your personal preference or lifestyle is best for everyone.
Not only that, but even if you’re right–even if someone might later on change her mind–it’s not up to you to push that to happen or even decide that it will. Sometimes people change their minds; sometimes they don’t, even about big things like children or career or where to live. It’s true that someone who really doesn’t want children at one time might decide later on that she does. But similarly, someone who always thought she wanted to be a mom might discover that she doesn’t want to after all. Among my offline friends, I’ve seen both things. I’ve also seen people who desperately wanted to parent and couldn’t and people who didn’t intend to have children suddenly finding themselves doing so. Life is life, and it happens.
Because I have kids, I don’t really know how it feels to have made a choice not to parent or to be unable to have children. I have, however, been asked why we stopped at two (which is also a rude question that shouldn’t be asked). People seem to think that if one baby is cute, two are cuter, and more are cuter still. Yes. Babies are totally adorable and special. That might be a good enough reason for people who are not me, but I was done after the second one. I did not want more then, I don’t want more now, and I don’t see myself wanting more in the future.
Perhaps that’s why I can understand why being grilled and pressured is so hurtful. Or maybe it’s because I was so certain that I did want to be a mom that I can completely understand the certainty of not wanting to be one. It might be because we went through the challenges of diagnosing fertility problems, and I know just a fraction of the sense of loss. Whatever the reason, it’s why I don’t assume I know anything about a person and her own choice. I don’t question it.
There are, of course, times when it’s okay to ask people why they don’t have children, but unless you meet the criteria, you just shouldn’t ask. If your friend is close with you, chances are good you’ve had the conversation. Hopefully, you were a decent friend and just listened without making assumptions. Here are some examples of when it’s acceptable or even expected:
- When you are in an intimate relationship with someone. Naturally, you’ll talk about these things. If you don’t want kids, and you’re two cis-het people, you need to have that conversation and you both need to agree on what you’re going to do about it.
- Within a community. If you’re part of an online or in-person group for people who don’t have children (for whatever reason), you and others will likely have shared your stories. Of course, that’s not all you’ve shared, I’m sure, but most groups built on a specific premise do tend to discuss it.
- If you’re unsure what you want to do and are looking for a mentor/advice. It has to be done carefully and in such a way that the person understands your reasoning, but I don’t think it’s unfair for someone who isn’t sure to seek out others who have made decisions. In that case, it may be a matter of framing the question so that it doesn’t come off as judgmental. It also helps to be transparent about your objective. You must be prepared to accept any and all answers given–even if they surprise you or confuse you. They don’t have to be your reasons, but they are someone’s reasons and are therefore valid for those people.
So there you have it. I hope that next time you’re at Taco Bell (or wherever) ordering your next burrito (or whatever) you’ll consider what I’ve said here. All people deserve care and respect, and I hope that what I’ve said helps foster that.
I’ll be visiting this topic in other ways this week, including reversing the question and how we view men who don’t want children. Stick around and share your thoughts. I’d love to hear from some of you on how you handled these nosy questions, if you feel like sharing, and what other advice you would give to inappropriately curious people.