The dreaded follow-up question

Before I dive in to today’s installment of “The Good Aunt” series, let me take a moment to thank all of you who have served your country and made sacrifices to keep us all safe and free. There are men and women throughout the history of this country who have sacrificed their futures (including some who never had the opportunity to have families) so that others’ futures would be enriched. I am humbly grateful for what you have given this country.

A Memorial Day thanks to all who sacrificed their dreams and futures to keep us safe

The expected question
“Do you have children?” For those of us good aunts (and uncles, too) who do not have children, we know that the first question is coming. It’s one we ask those we meet, and we expect it to be asked of us, too. This question is not a big problem, though for men and women trying desperately to have children, even this question can cause a jab of pain.

But that first question is one we all accept. It’s part of the “get-to-know-you” package of questions that anyone of a certain age gets asked: Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you married? Do you have children?

Women aren’t alone in asking these questions. Men, too, will ask other men a similar set of introductory questions. Perhaps the most memorable phrasing of the children question came from one of my husband’s coworkers, who asked him one day, “Are you going to procreate?” Seriously? Seriously.

When “no” isn’t enough
When the answer is “No, I don’t have children,” though, it catches people off guard. Those of us who are graceful aunts have come to expect this and try to ease others through the next difficult part of the conversation. One of the women I interviewed for the series has my favorite response to this question: “No, we’re still sleeping in on Saturdays and going to the beach whenever we want.”

That satisfies plenty of people and provides an air of light-hearted humor about the question that lets the asker off the hook, so to speak. But there are others who will press for a reason, and it’s that follow-up question, “Why not?” that can be so difficult to navigate gracefully.

Sometimes it’s the way the questions sounds more like “Why-on-earth-not?” A tone of the question that gets to us, an implied, “What’s wrong with you?” A hint of judgment that a childless woman is in some way physically or emotionally or mentally “less than” women who are mothers. Other times it’s our weariness of the intrusive curiosity in others.

Oftentimes, the person asking the question means no harm (and probably wishes she could take back the question the moment it’s out of her mouth), and a simple response of “It just wasn’t meant to be,” will suffice and give everyone participating in the conversation an extra moment to turn the talk in a different direction.

The reasons we don’t have children
The truth is there are plenty of reasons why not, but when first meeting someone, a good aunt may not want to explain why exactly she does not have children. For one thing, the true reasons may be painful, private reasons, reasons she doesn’t even want to share with her closest friends. Another reason may be that the answer – while not complicated – is too long to give in a brief meeting of relative strangers without creating more focus on her situation than she wants.

The women I interviewed graciously shared their reasons for not having children, and I offer their reasons to you as a snapshot of why the “Why not” question isn’t always well-received:

  • Two of the women suffered from endometriosis and both ended up having hysterectomies in their 30s.
  • One of the women had an undiagnosed fertility problem and tried fertility treatments unsuccessfully.
  • Another had a lifelong medical issue that, at the time, made it inadvisable to become pregnant, and so she had a tubal ligation to prevent pregnancy.
  • One woman knew from an early age that she did not want children. She felt like she needed to know where she was headed in life before having children and also knew that her artistic lifestyle in big cities all over the world would not provide the best environment for her to raise children. (Please note that I’m not saying there aren’t parents who do this well, but it wasn’t the right choice for her.)
  • One woman married in her early 40s, and spent a lot of time talking with her fiancé about having children. Her mother gave her wonderful advice: “Only have children if you want to.” She and her husband decided it was not the right choice for them.
  • One woman married in her mid-40s, already knowing that she would not have children (though she and her husband haven’t ruled out adopting an older child).
  • As for me, here’s the short version: I fell completely in love with a wonderful man who did not want children. And while I could envision life without children, I could not imagine life without him. Our marriage is one of the greatest blessings in my life.

Several of the women I interviewed are not married (either never married or divorced without any children from their marriage). They are more immune to hearing the question of children, but they are no less subject to painful follow-up questions. “Why aren’t you married?” “Why don’t you adopt a child? Plenty of women raise children by themselves.” Please, people, if you find these words on the tip of your tongue, stop them from coming out of your mouth. You do not know when careless questions like these will cause worse than a temporary sting.

Some of these unmarried women hope to marry and have children, and some of them who are past child-bearing age hope to marry and possibly help raise step-children. Some are content to be single for life.

Whether single or married, though, all of us are women who are creating abundant and full lives for ourselves and our families outside of the conventional structure. We are not intrinsically selfish, nor do we want pity for some perceived great, gaping hole in our lives.

We want to be surrounded by people who love us. We enjoy doting on nieces and nephews and the children of our friends. We want our lives to have meaning and purpose.

We really aren’t that different than those of you who have children. We have interests and dreams. We have homes to clean and meals to prepare. And we don’t always get to sleep in on Saturdays and go to the beach whenever we want, despite what you might think.

Better follow-up questions
May I suggest some alternatives to asking “Why not?” when someone tells you they don’t have children? Ask about the person’s interests and how they spend their spare time. (Please, though, don’t assume it’s an enormous amount of spare time.) You might ask if they have nieces and nephews or pets. This opens the door for them to tell you briefly about some of the people they love most. You might tell them about your own Aunt Mildred who never had children but was a favorite relative because [fill-in-the-blank].

There are plenty of ways to change the “get-to-know-you” package of questions so they affirm and connect, and I bet you’re up for the challenge.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for questions that could replace the dreaded “Why not?”.

10 thoughts on “The dreaded follow-up question

  1. Hope, this was such a moving piece. A few years ago a young friend asked me if I thought married couples should have to have children. My reply was, “Absolutely not! If you really want children and want all of that responsibility, fine; but if you are not 100% sure that you want to raise children, do not have them to please someone else.” I had a feeling that her mother wanted to be a grandmother, but that was not mentioned. Years later, she and her husband are very happy and get to do many interesting things while they are totally devoted to their nieces and nephews who look forward to visiting them every summer and doing everything that living on a lake offers! They are the special uncle and aunt whom you mention in your story!
    Blessings over your writing career. JAK

    • Thanks, Joanne. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. What a blessing your answer was to your young friends, especially since it sounds like they were getting pressure from others to have children. It can be freeing to hear that the world won’t end if a marriage doesn’t produce children — especially if it comes from a trusted friend. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Pingback: The good aunt’s family | The Flourishing Tree

  3. Yes, beautifully written–and helpful to someone who truly wants to get to know people without being offensive or intrusive. I really appreciated the detailed practical suggestions.

    • Thanks, Tracey. I didn’t want to simply raise the issue without offering some practical solutions and asking others for their practical ideas for this challenge.

  4. Hope, You were so brave to take this on! On the plain with the humiliation you are talking about would be those who suffer secondary infertility and were able to conceive once but never again. Having worked in a fertility practice, I’ve seen the pain caused by these probing questions and I applaud you for your presentation of this piece.

    • Shannon — what a great point. There seems to be something hard-wired in that makes us expect the “next” thing. If there’s no child, why not? If there’s only one child, why not more? I think that’s where a mindset of gratitude might help: what a blessing it could be to be thankful for and celebrate the wonderful things in each others’ lives instead of probing the areas that don’t fit convention.

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