Family planning is personal: I’m learning to stop asking questions about what other people are doing

Guest post by Emily Sullivan Sanford

“When ya gonna start makin’ babies?”

Almost all of us in our late twenties and thirties are used to being asked this regularly. Yet I’ve been amazed at how intrusive the questions and comments can be, and how often something as personal as parenthood is treated like small talk. It’s understandable as more of my peers become parents; the prospect of making humans is daunting and people need to vent about it. Those who don’t want children while living in a baby-obsessed world feel the need to vent back. All this venting results both in community-building and in tactless comments that knock those outside of the community.

One of my friends who miscarried was told by a stranger, “Well, it wasn’t a real baby.” A friend who adopted a girl from South Korea was told by a fellow church member, “Her eyes aren’t that bad.” A friend who had a Cesarean-section was told she must not feel as close to her child as women who give birth “naturally.”

Child-Free friends have been told that their lives will be never be “complete” until they’ve had children. A biology professor who had two foster daughters was asked if he was worried they would inherit their imprisoned father’s criminal tendencies because “that stuff’s in the genes, y’know.”

I’ve been told it’s selfish to want a child with achondroplasia, it’s selfish to want a child without achondroplasia, it’s selfish to allow my child to inherit my achondroplasia, it’s selfish to play God with genetics, it’s selfish to want to biologically reproduce what with the world population exploding, and it’s selfish to worry about any of this because it’s not like I’m infertile.

All of these comments were well-intentioned.

Usually people are simply thinking out loud when they say such things. It is important to remember that no one can be expected to know exactly what to say in unusual circumstances, lest I end up lecturing as if I’ve never inadvertently offended anyone.

Almost all of us have good intentions, but many are unaware of how quickly we redirect conversations back to our own experiences, how easily we forget to prioritize listening over interrogating, empathy over curiosity, respect over Thank-God-that’s-not-me! complacency.

Hereditary conditions, finances, disabilities, infertility, relationships and emotions ensure that having children is not a universal experience. There is no right way for everyone and any opinion that can in any way be construed as a judgment can cut someone deep because babies and bodies are entangled in supremely visceral feelings. It’s no coincidence that Roe v. Wade was argued based on the right to privacy: Something as sensitive, as complicated and as profoundly emotional as your reproductive choices should be volunteered at your discretion.

That said, parenthood is all about making decisions that will profoundly, inexorably affect someone else’s life, not just your own, and this is why it is such a hot-button issue. Our reproductive decisions, more than any other decisions, are the intersection of personal freedoms and social responsibility.

As the daughter of a social worker who worked for Child Protective Services, I have firm beliefs about right and wrong when it comes to parenting.

As someone whose genes make the prospect of parenthood unusually complicated, I’ve begun to see how judgmental those beliefs can seem when the presentation is sloppy.

As an avid reader of Offbeat Families, I know that sharing knowledge and experiences can help others in so many ways. But as someone who feels very ambivalent about offering up my not-yet-existent children’s potential situation as conversation fodder, I’ve become less trustful of many of my most well-meaning friends and family members. Questions about my situation so quickly transform into lectures about their situation. Besides making me more guarded about my personal experience, it has also taught me to stop myself from making snap judgments about others’ reproductive choices. When dealing with anyone else’s family planning, I have been humbly learning to:

  • Fight the urge and try not to ask others about their reproductive choices, especially in the context of small talk. Let them volunteer it. Go ahead and volunteer your own stories, but don’t press the other person if they do not respond in kind. We can never assume what’s lurking under there.
  • Beware of talking about the decisions you made in a way that inadvertently hurts those who must make different decisions. This is also very tricky, but if you are convinced water birth is the only way you can imagine doing it or you are proudly childfree or you know exactly how to make sure it’s a girl, be aware that people in different financial or medical situations may not have these options at all.
  • When someone does want to share something you have little experience with (e.g. adoption, stillbirth, staying childfree, etc.), prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to. Relativizing struggles can be helpful and I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends, but my guard goes up when someone without achondroplasia tells me right away they know what I should do because they know someone whose baby has diabetes, they took a college class on bio-ethics, or they heard something like it on the news.
  • Only offer your ethical opinion if the person makes it perfectly clear they want to hear it. Every society bears the responsibility of taking a legal stance on complex reproductive issues: prenatal testing, genetic counseling, birth control, abortion, sterilization, drug testing, assisted reproductive technology, the life of the mother vs. the life of the fetus, custody, adoption, foster care, etc. We are all compelled as citizens to be aware of the laws concerning these issues. And we all have our own opinions about them. But anyone directly affected by them is likely to have heard it before and to have been thinking about it longer than we have. I’ve been thinking about the effects my dwarfism may have on my kids since I was fourteen.
  • Don’t gossip about others’ decisions behind their backs. It makes your listeners aware how they will be talked about when it’s their turn to decide about having children. There is a fine but crucial line between trying to understand situations that are new to you and using someone’s situation to tell an interesting story.
  • Do try to actively listen when invited to, saying truly supportive things. One or two particularly fantastic friends of mine have, such as: “I can only begin to imagine what I’d do in that situation.” “Let me know if you don’t want to answer this question…” “On a much smaller level, it sounds a tiny bit like what I felt when…” “No matter what you decide, I know you’ll be great at it because…” “I’m always here to listen if you ever need to spill, as long as it helps.”

Of course, in listing here what I have learned not to do, I can only hope that my own past SNAFUs have been minimal. Insensitivity, by definition, is the disconnect between intention and effect. Embarrassed apologies to anyone whose toes I stepped on while stomping through my own bigfooted opinions.

Comments on Family planning is personal: I’m learning to stop asking questions about what other people are doing

  1. The c-section “you are not going to be as close to your child thing” I hear ya. I have heard that way to many times from well intentioned people. Having a child has taught me to keep my mouth shut about most things birth and baby/child related.

  2. I teach Grade 1, and got married a in January of 2010.

    A few months after the wedding, the kids began to expect that I would be pregnant. The attitude was very much “Make with the baby so we can play with it, already!”

    I remember one kid looking at me and just announcing in this tone of exasperation “Why aren’t you pregnant yet!?!”

    I had to try hard not to laugh in their faces, and then explain that it wasn’t really a polite question, but they had trouble getting that to sink in.

  3. It’s amazing to me how entitled people apparently feel to ask the most intimate questions. I’m currently 14 weeks pregnant and, since my partner is a woman, it’s fairly obvious that she’s not the biological father. People are curious, which I understand, and we have no problem sharing the fact that it was a close friend who helped us start our family…but I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t asked in one way or another whether he and I had sex! I’ve decided that from now on my answer will be, “No, we used a syringe. What was the last thing you put in your vagina/rectum?”

    • Geez… That is so invasive. I have a community of women that my partner and I are close to, and we have these discussions a lot since a lot of ppl in the community are heading into the parenting phase. I dont even assume information like this is shared between us, so how doubly rude for others to assume they are privy to this info as strangers.

      Good luck to you and your growing family. 🙂

  4. I was completely shocked while pregnant that people felt free to ask if this baby was “planned.” Well, no, he wasn’t, in the sense that we didn’t sit down with a calendar and say, “Hmm, let’s try for a baby in July.” On the the other hand, to say No sounds like we didn’t want him! We simply don’t use contraception, and yes, we were aware that therefore a baby was likely on the horizon! But that’s a big philosophical and religious conversation to have with Random Hairdresser Who Feels the Need to Ask Personal Questions!!

    • A short-but-sweet “unplanned, but not unwanted” (or words to that effect) seem to get the point across about the difference between those two things.

      People who are actively trying to make babies tend to talk about it, so I can understand people you see, or talk to, regularly being surprised when you suddenly turn up pregnant without warning. I don’t think there’s any need to get more into personal detail than that though.

  5. Awesome article and I’m totally with you on 99% of what you’re talking about. I think that people often speak without much thought and that it can often lead to unintended harm, especially when the subject is something so personal. However, I think that this article fails to differentiate between different levels of unintentionally offensive.

    Implying that a child is going to grow up and go to jail or implying that some parental choice is selfish or immoral is a rude and cruel thing to do. But I think asking if a couple is thinking about having children soon is normal in most cultures and doesn’t have to be offensive.

    When my husband and I are in the states most people dance around the topic of kids and rarely ask us about our plans directly, obviously scared of offending us. When we’re in Peru, where his family is from, we get asked regularly and directly “so when are you going to have kids?”. When we let them know we’re waiting a couple of years to finish school they tell us that’s wonderful and the conversation moves on.

    I realize that if we were struggling with fertility issues or didn’t want kids or had just had a miscarriage that it could be a hurtful topic. But if a person’s brother had just died asking if they had siblings could be a sensitive subject. If a person was on the verge of divorce asking about anniversary plans could be a sensitive subject. My point is that I think when it comes to more benign and general questions people should be given the benefit of the doubt. Yes, reproducing is a personal decision, but it is also one that has historically affected the community as a whole, not just the future parents. Should people be mindful when they speak, not speak judgmentally and try to be good listeners? Absolutely. However, I like living in a world where reproduction is a subject that’s not 100% rude, or 100% off limits.

  6. I absolutely love when you said “prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to”. This whole article can be applied to all walks of life!
    Thank you

    PS. I am stealing your quote, but I will give to credit!

  7. Great article! I am hesitant to ask anything personal ever, so I can’t imagine saying something like “when are you going to make babies?” Of course, if someone brings it up I’ll get involved in the conversation, but I just don’t bring it up. I was youngish (26) when I got pregnant so I didn’t have many “when are you…” questions. But because I tend to not talk about personal stuff, a lot of people seemed to think my pregnancy was an accident (it wasn’t). One person asked if I was okay to talk about it, as though it upset me. I responded that I was more than happy to talk about it, I just wasn’t sure anyone else wanted to hear about it! Anyway, I was actually going to comment that now that I have had a baby, and my baby is turning 1, more people feel comfortable asking me if I’ve thought about a second. Again, well-intentioned, but kind of weird. I guess since I went through one pregnancy in plain view, I should have no issues discussed my sex life and reproductive goals at any point in time, for any reason. I don’t really mind, except then I have to hear that having them too close together is bad or having them too far apart is bad or having any more at all is bad or having an only child is bad…

  8. Thank you, thank you! I’ve learned in my own infertility journey to really be aware of those conversations and to check myself if I am about to ask a question or make a statement (not that I ever did the whole, “when are you having kids?” thing).

    If someone brings it up to me, I’ll talk to them about it. But, otherwise, you never know where people are in their desires or their capabilities. If I am talking of my own plans or choices I really try to frame them in non-judgemental ways, that these are personal choices, there’s nothing wrong with alternatives.

  9. I’m in the engaged stage and its relentless. I don’t know how many sentences end with “for when the little ones arrive”

    I wave over my ring finger and say “this is up for discussion” then I wave over my whole body “this is not” People just seem to laugh and move on and ask me more about my napkins then.

  10. Thank you for this. I’ve always been pretty vocal to my entire family especially that I did not want children and while in high school and college I was constantly told by extended family members how I would “change my mind when I met the right man”. The joke ended up being on them, because I found a Mr Rage who doesn’t want children either.

    But it annoys me that despite my insistence and having stuck by this choice to almost the age of thirty, people still “check in” every few years to make sure I haven’t changed my mind yet. My mother especially would make these “JUST IN CASE YOU EVER DO BY ACCIDENT SOMEHOW HAVE A BABY” anecdotes that annoys me endlessly, because it makes me feel like the decision has already been made FOR me, despite what I want or do not want out of my own life. She doesn’t understand how her holding on to these relentless “what if” scenarios is actually really condescending and hurtful, but anyway.

    I know I’m a bit off-topic here, but I just find it very rude to actually be so invested in someone else’s sex life – in fact, I liken it to homophobia in the sense of people judging others based on who they have sex with. Seriously.

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