Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

things not to say

I keep coming across lists of things I’m not allowed to say to people.

According to this article, when someone has just had a baby I shouldn’t ask about them about how much sleep they’re getting (apparently that’s moronic) or compliment them on looking so fabulous so soon (that’s infuriating). According to this article, when someone has had twins I mustn’t ask which one is older (it will be assumed I don’t realise that twins are conceived at the same time) or mention that I know anyone else who has twins (it leaves mothers speechless).

You only have to read a few of these lists-of-things-not-to-say before starting to feel it might be safest to stay home and never say anything to anyone ever again…

But it does make me think about similar lists of things people are advised not to say to non-mothers. Aside from “I feel really sad/sorry for you,”, which is kind of a hard edge for me, there is actually hardly any remark or question I find truly offensive in and of itself. It depends entirely on context. For me, just about anything goes if the question is being asked out of genuine, respectful curiosity.

I’ve been asked, “Do you actually feel like an adult if you don’t have a child?” and “Do you ever worry that you’re missing out on the most important experience a woman can have?” and not found the questions in the least offensive, because they weren’t judgements, they were genuine attempts to understand another way of living and a different point of view. I like discussing my choices and circumstances in this kind of conversational context. And I love learning about the different shapes of other women’s lives too.

I definitely appreciate some of the warnings about sore-spots for women whose lives are different from (and also similar to) mine and I’m grateful to have discovered some really important pitfalls by reading these kinds of articles. I would certainly never advocate firing personal questions at strangers, or even all close friends. But I sometimes wonder if these ever-growing lists of things we’re not allowed to say might be stifling conversations we need to have if we really want to understand each other, build knowledge about our choices and circumstances and create a real, viable range of options for women’s lives.

If you’re interested in the ways dialogues with and among non-mothers can work, you might like to read a post about rage in online childfree communities or a post about whether or not the childfree experience doubt about their decisions (the comments especially).

But in the meantime, how about you? Do you have hard edges in terms of questions people can ask you? Or do you, like me, find that it depends mainly on context?

[The beautiful image above is presented with permission from Englebert Romero.]

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36 comments on “things not to say

  1. sharon
    April 1, 2012

    I love your blog. Isn’t it interesting what is deemed OK to say and not to say.
    Many subjects are taboo. Like it is OK to ask childless women “are you sorry
    you haven’t any children?” No one has ever asked me “are you sorry you had children” After my marriage broke down and I assumed the total financial and emotional support of my child, people said “Oh well at least you have your child”
    I thought (but didn’t say)” are you kidding?”

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      It is interesting, isn’t it Sharon! And good to hear about it from the perspective of a parent too :).

  2. Lydia
    April 1, 2012

    I’m not someone who is easily offended. The only questions that bother me regardless of context are the ones that assume I’m being selfish or am afraid of responsibility. They’re such illogical and bizarre responses that I just don’t know how to respond to them.

    To be honest this isn’t something that comes up very often out of the blue for me, though. Someone who makes these kind of assumptions is probably going to be the kind of person who judges general-you in many other areas of life, too. 🙂

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      Those are odd questions. I’d happily admit I’m both selfish (I think everyone is) and afraid of this particular responsibility (it’s so huge, I think its mad not to be)!

      That’s interesting too that it doesn’t come up much in conversation for you. Aside from chatting with close friends (I guess its a topic of interest as we all hit our late-thirties) I get out-of-the-blue comments/questions about once or twice a week. I wonder if that would be considered often or not-often…

  3. ced1106
    April 1, 2012

    Thank dog I’m a single Asian male. As a single, I hang out with the other single folks who want to have *fun* not “settle down and have babies”. Because I’m a single male, I’m rarely told if someone spawned. But when I am, I can play the stereotype card and point-blank ask the parent *when* they started their college fund. Considering how much money it cost to put *me* through university and graduate school, it’s a legitimate question. I *think* I was asked why I didn’t want a child, then I replied something about how the consistency of baby poo, followed by, “Do you know how much money those *things* cost?” My Dad’s friends, who have children, live comfortably in gated communities, relying up on staff and *not* their children for their needs. I think us Childfree folks are going to do fine.

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      Thanks for your thoughts, ced1106. The economic issue is a big consideration, isn’t it. I have high hopes for the future of non-parents, so I really like your final observation.

  4. Kaitlyn
    April 1, 2012

    The worst thing to me is “But don’t you want a family one day?” It’s like saying getting married doesn’t make you a family.

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      That’s a funny one, isn’t it Kaitlyn. My partner and I prefer not to live-in or marry but still think each other as family, plus I have a grandmother, parents, sister, brother-in-law and niece! And a cat :). It’s a funny, narrow definition to give such a far-ranging term as ‘family’!

  5. Lilly
    April 1, 2012

    What I find offensive is when someone keeps asking questions. Example: woman at work whose first name I didn’t even know, asked if we are going to have kids (a bit personal for just an acquaintance). I say no, I’m 44 and don’t think we’ll be able to have kids. She proceeds to ask if we’re trying, and then go on with the “you never know” about how they’re working medical miracles these days, blah blah blah. I handle her questions/comments…but then she felt it necessary to say “you can always adopt”. Now, at that point, I am offended. Don’t people get when to leave well enough alone??

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      Oh my goodness, Lilly, for me that definitely falls under the category of “firing personal questions at strangers” and not mutually engaging dialogues between women! How amazingly rude and presumptuous of your colleague. I’m impressed that you weren’t offended long before the adoption suggestion.

    • Jess Lake
      April 3, 2012

      I HATE the “you can always adopt” line!! Why is having a child the “most important thing” a woman can do with her life? what about going to college, writing a novel, creating a vaccine, mediating a peace treaty, becoming president, etc… If a man did any of these things, his life would be “meaningful.” If a woman did, many would probably pity her her childfree life.

  6. Re DuVernay
    April 1, 2012

    My big thing is repetition and context. I don’t mind when somebody asks “When are you gonna have kids?” but after I tell them that I’m not and they ask me again, and I tell them I’m not, and they ask me again, and so on and so forth, I get very annoyed. Also, I do get a little annoyed when people just assume I have children, but it doesn’t really make me mad until I correct them and get the dirty look in response.

    I definitely agree though that’s it’s context, there’s a huge difference between not knowing, and being an ass.

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      Re DuVernay, that’s a great point about repetition. Its disrespectful, isn’t it, especially if it suggests disbelief or non-acceptance of your first response (about children not being on your to-do list).

  7. Megan
    April 1, 2012

    I think the one that irritates me the most is “But you’d be such a good mother!” My reaction to that is generally to think “well, I guess you don’t know me very well, then…” The other thing that just truly mystifies me is when people talk about their biological clocks. I just don’t think I was born with one – I can honestly say I don’t know what people are talking about when it comes to this mystical “clock” (and I’m almost 43, so I would think it would have gone off by now if I had one). I suppose from that standpoint I am fortunate to have that clarity. I can imagine that it must be very painful to hear (feel?) the clock ticking and not to be able to satisfy it.

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      Megan, I get ‘But you’d be such a good mother’ (often very kindly intended) more than any other response and it bothers me a little too, only because I think of how utterly unacceptable it would be to say the reverse to a mother (“But you seemed really suited to being childless!”)

      I am with you on the ticking biological clock issue too. I understand it as a metaphor and I get that it’s a hugely meaningful and often painful force in some women’s lives, but I have absolutely no personal experience with it whatsoever. So I always find it a bit confronting when it’s assumed to be governing me! Lovely to hear another woman referring to it as ‘this mystical “clock”‘ 😀

  8. Dienna
    April 1, 2012

    I sometimes get asked who’ll take care of me when I get old. I respond that I either “hope to be able to take care of myself, or if not have enough money saved to pay for someone else to take care of me!” 🙂

    • olivia
      April 1, 2012

      That’s an interesting one too, isn’t it Dienna. Like you, I don’t feel at all powerless over my future in that sense – savings are a much more reliable insurance than children, who are just as likely to be a liability as an asset.

      I do sometimes have daydreams though about a beautiful aged care facility funded and involving lots of volunteer work by childless and childfree people that we can then stay in ourselves when our turn comes. It would be amazing if, as a growing, intergenerational group, we were able to help to take care of each other…

      • Amy Kristen Patrick
        July 11, 2012

        What a neat idea !

  9. dinkschildfree
    April 2, 2012

    Questions don’t offend me at all. In fact, like you, I liked getting asked questions and being able to ask others questions. However, the statement that offends me the most when someone finds out I do not want children is, “Oh, you will change your mind.” It’s not a question, but something that the person has already taken as a fact. That offends and irritates me. I’m 32 years old. I think I know myself more than anyone else.

    • olivia
      April 2, 2012

      I think you do too, dinkschildfree. It’s a very disrespectful, dismissive response.

  10. Jennifer
    April 2, 2012

    I don’t mind honest questions about why I don’t want kids. I realize it’s a minority position and am happy to provide an honest, non-defensive answer. I like solitude and quiet; I’ve never had the desire; I’m happy with my life as it is with my spouse and my cat.

    However…what does get on my nerves is when people make condescending comments that I’ll change my mind or regret my decision. I don’t go around asking parents if they’ve changed their mind about kids or regretted having them. I do think there’s less respect for the decision not to have kids, and I’d love to see that change.

    • olivia
      April 2, 2012

      So would I, Jennifer. I guess at that point I would consider that the conversation has moved past the possibility of respectful curiosity. Those kinds of remarks really are condescending and its so interesting to consider how obviously rude and unacceptable the question sounds when reversed to apply to the lives of parents.

  11. Mike
    April 2, 2012

    I hate hearing “you’re still young, you’ll change your mind when you get older”. Yknow because 26 isn’t old enough to know what I want out of life.

    • olivia
      April 2, 2012

      It seems like that is the most frustrating turn for these conversations to take, Mike.

      The 36yo woman version of this observation is, ‘Well you’ve left it pretty late if you ever change your mind.’ It always makes me think of those martial arts films where they slow a move right down and you can see how the kick and the twist and the punch all fit into that one quick move…

  12. AE Vorro (@witavorr)
    April 2, 2012

    I do get a little annoyed when people ask “WHEN are you having kids?” vs. “ARE you going to have kids?” the difference being, of course, the presumption.

    What bothers me more, can be the invisibility with being child-free, versus people fixating upon my status. Social media is the most obvious place this happens. People announce they’re pregnant, whether it’s the first or ninth kid, and people crawl out of the woodwork to cheer. But pretty much every other kind of good news pretty easily flies under the radar. I’ve noticed that the very few and extremely far between posts I put up about my niece or nephew (pretty much only their birth announcements) get more attention than anything else, as if it were some kind of grand achievement on my part. This isn’t a huge problem for me — the close people in my life celebrate the important things, regardless of my children or lack thereof — but it is a distinct disparity I can’t help but notice.

    This observation is mostly because I’m the prime breeding age group. It will pass, of course. A small part of me is looking forward to when all these babies are older and some of the baby thrill has ceded to normal ho-hum, relatively un-noteworthy child-rearing.

    On a different note, the “you can always adopt” comment irks me a bit, simply because, as someone who was adopted and having watched other people go through the process, it isn’t as easy as walking into a grocery store and buying a can of beans. It can take years and there is no guarantee that a child will be placed. Not to mention, it doesn’t always have a happy ending — some kids aren’t treated well and other simply don’t like being adopted — relationships can be complex in bad ways (though also in good ways). I have a great family, but am definitely an outsider; I am very glad I’m not like the rest of my family, but it is a bit alienating.

    But beyond that, the adoption system is pretty broken and international adoptions can be awfully dicey, raising ugly questions like “was this baby given up or sold?” and in some ways, a very bad solution to poverty. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t do it or it has no benefit, but it’s not something to taken so lightly by any means.

    • olivia
      April 2, 2012

      AE Vorro, yes, the ‘when’ part makes it very difficult for the conversation to be comfortable, doesn’t it!

      And I know what you mean about invisibility too. Like you, I’m lucky enough to have an inner circle of people who are willing to celebrate important times in my life with me, but even so I can’t help but be aware that there is actually NOTHING I can achieve in my life that will be considered worthy of the fanfare that surrounds getting married or having a child! (As well as preferring not to be parents, my partner and I are pretty uninterested in participating in the institution of marriage, though we’re very happy to celebrate other people’s choices.)

      I’ve no personal experience at all with adoption, but I once did some research with a friend who very badly wanted to and I couldn’t agree more about the complexity of the reality of the process, and the naivete of the “you can always adopt” suggestion. (Surely the best response is, “So can you.”)

      Thank you for stopping by and offering so much food for thought! It’s lovely to meet you 🙂

      • AE Vorro (@witavorr)
        April 3, 2012

        I hear you with the marriage thing. Well, I am married, but we did it purely for health insurance access (shocking in this economic climate, I’m sure) and didn’t have a wedding, a honeymoon, or scads of weird overly-posed photos. We don’t even have wedding rings, it was literally just a piece of paper.

        Great discussions going on here — keep up the great work! I look forward to reading more. 🙂

  13. Erika
    April 4, 2012

    Hello, well, what makes me really upset, is when someone tells me: “You will see, you WILL change your mind, about kids, You are just TOO young now. We will meet in a few years time, and you WILL have kids, you WILL see I was right then.”

    Like they know me better, than I do myself…why do they think they have got the right to tell me how will I change my mind..I wont! Why childfree people are cosidered as irresponsible, childish, selfish, etc. all the time?

    • olivia
      April 4, 2012

      It seems you’re far from alone in finding that particular remark frustrating, Erika!

    • dinkschildfree
      April 4, 2012

      Couldn’t agree more Erika! I have blogged about exactly the same issues. Complete strangers definitely think they know me better than I know myself. I think part of it is fear of the unknown. Those people have never thought about having a choice of whether or not to have children, so it’s completely foreign to them to think that someone would choose not to.

  14. Suz
    April 7, 2012

    My sister in law just had a baby. She confided in me that she didnt feel the urge to cuddle her baby days after child birth. As a non-mother i was not allowed to tell my sister in law that she might experience hormonal tears for a couple of days or even weeks. My husband told me i shouldn’t say these things to his sister as i might come across as being negative about having a baby.
    I decided last year to end my pregnancy since after lots of ivf

  15. Suz
    April 7, 2012

    I am not allowed to tell my sister in law that she might suffer from hormonal changes when she didnt feel like cuddling her newborn…i tried to console her that it will pass and that many women experience this. My husband was afraid his family would see me as negative about her having a baby, since we’ve choosen to remain childless.
    All my sisters and girlfriends have kids, they would never see me as negative towards them being a mother! I’m 11 times aunt and i looked after my nephews and nieces many times.
    It shocked me.
    I tried for 5 years to become pregnant, dus everything possible. When we stopped treatments because i was considered too old, i became pregnant at 45.. I ended my pregnancy because i finally became happy with myself again after all the hormonal shit in my body. I totally lost myself in The treatments to an extent that i didnt even think anymore why i wanted à child in the first place. And i’m now so happy that i dont have à child, i’ve Always loved my life without so why challenge that? Because it is socially very difficult and uncomman to say you’d rather stay with your husband and live life differently.

  16. Laura
    April 12, 2012

    I feel frustrated that everyone thinks they can tell you what they feel without filters, but me doing so would be rude. What I do when I get this sort of questions is formulate a passive-aggressive answer that leaves them thinking of what could have been for themselves. It goes like this:

    “So, (when) are you going to (get married and/or)have children?”

    “Oh, never! Living in sin with my hot man is so much fun I daren’t spoil it!” “Why fix it if it ain’t broke, right?”

  17. Lilly
    May 14, 2012

    I just re-read this blog – and I have to say that I find it moronic that you shouldn’t ask someone who had twins which one is older. Um, no duh they are conceived at the same time – but they are always BORN a few minutes apart! So what’s the problem with asking which one was born earlier? Sheesh, just be glad you have your twins and don’t be put off when someone asks a question that actually IS logical.

    OK, I’m done now.;)

  18. VeronicaCharl10
    September 1, 2012

    The comment that I hate the most is “You’ll change your mind when you meet the right guy.” I’m the blogger that you linked in the list of things not to say to childfree people, Veronica, I’m thinking I should have put that one on the list. I hate it because, first off, as I said in my blog, I’m already engaged so it’s kind of an insult to suggest that he’s not the “right guy” because we’re not having kids together. That, and no one, ever, not man or woman or little green squishy martian, gets that kind of editorial leeway over my body and my life. I don’t make huge decisions like choosing not to have kids based on whatever guy I’m dating tells me.

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