Let me preface this by saying I know you mean well. You don’t want to say anything ignorant or insensitive, and you certainly don’t mean to grab anyone’s heartache and vigorously rub it in his/her face. You’ve just fumbled your way onto what is at best a deeply personal topic and at worst a minefield teeming with raw carnage.
Here are some guidelines for navigating said possible minefield when talking to people who do not have children. Bear in mind that there is no definitive guide, and each person’s situation is unique. However, you will be well ahead of the game if you are at least aware of the need to tread lightly – and of course if you never, ever say any of these things:
1. “When are you having kids?” There are two reasons not to say this: first, the statement assumes that the couple plans to have kids when that very well may not be the case. Second, if it happens that they are planning to have kids, you’re assuming that they actually have some mystical way of knowing exactly when that one lucky little sperm will encounter the hundred million intricate factors that must all collude in perfect harmony to produce a new human. It’s guesswork at best, especially if this couple happens to be among the 1 out of 10 couples dealing with infertility, in which case you can be assured that this is a question they’ve pondered with every major life decision, have shouted to the heavens in the middle of the night, and would give a limb to know the answer to. It’s the family planning equivalent of asking a Cubs fan when they’re going to win the World Series.
2. Nothing. If you’ve asked the question, “Do you have children?” and someone replies with a simple “No”, don’t sit there in silence and wait for further explanation. If the person had wanted to explain in greater detail, he or she would have. The very fact that you need to ask this question indicates that you do not know the person well, and in all likelihood a person’s childlessness is either the result of a decision that they don’t invite strangers to weigh in on or some other scenario that has deep psychological, emotional, and physical ramifications. In either case, it’s likely not his or her party-at-a-mutual-friend’s-house conversation of choice.
I know this sounds basic, but you’d be AMAZED at how people really do not let this one go. I have given up on simply saying “No” and have switched to “We’re working on it,” because it is usefully vague, throws people slightly off-balance, and usually ends the line of questioning (although sometimes people get a funny look like they are actually visualizing us “working on it”, which is disturbing).
3. “Why don’t you have kids?” If you were in the couple’s inner circle, you would know the answer to this question. If the couple wanted to tell you, you would know the answer to this question. Essentially, if you don’t know the answer to this question, you don’t need to know.
4. “You’d better get started.” Maybe you can say this if you’re a fertility doctor with appalling people skills replying to a patient who has asked you directly for your professional opinion on the subject. Otherwise, no. Best case scenario, you’re being weird. Worse case, the person you’re talking to has been trying for ages and you’re just beating her about the face with her own biological clock, which is not nice.
The following apply specifically to couples who you know to be trying to get pregnant:
5. “Kids are a pain anyway.” I’m not kidding. People have said this.
6. “At least you’ll have fun trying.” FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, please don’t say this. And don’t wink, for Chrissakes. Contrary to popular belief, people who are trying to get pregnant are not engaged in a perpetual, steamy shag-a-thon. For the sex ed-impaired among us, there are only a couple of days a month when it is actually possible to get pregnant. And for fertility-challenged couples, sex becomes one very perfunctory piece in an elaborate puzzle that involves monitors, thermometers, injections, pills, schedules, blood tests, iphone apps, and peeing on sticks. And if the person you’re talking to happens to have endometriosis, which accounts for 40% of all female infertility, it’s entirely possible that any sex is excruciatingly painful.
To be fair, in the cases where people have said this to me, I think it was truly because they were at an utter loss for words and reached for these ones because they were handy. I just want to assure you that there are times when silence is fine. In this case, silence is preferable. As is tap dancing. And reciting the pledge of allegiance. And flashing the person and running away.
7. “You should really try this [insert miracle cure here].” There is nothing inherently wrong with saying this, but you need to take into account that EVERYONE is saying this. Everyone knows about a magic pill, herb, or sex position that is going to fix the person in question. And odds are the person in question has already read half the articles on the internet, popped a mountain of pills, seen an army of herbologists, been stuck by every acupuncturist in town, has subsisted on celery and flax seed for weeks, and has been twisting herself into a pretzel for an hour after sex. So share your advice if you think it’ll help, but please don’t be offended if it doesn’t send the person running to the nearest yurt for a goat milk transfusion.
8. “My friend had that problem and she got pregnant.” This can be said in an appropriate way, but it often isn’t. Here is the difference: appropriate use of this statement honors the fact that your listener knows the statistics she’s up against – that for every one person like your friend who got pregnant, there are many who never do. It acknowledges a big, complex picture wherein hope is costly, but in which you are putting yours out there along with your listener’s in the telling of this story. Inappropriate use of this statement most likely comes from having zero experience with the issue, save your one friend’s happy story, and blithely chirping it out in a way that says “See? No problem!” This is astoundingly uncomforting.
9. “Haven’t you thought about overpopulation?” Sigh. I’m just going to answer this one personally. Yes, I have thought about overpopulation. I used to think about it a lot, and for a long time (mostly when I was single) I thought I would spare the planet and adopt instead of having my own children. Then, out of nowhere, the decision was taken out of my hands. And it hit me that there might never be a little person in the world with my husband’s green eyes and my stubby nose. And for some inexplicable reason, that tore my heart out. So now when I’m asked this question, I could quote Amartya Sen and rattle off studies on the distribution of global resources which justify my cause, but what I really want to do is scream, “I want children, dammit! My own children that I made and are nearsighted because I’m nearsighted! I’m entitled to want children! It’s like the most basic woman thing to do, and who are you to tell me I’m not allowed to be part of that club?” This is why I usually smile and nod and say nothing. I don’t blame myself for feeling like this; I figure it’s science.
10. Okay, I lied. I only have nine. Number ten, anyone?