What is it about reproduction that turns perfectly lovely and polite people into giant oafish wrecking balls. I’ve been genuinely shocked by how often certain things are said and done. Things I’d heard about and thought, “Surly no one really says that sort of thing!” They do.
And it’s funny, because no one feels like sex, the starting point of babies, is fair game for random questions at church, in line at the supermarket, or in the aisles of retail stores. No one asks you about your bowel movements or the color of your mucus in these situations. No one asks your IQ, weight, income, political affiliation. So many things we don’t talk about outside of an entirely appropriate context. But reproduction is somehow public domain.
So…some thoughts on discussing all things child related. Hopefully to contribute to a more decent society.
Things to Keep in Mind on the Topic of Reproduction/Child-Rearing
1) The ability to produce and nurture children is biologically and socially linked to our identity as members of the species, and how we relate to it (as parents or not-parents) is usually something deeply personal.
2) Common culture keeps parents on the defensive. Especially moms. Their instinctive need to protect our offspring has been so capitalized upon with endless streams of products, magazine articles, and now the blogosphere, that they are constantly being told “you are doing it wrong.”
3) People are conditioned to define themselves by what they can do and how they look. The process of having and raising children lays waste to these little pools of value.
4) If a person wanted to fill you in on these details of their life, they would have already.
So, with those things in mind, let me humbly suggest some things that should never ever be said, followed by what might be said in their place.
Never ever say: “So, when are you going to have kids?”
Just like you would never say: “When are you going to tell your parents that you are gay?” (remember that one from 4th grade?)
Why: It’s wildly presumptuous question. Think about the possible answers.
- We’re trying, and have not been able to yet. (and yes, I feel like a failure)
- We’re actually currently pregnant and aren’t ready to tell people.
- We don’t want to have children. (and now we think you are judging us).
The fact is that kids are not actually one of life’s “givens,” whether you want them or not. AND it’s a stupid question, anyway, because it CAN’T be answered directly. What am I going to say, “Our baby will arrive June 24, 2017?” It’s a question for nosy yentas and judgy friends at high school reunions.
What to say instead, if you really must ask someone about their family planning: “Are you guys interested in having kids at any point?”
This questions provides space for answers like, “No, it’s not really on our radar.” or “Yeah! We’d love to have kids some day, but now is not the right time.” or simply “Yes,” or “No.” With no need for an explanation.
Really, even this, more open version of the question does make it sound like you are hiding the question, “So, do you like children?” Which sounds like it’s hiding the question, “Are you a weirdo?” So it’s safer just not to ask. But we understand that many of you are curious.
#1 Never ever: touch a woman’s pregnant belly without permission. Or, as you learned in kindergarten, don’t touch ANYONE EVER, without permission. That permission my be implicit (like a handshake, a flirtacious nudge, or CPR) but a woman’s belly sticking out is not such a social cue.
Just like you would never: touch a non-pregnant belly, unless you were palpating them for a tumor or a ruptured spleen,which would imply that you are a medical professional.
Why: because my skin is still mine. Just because the baby is underneath doesn’t make the skin on top any less connected to my brain. There are a few people who can touch my belly without asking. They are all biologically related to me. Or married to me. So if we don’t share blood or other fluids…please ask first. If we are close enough that you feel it is your right to touch, then I’ll probably say yes.
And if the thought guiding your touching is that you are touching the baby and not the mom…why are you doing that? Why are you touching babies without permission?
#2 Never ever say: anything presuming a person is pregnant, unless they have told you with their own mouth. Even if their belly is greater than the mass of the rest of their body, they are holding their lower back, and moaning about their swollen feet.
Just like you would never say: anything presuming a person’s breasts were fake. Even if their breasts are greater than the mass of the rest of their body, they are massaging their own shoulders, and moaning about buying new bras (actually, that sounds a lot like pregnancy as well).
Why: this should be obvious…
I sort of thought it was commonly taboo, but it still happens all the time! To people I know! I mean, Brian Regan sort of gave us all a lesson in these manners over a decade ago.
What to say instead, if you really must ask someone about their family planning: NOTHING. Listen for clues and then ask someone who would know. Or offer them a shot of hard liquor, if the situation is right.
#3 Never ever say: “You’re only ___ months?” Or anything expressing that a woman looks more pregnant than she should for her situation. Don’t ask if it’s twins. And for damn sure, don’t do this:
Today, while in line for lunch, a man randomly tried to guess how far along I was. He guessed 34 weeks. When I told him 30 weeks, he gave a look that said, “Wow, you are HUGE for 30 weeks.”
Later, he handed us his business card for his doula services.
My thoughts on this: 1) If you really must use carnival-esque “guess my due date” as a marketing tool, you’d best get it right; 2) If someone is going to become intimate with my birthing parts, I’d like them to have the discretion not to make me feel like a whale, 3) You really think that if we made it to 30 weeks without hiring a doula, that we’re suddenly going to hire some guy we met in line at the deli? REALLY?
Just like you would never say: “Let me see if I can guess your weight.” (unless you are a carny…)
Why: No one wants to hear that they are bigger than they should be. And no one wants to think that random people in the world might be staring at them and thinking how terrible/huge/miserable they look. Pregnant women are neurotic enough without you adding to their stress about how big they are getting.
What to say instead if you really must comment on a pregnancy: “_ months? You look fabulous! How are you feeling?” Yes, I realize that might be a lie. But its a justified one.
#4 Never ever say: “This is the only advice you need.” or “You HAVE to do this.”
Just like you would never say: Actually, there’s almost no realm where people don’t say that.
Why: Because it’s not true. New parents need lots of advice, but they don’t need to be cornered and convinced of any one parenting strategy, miracle product, or development curriculum. They need to know their options as options. I, for one, love getting people’s advice on things I’ve never done before. I just don’t like when it’s given to me in the form of an ultimatum.
What to say instead if you have some advice you think is really pertinent: “I found ____ to be really helpful. It’s not for everyone, but I was glad to know it was out there.” or “It always helped me to remember _____.”
REGARDING CHILDREN OUTSIDE THE WOMB
Never ever say: “You know she wouldn’t do that if you would just ____.” Or (to the child) “Tell your mommy that you need ______.”
Just like you would never say: “You know you wouldn’t be so fat if you would just diet and exercise.”
Why: Not your kid, not your unsolicited business. But I have been AMAZED by how many of my friends and family members report being confronted in public about the way their child is behaving. Or the toys they are choosing to buy their child. Or the food their child is eating.
What to say instead if you must comment on someone’s child rearing choices: Obviously if they are doing something immediately and seriously harmful, like giving their child broken glass shards to chew on, speak up. Otherwise…it’s better never to say anything unless asked. Really really really.
BUT if there’s an unavoidable intersection, where it would be more awkward not to comment (sitting side-by-side on public transport or airplanes comes to mind) say something sympathetic to the parent, who is probably distressed. Remind them (and yourself) that we are all humans together, and we feel their pain without judgement. “He’s saying what I wish I could say sometimes!” or “Mommy needs a glass of wine?” Followed by nothing. Unless it’s a complimentary glass of wine.