Life Without Baby

Filling the silence in the motherhood discussion

The “Do You Have Kids?” Conversation June 28, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how “Do you have kids?” is such a natural part of polite, “ice-breaking” conversation, and yet it’s such a loaded question for so many of us.

When we meet new people, we’re looking for something in common to talk about. People with kids know that when they talk to someone else with kids, they automatically have a topic of conversation – their kids. And asking this question is presumed to be okay because the answer is usually anticipated to be either “Yes” or “Not yet.” People just aren’t prepared to hear “No.”

So, imagine you’re at a function, wandering around with a glass of wine in one hand and a shrimp on a skewer in the other and you strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know. You talk about the weather, she asks where you’re from or what you do for a living, and then she asks, “Do you have kids?” Assuming this is someone you don’t want to offend, you resist a snarky answer and instead say a simple “No.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that this response is usually met with a horrified silence (although occasionally I’ll get, “You’re lucky,” or “You can have mine.”) People just don’t know what to say when I tell them I don’t have kids, and in order to fill the silence I find myself explaining why I don’t kids, and imparting some very personal information about myself.

So, let’s help these poor people out. No, seriously. Instead of the stunned silence, what do you wish people would say? Do you want them to ask if you’re childfree by choice? Do you want them to ask if you’re ok with not having kids? Or would you prefer them to change the subject to someone or something else so you don’t have to talk about you anymore? Assuming someone opens this conversation, what would you want her to say next?


23 Responses to “The “Do You Have Kids?” Conversation”

  1. Kate B Says:

    I want them to drop the subject. Just the question “do I have kids” is not enough to upset me anymore when it’s all on its own. But, if they start to ask why – well, that’s none of their damn business really, but I will simply say that we tried and it didn’t work out for us and leave it at that and hope that they do. If they say “Oh you can have mine” well then – I tell them that our inability to have children is a painful thing and that their attempt at humor is inappropriate. I haven’t had anyone tell me I was lucky, but if they did, I would give them a similar response. I figure that if they say something so stupid, they deserve a little beat down. All in all, I would prefer they follow up my “no” with a different topic. The ones that really piss me off though are the ones that start down the “have you thought about adoption” road. That’s when I tend to get pissy and preachy.

    • Brad Says:

      You could choose to have a sense of humour about it. The people asking are not thinking they are prying, they are just making conversation and with you on that particular subject they have struck a cord – by mistake. Any subject could be the wrong one in the right situation.

  2. Gwen Says:

    I’d just be happy if they didn’t walk away as soon as they find out that I don’t have kids. Just because I don’t want to exchange potty training stories (and hoo boy do I not want to talk about potty training) doesn’t mean that I have nothing to contribute to a conversation.

    I normally tell people we don’t have kids, but I’m auntie to 2 nieces, a nephew and I have a goddaughter. It’s less of a conversational smackdown than sitting in awkward silence or giving them my medical history relating to our infertility.

  3. Jen Says:

    I would agree with Kate B. I don’t mind the “do you have kids” question but when I say “no”, it almost always leads to the “why” question. Because I don’t know what else to say, I usually go into a short explanation but I really get tired of this. I wish people would just understand that it might be a painful subject to talk about and just change the subject. I know that people are just trying to get to know me and they think that they are being nice but it doesn’t help make a connection when we jump into an intensely personal topic right off the bat. I have also had the “have you thought about adoption” question so often and I never know what to say without either being rude or going into a long explanation. It just makes things so awkward for me. Please just accept that I don’t have kids and let it go.

  4. Monica Says:

    I understand that it is a natural question and often want it to be the first or second question in introductions just so I can get past it. If someone needs help, a simple “I sorry things didn’t turn out as you had hoped”, and move on to questions about your job or the event.
    If someone continues with a “what happened” kind of question, I say It didn’t happen for us and we are working on living full lives with each other and friends.
    I often step up if the ” you’re so lucky” response comes up, and I say “I can imagine you might see it that way, but I don’t”

  5. marriage20 Says:

    I dread this question, as well as the “do you want kids?” question. I’ve been married for a little less than two years, and sometimes it feels like people want to know what our family plans are.

    Sometimes I pre-empt the question. If someone starts talking about how hectic their lives are with their kids, I might say something like, “I can relate. I don’t even have kids, but I feel the same way!”

    I honestly struggle with how to answer, and I wish I had a pre-packaged answer set for myself. I like some of the tips above and am looking forward to seeing this conversation continue!

  6. Kathleen Guthrie Says:

    We usually respond with “We have two big dogs, and that’s more than enough responsibility” and try to shake it off with a laugh. But lately, I feel so depleted after I say it. I’ll be back here to see what the rest of you are saying, and see if I can’t adopt a better response for myself.

  7. Re Says:

    I don’t mind when it comes up once, twice, three times, I may get annoyed but I understand. What angers me is when there’s a co-worker, distant family member, acquaintance in general that you see on a recurring basis and they bring it up every encounter. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind that so much in the form of respectful conversation, but usually when people do that it’s in the form of “Let me explain to you why it’s an absolute necessity that you do so.”.

    I guess I would just want them to move on to a different subject, or even talk about their own kids, as long as they stick to the cute and not the gross. As long as the don’t respond with shock, horror, or judgement, I’m pretty okay.

  8. Nicole Says:

    This is a weird one for me. Since I am 30 and barren (which most people don’t know) they expect I can have kids one day so if i say “no” they always follow it up with ‘Oh you are young still”, as if i am obviously worried about it or they need to make me feel better. which is weird. I kind of just want people to not say anything else. or not assume i will have them. So, since I can’t avoid that conversation, I’d kind of like it if they didn’t say anything else afterwards, but I think if they do say something else, I might just tell them I can’t have kids. (and resist the desire to say “i’d have to grow a new uterus first”).

  9. Kathleen Says:

    They may be insensitive, but I don’t think it’s intentional, and that counts. First Lisa, don’t forget a KEY point in their motivation for asking. If they want a common topic of conversation, “Do you have kids” has a really high probability of success. For you it is a sensitive subject, but it is also the largest part of the lives, of the majority of the population. As a common topic of conversation, it works for them 99.9% of the time. When it doesn’t, you are hurt, they are uncomfortable, probably as much BECAUSE the next question entails, either walking away (Gwen) or asking intimate questions. To me, as the asker, changing the subject, is similar to walking away, and feels hypocritical. (I didn’t say that. I wasn’t here. If I close my eyes you can’t see me) I would rather, offend the person who is angered by my question, than take a chance of being unkind to the person who may be hurt by my walking away. But that is just me. I am the jokester in every situation. When people ask me if I have kids, I say something like, “No. – I figured out what causes them.”

    Maybe it will take the sting out a little, if you try to be them in a situation you recognize, that would make you the same kind of uncomfortable and potentially insensitive. I can’t seem to come up with a good analogy, so here’s some bad ones. What if you met a person in a wheelchair, with no legs. (but pretend you don’t know that by looking at him) Would you ignore it, or ask how it happened? And would you be an insensitive, self-absorbed clod, or just a regular person encountering someone with a life experience, very different from yours? What if you asked a person at a beach party, “Isn’t that a glorious sunset?” and he said, from behind his sunglasses, “I don’t know actually, I am blind.” What do you do/say next? If you are not sure, then welcome to their world. Just the fact that childless is a minority means this is rare territory for them, and they don’t get much opportunity to learn the best thing to say (as if there were a consensus). The world has rather dumped on me for a while now, and I get wounded easily, even by, or maybe especially by strangers. Life has been such a struggle for me, I try to “be kinder than necessary, because everyone is fighting some sort of battle.” If I said something stupid to incur a little beat down, from KateB, I can tell you it would have been unintentional, and I can tell you I would be in the ladies room crying.

    And since Jen mentioned adoption, I am curious about the adoption question, but have not yet asked, because of the complete VOID of any discussion of adoption. It seemed like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I am not going to ask about it right now, but use it as a segue to throw a wrench into the works and ask this group if they would consider adopting a 51 year old, Floridian, and her dogs, who has no family and, since last Wednesday, is technically homeless?

    • Julie Says:

      To piggy-back on your adoption comment, I don’t mind anymore answering “have you thought about adoption?” because, again, I know the person is probably truly curious since they don’t know anything about infertility, and to be honest, I was like them once too, thinking adoption was an easy solution to not having kids. So I tell them we didn’t want to risk our emotions and marriage and money for something else that isn’t guaranteed. If they don’t seem convinced, I usually mention horror stories that I’ve heard about the birth mother changing her mind or couples waiting years to be chosen or maybe having to wait years after they are chosen to actually get the baby. My most recent conversation about kids ended up with exactly this. And then the woman was all impressed that I gave myself shots in order to attempt IVF.

      So like you said, (now that I have some distance) I try to treat them like they are asking questions to find out more, not to be insensitive.

  10. Julie Says:

    I don’t mind the question anymore, since I see it as it is meant to be…a get to know you, find common ground kind of question. I don’t mind telling people that we couldn’t have kids if they ask why my answer is no. Sometimes I find myself wanting to ask people if they have kids, wanting them to answer no. But I get a lot of practice answering this question since I teach teenagers; they are always curious about my life outside of school. So maybe I’ve developed a thicker skin to it.

    And to answer your question…I wish they would follow up the “no” with another question trying to find common ground, since that was the intention of the “do you have kids” question in the first place.

  11. Mali Says:

    Good question! (yours, I mean, not “do you have kids?”). I usually just say “no, do you?” People love talking about themselves so it deflects any personal questions and then I can usually steer the conversation to something else fairly quickly. I have to admit I’ve hardly ever had the question “why not?”

  12. Illanare Says:

    I do the same as Mali – deflect the conversation from me back to them – or their children. I don’t mind the initial question, but the follow-up is too painful still. And it isn’t really the done thing to say “none living”, as much as I sometimes wish I could.

  13. Ficelle Says:

    I just started to learn to answer this question with, “No,” then a follow up of “I can’t have one.” The normal initial reaction is a defeaning silence of embarassment from the person who asked it. This gives me time to carry the conversation to a new direction. I realized the more vague we are about it, the more the questions come leaving us to relive our infertility journey & sharing more than we would like. For now, this works like a charm for me.

  14. Lois Says:

    A couple of weeks ago at a picnic a mother demanded ‘where are your children?’ which was even worse than ‘do you have children?’. Like we had left them stuffed in the trunk in the parking lot.
    I don’t mind being asked if we have children. I just say no. I’d prefer for them to change the subject after that. Anything further feels too personal for people I just met. We usually change the subject ourselves…no we have two puppies at home that we adopted last year. That usually works to get the conversation on other topics.

  15. Angela Says:

    I always just say, “Nope, no kids” in a flippant sort of way. I usually don’t get a follow up, “why not?” but if I do I’ll just say, “Ohhh, just couldn’t have any!” Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever really said that, but I would! Either way, I take it upon myself to deflect the conversation and bring up a new topic. Sometimes I ask if they have them, if I think that it is a likely hit. Or I’ll just throw out something random, which usually throws them off and they forget what we were just saying. Then neither of us is uncomfortable.

  16. Sue Says:

    I really like some of the responses here and hope I can remember them the next time we’re asked.

  17. I found your replies interesting. I get asked this all the time, I live in rural France and not having children is definitely not normal. I don’t know what I want them to say afterwards, I just really wish people would stop asking as it makes me feel such a failure. I think Mali has it right by asking the question back. However I often find that they have already been talking about their kids and then they ask me. So I get several pairs of eyes on me as I say no and try to move on with another subject.

    It is difficult and a situation that I will have to deal with more and more.

  18. Kathryn Says:

    What would i want someone to ask me? Um, maybe just a “Is that hard for you?” I don’t know, tho. But it seems to me that if that was asked, it would be an open door for the person to give them an idea if this was a conversation to continue. For someone “childfree by choice” they could probably give an easy, “Not really. It is a good choice for me” answer. For some of us we might be able to say, “Well, it was but i’m adjusting,” or something like that.

    I don’t really like the adoption question because that was a really hard choice for my husband and myself – not to take that path. Some of it involves my own medical history and chronic fight with illness, and i usually don’t want to share that. The fact is my disability is a “silent, unseen” disability (i look very normal) that makes it so much harder for someone to understand. I don’t want to go there. It isn’t something i can explain briefly to someone, and i don’t generally want to get into a long discussion on that (adoption or illness) with a new acquaintance. Yes, they probably do need to be informed, but i’m tired of educating the world one person at a time about how difficult adoption usually turns out to be or the type of disability with which i struggle. (I’ve had folks be rude to me on both accounts.)

    For a while, wanting to be part of “the group” i would answer the children question with, “No, but we have 3 in heaven” or some variation of that. It seems to make others so uncomfortable, however, that i stopped that.

    Frankly, if someone asks, “Do you have children” and then entirely changes the subject after a “No” or “We haven’t been blessed that way” i feel slighted, but i admit it is kind of a no win situation for them. There are unseen depth charges in anything they say following that. And i have had someone respond to “We haven’t been blessed that way” by saying “If you don’t have children, don’t blame God for it, there are lots of children out there who need families.” I was very hurt by this and felt this person was making a judgement on me without knowing the deep, deep agony we had to go thru to come to this point.

    Kathleen mentioned above the scenario of meeting someone in a wheel chair. I might ask someone in a wheelchair about their disability, after i had spoken to them long enough to gauge if that was an appropriate topic of conversation. I think it would be better in conversation if people gave us a bit more of that leeway, but it doesn’t happen that way very often.

  19. themissruby Says:

    you know what i’d love even more? if they didn’t ask the question in the first place. i’d love it if having children wasn’t the ‘norm’ so people wouldn’t feel the need to ask in the first place. so we’re married and have been for double digits now – so that automatically means we must have children?

    i hate being asked, it’s really no one’s business. if they want a mutual topic of conversation – why don’t they ask if we have a car or are buying our house? when asked i just reply “no”, if it’s then followed up with a “do you plan to have any” or similar question, i just reply again “no” and end the conversation – i don’t need nor want to rehash my whole ttc journey.

  20. Brad Says:

    I don’t have kids. If it becomes a subject of conversation then maybe that will become interesting. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe they will. Everyone is different.

  21. Carolyne Says:

    If you’re ever in a particularily defensive mood, may I suggest the “No, I don’t want any.” approach (regardless of what your feelings are). Trust me, they will change the subject fast. A slightly nicer version would be “No, it’s just not my/our thing.”

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