Why "Do you have kids?" can be an awkward question to ask (and answer)

by sockii

"Do you have kids?" is one of the first questions I often seem to be asked when meeting new people. But it's not always an easy question for some to answer...

Imagine you're meeting someone for the first time. It could be a new neighbor or co-worker, someone at a party, a person seated next to you on an airplane or in a doctor's waiting room. Now ask yourself: What's one of the first questions you'll likely say to that person to try to break the ice?

If you're a parent, no doubt "Do you have kids?" will likely be one of those questions.

I qualify that as being a question that parents will ask, because rarely is it how a person who doesn't have children will feel the need to strike up a conversation. And sometimes it's the question those of us who are childless/childfree least enjoy hearing. Why? Because answering with a simple "No" can then lead to an awkward, uncomfortable silence as the parent struggles to find anything else to talk about. Or it can lead to the even more uncomfortable, intrusive question of "Why not?" or inanities like "Oh, well, you've got plenty of time yet" - which might be completely untrue, or makes the assumption that the childless person actually wants children in the first place.

It can get even worse if you are childless for reasons not of your choosing—say because of infertility. You may try to shut the conversation down by admitting you have fertility problems and wish you did have kids, but it doesn't seem to be working out for you. While you'd think such an admission would get a stranger to realize this isn't something you want to talk about, often it just seems to end up leading to lots of unsolicited advice and suggestions. Someone who was a complete stranger just moments before now may feel perfectly in their right to make personal, intimate suggestions like, "Well there's always IVF! That worked this woman I know at work" or "Maybe you just need to relax and stop thinking about it."

I love this animated video which satirizes this kind of aggravating conversation perfectly:

Maybe this person without children desperately wants them and could have them, but they're in a relationship with someone who doesn't want kids. They could be stuck in a place of having to choose between the person they love and the possibility (though not certainty) of being a parent with someone else. That's a very real struggle many people face but rarely talk about.

Author Sue Fagalde Lick discusses a rarely talked about group of childless individuals: those who wanted children but their partners don't.

Women talkingI'm not saying you should never ask if a person has kids when striking up conversations. Just consider that you should not assume the answer will be "yes" just because a woman appears to be of a certain age. And if she answers "no", then it's perhaps best to move the conversation on to other matters instead of probing with personal questions that really aren't any of your business. (Because it might be a sensitive topic for other reasons as well as infertility; what if that person had actually recently lost a child? Or has a strained or difficult relationship with their children?)

Imagine if someone you'd just met asked you "Do you have any kids?", and when you answered "Yes", the next question they asked you was "Why?"

Would you feel comfortable explaining and justifying your decision to procreate? What if they decided to probe you on whether you were marred and still with the other parent of the child, or if your child was biological or adopted, or if you'd considered being childfree before committing your life to parenthood? Would those questions make you uneasy, upset, or angry?

Then don't think that someone who answers "No" to the kid's question should have to be interrogated for their reasons, either.

Image credit: ecerroni at morguefile.com

Medical treatments for infertility have made great progress in recent years, but they are still not for every couple or individual struggling with fertility problems.
Those who are openly childfree are often forced to defend their choice not to have children.

Also consider that most people with kids typically volunteer up that information pretty quickly in a conversation without being asked - it's just natural for it to happen, whether by asking you "Is that the new iPad you're using? My son wants one for his birthday," or "I'm sorry I'm late to the party, I had to wait for the babysitter to arrive." 

Need some ideas on other ways to start a conversation, or maybe change tracks if the "no" to the kids question throws you off track? Perhaps this great little guide would be of use: "How to Start a Conversation When You Have Nothing to Talk About". Notice how the kids question isn't even on the list once of suggested conversation-starters.

Many books about infertility are all about the process of treatment: what it entails, how to get through it, and (hopefully) end up with your own bundle of joy. But fewer books look at the reality that many infertile women face: that the promises of success don't lead to a baby for everyone—and neither is adoption always a good or workable solution, either.

Professional therapist Justine Brooks Froelker shares her personal story and how she eventually came to accept and embrace her life without children; it's a powerful and important story for others who may be struggling with similar difficulties in their lives.

More recommended reading...

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The Fertility Retort: How to Respond to Unhelpful Questions, Comments and Advice About Infertility

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The Underachieving Ovary

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Updated: 11/05/2018, sockii
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ologsinquito on 04/21/2015

It's a question I know better to ask, and I never ask it, because it took a very long time for our children to arrive. Everyone should know this is not always a good conversation starter.

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