‘Do you have children?’

Last week I attended a meeting by Gateway Women, an organisation run by Jody Day for women who are ‘childless by circumstance’ – be that infertility, chronic illness, or by marriage etc (there are many and varied reasons). It was full of interesting, vibrant women, none of whom appeared to live up to the pejorative stereotype of ‘crazy cat lady’. Well, blow me down with a feather!

One of the hot topics at this particular meeting was what to say in social situations when asked: ‘Have you got kids?’ This question can be very difficult for some women to hear, let alone answer. All women are asked this at some point in their lives; we live in a pro-natal society that, if you haven’t reproduced, demands to know why not. Never mind whether you wish to answer such an emotive question.

Here are some storyboards I drew on the subject in 2011, and which I presented at the Graphic Medicine Comics Forum day: Visualising the Stigma of Illness in Leeds, November 2011. I talked about the stigma surrounding miscarriage and resulting childlessness. You can hear the podcast of my talk here. These pages comprise a generic and condensed version of events. Thanks to Deb Joffe for modelling!

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I feel that many people who do have kids hope to hear ‘yes’ in reply and are ill-prepared for a ‘no’. In my experience, they tend to: carry on their line of inquiry; make assumptions; and offer unsolicited advice. There’s a fine line between genuine interest and intrusiveness – and I’ve experienced both. But I acknowledge that it’s awkward for both parties. I no longer ask people that question and have now developed antennae that help me to read between the lines. I don’t mind being asked as much as I used to, because I feel better prepared (I’ve had plenty of practice). It’s not only childless women who struggle with this: I know mothers who wish people would take more of an interest in the non-mothering side of their lives too – they don’t want to be defined by their reproductive status alone. And men are not immune either.

I’ll expand on this when it comes to artwork, and I’ll save my reasons for foregoing adoption for the book*. I’ll also be addressing my own thoughts on remedies for sticking those severed panels back together, but in the meantime there are some good suggestions on the blog No Children, What now? I hope that, in future, both parents and non-parents will settle into a mutually respectful way to handle this hot potato without anyone getting burnt.

*The Facts of Life (working title) is due to be published by Myriad Editions in 2015.

18 thoughts on “‘Do you have children?’

  1. This is indeed a hot potato, and one that’s just as difficult to address for those that are childless by choice, let alone those that for one reason or another are childless through the lack thereof. Great to see you tackling this topic in a sensitive way. I wish you much luck with it. Be brave.x

  2. From my experience, many people before they had children had no real idea of who they were, now that they have kids, they “know” who they are, they are a parent and thus that becomes the main focus of their lives and sometimes the only thing they can talk about for any great length. They may have never had any real self identity or have lost it in pursuit of being a great parent, and when talking to others will talk about their kids because it’s the one thing they feel confident in discussing and it keeps them from having to talk about or think about their own interpersonal strives. When you say you don’t have kids, it makes them uncomfortable because they feel as if they don’t have anything else to talk about, which in turn leads to the questioning and awkwardness that make you both uncomfortable. I’ve been in situations where I was the only one without a kid and I was at an adult party where I watched adults spend two hours discussing their kids instead of actually mingling and having fun. I think sometimes this, having kids sometimes in general are cop-outs for having to actually work on yourself, and develop a sense of identity which is the reason some people suffer from the emptiness syndrome and grow too enmeshed with their children. It’s a great defense mechanism for them that keeps them from having to actually grow as a person and no one can call them out on it. I even know couples who no longer are in love or feel like they know each other because they are to involved in their kids lives and not enough in their own. Once they kids move out, go to college or become rebellious, many still have trouble and end up becoming codependent and enabling or fall into deep depression. There are pros and cons to having kids, and I honestly don’t think our soul purpose on Earth is to reproduce for the sake of reproducing. I think our purposes are much bigger than that.

    • Wow – thanks for such a thorough response – really interesting thoughts. I guess it’s easier for people to connect over a common shared experience, but I see what you’re saying. Such thoughts had crossed my mind but not in as detailed a way as you have given – thanks again.

      • “When you say you don’t have kids, it makes them uncomfortable because they feel as if they don’t have anything else to talk about, which in turn leads to the questioning and awkwardness that make you both uncomfortable. I’ve been in situations where I was the only one without a kid and I was at an adult party where I watched adults spend two hours discussing their kids instead of actually mingling and having fun. I think sometimes this, having kids sometimes in general are cop-outs for having to actually work on yourself, and develop a sense of identity which is the reason some people suffer from the emptiness syndrome and grow too enmeshed with their children. It’s a great defense mechanism for them that keeps them from having to actually grow as a person and no one can call them out on it.”

        I would tend to agree on this. I don’t have children but my partner does (2 adult). He and I have been together for last 22 yrs. He is proud of his children and they communicate generally fine with him. But he rarely mentions them to his long-time cycling activist friends. I literally saw a few gawp in surprise when he did mention them.

        His children are productive and articulate people. I have never pretended to be their stepmother..and chose not take upon that role. Am so glad I didn’t. No point competing with their birth mother.

        Years ago, it bothered me vaguely that women talked so incessantly about their children at work functions. Just to stem people’s curiosity about me at that time in life, I would drop the word that I am the eldest of 6 and hence, not clueless to child care. (Being a parent is different thing altogether of course) And also have 7 nieces and nephews who I enjoy.

        But if asked, I would say that I chose not have children after seeing the stress of my parents.

        However at work, now it’s actually irritating to hear women (my age in their mid-late 50′s) talk alot about their….adult children (mid 20′s) living at home. I actually don’t want to hear this: the children are old enough to move out, etc. I hear about their housework, etc. and what they do for their children…but one has no sense of their personal interests outside of their children and jobs. To me this is sad, these are university educated women who should know better…. Am I hard? Is their mother identity so embedded that they have forgotten to step outside of themselves and rediscover? Hopefully I’m wrong.

      • Thanks for your comment. I think it’s more necessary for people without children to work on their personal interests and life pursuits at an earlier stage of life. I suppose now that adult children are at home for longer due to economic circumstances, perhaps parents’ are in the parenting role for much longer. Like you say – it’s not an ideal situation but some don’t have much choice especially due to University education costing so much (here in UK at least). It must be an odd situation to have adult offspring at home – but I can’t really comment not having had that experience. Thanks for sharing your own situation here – it’s interesting to find out about other women’s lives without children and how the dynamic works. :-)

    • Hello other GW! Thank you! So far I’ve only posted them here – more under ‘comics’ and I have made one into a booklet, Spooky Womb, (available here). That one’s about miscarriage, though, so not the most cheery of reads – but also not upsetting in too traumatic a way, I hope. Maybe meet you one day at a future GW event.

  3. It is a difficult question to answer when people start with their direct line of questioning. Sometimes, it can turn into what feels like an inquisition! I have gotten to the point of feeling quite jaded about it and avoid meeting new people! I know I should not feel like this, but I’ve had some people question me in quite a confrontational and aggressive way. I met a guy once and he came round to my flat, paced up and down and said “So you live here alone without any children – is that a choice!” He actually shouted! He made the assumption that I was some sort of cold hearted, child hater. It really hurt me and I think people can be shockingly insensitive! I went through a period of being quite “spiky” when anyone asked me if I had kids. Now I’m just honest. I say it didn’t happen for me. I had a couple of miscarriages. Then of course there comes the sympathetic noises. Sometimes I wish people would either mind their own business or just say “ok” when you say you don’t have kids. No-one ever says to parents “Why did you have kids!” Think on people. You don’t know us – not all of us made the choice not to have kids. We should not be judged whether it was a deliberate decision or not. Thanks to Gateway Women for giving childless women a voice as well as a place to share our feelings and experiences.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience here, Susan. I agree wholeheartedly that people should not be judged over their reproductive status. And perhaps next time I will ask ‘why did you have kids?’ in return. I’ve been through ‘spiky’ to ‘glaringly honest’ but when I mentioned miscarriages once, the person was obviously much more uncomfortable than I was and I felt guilty! I hope you can meet some new people through Gateway Women – if that’s what you want to do :-)

  4. Hi Paula

    This was fabulous – i loved it – thank you. I love your drawing style – very beautiful. Also have been there so many times as have so many of us GW women. Brilliant! Thanks
    Tess

  5. Very nicely-rendered cartoon, but also a great post and a worthy issue. I have kids, and I always practice a degree of restraint and sensitivity when talking about them to others. I agree that we live in a pro-natal society (and in my orthodox Jewish world, extremely so), but having kids, I’ve learned from my wife that there is a world of thinking, feeling, expectations, and emotions that men can never really know or understand, but also how there is in incredible lack of decorum and tact in society in general when broaching the subject of kids, and in particular, the whole “how many do you have” question. I know too many people whom have none or one or many for countless different reasons, and I know at least that there is more to these people’s lives than just children, so if there needs to be the inquiry about children, then it eventually gets talked about, but should never be a jumping off point (and here in hyper-competative and hyper-judgemental Washington, DC, having kids is almost like a bragging right, if not at least, lifestyle accessories!)

    • Thanks Jason. It’s interesting to get a different cultural/religious perspective on this. Yes, I don’t think men are asked this question as often as women, but I do know men who have also been pressured by friends if they don’t have children. It’s thoughtful of you to be sensitive around these issues – and aware that people who don’t have children also lead worthwhile lives.

  6. I don’t find this too difficult anymore. When people ask me, I say ‘No, I am childfree by choice.’ If the question is ‘Are you married, with children?’, I say ‘No I am free’. If people press on the topic, I say, ‘Well, motherhood is modern slavery, so I have chosen not to sign up for that. But all good things to those who do. I get to spend all my time, energy and money on myself. It is really quite enjoyable.’ (You can be sure that this will evoke some deep feelings of jealousy in the nosy and shallow person with whom you are conversing.) If they look blank, I explain that this means I get to sleep late every single weekend and travel as and when I like, off-season, when it is cheaper. Any pity will then be thoroughly transformed into ENVY. This gives me a lovely feeling of schadenfreude.

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