‘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.

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