Ever been on the receiving end of the following conversations?
It’s Mother’s Day brunch, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July picnic, and a well-meaning person sidles up to ask, “When are you having kids?”
Or worse yet, you’re at a networking event and an acquaintance asks the same. As if inquiring about personal reproductive issues is appropriate small talk, let alone in a professional environment where choices about children are complicated (for women especially).
Discussion about having children is a charged issue that has no place in unsolicited conversation. Not only that, whether they’re child-free by choice, haven’t made up their mind yet, or have experienced heartbreaking issues while trying to have children, asking a person or couple if they’re having kids can be damaging to their mental health.
“I wish people knew how hurtful this question is for so many people who obsess over this question themselves,” says Andrea Syrtash, a relationship expert and the founder of Pregnantish.com. “I also wish more people respected the fact that personal news should generally be initiated and shared by the person going through the experience, not by an outsider asking about it.”
Child-Free By Choice
For women, “motherhood” isn’t always the end goal of adult life. Thanks to increasing equality — though we still have a long way to go — women can make different decisions about their lives. This may not include children, even within a committed relationship. This is a legitimate life choice, but one that still carries a stigma.
When child-free people are confronted with the “having children” discussion, they may get follow-up questions that imply their choice is invalid. It’s a blow to the self-esteem and mental well-being of the person on the receiving end.
“Being child-free by choice can definitely be a drain on my mental and emotional well-being,” Angie Fiedler Sutton, a Los Angeles-based writer, tells Talkspace. “It’s bad enough that there’s this constant message in media that ‘having children completes you as a person’ — especially for women. But when family members are consistently questioning such a major life choice, it made my own self-worth issues even more shaky.…It also implies that they know my situation better than I do.”
While some folks are resolute in their decisions about having children, it’s not so clear-cut for others. Kids require an 18-year minimum commitment that can, yes, have many blessings and benefits, but also a lot of risk and self-sacrifice. Whether or not to have children can call into question everything from the strength of a couple’s relationship to financial means, responsibilities, personal stability, and life and career goals.
“Can we please stop treating questions about other people’s reproductive plans as a part of polite conversation?” writes Alicia Thompson for The Mighty, revealing originally she didn’t want kids and later experienced medical complications when she changed her mind. “You don’t know that I have cried many times about how I feel that I am letting everyone down… You don’t know the conversations, the self-doubt, the confusion I have waded through.”
For others who want children, medical barriers — including infertility, its requisite treatment, and miscarriages — make this option difficult and sometimes even impossible. It’s devastating physically and emotionally for all genders (more on that later). When unknowing bystanders casually ask these people about having children, the result can trigger anxiety, depression, and other difficult emotional experiences.
“It’s very normal to feel upset or anxious when people probe with this question,” Syrtash says. “Infertility is a medical issue for many people who want nothing more than to be parents! Being asked this not only reminds some people of what they don’t have, but may make them feel extra vulnerable or ashamed.”
“When you are having difficulty conceiving, it seems everyone around you is falling pregnant,” Adele Barbaro shared on Facebook in 2017. “It’s easy to be happy for them at first but that brave face wears thin after a while. I even started to decline going to certain get togethers and attending baby birthdays were just painful. I became quite bitter, desperate, and depressed.”
“As a woman, having a miscarriage is a devastating experience,” Pamela Granoff Simon shared on Medium. “Your joyful question with a hopeful expression on your face feels like a knife to the gut; thank you for making me feel even worse about it!”
There can be many painful reasons that people do not currently have children (or additional children), and asking about it doesn’t help the situation.
Dr. Paul Turek, a male fertility expert and founder of The Turek Clinics in California, tells Talkspace “the impact of infertility… is as profound as having cancer.” Further, the experience can elicit many of the same emotions as such a devastating illness, including “denial, anger, remorse, regret, and guilt.”
Mental Health for Men
More often than not, family planning gets framed as a woman’s issue. However, questions about having children for men, especially those who have fertility and reproductive issues, is also harmful to their mental health.
One fertility client revealed on Turek’s blog that after learning he had infertility issues, “I was in shock and then got really depressed.” Turek recalls that another shared, “I ended up as low as you could possibly go, and I almost lost my marriage and my life for that matter.”
“He was just broken,” Turek adds. “It’s not like the pain from a punch, or a pain from losing a job. This is incredibly different because it’s so fundamental to their psyche.”
For men who are faced with the question about having children, they may hide their pain or doubt their entire identity, which can manifest in mental health issues as well as substance abuse problems.
Turek also emphasized that a service like Talkspace, which offers online-based therapy tailored to the needs of clients, may be exactly what can help men find the support they need. “I think the hardest thing for them to do is find a therapist to reach out to,” Turek says, urging the addition of an easy call to action for resources. (Click here for help, seriously.)
What You Can Do
If you’re on the receiving end of the dreaded question about having children, protect your mental health.
Syrtash has personally dealt with these questions by opening up about her struggles with infertility, because “sometimes it feels better to be honest so people understand that it’s complicated.” If that’s uncomfortable, she also recommends responding with a generic line like, “‘We hope to one day and will share news when it’s relevant.’ And then? Change the topic!”
It’s also perfectly acceptable to say things like, “I’m not sure” or even “I’d rather not talk about it.” There’s even nothing wrong with ducking out of events where the question about children is likely to come up. Protecting your well-being and mental health should be the first priority, which can be supported with professional help, for you and your partner, if you are in a relationship.
Most importantly, don’t forget regular self-care and to “build a support system or support network for yourself,” Turek advises, with “people you can trust and count on.”
This way the next time the question about having children comes up, you’ll be able to vent frustrations, talk about any emotions that come up, and get validation for all the decisions you make about having children in your life — no matter what they are.