- Coming Clean -

COMING CLEAN: When Your Family Planning Feels Like Everyone’s Business

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A seemingly innocent personal question can have deeper implications. Here are some things to consider before you ask about babies, marriage, and more.

They are questions I know all too well: “When are you going to have a baby?” Or, “When are you going to have another baby?”

Maybe you’ve heard it, too, in a different form: “Are you ever going to get married?” Or, “Don’t you think you should put down some roots and buy a house?” It’s not a new phenomenon: Asking about wedding dates and baby-making seems a given at any reunion or family gathering. You may even take bets with your partner on which aunt or cousin will ask this time ($5 on great-aunt Cecilia!). While these intrusive questions seem to happen most often when we’re in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, my friends in late-midlife say they’ll also get asked, “When are you going to retire?” Or, “Are you finally getting that hip replaced?”

“When are you going to _____?”

What is it about this line of inquiry that strikes a nerve? And why do we have the audacity to ask such personal questions of others?

In all fairness, I have examined the other side of those making the query. Perhaps they are simply curious (I get that: I’m a journalist whose job is to ask questions). They know us and love us and are asking only because they are excited for the next chapter of our lives. Or perhaps they don’t know us that well and are looking to make conversation (“You just got married? Cool! When are you going to have kids?”). You might be looking to connect with me on a shared experience or life milestone.

To me as the recipient, asking such personal questions can come off as nosy and rude. I assume you are short on conversation starters (can’t we just talk about the weather instead?). I wish you would’ve opened with something exciting happening in your own life. Or maybe, I think, you are gathering info on me to gossip about later. I wonder if you realize your question also comes off as a judgment about where I am in my life’s journey.

You might have grown up in a family where this type of probing was permissible. The oversharing world of social media may have seeped into your subconscious and turned off your filter.

For some recipients, it doesn’t always feel good to be asked.

Case in point: For five years, I desperately wanted a baby, but my poor health made it unlikely (and unwise) to conceive, according to my doctors. I made a difficult choice to wait on pursuing fertility treatments or IVF until I came back to a healthier place first. While the goal to lose weight, balance my hormones, and feel stronger was fueled by a desire to also sustain a healthy pregnancy, I admit I felt compelled by the financial incentive: Many insurance companies don’t offer coverage for fertility treatments (15 states mandate some coverage, although it varies among providers; our resident state of Minnesota is not included).

I’d possibly be joining the tens of thousands of U.S. women who undergo IVF annually, shelling out about $20,000 for the required medications and treatment (which averages only 40 percent success rates, depending on circumstances). A report put out by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2014 showed a record high for IVF and other procedures, at 165,172, with 61,740 babies born as a result of those efforts in 2012. As a words woman, the numbers frightened me, so I felt comfortable boosting my fertility naturally first, at least for a year or two (which turned into five).

During that time, whenever someone asked me about having a baby, I would smile and say, “Oh, someday!” or “It’ll happen when it feels right.” But every time the question came up, I was reminded of how unhealthy I had let myself become, and how I felt that not getting pregnant was all my fault. It chipped away at my self-esteem. The miracle my body could create as a woman was in jeopardy, and with seemingly innocent questions in passing, I was sent into a tailspin of reverberating shame.

I also felt like I was letting my family down for not taking bolder actions or pursing other medical avenues, even if that put us in debt.

You never know what’s going on in someone’s life.

These days, when asked about any plans for baby No. 2, I’m pretty blunt, albeit with a smile, I respond with, “I’m not sharing that information.”

Unless someone invites you in, it’s not your place to be there, so please, please, I beg you: Think before you ask.

Think:

  • Is it my business?
  • Why do I feel entitled to this information?
  • Have they shared anything along these lines with me previously?
  • Why do I feel like asking, or feel like I need to know?

Then think this: Who cares? Does it matter if they ever have a baby, get married, buy a boat, or whatever? No! Absolutely not! They are still your friend and you love them. As long as they are alive and well and feeling good and being good to others, then nothing else really matters. We can let go of these societal checklists and milestones once and for all.

(Seriously, there are bigger issues going on in the world that deserve our attention.)

If you feel a too-personal question lingering on the tip of your tongue and need help switching gears, try one of these great conversation starters instead, adapted from “The Art of the Conversation” by Laine Bergeson and Courtney Helgoe:

  • Use sincere flattery. “What a lovely coat! Is it vintage?”
  • Chat about something you really enjoy and invite others to do the same. “I’ve been reading this great book about the history of Machu Picchu, and it’s been inspiring me to hike. Do you enjoy hiking and travel?”
  • Use open-ended questions. Try: “How do you know the host of the party?” Or, “What keeps you busy outside or work [or school or taking care of the kids]?” (One of my favorite alternatives to “What do you do for work?”) Or simply, “What do you do for fun?”
  • If the conversation has already started, ask for more details. You may think this conflicts with my previous comments about getting too personal, but if the person you are speaking with is already sharing information, saying to them, “Oh, that’s interesting — tell me more,” allows them to drive and reveal what they choose.
  • Listen up. It’s often more challenging than one would think, especially with all our devices beeping at us constantly. Be attentive, be intentional and present, and be equal sans giving advice or bringing an agenda.

Photo by Dujuan Brown; courtesy of Courtney Lewis Opdahl

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