[TW: babyloss, miscarriage, infertility, intrusive questions about personal business]
Some months ago, my fiance and I went into the credit union to add me to his checking account (joint checking… are we truly adults now?).
So, a thing to know about me: I hate small talk. Mostly because I am incredibly terrible at it. I am unbearably bad at participating in the fiction that we’re all best friends when we’re actually total strangers conducting a business transaction. I am equally bad at it whether I’m the customer or the employee. I understand why people do it (because, while I suck at doing small talk, I also feel the awkwardness of total silence), but oh gods, I hate/dread it.
Bank employees have seemed to be the worst, lately. The manager of the Chase branch when I closed down my old account and the woman from the credit union had the same approach. “You say you’re getting married? Let me ask a series of intrusive questions about your wedding plans and so on” (a topic I am hesitant to discuss even with friends, much less total strangers).
So there we sit, my fiance and I, at Julie (not her real name)’s desk in the credit union, giving noncommittal responses to various personal questions about our upcoming wedding. Then she asks “Are you planning on having kids right away?”
I glance at my fiance nervously. “Oh, not really,” I say, as lightly as possible.
* * *
No, we’re not planning on having kids right away. To let you in on not-particularly-a-secret-but-not-something-we-talk-about-much-to-others, we are not planning on having kids ever. For one thing, I have an intense phobia of pregnancy. Like, I have actually had literal panic attacks because I imagined being pregnant. I also don’t think my depression makes me a particularly good candidate for motherhood (it’s also hereditary, so any bio-kid of mine would be highly likely to suffer the way I have suffered – and I wouldn’t wish my teen years on my worst enemy). And beyond all that, neither of us feels any significant desire to be a parent. Which should be reason enough not to do it, but apparently it isn’t.
Listen, I love babies and kids. I am more than happy to look at pictures of your kids and hear about the funny and adorable stuff they’ve done recently. I will gladly hold your baby and play with your toddler, and I can even be called upon to babysit occasionally. I adore my nephew beyond all reason, because he’s my nephew and he’s adorable, clever, and hilarious.
And I am reasonably certain that, if through some unexpected turn of events, I ended up with a kid, I would love the kid and I would grow to love parenthood. I don’t doubt the many parents out there who say that being a parent is awesome and they wouldn’t trade it. I’m sure we would make the best out of it and end up as reasonably happy parents. But right now, with 30 just around the corner (so I’m at the age where I’m supposed to be changing my mind), it’s still my second choice. And a pretty distant second, at that.
* * *
But I’m not going to explain all this to Julie. I never saw Julie in my life until five minutes ago, and once we’re done here I will probably never see or speak to her ever again. It’s straight up none of her business when or if we plan to have kids.
So we just say “No,” politely, and leave it at that.
And Julie looks at me and in what I assume was meant to be a tone of friendly teasing, says “Well what are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger!”
I look at my fiance. He looks at me. We look at Julie. I look away.
* * *
Not too long before this trip to the credit union, some friends of mine lost their newborn baby when he was only a week old.
(What a euphemism – “lost.” As if we didn’t know where he is. As if he could turn back up again at any moment.)
So since this happened I have been on the edges of this grief that is so raw and immense, there aren’t really any words to describe it. I catch glimpses of it. It nibbles away at me. What it does to them I can guess at. I have, as I say, only glimpsed the edges, the bits of the grief that can be shared with the world.
It has made me start thinking about a lot of things I had never had cause to think about before. It has put all of our culture’s obsession with reproduction – all the stuff about no abortions even if the fetus is already dead, all the furious rage at women who use birth control – into a new and more troubling light. I am constantly (daily) asking myself “How would this make me feel, if I were [Friends]?”
It changes how I feel about a question like Julie’s.
* * *
I read the blog of the tremendously talented Ana Mardoll (Ana does a phenomenal series deconstructing Twilight which I could not possibly recommend more highly. She is awesome.). Ana has also written a little bit about her experiences with infertility, and how she has had to accept that her desire to be a mother is a dream that can never come true:
The “have you considered” question — sperm donor? egg donor? adoption? — is personally triggering for me because the act of considering those choices and making my decision with my Husband was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The question, though I understand that it is well-meaning and well-intended, takes me back to that moment every time, that moment when I had to make a decision about my future, a decision that gave me peace and yet pain.
-Ana Mardoll, “When Context Matters.”
This is a different kind of grief. This is a mourning of lost possibilities. But it, too, changes how I feel about a question like Julie’s.
* * *
Why ask? You don’t know me, and you don’t know my story. My story is: I don’t want to be a mother, my fiance doesn’t want to be a father, we have myriad reasons for feeling that way, and we’re not going to change our minds because of a conversation with a total stranger.
But the point is, you don’t know. And if you think about it for a second, there are a million reasons not to ask.
The next couple you ask might really want to be parents, desperately want it, but know that they never will be unless they can come up with thousands of dollars for fertility treatments or adoption fees.
The next woman might be reeling from a recent miscarriage, her heart aching in a way she can’t explain to anyone, because she hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant.
They might have spent months discussing, negotiating, crying, fighting, finally coming to a decision they can both live with.
They might have held their baby in their arms for just a few days before they were suddenly left empty.
There are any number of reasons that question might be unwelcome or painful. It could have happened years, months, weeks, days ago.
You don’t know. So why would you take the risk of ripping open these kinds of wounds on a total stranger?
* * *
The answer, of course, is that all those Julies out there don’t think about it. They haven’t been touched by any of these griefs, and it hasn’t occurred to them that it could ever be a problem.
I know. I hadn’t really thought much about it until recently, myself (I didn’t ask these kinds of questions anyway, because I thought it was pretty rude even without thinking about the people it could seriously hurt). But if you’re reading this, then you know now. You know you aren’t entitled to the life story of everyone who comes across your desk, and that whether/when to have kids is among the most intensely personal of topics. Find something else to talk about (whatever happened to “the weather” as a topic for idle chitchat?). Please.