“How is [insert name here] doing?”

When people ask me how I’m doing, I know it’s just a social nicety and I’m expected to say, “Fine.” I have learned that.

But I still get confused when someone asks me how someone else is doing. If I treat the question the same way and simply say “Fine,” they continue looking at me expectantly, as if waiting for more information.

What is it they want to hear? Is it gossip? That’s what I suspect. They are wanting to hear gossipy details about other people’s lives.

But I don’t gossip about people. The people who confide in me do so because they feel safe with me and they know they can trust me. I’m not going to use the things they confide in me as fodder for casual conversation with other people.

This is done both to me and about me. My mom told me one of my cousins sent her a message through Facebook asking how I’m doing. But the thing is, I too am friends with this cousin on Facebook. Why didn’t she send the message to me and ask me directly? She didn’t want to talk to me, apparently; she wanted to talk to someone else about me. Or did she not care about me at all, and she was just using inquiring about me as an excuse to contact my mom, who was the one she really wanted to talk to? I don’t get it.

Another one of my relatives does this kind of thing all the time. Let’s call her Sharon. She talks about nothing except other people. I have heard details of the lives of people I never have and likely never will meet, and they know details about my life. While visiting the town Sharon lives in, strangers came up to me and asked me if my husband had gotten a certain job he’d applied for and asked me about the health conditions I’ve been diagnosed with. While I stammered in shock as I tried to process who these people were and how they knew about all this, they laughed and introduced themselves. They were friends of Sharon’s, and they’d heard all about me and even seen photos of my wedding.

I hated every moment of that encounter. I hated that strangers knew things about me and were now wanting more information from me about the things they’d heard. When I tell people things, it’s because I’m already close to them and already consider them emotionally safe people to talk to. And since they know me and already like me, I think they’re not going to be judging me based on one or two bits of information. They know my character and my history, and will take any details shared with them in context. A stranger who doesn’t know me might judge me on the individual details they hear about me because they don’t know me as a whole person.

Because I feel this way, I am not going to put other people in such a position. The Golden Rule, and all that.

So anyway, Sharon often asks me about my friends (whom she doesn’t even really know except having met them once through me), and when I don’t say anything except, “Fine,” she gets almost annoyed as if she thinks I’m being unfriendly, stubborn, and uncooperative. Sometimes she asks follow-up questions like, “Does she have a boyfriend yet?” or “How old are her children now?”

But I don’t understand why she needs to know these things. Of what possible relevance could it be to her whether my friend has a boyfriend or not? Or how old children she’s never even met are? And why am I expected to be forthcoming with these details, to the point where I look like a jerk if I don’t provide them?

Perhaps I just need to throw out some additional, innocuous details to satisfy her, and others who ask such things. Like, “She’s fine. Still living in Vancouver. Drives a Toyota.” Would that be enough to seem friendly and communicative? Or do I need to provide all the intimate details of their lives and relationships? Is that how normal people interact?

It’s funny how my own friends never do this. We share details about our own lives with each other, but we don’t inquire about other people we know, and we rarely even talk about other people unless it’s something that really affects us. This is not the way we socialize at all. So it’s something I really, really don’t understand and have trouble socially navigating. As usual in social situations, it’s knowing the correct way to respond that’s my real problem.

 

Other People’s Opinions and Questions About Our Non-Parenthood

Photo by desmondnwj via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by desmondnwj via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

This is continued from Thoughts on Having Kids, Part One and Thoughts on Having Kids, Part Two, where I explain the long journey that has brought us to this point.

It’s tough picking a word to describe our state. Childless implies something’s missing. Childfree implies some kind of antagonism towards children — that you think they’re something bad that you need to be free of. I met someone online who refers to himself as a non-parent, and I like that term. It’s not loaded with hidden meaning. It just is what it is.

Anyway, certain people have made it clear that they don’t approve of our non-parenthood. Infertility is not seen as an excuse. They ask if I’ve sought treatment, tried IVF, taken medication that stimulates ovulation, considered a surrogate. They ask why we haven’t adopted. They tell me all the reasons we should do these things. Check out a childfree bingo card — I’ve heard it all. They’ve told me that when my husband and I are old and alone we’ll have regrets. They’ve said that you don’t truly become an adult or learn true love or selflessness until you become a mother. One woman who had adopted children said to me, “I don’t know how anyone can be so selfish as to not make room in their life for children who need a home!” (Yeah, we’re not friends anymore.)

Oddly enough, people never direct these questions and comments at my husband. It’s always at me. My mother-in-law got me alone one day to have a chat with me about the situation. She told me that my husband had always told her he wanted three children, insinuating that I must be solely responsible for his dream not coming true. (I later asked him about this, and he told me he’d said that when he was about 15, and like a lot of things people think and say when they’re teenagers, he no longer felt that way.)

Thankfully, my own mother understands and doesn’t pressure me, but I know it causes her pain that she will never be a grandmother (I’m her only child), especially when her friends brag and whip out their photos of their grandkids, or worse yet, actually ask her if I’ve made her a grandmother yet. I would have expected people to stop asking by now (I’m 42), but they haven’t.

And meeting new people is hard because of the questions. Even though I admit that it’s completely appropriate to ask someone, “Do you have kids?” I feel awkward when people ask it. It gets even worse when I encounter someone who’s particularly nosy and asks follow-up questions. I have had awkward conversations with people like this:

Do you have kids?
No, no kids. 
Are you planning to have kids?
No, no plans.
Why not? Don’t you like kids?
It’s not that I don’t like kids. I’m infertile. I haven’t been able to conceive.
Oh, so you do want kids, but you can’t have them?
No, I don’t want kids.
Oh… [Puzzled look.]

Part of the problem, of course, is that I’m not good at explaining when put on the spot. And when it comes to procreation there are three positions most people seem to understand, even if they don’t approve:

1. Want kids and have them.
2. Want kids, can’t have them, and feel sad about it.
3. Don’t want kids and choose not to have them by using contraception (or abstinence, or abortion).

It seems like no one’s ever heard of infertile and okay with it.

And I know from things people have said and from reading comments online what many people assume about people who don’t want kids: We’re selfish, self-centered, lazy, cold, unloving, immature. So being asked, “Don’t you like kids?” is extremely anxiety-inducing, especially when I’ve just met someone and I know they’re forming their first opinions about me.

I wouldn’t know how to answer it even if it weren’t such a loaded question. I’m not even sure how to define my feelings in a short sound bite appropriate for a first meeting. I mean, I like kids as much as I like any other humans, I guess. I wish them well. I want the best for them. I want them to be happy and well. I’m horrified at the thought of abuse in any form. But do I want to mother them? No. Do I want to be around them? I know it sounds horrible to say, but no. No I don’t. I don’t actively dislike kids, but I’m not good with them and the desire to be around them is just not there. Should I tell people all this? Isn’t it a lot of information to tell people you’ve just met? And why should I be put in a position to have to bare my soul with people right away?

If I could only figure out what to say, I might feel differently, but every option I can think of seems like a bad idea in some way. I don’t want to come across as annoyed or defensive. I don’t want to give out too much information to people I’ve just met. I don’t want to be dishonest. I don’t want to encourage undesirable treatment from people (like if I say I like kids, the next thing I know, I’m being asked to babysit or teach Sunday School, which I definitely do not want — or if I say I don’t like kids, I get ostracized or criticized).

Someone told me once that since I’ve chosen an unusual path in life I have to expect people to ask questions. That it just comes with the territory. I can understand that to a point, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me.

In spite of my concerns about the correct way to respond, I’m also aware that no matter what choices you make in life, especially when it comes to things like procreation, someone’s going to have a negative opinion about it. I’ve seen people get judged for being stay-at-home moms, being working moms, having too many kids, not having enough kids, having kids too young, having kids too old, having kids while poor, and even waiting to get out of poverty before having kids (“There’s never a right time, you just have to do it!” they’re told). My own mom was given a hard time for only having one, despite the fact that she wanted more and endured miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage. It’s crazy. So I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m going to be judged for something anyway, I might as well be judged for doing what I want to do, and doing the thing that’s actually right for me and my husband.

I don’t really understand why some people are so interested, to be honest. It has never occurred to me to judge anyone else about the choices they make when it comes to procreation. But then, I already know that the way I think is not typical.

Talking to People

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’ve been told that I have good communication skills, but I don’t think I do. People only know what they hear me say. I know the difference between what I want to say and what actually comes out of my mouth. Often the two are not close enough for me to feel content that I’ve gotten my message across.

Yes, I am quite talkative for an introvert and a likely Aspie. And I did have an adult-sized vocabulary as a young child. But I know from the way people respond to me that just having the ability to converse isn’t enough. I am misunderstood a lot. Not only my words but my intentions. People often seem to assume I have wrong motives for things when I don’t. I have also been falsely accused of things many times in my life, first by my mom and sometimes by my teachers, and later by my bosses. Even worse, when I know someone thinks I’m guilty, I feel and act guilty, even though I’m not.

Often I lie awake at night, replaying conversations I’ve had with people, thinking of how wrongly I worded things and ways in which I could have worded them better. I have been known to send people e-mails at 3am saying, “You know that conversation we had earlier? There’s something I want to clarify…” This is one of those things that makes other people think I’m weird and/or obsessive. But it is important to me to ensure I haven’t misrepresented myself or given anyone misinformation, because I have inadvertently done that too many times in the past and it has blown up in my face.

I even think of things I said 10 or 15 or more years ago and my face gets hot with embarrassment and shame. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t try to talk to people at all, because I just say things that are stupid or wrong or that reveal myself to not think like a “normal” person. Sometimes it really doesn’t feel worth it.