You’re sitting at dinner, just about to bite into that delicious macaroni salad, when your in-law casually throws out the old, “So…when are you two going to have kids?” It’s a question that’s been asked what seems like a million different times by pretty much everyone you know and in a multitude of very creative ways.
Maybe it’s something like, “It sure would be nice to have a grandchild…,” paired with a longing glance at a cute pair of baby-sized shoes. Or perhaps it’s a, “Wasn’t he cute as a baby?” wink-wink-nudge-nudge while flipping through old pictures in what you thought was an innocent and hilarious journey down memory lane. It could even be from an acquaintance you hardly know who cavalierly asks, “When do you think you’ll start popping ‘em out?”
Here’s the thing. Whether someone has children is a deeply personal, highly intimate—and sometimes medically sensitive—decision made between two people. For some reason, though, it’s a topic that makes its way into the conversation with the kind of casualness with which you discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
If you repeatedly find yourself on the receiving end of these questions and you’re straight up over it—or you’re someone who’s guilty of asking—the following breakdown will benefit you.
Why do so many people ask this intimate question?
Christen Reighter summed it up perfectly in a 2017 Ted Talk she gave about her decision to have a tubal ligation in her 20s. “I recognized the roles that were placed on me very early,” she said. “One persistent concept that I observed—existing in our language, in our media—was that women are not only supposed to have children; they are supposed to want to … There are countless reasons a woman may have for choosing to abstain from motherhood. The majority of them? Not self-prioritizing. But it is still socially acceptable to publicly vilify women as such because none of these reasons have made it into the social narrative.”
Those reasons can range from a concern about the ecological impacts and overpopulation to an inability to provide the right resources for a child. Or they may be medically-fueled concerns about passing on congenital or psychological traits—or simply being dealt a hand where they’re unable to conceive.
The question is consistently on the tip of people’s tongues. It often begins as small talk but, depending on your audience, can deteriorate into a debate that feels not just personal, but sometimes offensive.
“The reason why it’s such a casual conversation topic is most likely influenced by values and conditioning of upbringing and personal beliefs that when two are together in a relationship, there is an assumption that children will be a part of the family,” notes Lisa Bahar, a licensed clinical counselor and marriage and family therapist based in Newport Beach, California.
If you’re often on the receiving end of this question, she says it’s important to try to understand that these are not personal attacks against you. Rather, they’re assumptions that the individual has been conditioned to believe (as frustrating as they may be).
For those who are guilty of asking the question, really think about the reason why you’re asking to begin with. If you simply view it as small talk, there are certainly less personal conversations you can have with others, including about work, travel, and hobbies. You can avoid awkward conversations and potentially offending or striking a nerve with someone by removing the “when are you having kids” topic from your small talk arsenal altogether.
If you’re talking about it because it’s an interesting topic to you and you are eager to hear someone else’s perspective, broach it that way. Refrain from interjecting a “you should do it this (read: my/society’s) way,” and don’t prod or try to poke holes in the other person’s (highly personal) decision.
We argue the best practice is to avoid this conversation altogether unless the other person brings it up. Then, if it does inadvertently come up, engage your empathy and be sensitive.
Whether you’re an asker or an askee, the below anecdotes might help broaden your perspective and equip you with a keener set of social skills when it comes to this topic.
Actively Choosing Not to Have Children
We’re living at a unique time in history when actively choosing not to have children has become the more popular choice but still intersects with a strong societal conditioning that assumes women and couples automatically have a desire to procreate. As a result, the “we’re not having children” conversation has proven tricky to navigate.
Sarah Feuerborn, 26, and her husband, 29, have been together for nine years and married for three. They decided years ago that they didn’t want to have children but still find themselves on the receiving end of this question.
“People ask us all the time when we’re going to have kids,” Feuerborn tells us. “Our families are fine with it at this point, but we still get the occasional ‘You’ll change your mind.’ With strangers, if they ask if we have kids, we usually politely respond with, ‘Oh no, no kids.’”
If the conversation ends there, then all’s well, she says. However, that response usually leads people to ask when they will.
“I usually respond with, ‘Actually, we don’t really want kids.’ Sometimes I’ll add a ‘We may change our minds, but at this point, we don’t see them in our future.’ At that point, people usually say, ‘Oh you’ll change your mind! You’re still so young!’ which I respond to with, ‘Maybe!’”
“It’s definitely interesting to see how people react,” she says. “I don’t really argue with people much about it. If they’re insistent about it, I get more stern, but I typically say something to politely brush it off and try to change the topic. Many people, especially those with kids, get offended when I say I don’t want them, so I try to be as polite and delicate about the subject as possible.”
Joanne Williams, 36, has a slightly more aggressive approach to this conversation. She made the decision to be child-free when she was 19 years old.
“I realized how life-altering children truly are to people and their lives,” she said. “I realized that I’m more career-oriented than I am maternal, and ultimately, I am too selfish to have kids. I like to have freedom to come and go as I please, without having to focus on the needs and commitment of others.”
While her parents and friends don’t pester her about her choice, having the conversation with those she’s never met before is a different story.
“Strangers that have asked always seem slightly confused. It’s as if I’m alien since I have zero desire to have children. I’ve been pretty curt with the answer to this, [saying] that I simply do not, and never have, wanted kids. I feel like it’s been effective for the most part,” she tells us. “I have had a few friends’ parents, [including] my best friend’s mom, ask me when I’m going to get married and have kids. I’ve told her in jest that I’ll do it after her other daughter—who is three years younger than me—does first.”
For Jenn Schaeffer, who’s in her 40s, the decision to not have children came later in life.
“I was never against having children and actually pictured myself as a mom quite often when I was younger. Though I am nontraditional in many aspects of my life, I had a traditional mindset when it came to having kids: I wanted to be married when I had kids,” she explains.
“There have been—and continue to be—so many times that I feel like a failure, despite all of my other accomplishments, because I haven’t had children.”
“Well, I didn’t meet my husband until I was 38, and we didn’t get married until I was 41. I had sort of a rule for myself that if I didn’t have children by the time I was 40, I wouldn’t have any. Yes, modern medicine has advanced so that you can have children at a very late age, but that wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
She says she gets the “When are you having kids?” question all the time, especially since she works with older people who are inclined to ask.
“I had a woman even say, ‘Don’t you know it’s your obligation to populate the earth?’ Wait, what? A lot of times I kind of laugh it off and say that ‘We are sticking with fur kids.’ Oftentimes, though, I feel angry that people just expect me to have children because I am a woman,” she confides.
“There have been—and continue to be—so many times that I feel like a failure, despite all of my other accomplishments, because I haven’t had children. I am slowly coming to terms with not having kids, but it definitely has not been easy, especially when I am continuously asked why I don’t have kids. As if there is something wrong with me. Guess I will someday get used to being in the small club of not having children despite what society dictates.”
It’s easy to see from these personal experiences why this conversation topic can trigger a host of feelings ranging from frustration to guilt to even sadness. If you find yourself on the receiving end, understand that there really is no such thing as the perfect response. However, one route you might consider taking is simply being honest about your decision.
“The truth is the straightest path. Rather than make up reasons or ways to dodge the question, why not answer truthfully?” advises Alex Dimitriu, MD, a double-board certified psychiatrist based in San Francisco. “It helps to spend a minute—or 20—thinking this through and understanding one’s own reasons. With an understanding of what drives this decision, it should not be hard to express to someone. The truth shall set you free.”
Behar agrees, adding, “Be open to talking, if you want, about your decision in a non-defensive way and think in terms of your truth and how that can help another expand their awareness of what it means to be having children.”
And if you don’t want to talk about it with someone at all? Politely tell them, “I’d prefer not to discuss it.” Most people will respect that, and if they don’t, you have every right to walk away.
When Medical Issues Interfere with a Desire to Have Children
Not having children isn’t always an active decision. For example, pregnancy or childbirth could lead to potentially life-threatening medical issues for the mother or result in passing down ailments or defects to their newborn. In some cases, not having children is an undesired reality for those who’ve desperately tried to conceive but have struggled with infertility.
In this situation, being joyfully asked, “When are you having kids?” can be particularly painful. This is something Rachel Schroeder can personally attest to.
“I have struggled with infertility, and I’ve suffered a miscarriage,” she tells us. “I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) when I was 19 and have had pain and irregular cycles and other related issues since then. PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women, so I was prepared that pregnancy may be difficult for me. I also have complex regional pain disorder, a nerve condition that causes chronic, severe nerve pain. This condition may or may not be genetic, and if it is, I do not wish to pass it along.”
In the 11 years of marriage to her husband—along with 10 years working in childcare—she’s been asked countless times when she’ll have children of her own or why she hasn’t already.
“It’s a super personal question, and my answers have varied over the years as I have struggled to decide how much to share and with whom. And honestly, my answers have changed as I have come to terms with the fact that the plans I had as a child to be a parent have not happened and may not happen at all,” she says.
“Sometimes, I simply say not yet. Other times, I am more forthright and say that it has been a struggle. Other times, I go into more detail about the financial and circumstantial roadblocks that have come our way as we considered adoption.”
An interesting perspective surrounding this topic—and one that isn’t often considered by askers—is that sometimes mothers who have one child experience medical issues that prevent them from having another. Such is the case for Ashley Kenney, whose child turns 12 this year. She had her son “accidentally” at the age of 19 and has since been diagnosed with PCOS. She also recently had a hysterectomy.
“I get asked at least once a week. I’m told that I should at least give my son one sibling. That only children aren’t as well adjusted. Or they will just straight up say, ‘Why aren’t you busy making that little boy a brother?’ which feels like such a personal question in so many ways. Are you asking me why I’m not having enough sex?” says Kenney, “It’s been really hard. My husband and I tried for six years before being told that it wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to take steps to prevent developing cancer.”
She says she usually just responds as kindly as she can, explaining that her pregnancy journey hasn’t been an easy one. And that, as much as she’d love to give her child a sibling, it isn’t an option for their family.
“Most of the time, people feel awful for having asked,” she says. “I think people just think it’s all in fun for the most part, and until they meet someone who tells them otherwise, they just don’t think about what the underlying reasons might be. Recently, I had someone say they will pray for us to get pregnant. As though even without a uterus it could still happen by the grace of God. And I try to appreciate the sentiment, but mostly I just want to scream that it’s none of their damn business.”
“There is so much focus on babies that mothers often get overlooked for the healing and caring process, but that’s a whole other issue. This continued battle I am fighting for my voice to be heard is hard enough without the constant ‘when’s the next child coming’ questions.”
Lauren Christie-Veach has a similar story. She had her daughter a year and a half ago and has been eager to have another, but medical roadblocks have made that journey difficult. She says she is overjoyed to have had a healthy daughter and easy pregnancy, but that birth “destroyed her body.” Within 14 months of having her child, she’s experienced a range of medical complications that include ovarian cysts and thyroid problems.
“I get asked all the time when we are having another. Usually, it’s, ‘She’s so sweet and happy. When’s the next one coming along?’ Usually, I just smile and make some stupid small talk comment, but the last time I was asked, I burst into tears,” she says. “There is so much focus on babies that mothers often get overlooked for the healing and caring process, but that’s a whole other issue. This continued battle I am fighting for my voice to be heard is hard enough without the constant ‘when’s the next child coming’ questions. We want another baby, but there is a chance it won’t happen.”
While we wish we could make the habit of asking such a personal question disappear, we, unfortunately, cannot. However, for those who are asked this question under medically complicated circumstances, you have every right to respond with a simple, “I prefer not to discuss it.” Alternately, if you’re feeling up to it, you could take the “speak your truth” approach.
“Honesty helps bring awareness and also acceptance of the challenges of being medically unable to have children,” says Behar. “People can learn from one another if the answers are real and genuine.”
If there’s one thing you take away from all this, it’s that asking someone when they’re going to have a child, or when they’ll have another, could affect them in ways you might not fully appreciate. And if you’re on the receiving end of the question, we know you’re frustrated, annoyed, and maybe even hurt every time you hear it. You have every right to feel that way. When the topic comes up, you can refrain from talking about it altogether, or respond from a place of honesty to further the progress regarding the topic at large. It’s a long road until these conversations are a regular and fully accepted part of the social narrative, but we’re getting there by having open conversations—like this one.