Saturday, February 01, 2014

Reasons Not to Drop Hints to Your Friends About Having Kids

I know that people make these kinds of comments light-heartedly, humorously, and innocently. I know that no one means harm in dropping playful hints about "when you two are gonna have kids." But there's more going on here than I think people realize, and I want to talk about it--not just on my own behalf, but on the behalf of friends, acquaintances, and strangers for whom these teasing comments are painful.

Of course, the main reason you shouldn't drop hints to your friends about their family planning is because having children is an incredibly personal decision that no one but the couple and deity have a right to weigh in on. But often, we kiddingly drop hints anyway. And here's why that can hurt.

1. They may be dealing with the early stages of infertility.
Roughly 6% of married women in the US deal with infertility. That's only 6 out of 100, but that's still more than 1 million married women. And that doesn't count unmarried women wanting to have children, or any of the women in other countries. Around 10% of men in the US experience infertility. But the numbers don't even really matter--the journey of learning about and dealing with infertility is a painful and personal one. And it's difficult to talk about painful and personal experiences. Your lighthearted hint about "having kids" may be well-intentioned, but to someone dealing with infertility, it's a little twist of the knife that's already hurting them.

2. They may be survivors of sexual trauma, which may be affecting their sexual relationship with their spouse. 
The statistics of sexual abuse are staggering, and may not even reflect reality, since they depend on incidents being reported. A commonly cited statistic is that 1 IN 3 women are sexually abused before age 24. So that means if you have 30 female friends, 10 of them have likely experienced some sort of sexual trauma. For some women, they are able to overcome and move on to healthy relationships with their spouse. But for some, the journey is longer. There are a whole host of physical and emotional side effects of past abuse--everything from emotional numbness during intimacy, to the confusing experience of vaginismus. Many survivors of sexual trauma have lingering feelings of shame that make their experiences difficult to talk about, so they often keep things to themselves. Joking comments about having babies may feel to the couple or individual like their experiences are trivial--making it all the more difficult to heal.

3. They may be dealing with other psychological issues related to body image. 
For survivors of eating disorders, or individuals with deeply rooted body shame issues, sexuality can be complicated and frightening. They may be working hard to overcome those issues, but it's not always an easy journey. It's embarrassing for people to disclose these challenges--there's a lot of stigma attached. They may be working towards having children, but trying to put themselves together first.

4. It could be that one spouse wants to have children and the other doesn't, and it could be a source of enormous tension. 
It seems like this is a less common factor, but it's certainly one worth mentioning. A huge life decision like having kids isn't easy to make. Big issues in marriages are hard enough to work through without everyone else commentating. Even if the couple chooses to ignore everyone's commentating, the simple act of trying to diplomatically ignore everyone takes a lot of energy, that could otherwise be spent on working through their own challenges.

5. Maybe they have decided not to have children. Or to wait to have children. 
Whether or not someone else should have children, or when they should have children, is not your decision. It's easy to look at someone's relationship from the outside and say, "Well, they'd be great parents! They shouldn't wait! They should just have faith and go for it now! Heavenly Father will help them! It's selfish of her to want to finish school first!" Etc. Etc. But it's not your call. The couple themselves know best. They've probably put a lot more thought into their decision than you have.

6. Maybe they want to have children, but are scared crapless about it and feel uncomfortable talking about it, because maybe it has roots in an abusive childhood or something equally challenging.
The things that happen to us in childhood stay buried within us for a long, long, long time. It's totally possible to break cycles of abuse, of substance abuse, of codependence, of any of the other things that make family life dysfunctional. But it isn't easy. The task can feel monumental to young couples who aren't sure if they can handle the whole "parenting" thing. And those fears are real and deserve acknowledgment.

So let's say someone you know is dealing with these or any other challenging experiences. When you light-heartedly joke about "when they're gonna have kids," they may feel like they only have two options to respond with: confession or silence. Confession is difficult, because there's no way to bring up any of these things without being vulnerable, which is hard. In addition, replying to a light-hearted hint about having kids with an honest "Actually, I'm dealing with infertility/sexual trauma/deeply rooted fears/tension in my marriage/an abusive past" calls a person out on their being insensitive for dropping hints in the first place, and no one wants to be the jerk who does that.

The jokes and comments and hints can make the journey of healing even more challenging for people dealing with any of these things. You may be thinking, "Well, if I had known, I wouldn't have made the comment! Why didn't they tell me?" But they shouldn't have to. They should feel safe in your friendship regardless of what they disclose. Teasing, making jokes, and dropping lighthearted hints trivializes the very real experiences people have, even if you don't mean to do so. People may interpret your comments as the message, "Your serious experiences aren't important to me." By teasing someone about something, you may be unintentionally closing the door on deep and meaningful communication. People who carry difficult things in silence often long for someone to talk to...for someone to help them carry their burdens and share their experiences. Being sensitive to others' lives can allow us to help one another.

I am far from being as sensitive to others as I want to be. And this isn't intended to point fingers at anyone. But the more I learn about people, the more I realize the deep need for kindness, for patience, and for listening. And I'm just trying to spread that message--it's worth talking about.


Brandilyn said...

This this this. And can I add that comments about having MORE kids are just as frustrating. I had one, why are you still bugging me about it??! Maybe I'm done! It's all just so very VERY personal.

Valerie said...

Listen, I'm on your side about this. Quite frankly, I didn't get a lot of noise about having kids, despite our waiting for so long, which I attribute to my off-putting personality. But, to be fair, don't you think buying a minivan kinda of set you up for this? I mean, it's got a VCR. What, one of you is going to drive and the other is going to sit in the third row and watch Flight of the Navigator (which I own . . . on VHS)? You must have known people would talk.

Liz said...

Sigh. Valerie, I know. But still. I didn't add any addendums like "It will be great for road trips!" because I didn't feel like I should have to. Oh well. It ended up being a catalyst for a blog entry I've been wanting to write for a while now.

A said...

Another question that fits into this category is "Why aren't you married?" I think if someone were to ask me that now, I would burst into tears and say something like, "Because I'm hideous!" or "Because I'm so old, nobody wants me! or "Because I repel men!"

Abbie Belliston said...

I had this weird feeling when I accidentally got pregnant, "hey! now people won't be asking or wondering why we've been married for two years and don't have any kids!" Sad, right? Instead of only worrying about my own feelings of inadequacy, I was thinking of how others would now view me. Now that I have a child and I'm the only one in my circle of friends, sometimes I don't know what to say or how to talk about it. In your opinion, can I say things like, "well, when you have kids..." Or talk about how miserable pregnancy was or how great birth was? I get nervous to talk about my experience because what if they're dealing with infertility and can only adopt, and here I am talking about things they'll never be able to experience? I feel like this subject can be awkward no matter where you are on that list, with to without children.

Anonymous said...

This is Matt Allen. I just want you to know that I agree completely! People ask me the same questions all the time, and it can get annoying and frustrating. You worded it perfectly

Curt said...

A wonderful, insightful piece. Thank you. When Mary and I got married and blended our families, we faced the decision of whether to have more children. I think we worried more about how we would respond to the questions and hints about it, than we actually had to deal with. Perception v. Reality. I would love to discuss this more - our thoughts and decisions, and yours - but I don't know that this is the right forum. Such a personal discussion would best be done in person or telephonically.

What I can say is that I hope to be a supportive parent to my children and their decisions. I don't have set expectations to "give me grandchildren." I think pushing to pass on genetic legacy is overrated. It's not like we're royalty (or dictators like Assad or Kim). Me expecting someone else to make huge, life-changing decisions because it would somehow make me feel good, or important, or whatever, is selfish and unfair.

I have 4 amazing, beautiful daughters, each with her own struggles and triumphs. Even at great distances, I want to support them in their aspirations, and seek to find the balance between sharing wisdom based on experience and observations, and meddling. It's an ongoing effort.

Whether with family or friends, it's hard to know when something you might say will be hurtful. Sometimes we don't know the the hidden hurts. I don't suggest we never talk to each other or even to joke around. Many times that's endearing, other times it's hurtful. But as speakers, we should be observant to know when we've hit a sore spot and be able to respond with healing words. At the same time, it would be great if the hearer also had the courage to say "that's a sensitive subject that I'd rather not discuss right now."

Devi Randolph said...

I have been asked this question as well and Im not even married. Just because I've been with the same guy for years doesn't mean we are ready for kids or want them. I'm not against them by any means. And everyone asks "when are you getting married" whenever we decide.

Devi Randolph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jules said...

I think it's safe to say that hints and playful jabs about major life milestones are better left unhinted and unjabbed. They are not frivolous events, so they shouldn't be treated with frivolity.