I was at a dinner party recently where the topic of kids came up. My hosts, a slightly older couple, talked about how much they were looking forward to trying, a process they were going to start in the next few months. I'm friendly with these folks, and I had noticed that "their kids" came up in conversation a lot: "Our kids are going to wear this kind of hat," "Our kids are going to be such little meat-eaters," "Our kids are going to love this place." Despite not, you know, having any kids, I can understand that talking about your future family can bring these as-yet-unmet little people into sharper focus, which can feel nice. Planning can feel like doing, and when you crave a baby or two in your life, discussing the little rugrats at length can make it feel like they're almost here.
As we were clearing the plates, she asked me, "Do you want kids?"
I stammered out an answer. Yes. No. I don't know. I don't want kids right now, when my relationship is younger than most toaster warranties and my work contract is set to expire in a few months. I'm unsure that my body can even produce kids, given all the weird stuff that my reproductive system has gotten up to. And even if I can, I'm still not 100 per cent sure that I want to.
She smiled at me sympathetically. "Well, some women just aren't meant to have kids."
Hold up. Record scratch. What?
I blushed and changed the subject: How is work going? Light banter. Let me help you with those plates.
Inside, I went into a swoon of terrible feelings.
I felt stupid for even engaging with the question, with an acquaintance who, given all recent evidence, wasn't going to be able to really hear a note of ambivalence in a child-talk conversations. Not that this is my fault, necessarily, or that I should have pretended I feel something I don't; rather, just an acknowledgement that it can be difficult to refocus and see an issue from a perspective you don't share.
I was also horrified: not being ready for child-raising right now doesn't preclude me from changing my mind later. It's not like the requirement for having loved and wanted children is that you must have always wanted them.
I was angry. There's nothing as enraging as having someone who is so much farther ahead in the game of life -- this lady is a married homeowner with six years of stable employment under her belt -- condescend your lifestyle or choices.
And I felt sad, as though she had cursed me with a lifetime of childlessness by diagnosing my mixed feeling as a forever-and-always state of affairs.
I felt like getting pregnant right that moment, out of spite, as if I would drag my boyfriend into their guest bedroom and yodel out mid-coitus, "Who's not meant to be a mother now, lady!?"
In hindsight, that's probably not the most mature response.
As we go through the process of growing up, settling down, and making those Big Choices that will affect us the rest of our lives, it's important to remember compassion for those who aren't on the same path. It's especially important if your path has been two lanes of smooth, freshly-paved highway, where the only disappointments are when the gas station is sold out of your favourite gummy snacks.
My own path has been more of a gravel road with a blind curve or two -- no major accidents, but my car has some dents and the backseat is piled with Diet Coke cans. Since I'm competitive by nature, I envy, resent and admire the women whose paths seem so smooth. Maybe they aren't, but it's impossible to tell with an acquaintance who, on paper, is pretty damned impressive.
Since it's unlikely the child-talk will abate in the next few years, I have some requests:
That, when the topic of children comes up, you remember that not every woman wants children. They may have never wanted kids, they may not want kids right now, and they might simply be undecided. If and when you ask them if they want children, be prepared for a stammering answer, one that is trying to convey that the question might not have a simple answer.
In fact, to remember a woman isn't automatically obligated to answer the "do you want kids" question, just by virtue of owning a uterus. This is like asking everyone you meet if they want backpacks, just because they have shoulders. Having kids is a personal decision, one that affects women and the men they partner with in deep, private ways. It isn't really a casual question.
If someone does tell you that they don't want kids or they're on the fence, that you not respond with "Some women just aren't meant to have kids," or some variation on that theme. This should go without saying, but given my recent experience, I feel like I should spell it out.
I don't know what the right response would have been. Maybe a vague platitude about timing, or choices. Maybe a silent smile. Maybe an assurance that nobody has to decide anything today, or even -- and this might have been the best of a bad bunch -- a question about how I had arrived at my ambivalent place on the fence. Instead of dismissing a response that made her feel uncomfortable, she might have taken the opportunity to exercise some compassion.
Because really, if you are planning on becoming a parent, or even just a grown-up, the importance of empathic listening and compassionate conversation can't be understated. Practising with strangers at dinner parties is one way of making sure that, when your kids do finally arrive, you're ready to really hear what they have to say.