We shouldn’t disguise such loaded, difficult questions as small talk.
I work for a fairly big organization and live in a fairly small town, so naturally I became used to prying, personal questions disguised as small talk. Most of the time, they seemed fairly simple on the surface.
“So, how’s married life?”
I have a healthy, wonderful marriage, but honestly I’m still figuring out the best way to answer that one.
Years passed, and I wasn’t surprised by the natural progression from questions about my marriage to questions about having children. People watching my life from the cheap seats seemed to think that was the next logical step for me. I thought I could continue to brush the questions aside unfazed. But what I didn’t expect was how painful the timing and context of those questions would become.
The first time a coworker asked me about having kids, I was getting a diet coke from the soda machine. I was still mentally, physically, and psychologically recovering from surgery, after my first pregnancy’s first trimester ultrasound showed my first miscarriage.
“So, have you guys thought about having kids? Clock’s ticking, you know.”
I was only 30 years old.
I remember staring at the soda machine for a small eternity. All of the anguish I’d pushed aside through the work day suddenly bubbled to the surface.
I turned around with a quick smile and muttered, “We’ll see,” politely before dashing for the elevator, holding back tears.
Should I have told him, my pushy, yet well-meaning coworker? Should I have confessed that I desperately wanted a baby and I thought everything would be perfect until the ultrasound showed no heartbeat? And that I had to carry around the ghost of a baby in my belly until a procedure could be scheduled to remove it?
Probably. But that would have been impolite. Oversharing. Not cool.
The questions continued through my second, second-trimester, devastating miscarriage.
I developed coping mechanisms and avoided opportunities for small talk. I had never taken the stairs so often in my life.
A few months later, I was pregnant again. I was so excited, anxious, and hopeful during my third pregnancy, which led to the birth of my daughter, and so overcome with joy when she was born, that I navigated overly personal questions about daycare, my decision to nurse, and why I came back to work “so quickly” after 12 weeks with relative ease.
Nobody asked me about having more kids.
That is, until she turned 2.
Unbeknownst to the world, my husband and I had already been trying to have a second child for eight or nine months. The first time around, getting pregnant was the easy part, so we were preparing for the possibility of miscarriage.
We did not prepare for the possibility of nothing. We did not prepare for month after month of disappointment, and the doctor advising that since I’m 35 we can start talking about “options” soon, given my “advanced age.”
Not exactly small talk.
Around this time, the not-so-polite questions began to resurface. I had just stepped onto the elevator. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted. I greeted the coworker standing there with a cursory smile.
And the inquisition began.
“Hey, how’s your little one?”
“She’s great. She just turned 2, and she’s very proud to be a big girl now.”
“Oh. Hmm. Great. So, when are you going to have another one?”
I wanted to scream. Or stomp my feet. Or answer with detailed, overly personal, emotional descriptions about how I really want my daughter to have a sibling, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to explore the difficult menu of infertility “options” out there just yet. Or I wanted to say that I have a few more days to find out if this month will bring good news or disappointment.
But that’s not exactly elevator conversation.
Again, I turned around with a polite smile and said, “We’ll see!” as I stepped out of the elevator and headed quickly for my car.
I wasn’t overcome with sadness this time, but anger and indignation.
Had I perpetrated this transgression in the past? I wanted to make a mental list of anyone I’d ever asked about having kids, and send them a handwritten note of apology.
Mostly, I promised myself: Never again.
We shouldn’t disguise such loaded, difficult questions as small talk. We should recognize that asking about having kids is also asking about miscarriage, infertility, and the hundreds of other personal, emotional circumstances that are intertwined. We shouldn’t ask these questions in elevators or lunch rooms. We should only ask them in caring, supportive ways, when we genuinely want to hear the answers. Perhaps we should only be ready to listen.
While I know that small talk often involves good intentions, there’s certainly more that we can discuss as acquaintances and coworkers than the state of my uterus, or my future plans for it.
Mandy Nace is a writer and nonprofit communications strategist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.