What Are We Allowed To Talk About Anymore?

We share so much of our lives online, but it seems like in the name of political correctness, there are suddenly so many rules about what can and cannot be discussed with another person—even with a friend.

We gathered in the center of our cubicle farm—the four women I share the space with stood around my desk. I am new in the office and they were asking me about my son. They wanted to see pictures and asked me about his age, his height, and told me that he has my eyes and my nose.

Then came the inevitable question: “When are you having another one? You are having another one, right?”

This happened just the day after I read an article about what not to say to first-time mothers. That article came on the heels of several others with a similar angle: What not to ask pregnant women. The 10 worst things to say to parents of twins. What no mother of boys ever wants to hear. Even something about what not to say to people who are going through dietary changes around the holidays. I am pretty sure that the question my co-workers asked me would have qualified for one of these no-no lists.

I know that these articles are usually meant to poke fun at wildly inappropriate people, but the articles’ prevalence always make me wonder: At what point—and especially why—did we come to assume that the questions and comments about pregnant bellies, dietary preferences, or child-rearing choices are malicious? Yes, the questions are sometimes silly, or too personal, or too ick-inducing. But can’t we just talk?

I mean, sure, there are people out there—strangers, as well as well-meaning family and friends—who might look at our choices around any particular topic and feel the need to judge. We have all encountered painfully inappropriate people who say unfortunate things about cankles or spoiled children or not eating that second piece of chocolate cake. There are people who are insensitive and want to poke at our most vulnerable spots on purpose.

But I’d like to think that most people—including the women standing around me in the office—are not commenting or inquiring out of meanness. The question they asked me was deeply personal, but it was also one shared by many women around the world. We were having a conversation—about motherhood, about life, about what makes us tick.

Am I going to share my reproductive and sexual history, the state of my marriage or my finances with them in great detail? Probably not—or at least not yet. But I can be polite and informative at the same time. I can have a conversation—listen to their experiences with their siblings, or lack of siblings. We can talk about what makes siblings get along or not. We can discuss the many benefits of having just one. We can laugh about our own childhood adventures with brothers and sisters, ganging up against parents. We can be friendly and social and get to know each other.

We share so much of our lives online, but it seems like in the name of political correctness, there are suddenly so many rules about what can and cannot be discussed with another person—even with a friend. We want to be left alone to mind our own business, to not have anyone meddle in our affairs. But have we taken it too far? In the name of not wanting to judge—and be judged—have we shut ourselves off from important, eye-opening conversations?

Can we just admit that we are all fumbling, stumbling through this “living” thing? We are all sometimes painfully awkward and we struggle to find the right thing to say, so we say the very worst that happens to pour out of our mouths?

Our bodies, our children, our relationships—these are all very personal topics and I think it’s natural to feel protective of them. And sure, we all have painful experiences that we’d rather not dwell upon with an almost-stranger. But there is value in being vulnerable, to opening up to another person, whether it’s another mom on the playground or a new group of coworkers.

Motherhood is lonely. We spend a lot of time questioning our own choices and judging ourselves—it just comes with the territory. There is immense relief in knowing that other parents do the same things, worry about the same things, have the same fears that keep them up at night. How do we get to these conversations, these truths, if we can’t ask a simple question—or start a conversation with a well-meaning comment? How far along are you? Does your son have accidents at night too? Are you thinking about going back to work? Are you having another baby?

I told the ladies standing around me in the office that I felt too old to have another baby. That I would maybe like to have one, but my husband doesn’t. That with one we can travel and do stuff that we wouldn’t be able to do with two. That yes, I worry about regretting it later.

They nodded. Someone passed around a bag of biscotti. We all went back to our desks to do some work. I didn’t feel like my coworkers were too nosy, or that they judged me for my choice to have only one child. The next day one of them shared that her husband died and that he, too, was called Sam, just like my son.

We were talking—about life and death. The stuff that matters.

Zsofia McMullin is a writer and mom to a five-year-old little dude. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kveller, and Full Grown People. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com.

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