I had lunch recently with a new friend. In the midst of our "getting to know you" questions, I asked if she had kids. She responded "no." The moment was uncomfortable. I felt awkward for asking. We moved on to another topic.
This discomfort stayed with me. After years of hanging out with suburban moms, I had moved to the city and was a soon-to-be empty nester. I was meeting many new women and would likely face this scenario again. What was the etiquette around engaging with childless women? Was it ok to talk about my kids? Could I ask about their circumstances? And could I even use the term "childless"?
So I reached out to the handful of women I know who have hit midlife without children and asked for their and their friends' input. I promised anonymity and encouraged bluntness.
Here is what these women told me.
Don't ask me why -- or assume you know why
Women don't have children for a myriad of reasons, and they're really none of our business. If and when they choose to talk about their journeys, they will do so, on their own terms. The "Why?" question is particularly insensitive for women who wanted children but, whether for medical or other reasons, could not have them.
Ellen always wanted children but never found the right person to do it with. At 37, she put some serious thought into becoming a single mom but felt she'd need a support network: "I knew I wasn't willing to go through the first two years alone. One married friend and I discussed the possibility of me moving into their building so they would be right there to support me. Another friend and I played with the idea of buying a co-op together and committing to supporting one another through the first few years, regardless of significant others that may come along. I met with my OB/GYN to discuss the medical side and started the testing to determine the viability of my eggs. Ultimately, I decided not to do it. For me, it came down to not wanting to bring a child into the world without the opportunity to have a relationship with their father. I was extremely close with both my parents, but even more so with my father. It just wasn't right for me."
Christina went to great lengths to try to have biological children on her own, enduring 8 rounds of assisted reproduction, without success. Her advice: "Don't frame any questions around the assumption that I CHOSE not to have kids. I think most people are well meaning and are actually paying me a compliment because they think I should have had kids, that I'd be a good mom. But it makes me want to scream, 'I was ripped off. I am barren!' I don't want to offend anyone for asking what they perceive to be an innocent, even complimentary, question. But I certainly don't want to explain my fertility history to strangers."
Barb fell in love with a man who had children from his first marriage and who made it clear he did not want any more. In her forties, she had to make a choice; she committed to her "soul mate," thereby foregoing kids, and has no regrets.
Carter chose not to have children: "I have never understood why a woman would want to have kids. They are a huge responsibility and would have been too stressful for me -- knowing I would have to be 'on' 24/7. I hold child rearing to a very high standard and I know I personally could not attain that standard. It takes so much to be a good mom and I would want to be a good mom; no, I know I don't have it."
Lisa did not want children, and is annoyed at the unspoken expectation that she should explain her choice: "I find that almost all the time, when people ask me if I have kids and I say no, the conversation stops. There's a 'pregnant' pause, so to speak. I feel like people really want to ask why, as if it's really foreign or weird or sad or tragic to not have kids. As if there's something wrong with me. When I find out that someone has kids, I don't follow up with, 'Why?'"
Haralee also chose not to have children but is in the minority: She does not mind being asked why. Even so, the questions can become intrusive: "If the next question is about regret, I say, 'How can you regret what you don't have?' If the persistence continues with another question, I usually use the conversation terminator 'I have evolved through the trait to reproduce.'"
Don't pity me
For some women, the lack of children is a real wound that never completely heals. Still, by midlife, the women I interviewed who had longed for children had come to terms with their situation. And the last thing they want is pity. On the contrary, they want us to know that they live happy and productive lives and that we can talk about our kids with them.
Christina, who tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant, explains: "It almost feels like another person went through all of this a lifetime ago. So I don't begrudge anyone else successfully having kids. I don't want people to tiptoe around me. One friend, who got married at 40 and was able to have children at 41 and 43, was trying to be too considerate of my feelings. I finally had to tell her that it was ok to mention the kids, that I would not have horrible flashbacks and pangs of emptiness at the sheer sight of a child. She should not feel guilty."
Don't judge me
Children are not for everyone. Yes, there are women who don't yearn to carry or mother a child. All they ask is that we respect their personal choice, just as they accept ours. Teresa's journey shows that women can be intolerant of these differences:
"Even as a small child I knew I didn't want children. I just never felt the maternal instinct or the desire. Luckily, I met and married a man who had the same feelings. We have been happily married for over 30 years, and never regretted our decision to not have children.
In my 20s, people's reaction when they asked if I had children -- and received no as an answer -- was 'You'll change your mind,' 'You have plenty of time,' 'Wait till all your friends start having them, you'll want children then.'
In my 30s and 40s, the reaction to a no answer was increasingly more aggressive and blunt: 'You're running out of time,' 'your biological clock is ticking,' 'you'll be sorry.' All kinds of people, from all walks of life, asked whether I had children. This was not a problem; I asked others as well. But when they felt they had the right to make negative comments or ask if my husband or I wasn't able, that was offensive. I was made to feel like I had to justify myself to complete strangers.
In my 50s through today, at almost 63, I feel some people are more enlightened about my choice and accepting of my decision. Others are a lot more blunt in telling me I have 'missed out on the greatest thing ever.' Still others just silently judge me, as if having children makes you a better person somehow."
Don't assume I don't like kids
Most of the women I interviewed very much enjoy spending time with other people's children. They are special aunties to their siblings' kids. They spend time with their partner's children from a former relationship. They volunteer with children's charities.
Joanne has forged many special connections with kids: "I am extremely grateful for the children I have in my life today. I mentor young people, ages 8 - 17, as part of a Toastmasters gavel club that teaches communication and leadership skills. I also have three godchildren, nieces I adore, little cousins, and children of friends. I feel truly blessed."
Don't exclude me
Many women I interviewed enjoy participating in others' family events, but they're not always included. Lisa describes, "I've rarely been invited to dinner parties at homes with people with kids. Or to life festivities: confirmations, holiday celebrations, graduations, etc. I'd like to be invited. Please let me decide if I want to come or not."
Anne, who has been asked to child-focused festivities and even to babysit, has some advice for parents: "I often do enjoy being included in your children's birthday parties, even when I'm the only one there without children. But I never enjoy it when you make a big deal out of the fact that I'm the only one there without children. And if you ever get in a bind and ask me to take care of your children, I will do it. Gladly. For free. And I will return your children to you safe and happy. But I won't guarantee your children won't have potato chips for dinner. It all depends on how the night goes. So don't give me lectures on proper diet. It's one night, I'm the most responsible babysitter you'll ever have, and I'm free."
Women without children -- like women in general -- very much treasure their female friendships, but they wish their mom friends would reach out more often. They miss them. Anne explains: "If you have a childless friend you really like, ask her to lunch -- or just call her sometimes to say hi. Two reasons: First, with my friends with children, I usually do all the calling and inviting; and second, I often assume that my friends with children are completely wrapped up in their children-full life (soccer games, piano recitals, etc.) and don't have time for me."
When they do get together, women without children would like to contribute to parenting discussions. Kat says: "When I am in a group of people and they are talking about child-rearing or some difficulty they are having with their child, I feel as though I have something to offer on the topic, regardless of not having had a child myself, because I've spent a lot of time around children." Jane agrees: "Don't assume that because I don't have children, I don't understand the never ending pressure and exhaustion you feel. I have lots of nieces and nephews and I have looked after them -- sometimes for days at a time. I've also heard 'so says the woman without children' -- does that mean I can't offer an opinion?"
Still, women without children ask that the conversation not be geared solely to children. In Barb's words: "I am happy to hear about your kids and enjoy funny stories but not as the ONLY topic of conversation. Read the signals and err on the side of less is more. I will do the same and not drone on about my clients. Let's focus on the areas we have in common; this is how we build connections with people, kids or no kids."
Around age 50, as mothers start to come to terms with the idea of the empty nest, they often renew old friendships with women who did not have children. Barb shares: "I've actually reconnected with girlfriends that I haven't spoken to in years because they have now re-emerged from their 'mommy caves.' I am so happy to have them back in my life. Moms and non-moms in their early fifties are not that different. We deal with a lot of the same stuff: body changes, aging parents, financial questions and, most importantly, 'Who am I and what do I do now?' I remember in our 20s and 30s, everyone was focused on getting married and having kids. Those life events became forks in the road for women: Husband/kids? Exit right. No husband/kids? Go left. Literally. Now, we're back on the same highway. Aging is the great equalizer -- and re-connector. I love that. "
Don't call me childless
While many of my interviewees did not want to get caught up in the terminology, the majority agreed with Leah that the word childless "implies something is lacking." It's a negative. For the women who chose not to have children, this is particularly offensive.
As to better wording, some liked "child free" while others felt it was too forced, trying too hard to be politically correct.
Jane questions the need for these distinctions at all: "Why do you have to be identified through whether or not you have children? I know many parents, particularly women, who are fed up with being defined though their children. It's an outdated, misogynistic way of defining women which rarely applies to men, largely because there's always the chance that they'll father kids when 95!"
Still, for the sake of clarity in this essay, I am using the somewhat wordy "without children" for lack of a better answer.
Don't be rude
The women I interviewed have heard some incredibly insensitive comments and questions. Here is a sampling of what NOT to say to women without children, courtesy of Sue, Anne, Lisa, and Jane.
"You don't really understand what it means to be a woman until you've had a child."
"You should have had children. You're so great with them."
"Having kids was the best thing I ever did."
"Who will take care of you when you're old?"
"Didn't you want to have children?"
"Don't you like children?"
"I bet you regret not having children."
"You could have adopted. Why didn't you?"
"Oh, so you chose a career over having children."
As they hit midlife, many women find themselves better able to cope with these rude comments, whether by letting them slide or by calling the person out. Still, that thicker skin or bolder attitude does not obligate them to answer intrusive questions or tolerate obnoxious statements. It is our responsibility, as moms, to be sensitive to these women's feelings by approaching the subject with caution and compassion.
Joanne says it best: "We are all beautiful women with choices or circumstances that have put us in this place of being with or without children. Let's not waste any time judging each other. Let's support one another. We can lift each other higher if we stand together."