When people keep asking why you don’t have kids

A reader asked:

I’ve had a hysterectomy and I live in a region where it’s very odd (like, statistical outlier odd) for a woman not to have kids by my age.

So it’s fairly common for people to continue to harass me about why I don’t have kids and not take any of the polite attempts at diverting the subject as hints to leave me alone until I tell them the truth.

Then when I tell them the truth they get mad and say that it’s too much information. Any advice for dealing with this?

realsocialskills said:

It might help to be direct about saying it’s a personal question.

I’m not sure how your conversations are going. I’m getting the sense that they might be something like this:

  • Them: So, why don’t you have kids yet? When are you going to have them?
  • You: Nice weather we’re having. But it’s summer and so it will probably rain soon. Do you think it will cause flooding again?
  • Them: Oh, probably. It usually does. But what about kids? Are you seeing anybody? Fertility doesn’t last forever.
  • You: So, I have this great new recipe for a seven-layer congealed salad.
  • Them: Children are a blessing. Life really can’t be complete without them.
  • You: That may be true, but I had a hysterectomy, so it’s not happening. Now can we please talk about something else?
  • Them: Why would you tell me something like that?!

It might help to add a warning layer before you tell them the truth. One possible layer: Saying it’s personal and that you don’t want to talk about it, then an immediate subject change:

  • “That’s awfully personal. I don’t like to talk about this.”
  • “That’s private medical information.”

Another possible layer: Asking rhetorical questions that warn them that they might not actually want an answer. This can make it harder for them to blame you, and more likely that they’ll back off:

  • “Do you really want the gory medical details?”
  • “That’s a very personal question. Do you really want to ask that?”
  • “Are you sure you want an answer to that?”

Another possibility: Answering the question in a way that’s a bit less graphic but still gets the point across:

  • “It just hasn’t been in the cards.”
  • “I can’t have children.”
  • “I’m sterile.”
  • “It’s not medically possible.”

If you’re in the South, there are some nuances about how to make people feel bad about asking inappropriate questions that I don’t really understand. (Which is part of the reason I don’t live there anymore.) It’s mostly a matter of affect. I know that it involves inserting a certain kind of pause and icy body language that tells someone they’ve crossed a line, but I don’t know how to do it or describe it well. If anyone who is better at that wants to weigh in, that would be welcome.

Short version: If your attempts at subtly deflecting intrusive questions are failing, it can help to more explicitly say that the question is too personal and that you don’t want to answer it.

About the word “vegetarian”

“Vegetarian” is a word that means somewhat different things in different subcultures. If you’re feeding a vegetarian, it’s important to make sure that you know which definition of the word they mean.

In most English-speaking cultures, “vegetarian” means “someone who doesn’t eat animals.”. That includes red meat, poultry, fish, and anything else you’d have to kill an animal in order to eat.

In some subcultures, “vegetarian” can mean “someone who doesn’t eat meat”, where meat is defined more narrowly than “all animals.”

For instance, in the observant Jewish community, most people don’t think of fish as meat (in part because it’s not defined as meat in the rules about keeping kosher). So, in many Jewish circles, a good percentage of people who describe themselves as vegetarians eat fish, but not other animals.

From both sides of this, it’s worth being aware that “vegetarian” is a word that’s used different ways in different communities. If you aren’t sure, it’s ok and good to ask what someone eats. Similarly, if you’re vegetarian and someone asks you whether you eat fish, it’s a legitimate question, not them being willfully ignorant about what the word means.

Short version: “Vegetarian” is a word that’s used differently in different subcultures. If you’re a vegetarian eating with someone from a different community, it’s important to make sure that they understand what you don’t eat. If you’re feeding a vegetarian, it’s important to make sure you understand which definition of vegetarian applies to them.

Red flags vs fear of new things

I don’t know a solution to this, but this is a problem I think it’s worth discussing: It can be hard to identify red flags when you have a general fear of change and trying new things.

For some of us, anticipating change always or usually feels bad, regardless of whether there’s anything actually wrong. For instance, I hate all new TV shows until I’ve watched them with someone else at least three times. To use more weighty examples: for a lot of people, moving to a new apartment, taking a new job, starting school, getting close to another person, exploring a new hobby, eating new foods, or anything that involves change, will at first invoke an unreasonable sense of dread whether or not anything is actually wrong.

For most people who have routine fear of new things, it can sometimes be important to override that dread and do some new things anyway. Because sometimes change is necessary, or an improvement. But overriding and ignoring dread all the time causes a serious problem.

The problem is – sometimes the feelings of dread are because you’re noticing red flags. Sometimes the problem isn’t that you’re generally averse to change; sometimes the problem is that you’re noticing something that’s actually wrong.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Most people get told that the best way to avoid walking into trouble is to always trust your gut. That’s not necessarily viable for people whose guts tend to dread all change. Trusting all of those instincts would mean never trying anything new, and also never walking away from bad situations (since that would have to involve change). But disregarding your gut all the time doesn’t work well either, because sometimes it’s the only thing alerting you to trouble.

I think the best approach might be: listen to your gut, but don’t necessarily obey it. I think it’s a good idea to think, in as concrete terms as possible, what your gut feeling might be about. Some examples of questions that some people find helpful in that regard (not exhaustive, and not all the questions on this list are helpful for everyone with this problem):

  • Is the dread you are feeling the same way you always feel when you’re doing something new, or does this feel different?
  • (If it feels like a different feeling, it’s very likely something you should be taking seriously)
  • Are you afraid of a particular person?
  • Do you know why you’re afraid of them? Is it that they’re unfamiliar, or something in particular about them?
  • Are you afraid of a particular risk?
  • Does something seem physically unsafe?
  • Are there other available options that would be safer?
  • Do people seem to be treating you respectfully?
  • Is someone being mean to you, or to other people, in a way that’s making the new thing seem inadvisable?
  • Are people assuming that you can do things that you can’t?
  • Is anyone treating you like a child?
  • Is someone taking your private decisions weirdly personally?
  • Are you being pressured into spending money you can’t afford to spend?

I don’t think that there is a general answer to this. I think that deciding whether to go with your gut feeling, or whether to assume that you’re just fearing change, is something that you have to decide on a case by case basis. Either option involves risks; it’s ok to decide which risk you’d rather take in a certain situation. Sometimes that will mean you do the new thing (and risk ignoring a red flag); sometimes it will mean you don’t do the new thing (and risk avoiding a necessary or beneficial change for irrational reasons). Sometimes that will mean doing the new thing, but cautiously. Sometimes that will mean modifying the new thing. All are legitimate approaches; you’re the only one who can decide.

It’s ok to decide that something real is going on and that you’re not going to do the thing (even though it’s possible that you’re afraid for no good reason). It’s ok to decide that you’re going to risk doing the thing (even though it’s possible that you’re ignoring a red flag.) Both have risks. There’s no generalized answer to every situation; it’s a decision you have to make for each situation.

Short version: If you’re generally averse to change, it can be really hard to tell whether your apprehension about a new situation is irrational fear of change, or a red flag you’re picking up on. It can help to evaluate in concrete terms what you think you might be noticing. 

On stimming in class

Do you know of any quiet or discrete fidget/stim toys? I find that I need to fidget in my school discussion group to keep from getting super anxious, but if I play with a hairband under the table or doodle then people notice. Most of the fidget toys I find online are colourful, which I don’t want because people will see. I will try a stress ball, but I think that my fingers need to be doing things. Thank you 🙂

realsocialskills said:

A couple of thoughts:

There probably aren’t many ways to stim that are completely undetectable. Some things I can think of that might be harder to detect than some others:

  • Rocking back and forth subtly
  • Chewing gum
  • Using typing as a stim (eg: typing out scripts or words you like over and over)
  • Using fidget jewelry .

Also, knitting and crocheting are not discreet at all, but they are often socially accepted in classes or group conversations. Depending on your particular group, that might be an option.

Another thought: maybe it’s ok if people notice:

  • Stimming isn’t necessarily as dangerous as it feels
  • Sometimes it’s okay to stim openly. Sometimes nothing awful happens
  • And sometimes people react badly, but in ways that are easier to put up with than the stress of suppressing stims
  • Stimming openly and conspicuously is not the right choice for everyone
  • But it’s probably the right choice for more people than realize it
  • So it might be worth reconsidering whether hiding your stims is the right choice
  • Or it might not be. You’re the best judge of this, and you have no obligation to stim visibly.