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10 things you probably shouldn’t say to a friend who doesn’t have children

Saturday, September 26, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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A couple of months back the ever-fabulous Sassy posted a list of the '10 things not to say to your infertile friend', which I think should be required reading for everyone. Infertility, however, is not the only reason that people don't have children. Some of us can't have children, some of us want very much to have children but haven't yet found a partner with whom to share the honours, some of us don't think that the world needs more people right now, some of us know that having children isn't what life has in store for us.

I know that when I read Sassy's list I discovered that some comments I might have made in the past could have been hurtful. I was grateful to her for educating me. So, in that spirit, and with a dose of humour thrown in to sweeten the medicine, I thought it was time to put together a slightly more generic list of '10 things you probably shouldn't say to a friend who doesn't have children'.

When I put the word out to friends asking for suggestions for this list I was overwhelmed by the response.  It seems I am not alone on this one. So, with thanks to the many contributors, here is my list.

10. "Don't worry, you still have plenty of time." (or this fabulist variation "Don't worry, I heard of someone who had a child at 65." Right. Enough said.)

9. "Your biological clock must be ticking." or "That biological clock will kick in sometime." (Don't make me talk about the biological clocks that must be ticking in your poor junk-food afflicted body, because that would just be mean and I generally don't do mean well.)

8. "How many do you want?" (Because the answer may be 'many but I can't have any')

7. "Oh, were they screaming? When you become a parent you become oblivious to the noise." (Great, so you won't mind if we play Metallica, loud, til 3am then?)

6. "You just haven't met the right man yet." (Go wash your mouth out with soap)

5. "You won't understand until you become a parent." (Particularly galling in relation to the debate about smacking children. It seems odd, in comparison, that when I talk about ending violence against women people never say 'You won't understand until you have a wife.')

4. "I'm a parent, I have responsibilities." (Oh yeah, I was so busy organising an emergency food delivery into remote Afghanistan that I forgot that not everyone is as footloose and fancy free as me.)

3. "If you ever do have children you won't have time to think about yourself so much." (Right, so explain to me again the massive phenomenon that is Mommy Blogging?)

2. "You never really know what true love is until you have your own child." (Thanks for consigning the rest of us to a life without true love.)

…and my all time favorite, with thanks to a pediatrician friend, if someone says that they don't have children then you probably shouldn't say:

1. "Are you sure?" (Please see Dilbert for more on this one)

What would you add to this list?

(PS: Some of the best contributions came from people who have children, but remember what it was like way back when they didn't. God bless them every one.)


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22 Responses to "10 things you probably shouldn’t say to a friend who doesn’t have children"

  1. Lisa says:

    As a childless woman who has experienced numerous miscarriages, I thank you for this post.
    My three most memorable were:
    1. “Oh, maybe next time!” (From the nurse who cared for me in the dr’s office.)
    2. “If you had children, you wouldn’t have so much time to devote on yourself.” (From my mother, explaining away my ‘selfishness’ of soul-searching and the difference between us and how she never got the chance to discover her true self because she was busy raising kids.)
    3. Spending hours in the Emergency Room and never being offered a pillow or a chaplain.

  2. pixie says:

    Years ago, after a 15 wk miscarriage, my favorite was, “Well, good thing it happened now, rather than later.”
    The term “good thing” really threw me into a tiz.
    My all time fave though was, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be”. UGH.
    Thank you for this!! 🙂

  3. amy says:

    thank you. as a single-woman-without-children-in-her-late-thirties i’ve certainly heard most of these. often from well meaning friends. it is a lovely reminder to be more mindful in the way we speak.

  4. Emma says:

    Yes! (I am someone who has chosen happily not to have children.)
    The number one thing I have heard like this is how “selfish” it is not to have children.

  5. Lily says:

    And the link to Sassy’s blog should be updated:
    Both are well said – thank you!

  6. Kerstin says:

    Funny to read this today as I was explaining to someone this morning why I don’t have children. What gets me every time is that look, the one that’s kind of pitiful and superior. I would have liked to have children and always thought I would. But I never made a conscious decision (with or without a partner) to go for it. And in the end it never happened, mostly because I was already in my 40s when I met my husband who could no longer father children. There is a part of me that will always feel a sense of loss over this, but it is what it is.
    The thing that I hear most often is “What problems could you possibly have, your life is so easy”!
    Thanks for touching on a not often talked about subject 🙂

  7. Marianne says:

    Lisa and Pixie – Gah – the things people say sometimes. It would be easy to think they were all malicious or mindless but I suspect they are sometimes just stuck for words. Still – I wish you hadn’t had to hear such thoughtless words at a time of such loss.
    Emma – the ‘selfish’ line is common but makes no sense to me. What’s so selfish about choosing to do your good in the world in a way that doesn’t involve having children? Selfish is as selfish does I reckon.
    Lily – cheers for the heads up about the link. I’ve fixed it now.
    Kerstin – You are not alone. It is what it is, right? That’s what I believe as well. Still – no reason to keep it a secret that all those throw-away comments can sting. Nor is it a reason to lose my sense of humour, aye.

  8. linni says:

    What a topic? Teehee…sometimes it hurt and other times you just sit back, thinking ‘did I hear correctly?’.
    We’ve tried for 9 years and the one that always got me is ‘God must have a better plan for you’. Did He not make us to produce and have more children? Is that not the one reason God made Adam and Even…then you breath out…and let it be…because it is what it is..and you have no control over that one.
    Then a year ago, out of the blue skies, a little boy dropped into our hearts without us being on an adoption waiting list….and guess what the people ask? Are you doing to adopt again?
    My goodness! The people usually talk to me about our adoption etc…and I’m always so taken aback that I don’t know what to say. The one day my husband was standing right next to me and someone asked when are we going to start trying for a family (noted to self: have we not been trying for 9 years?) on which my husband took my hand, look them in the eyes and said: do i ask you about your sex life? And walked away. (teehee!!! )
    You get to a stage where it is actually ‘nice’ to just say it like it is. ‘we cannot have children’. and the shock and embarrassment on their faces usually makes up for your loss in that moment…
    Looking back at the big picture…i would think don’t ask people about children. If they say they don’t have…change the subject..and move on…
    A friend of mine who had to had a hysterectomy when she turned 30 because of cancer, said one day ‘it is what it is’. Nothing in this journey has made more sense than it is what it is.
    Good topic Marianne…and yes, no reason to lose your sense of humour. xx

  9. Paris Parfait says:

    Well said, my friend! The answers to such a question are usually varied and complex and I wonder why anyone would even ask? It’s a deeply personal matter.
    I have a longtime friend who never wanted children, as she and her husband have cats – 12 – and 4 dogs. She tells anyone who will listen they are her babies and the only ones she ever wanted. And indeed her world revolves around those animals. But that’s another story. 🙂 xoxox

  10. Susannah says:

    you rock. officially. someone needed to shine some light on this subject, and i’m glad it was you 🙂

  11. asiyah says:

    Mommyblogging – HA! love that one

  12. gem says:

    there is much, much, much woven into these four words: thank you for this.

  13. Persephone says:

    When I initially made the decision not to have my own biological children (I’d like to foster some day), it was the result of a long discussion with my first husband. We sat down and made a list of all the reasons to have children and all the reasons not to have children. We couldn’t come up with a single non-selfish reason to have a child.
    Over a decade later, in my mid-thirties and with my ‘real’ husband, my convictions have not changed. So the comment that most quickly sets me off is the one about not having children being selfish. How exactly is that? And why is it okay for people with children or planning to have children to call my decision selfish, but if I dare show them why I believe the opposite is true I’ve committed a grievous offense? I am able to do so many things, that I believe help make this world a better place, that I would not be able to do if I had children. Again, how am I being selfish?
    The other one (I gratefully haven’t heard in a while) is, “Oh, that’ll change when you get older.” As if not having children is a sign of extended adolescence while having children is the mature thing to do.I can remember saying, “How much older do you think I need to get? I’m 30 years old. Don’t you think if my ‘biological clock’ was gonna kick in it would have by now?”
    And I wonder why people who choose to have children never have to justify their choice, but we constantly are asked to justify ours. ???

  14. pen* says:

    so good to hear people who understand!
    thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂

  15. HA HA great list and enlightening. Thanks for sharing 🙂 Although I have kids I fully respect those who don’t… and am realistic enough to know that having kids can be limiting in some ways (ie travel, money, professional self advancement, etc) I think there are advantages & disadvantages to both paths of life. BTW, are mommybloggers really that bad !?!? I’ll try not to be offended as I weasle along with my blog!

  16. Nikki says:

    You may have just inspired me to write a post on 10 things not to say to a teen parent 😉
    And laughed a lot at the mommy blogging thing.
    Truth be told, not entirely sure I would have ever consciously decided to have kids if one hadn’t happened to me. I think it’s an awesome thing to consciously decide any part of your life, so more power to ya lady!

  17. […] assumptions about parenting and motherhood can do unnecessary harm. You might remember my post on ‘10 Things You Probably Shouldn’t Say to a Friend Who Doesn’t Have Children’. Number two on that list was: You never really know what true love is until you have your own […]

  18. sindy says:

    my favourite answer, when asked if i have children is “no, i haven’t made any babies but i’m sure having a lot of fun trying!”

  19. Oh my goodness! This is too perfect. I have wanted to have children for a long, long time and for a variety of reasons have not. A few weeks ago I was leading a course to executives in Denmark. On a break a participant assumed not only that I didn’t have children, but that I wasn’t “that type of person.” I get this frequently when I wear really great suits; I have one gorgeous black suit in particular that seems to elicit such comments. It’s really as if women cannot be smart, strong, successful AND mothers. Ugh.

  20. Brigitte says:

    A little late to the party, but I couldn’t resist adding my two “favorites,” both of which have been said to me more than once.

    “It’s not natural for a woman not to want children.”

    “You’ll change your mind when you’re older.”

    The second is proving to be true, but that doesn’t make it any less obnoxious and smug. And I sometimes wonder how much of my feelings about the matter have been defined in opposition to this attitude.

  21. shana says:

    i’m crying right now. your posts always seem to go straight to the heart of the matter and this one hits especially close to home. when asked if i have children my “i’m a failure” filter often rears it’s head – which makes several of the above mentioned quips that much more pointed.

    thank you for adding humor as only you can do!

    much love from shana

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