As we discussed in our book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children, having a child can affect your relationship with a good friend who chooses not to procreate. Because having children is such a must-do-as-a-matter-of-course part of our culture, those who decide not to go with the program are prime targets for subtly hurtful statements that are not meant to insult. Some hurtful words come from those with children out of their naïveté about the soul searching it sometimes takes to choose not to have offspring. As one of Cheryl’s wise amigas once said, “It takes just as much thought to decide not to have kids as to decide to have them – sometimes even more.”
So, here are seven handy hints about what not to say to your friends who have simply taken the path less traveled. And if you are childfree, you might want to pass this article on to your friends and family who would benefit from some sensitivity training. Some of these ideas were inspired by the web site Nest.com’s November 2, 2011 article, “Ten Things Not To Say to Your Childfree Friends.”
1. When will you have kids?
Not a good question to ask your childfree friend in a public gathering like a dinner with several people at the table. What if she’s struggling with infertility or grappling with a boyfriend who might not want children? What if she’s contemplating whether to adopt a child as a single parent? What if she’s leaning toward remaining childfree? Save this question for a private conversation. Better yet, if you’re going to stick your nose in, how about phrasing it something like, “Have you decided whether you would like to have kids?” Otherwise you might get a retort like,”When are you going to further your education?”
2. We love having a family.
This implies that having a family always means having children, which it doesn’t. A husband and wife are a family. A single man with a cat and a dog has formed a family. A childless woman with a niece and nephew enjoys a family life. A gay couple with their hamster and parakeet have a family. Thank goodness that the face of the American family has changed so much over the years. So get hip people! Family is now diverse.
3. You would be such a great parent!
In a way, it sounds like you’re telling your friend that he has failed in some way, because he hasn’t used his skills to parent his own child. But maybe he can give more to the world by inspiring graffiti taggers to paint murals. Maybe she can specialize in helping dysfunctional kids become involved in community projects like delivering food to poor families. It’s not imperative that people who like and understand children must become parents.
4. Having children is the most important creative act.
Although people with children may feel this way, this statement, which came out of the mouth of a women’s conference workshop leader, certainly makes mincemeat of the creative spark in the souls of those who give birth to things other than children. If procreating is the most important creative act, there is a very important momma cat living in our neighborhood – 10 at a time! Some in the childfree world write great novels, or weave fabulous fabrics, or teach hospital-bound kids to paint. Creativity comes in many forms. Can one really say that one form is more “important” than another?
5. You’re so lucky!
“You can live your life without heavy obligations, so you can travel, and mostly do what you want to do.” This is a loaded statement. The meta message is that your childfree friends have many fewer responsibilities than you do, and that they are too afraid or selfish to take on the responsibilities of childrearing. This bears a reality check. Some people without kids have spent years caring for a dysfunctional family member or ill parent. Countless people who have no progeny work long hours to support themselves, without the luxury of travel or the freedom to do what they want to do. Many people without kids volunteer in organizations that give back to the community and they carry lots of responsibility in their leadership roles. This statement usually comes when a parent has had a bad day. Better yet, meet your kid-free friend for coffee and commiserate about your mutual obligations and responsibilities. In any case, luck probably had very litle to do with it.
6. Well, let me tell you (all) about my daughter (or son).
Making your child the only subject of conversation can be a subtle message to your childfree friends that they don’t have the important title of “parent,” and furthermore that they haven’t raised an exceptional being (like my child). Living through your child is similar in flavor to individuals who live through their “important” careers when they are lunching with a friend with a less-prestigious job. That’s when the conversation becomes one-sided, and b-o-o-ring.
7. It’s impossible to recover when a child dies before the parents do.
That seems to be universal common knowledge and of course it’s true. It’s usually true of losing a sibling, or even a parent, as well. But if you lose a loved one, do you really want to hear about how hopeless the experience is? It’s also important not to discount the relationship that many childfree people form with their pets. When that pet dies, it sure feels impossible to recover from the loss. In fact, losing a beloved, in general, leaves such a hole in one’s heart that it really can’t be measured. The depth of grief and process of recovery depend on the connection between humans and their loved ones, be they animal or human.
So make a resolution. If you are a parent, be sensitive to the life choices of others. If you are childfree or childless, let others know what you feel are acceptable boundaries.
Happy new year!