The sonographer squirmed uncomfortably, looked up at the screen, down at my belly, anywhere but me. She eventually must have decided humour was the best way out: “No, but I do have some very demanding dogs!” I laughed politely, all the while making a promise to myself. Never. Again. I will never ask a woman if she has children again.
The first time it happened I was at Woolies, loading up the conveyor belt with highly processed, definitely non-organic groceries as the toddler shrieked melodramatically in the trolley. “How old?” asked the woman at the check-out. “Ah…” I began the familiar routine of trying to work out just how long my daughter has been alive (twenty months? Twenty-three? Dear God, have I missed her second birthday altogether?).
The woman smiled knowingly when I finally got there. “I’ve got one her age,” she said, scanning my panty liners. “He’s a dictator.” Buoyed by this comforting disclosure I asked if he was an only child. Her face immediately closed, but her smile remained.
“He is,” she said. “I did have another one, but he died.”
There it was. The brutal, not sugar-coated truth, when I have to admit all I’d been wanting was a pleasant, forgettable conversation with a stranger about our mutually exasperating offspring. I left the supermarket feeling terrible but I have no doubt she spent the rest of her shift feeling far, far worse.
You’d think this exchange would have stopped me for good, but no. On recent a trip to Spotlight to navigate the highly confusing world of block-out nursery blinds for bub #3, I did it again to the woman trying patiently to explain window recesses to me.
“I bet you’ve got a kick-ass set up at your place!” I said, jealously imagining perfectly darkened rooms with perfectly behaved children napping perfectly within. After all, she’d shown interest in my kids and asked me questions about them, she was an oracle on all things blindy-shutty, and she had that mumsy-chic vibe.
You know, that vague, slightly frazzled and extremely exhausted look I typically sport myself. “Oh, I don’t have kids,” she replied. ‘” got cancer instead, and so that door kind of shut for me a long time ago.” Bam. Strike two.
Andrew Daddo’s book First Day is the perfect way to send your little ones off without any tears.
Finally, after gushing about my sonographer’s dogs with embarrassing enthusiasm to mask the awkwardness engulfing that ultrasound room, I knew I’d struck out. I finally got it. “Do you have kids?” would never pass my lips again. My careless curiosity on the breeding habits of other women had been at best nosy small-talk and at worst more hurtful than I care to imagine.
After all, I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself. “When are you going to have your second?” strangers would probe, both as I staggered shell-shocked out of hospital with my newborn son and with increasing repetition over the next few years.
“One day!” I’d respond cheerfully, nursing the uniquely private pain too many of us have felt on the inside. Months and months of trying and disappointment, the beautiful promise of a heartbeat, the devastation when it slipped silently away. “It’s none of your business,” I should have said. Perhaps someone should have said this to me also.
The bottom line, at least for me, is that whether someone has children or not is absolutely none of anyone else’s business. If a woman wants to discuss her children or lack thereof with me, she will. Then—and only then—I will listen with true interest and an open heart. Until that moment, I’ll try to remember to stay mum.