My husband and I attended a church function recently. We were seated at a table with three other couples. As we sipped our drinks and awaited the arrival of dinner, the conversation turned to children. It turned out the other three couples were parents and grandparents.
What could have been a lovely inclusive conversation turned into a people-without-children-have-no-idea-what-it’s-like-to-be-parents bashing. The other couples discussed, at length, how ignorant non-parents are: they don’t know about how long it takes to get kids ready, they don’t know about the lack of privacy, they don’t know anything about parenting at all. “They have no idea,” was the mantra of these couples.
My husband and I chose not to contribute to this conversation. Instead, we sat and observed their behaviour. What was interesting to me was the fact that these couples had no idea they were talking to a childless couple. They had no idea why we were childless or about anything we had been through. They had no idea about us as people.
It gets worse. The wife of the nearest couple leaned over to me and said, “So, do you have a family?” I smiled inside. This will be fun, I thought. This is the question so many childless people dread. I decided to use my personal definition of “family”.
“Yes,” I chirped, “I have a husband.” I patted him on the shoulder.
“No,” she corrected me, rising to the bait. “I mean, do you have children?”
Here we go. “No, we don’t have kids.”
“Enjoy it,” she sighed. “Once kids come along, you have no spare time whatsoever. Enjoy your free time while it lasts.”
That was the end of our conversation.
It got me thinking about that lady and her assumptions about me and about childlessness. She seemed to think that I had made a deliberate decision not to have kids yet, that the decision was temporary, and that I was enjoying my life in the meantime.
She has no idea that I have decided to remain childless, that I did it for health reasons, that it was a difficult decision and that it sometimes still makes me feel sad. Sure, I enjoy plenty of things in my life, but not simply because I can do those things without children.
She also appeared to have no idea that a family of two still counts as a family. Just in case you were wondering: any family counts as family. Your family of origin counts as family. Your spiritual family counts as family. Your belonging to a family is not predicated on having children.
Our brief conversation, though painful, did reinforce my ideas about how childlessness is treated by society and by the church. It reinforced what so many of my interviewees have told me in sharing their stories for Surviving Childlessness: they believe that they do not fit in with others, that they do not belong. Is it any wonder?
We can do better. Be inclusive. Be curious. Be kind in the way to speak to others and about others. Because you have no idea who you may have just introduced yourself to and what they have been through.
Have you had an experience like this? Have you ever felt excluded or patronised because of childlessness – or for any other reason? What helps you to feel included, even if you are different to everyone else?