I'm a middle-aged woman, and many women I meet ask if I have children. I do not. They often ask why not, but I cannot tell them. The real reason is because I am a failure, both personally and professionally, and have been for most of my life. There are many causes - a mental health condition that it would be immoral to pass on, a date rape, an abusive relationship, a promising career destroyed by both the economy and my own poor decisions.
I have discussed some of these issues with the couple of women I have known for many years. Hopefully you will understand why I do not wish to discuss them with those of short acquaintances, but I do want to make friends with them (I lack a regular, nearby support network). How do I tell them to get their noses out of my private business while still saying, hey, let's be friends?
You need to be kinder to yourself. You are not a failure. Living with a mental health condition and surviving a date rape and an abusive relationship does not make you a failure - how could it? I can't comment on whether you have made wrong decisions in your career, but if you have, that wouldn't make you unusual.
Some great conclusions have been reached on a path of bad choices. So the reason for you not having children, I would argue, is because you are a survivor, not a failure. You chose not to have them. That is commendable. Every day I receive letters highlighting the damage wrought on children by people who went into parenthood without such cogent thought.
Women who haven't had children elicit curiosity in a way that men who made the same decision don't. It makes people uncomfortable. I recently told an old friend - a mother of four - that a family member hadn't had children. "I bet she regrets it, but can't admit it," the friend said.
I bristled - she couldn't grasp that my relative really didn't regret it. But let's look less at the subject matter and more at how to answer a question you don't really want to answer. People tend to ask questions either to make small talk (and don't really care what the answer is), because they are genuinely interested, or to validate their own decisions.
Either way, it's important that you stay in control of the answer; you should not be swayed by the effect that it has on the other person - that's their responsibility. Your responsibility is how you choose to answer it. The more words you use to explain a decision you've made, the more you give the other person to pick apart. Thus - in the circumstances you describe - it's perfectly acceptable to answer very succinctly, and then bat it back to them to let them deal with it.
This is hard because, depending on your personality, the question asked and what nerves it hits, we often feel the need to over-explain ourselves, even to perfect strangers. You might want to think about what stops you just smiling and saying, "No", in reply to, "Do you have children?"
I mean, that's factual, isn't it? Do you fear their discomfort at such a short answer, or more questions? If they ask, "Why not?" you could then say, "I chose not to, now what about you? Do you have children?" After all, given half a chance, most people love talking about themselves. Let them validate their own decisions.
If they then pry further, you can of course choose to say, "Look, it's none of your business", but that would almost certainly bring the conversation to an end - which is fine if that's what you want, but given that you want to make friends, this might not be the best approach. So you could try something like: "I really didn't think it was for me [again, factual]. What made you decide to have children?"
Or go off the subject of children completely and ask them a hot political question, or about their job. Don't let the subject of you not having children dominate the conversation, and you should find that the other person won't let it, either. Be confident, not cowed or apologetic in your answer, and remember: make it about them.
The writer is a Guardian columnist. She is a former contributing editor of the Independent on Sunday and fishing correspondent of the Independent
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