Why it's never OK to ask about your baby plans
As a Facebook post warning people not to ask a woman about her fertility goes viral, Chrissie Russell explains why it's just not acceptable to be so intrusively nosy
Not long after my husband and I tied the knot, I was staying at my parents' house when my mother came down the stairs brandishing a pair of curtains, emblazoned with teddy bears.
"I'm having a bit of a clear out," she said, in a strange, faux-nonchalant voice. "Do you think you'll be needing these or will I just throw them out?"
Her eyes gazed hopefully over the fabric. Wilfully I affected not to know what she was getting at - my mum and I are old hands at this dynamic - and told her to chuck them. At that point I hadn't a house to hang them in, never mind a baby to appreciate their vivid print.
But she wasn't the only one keen to know my plans for procreation. From the moment I walked back up the aisle it felt like the bets were on for when a baby would follow. Let's face it, it's universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a womb (and ideally a husband) must be in want of a child.
This week a post went viral on the issue of the 'any kids yet?' question. In a Facebook status update, that has now been shared more than 54,000 times, Emily Bingham, a 33-year-old American freelance writer, posted an ultra-sound snap she'd found on the internet along with a message lambasting the public's obsession when asking women about babies.
"Now that I got your attention with this random ultrasound photo… this is just a friendly PSA (public service announcement) that people's reproductive and procreative plans and decisions are none of your business," she wrote.
"You don't know who is struggling with infertility or grieving a miscarriage or dealing with health issues. You don't know who is having relationship problems or is under a lot of stress or the timing just isn't right. You don't know who is on the fence about having kids or having more kids."
To all the hopeful, would-be grandparents, well-intentioned friends and nosy neighbours, her advice was the same: "It's absolutely none of your business. If a person wants to let you in on something as personal as their plans to have or not have children, they will tell you."
The wave of empathy that greeted the viral post is an indication of how many people share Bingham's frustration.
"So many people have this image in their heads that we'll meet somebody, get married and have children, but it doesn't always work out like that," says Clare Healy, a fertility counsellor and psychotherapist for SIMs fertility clinic.
"At first a lot of couples can brush off the question but if challenges present themselves then those questions can really sting."
And often challenges do present themselves. Clare reckons that in every group of friends, there are six couples who will have needed some level of assistance when it comes to trying to conceive.
"But it's not widely spoken of outside the clinics and forums," she says. "I think people, particularly older people like parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, can be a bit ignorant and naïve when it comes to asking about babies. They don't mean to be cruel but a lot of couples can end up carrying other people's expectations and worries and it heightens their own stresses and anxieties."
No sooner was she married than, Fiona Goodship (35), a doctor from Co Down, found herself facing the inevitable 'any kids yet' question. "I'd say 'no, no children' and they'd say, 'just right, no need to rush, you've all the time in the world.' This was after I'd been told I had premature ovarian failure. A colleague added, 'yeah, you don't need to worry about it til you're 30," not realising I was already 32!
"I can laugh about it now that I have two wonderful, miracle babies," she adds. "But at the time I wanted to punch anyone who said that."
Not even celebrities are immune, with model Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen (wife of singer John Legend) recently opening up about having to field the Any Kids Yet question while dealing with challenges. This week Irish model Sarah Morrissey (31), who just celebrated her first wedding anniversary with husband Pat Jennings, spoke out against the intrusive question saying: "I think it is really inappropriate to ask people."
Jennifer Aniston has become the poster girl for fending off interest in her fertility. "It's always such an issue. 'Are you married yet?' Have you had your babies yet?'" she said in a Today Show interview. "And if they are not checked, then I've failed some part of my feminism or my being a woman or my value or my worth as a woman because I haven't, you know, birthed a child?"
Part of the problem lies in an inherent cultural bias that assumes we'll have babies. "I think the fact that so many people 'have' children normalises the process to such a degree that implies permission to discuss and pry," says counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Sally O'Reilly. But it often says more about our own needs than the people we're questioning.
"We check against each other for evidence that we are normal," she explains. "The less self assured we are, the more we do it. We gravitate towards those who make the same choices as ourselves and we're also curious about those who have made different choices."
Tediously, it's not just a conception issue. I've found that no sooner have you popped one out than people start asking you when number two is on route.
Not long ago I was out with a friend who has a son around the same age as mine. The boys were playing on the swings when we got chatting to some other mums. "Is he your first?" one asked my friend. On hearing he was, she replied, "Ah, you'll have to give him a wee brother or sister, you can't be leaving him on his own." She laughed it off, but I was horrified.
Ten years previously she'd been told she couldn't have children. Her son was a wonderful surprise and she'd love another, but knows it might never happen.
Secondary infertility is a growing issue in Ireland, associated with six in ten cases of infertility treatment. "Sometimes that can be even harder to deal with," says Clare. "There's an expectation there that because it's happened once it'll happen again and that's not always the case."
What's interesting is that the style of Bingham's call to arms also nods at what's driving the trend for intruding into the private lives of others. Many of us use social media to announce the workings of our reproductive life. A survey by an internet security firm in the States found that 23pc of parents post ultrasound images on the web and 92pc of children have an online presence before they're two. If we're happy to use a public platform to trumpet our births and pregnancies, can we really give out about a culture that assumes it's ok to ask about babies?
"Our societal privacy settings certainly need adjusting," says Sally. "We overshare the dramatic and false and undershare what's helpful and real." But it doesn't give people a licence to poke their noses in.
"If the woman hasn't brought the subject up then in general my advice is to steer clear," she says. "But if you know someone is having difficulty then gently asking if they want to talk about it is a good thing… if you're close friends. Not if you've just spotted a neighbour in Lidl who hasn't had a baby despite being married a full year."
She advises those in receipt of unwanted questioning to be firm and clear if you don't want to talk about it and not to apologise for the fact.
Clare agrees: "You're certainly under no pressure to tell anyone anything. It's none of their business, to them it's just a piece of information but it's your life."