The Question You Should Never Ask

October 31, 2004 | 49 comments
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“Are you pregnant?”

In the past two weeks, for some reason I have had four people ask me this question and variations on it: “Are you and Kristen expecting another?” “Are you going to have another baby?” “When is the next baby coming?” The questions were idle conversation; they were earnest inquiries into our family planning. Two of the questions were from people who saw my nearly two year-old son for the first time since he was a baby; one was from someone asking after Kristen, who didn’t make it to church last Sunday, and one was out of the blue, from an acquaintance at school whom I hadn’t talked to in a couple of months.

While I appreciate these people’s interest in my life and their concern for me and my family, I don’t particularly like answering the question “Are you and Kristen expecting?” Unless you’re someone with a medical reason to know the answer to that question, there’s really not a good answer.

If we’re not expecting, and not planning on having another baby anytime soon, the question can feel like an accusation: Why aren’t you multiplying and replenishing the earth. If we’re trying to conceive and not succeeding, the question serves as a reminder of our failure and our pain. The questioner is asking unwittingly to be a party to that anguish, but casual inquiries do not merit having so much emotional trauma being shared fully. If we are pregnant, but are not public yet, the question may force me to choose between lying and breaking a trust with my wife. Any family that has gone through the pain of a miscarriage understands there are reasons for not wanting to burden many others with the knowledge that they are expecting very early in the pregnancy. The question also carries with it a bit of reproach: Aren’t we close enough for you to share the good news with me?

An even more problematic question is “Why haven’t you had any kids yet?” For some reason, members of the Church (at least in my experience) seem to feel unusually entitled to an answer to this question. Perhaps this attitude is common outside of the Church as well, but I’ve noticed it more within our community of believers, or at least I’ve heard more horror stories originating inside the Church. Again, there are plenty of reasons for families not to have children, and many of them are painful and heart-wrenching. Most of the time, a refusal to answer the question is more of a favor than a rebuff.

My favorite reply to this question came from a sister who was late in her child-bearing years recounting the difficulties she had had over the years with well-meaning (and plain nosy) people who had asked her why she didn’t have any kids yet. She said she got so tired of strangers giving unsolicited advice and unwarranted criticism of her family situation that she finally decided that she would answer any question as to why she didn’t have any kids, “If you must know, my husband’s penis was cut off in a motorcycle accident.”

Be careful what you ask. You just might get an answer.

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49 Responses to The Question You Should Never Ask

  1. Rosalynde Welch on October 31, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    I’m always so excited to share the news that I tell everyone the minute I know (which is usually far earlier than any sane woman would know, since I’m a compusive tester). But I would never ask outright unless someone were dropping obvious hints that she wanted to be asked (and some women do), or unless I had good reason to suspect and thought I might be able to help.

    That said, reproduction has always been a community matter, despite our efforts to keep it in the family–think of the display of the stained sheets on the wedding night, etc. Society has a stake in the reproduction if its members–and with dropping birth rates, that stake may only get larger as Social Security revenues continue to dwindle.

  2. tyler durden on October 31, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    i learned my lesson when i asked a relative when she was expecting. turned out she was just fat. boy did i feel stupid.

  3. Jeremy on October 31, 2004 at 11:00 pm

    Until I read the response of the dear sister in the post, my favorite answer to the nosy question was the one a friend of mine had adopted. He and his wife had tried to conceive for years and years, to no avail, and unknowing ward members continually badgered them. Eventually, any time anyone asked my friend why they hadn’t had any kids, he would poker-facedly reply “We’re saving up for a boat instead.”

  4. Amira on October 31, 2004 at 11:13 pm

    So true, Bryce. If someone is pregnant, it will be glaringly obvious in a few months. If they are not, there is a good reason, and it really doesn’t affect anyone else..

    One thing you didn’t bring up was the way miscarriages play into the question. You *are* pregnant for a while, and it can be hard to lie or get around the question. I very much dislike telling someone I am pregnant before I am ready, because no one knows what to say when they find out I’ve miscarried. I have become quite adept at avoiding pregnancy discussions.

    However, if necessary, I have discovered that telling people that we’ve had four miscarriages in the last 4 years quiets them right down. No one has ever wanted to hear that answer! :)

  5. Ethesis (Stephen M) on October 31, 2004 at 11:37 pm

    Hey, I used to catch a lot of grief from people who were certain that the one living child they saw was the only one my wife and I had decided to have ….

    I obviously don’t have much joy with that sort of question, not to mention

    i learned my lesson when i asked a relative when she was expecting. turned out she was just fat. boy did i feel stupid which was in a recent Dave Berry column about how it is never, ever, safe to ask a woman if she is expecting ….

  6. James M on October 31, 2004 at 11:38 pm

    I’ve always thought it was kind of gross when people mention that they’re in the process of “trying” to have a baby.

  7. Nate Oman on November 1, 2004 at 12:35 am

    James M.: That is why I never ask whether or not people are “trying to have a baby.” Instead I say, “So, are you and your wife having lots of unprotected sex?”

  8. Marci on November 1, 2004 at 12:41 am

    Thank you for starting this thread. I am so sick of being asked, “so, when are you going to have another one?” Or hearing, “he really needs a sibling.” Having another child is a huge decision and a personal one. There is much to be considered before bringing another child into the world and I don’t feel that those considerations need to be discussed with everyone in the ward or extended family. When I have answered honestly, “we’re not ready right now,” I would expect people to drop it, however, they usually follow that with “oh, well you shouldn’t wait too long.” Or, you really shouldn’t space them too far apart.”

    To me the question, “When are you going to have another child?” is just as personal if not more so than these social faux pas:
    How much money do you make a year?
    How much do you weigh?
    How frequently do you have sex?

    Can you imagine your visiting teacher asking you one of those questions?

  9. Aaron Brown on November 1, 2004 at 1:23 am

    I totally hear you Marci. I know lots of people who’ve had experiences like you describe. Alas, despite the fact that my wife and I have been married for 5 years and we don’t have kids, we have yet to be rudely asked why we don’t have any children. I say “alas” because I have all these great comebacks saved up to use against these people, but I can’t use them until I’m given the opportunity!….

    “We’d love to have kids, Brother Smith, but my wife and I keep kissing and kissing and kissing and kissing, but nothing ever happens!”

    “We’d love to conceive, but we’ve already promised to sell our first-born to my wife’s witch coven, and I’m afraid I won’t be morally strong enough to follow through on the deal…”

    Etc.

    Aaron B

  10. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 6:08 am

    For some reason, even though they wanted to have a large family, my parents were only able to have two children. Later in life, my sister and I have heard our mother recount a few experiences where people were insensitive and either assumed my parents were deliberately limiting their number of children or offered unsolicited fertility advice. The ick factor on some of these is too high even for T&S, so I’ll just leave it at that.

    We need to be careful. As the hymn says “In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can’t see.” Unless a person has plainly divulged their situation, we shouldn’t assume anything.

    By the way, kudos for the “We are saving up to buy a boat instead” retort. What an awesome line.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on November 1, 2004 at 8:39 am

    Another great post Bryce. Overall, I can’t help but concur with Rosalynde’s early comment–having (like raising!) children has always been a lot more “public” than a lot of us would sometimes prefer, especially when the community turns its eyes on us. (And in particular because those eyes too often manifest themselves in rude, unthinking ways.) I don’t think there’s any easy way around this dynamic; if you attend a church that makes families a big deal, then a lot of people are going to be curious about the status of your family (or lack thereof). Best we can do is try to encourage, through our own behavior and example, some civility, open-mindedness, and tact–that, and an awareness of the distinct lack of any contemporary prophetic teachings about a required minimum number of children.

    Of course, in the meantime, we just deal with it. Melissa and I chose to wait a few years before having our first child, and Melissa’s relationship with my father was terrible for a while as a result, because he simply couldn’t resist inquiring after, pressuring us about, even more or less directly criticizing, our family planning decisions at just about every opportunity. (I say Melissa’s relationship with him was terrible because while I didn’t like his implications one bit either, I knew his personality and could deal with it; for Melissa it was harder.) If we stop at three children, as we’re vaguely planning on, it’s possible that dynamic will recur with my father. Then again, there are more Fox kids actively producing grandkids now, so to a certain degree the heat is off.

  12. *k on November 1, 2004 at 9:16 am

    I have also found that there is a sense of entitlement to knowledge about my reproductive life in my ward. The bad news is that it never seems to end … I have four children and I still get questions like “Are you done?” This definitely annoys me. That being said, I sometimes wonder if this is simply a clumsy way of trying to open a dialogue around sex or the how-many-children? issue in general. I think if you are having only one child or perhaps thoughtfully choosing your spacing, someone might admire your courage to do this in our culture and want to talk about it. If you have experienced loss ( I have had two miscarriages) some might want to talk, so they don’t feel so alone. And unfortunately, some are just plain nosy and thus hurtful.

    Recently a young couple moved into our ward. She is doing her Ph.D. and he is doing is M.A. After having them over for dinner one night, I wondered about her in a totally admiring way. What had allowed her to step outside the traditional idea of a LDS young married woman? Although I was coming from a place that was not condemning, I still felt ashamed for wondering about her private choices. Is the question “Why are you different from the rest of us?” inherently harmful?

  13. Jonathan Green on November 1, 2004 at 9:20 am

    And let’s not forget the corresponding question, that you hear more often outside of church:
    “You’ve got two kids, so you’re done, right?”
    “Now you have a girl and a boy, so you’re done, right?”
    “You’ve got two of each, so you’re done, right? Right?

  14. John Mansfield on November 1, 2004 at 9:44 am

    Medical details of other people are something I don’t like hearing about generally; if a person has died, for example, I am not interested in the cause. Still, may of the comments here seem rather thin-skinned, showing offense that ward members presume to have some connection with our lives. Then, strangely, the choices that were rudely inquired upon are broadcast publicly in this forum.

  15. Ivan Wolfe on November 1, 2004 at 9:55 am

    Hmmm – I wonder what to do with the questions along the lines of “why are you having so many kids?” or “Why didn’t you wait a few years before having kids? What’s wrong with you?”

    Having kids is a public thing, apparently.

  16. Mark B on November 1, 2004 at 10:27 am

    Ah, you kids.

    Nobody asks my wife and me–of course, they didn’t ask Abraham and Sarah either.

  17. Steve Evans on November 1, 2004 at 11:06 am

    I tell people to shove it. I hate that question.

  18. Jeremy on November 1, 2004 at 11:32 am

    Steve — do you actually say “shove it”?

  19. Steve Evans on November 1, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Sometimes.

    It depends on who’s asking. If it’s some kindly old woman -type, I’ll sweetly/jokingly tell her to mind her own business. If it’s one of the people five years younger than me who had kids 9 (?) months after getting married, I’ll tell him/her to shove it.

  20. Alex Z on November 1, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    There is always the retort that one of my BYU professors (Brent L Top) said that we should give to questions like this, “Mind your own DAMN business.”

  21. Mardell on November 1, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    My favorite comment my brother said to his nosy sister-in-law. She was bugging them about when they were going to get pregnant. So my brother asked her “why do you want to know are you the procreation police?” She never bothered them again.

  22. Kaimi on November 1, 2004 at 1:26 pm

    I can attest to Steve’s strategy; I had a run-in with him recently, though I must say I thought my behavior was perfectly acceptable. You see, Steve started wearing maternity clothes a few months ago. The usual: stretchy skirts, jumpers, leggings with spandex-y tops, etc. Also, he was getting a bit of a belly. And he suddenly stopped drinking (or at least cut back heavily). So I just naturally assumed that, well . . . what is one supposed to assume in those circumstances? But simply ask a question, and you get snapped at. My goodness.

  23. Rosalynde Welch on November 1, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Kaimi’s comment (LOL) reminds me of my own personal pet-peeve about the public pregnancy: the phrase “we’re pregnant” or “we’re expecting.” I guess the idea is to indicate that both partners are involved, which is admirable I suppose, but, in my view, the man has no right to claim partial credit for sustaining the pregnancy.

  24. CB on November 1, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    A good comeback, which I think men will appreciate more than women, is:

    Q: So, when are you guys going to have more children?

    A: Unfortunately, we won’t be having any more children. I traded in my testicles for the minivan.

  25. Lisa on November 1, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    If I ever meet any of you and you ask me if I’m pregnant I will rip out your wind-pipe. Or cry. It’ll depend on the day I’m sure.

  26. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Kaimi, I’ve been seeing the word “chubby” being thrown about to describe Steve’s condition. And now you mention a maternity dress. At my place we call that (prominent male stomach) “having a food baby.” That is usually followed up with some kind of question about trimesters. And that is often followed up by yet another snarky little comment such as “well maybe I’m pro-choice after all.” Unfortunately these types of comments are usually directed at me. I’d say I’m going on about six months.

  27. John Mansfield on November 1, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    So, are these “shut up and go away” responses only for use when the topic is reproduction? Or are they useful against other impertinent queries such as what our Thanksgiving plans are?
    “So, will your family be going anywhere?”
    “Who are you? Chief of turkey distribution? I’ll tell you our plans when I can think of a good reason that you should know them.”

  28. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    What’s impertinent about asking someone’s Thanksgiving plans? It’s usually considered friendly to ask people what they’re doing on a holiday, for the weekend, etc. And one can easily answer that type of a question with specific or vague answers.

  29. Mark B on November 1, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    Re Rosalynde’s pet peeve. Amen and amen. Men who say things like “we’re pregnant” should be forced to go to baby showers.

  30. Last_lemming on November 1, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    I agree with the “we’re pregnant” thing, but I’m not so sure about “we’re expecting.” In my case, had I told acquaintances “My wife’s expecting,” the unspoken (and largely accurate) subtext was “but I’m dreading.” Better to go with the plural.

  31. Becca on November 1, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    May I add “So, why do you still go by your maiden name?” to the list of questions that should NEVER be asked? In my experience, the procreation police seem to be predisposed to asking this one, too…

  32. John Mansfield on November 1, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Why would asking about someone’s Thanksgiving plans be impertinent? Well, there are personal choices and circumstances that go into those plans. Some people want a feast loaded with dozens of dishes and desserts. Others prefer a more spare, well-designed combination of a few excellent items. Asking about these things brings the choice of others into question. There will always be the dispute as to whether toms or hens are preferable. Some people wish they could gather with relatives far away, but they can’t afford to travel, and they don’t like to be reminded of such a sensitive matter.

    Once, I ate my Thanksgiving meal alone in a cafe. I don’t really like to talk about it with others, but posting the experience on an internet web page seems fine. Mostly, people around us just need to learn not to assume unwarranted familiarity.

  33. Ivan Wolfe on November 1, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    People asking these questions don’t often intend to be rude. Why is it that we are trying to justify intentional rudeness in return. It seems to me a gentle explantion and a soft answer (to turn away wrath, etc.etc.) would be more appropriate.

    “Shove it” just seems too out of place. I’ve had people (in church) ask me why I was so dumb as to have kids fairly soon after marriage. I just tell them gently that if they want to know, they should ask the Lord the same way I and my wife did.

  34. Mathew on November 1, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    One a guy asked me where I was going for Thanksgiving and I told him that I lost my penis in a motorcycle accident. Shut him right up.

  35. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    Mathew, I tried to follow the link in your name and this is the url it brought up: http://sdf/ — that just created an error page.

    And let me just say that this thread has done nothing to counter my aversion of motorcycles.

  36. Steve Evans on November 1, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    danithew, were you hoping to follow the link to some member-chopping chopper page? Come on, man!

  37. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    Shove it, Steve. :mrgreen:

  38. Wayne Wells on November 1, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    A physician friend told me once that 1 in 4 couples have difficulty conceiving and 1 in 10 couples are unable to conceive at all. Not wishing to add to a person’s pain, I do not ask. Also, if someone informs me that they are pregnant, I do not share the information with others unless I am specifically told that it is public information.

  39. Wayne Wells on November 1, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    While at BYU, we had a daughter and son (2 years apart). When people would ask when we were planning on having more kids, I would answer that since we already had a girl and a boy, we were finished having children. The reactions were priceless!!

  40. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Just in case anyone didn’t know or has forgotten, I was writing my above rejoinder to Steve in the spirit of the name Dan “Everyone Just Shut Up” Bartholomew, given to me by Davis Bell at Intellexhibitionist:

    http://intellecxhibitionist.blogspot.com/2004/10/we-can-do-polls-too-okay.html#comments

    Feel free to review the comments where I give someone else some attitude (followed by profuse apologies) as well.

  41. Steve Evans on November 1, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Danithew, I’m not sure what I’ve done to offend you, but I think that we should be above this kind of harsh and inappropriate language. I don’t think that it’s in harmony with the gospel and I, for one, am disappointed that you would resort to such an abusive tone. Normally I think quite highly of you, and I think that your comments are really great….

  42. Steve Evans on November 1, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    …. for me to poop on.

  43. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    (sniffs air)

    What the heck is that?

    (looks at heel of shoe, retches … scrapes shoe on edge of curb)

    Yeeeeeeeeeeech!

  44. Lisa on November 1, 2004 at 6:31 pm

    Won’t you boys every learn how to behave?

    And make sure you wash those shoes before you go walking around on my clean floors.

  45. danithew on November 1, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    Yes ma’am! (mutters something under his breath about feminist housewives)

  46. Bryce I on November 1, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    Well, having been away from T&S for less that 24 hours, I see that I have already missed the discussion.

  47. danithew on November 2, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    Just because this thread is dealing with the topic of pregnancy and privacy, I thought I’d share a funny experience I had.

    For awhile my job was to register patients at the hospital. And one day a man came over to the registration desk with about four kids grabbing his legs, climbing onto the furniture, etc. They were really young and all-over-the-place-out-of-control. He was obviously outnumbered. But for some reason he was grinning from ear-to-ear. When I asked him what he was coming in for, he leaned over and whispered (with that same smile on his face): “vasectomy.”

  48. N Austin on November 6, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Bryce,

    You realize that your posting on this topic only evokes further suspicion by well meaning ward members who occaisionally check out the boards…

    Although I would never be forward enough to actually inquire…

    (wink)

  49. Mike B on April 20, 2006 at 10:34 pm

    Either I’m very thick-skinned, or we have just not had the luck of running into any “horribly offensive” people. We adopted 7 years into our marriage because we couldn’t have children (still can’t). I can’t recall having ever been offended at someone’s question on this matter. I think most of them were just making conversation. I’ll admit that there are a lot of morons out there; I just haven’t been bothered by them. From the comments I’ve read here, however, a lot of people seem to be hypersensitive about the issue. I’m just glad I didn’t have to push/pull a handcart ;)

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