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Connie Shapiro PhD
Connie Shapiro PhD

Toxic Question: Do You Have Kids?

How much do you want to disclose about your infertility?

For many of us with a history of infertility, the prospect of meeting someone new carries with it a blip of apprehension, as we wonder whether we will need to respond to the inevitable question about whether we are parents. Of course new acquaintances intend it as a "getting to know you" question. We can feel it like a stab in the heart. And our answers can range from the factual to the emotional:

"No." That answer is certainly an option, perhaps followed by a quick change of topic, to move conversation away altogether from this sadness. You won't elicit any concern or sympathy, but perhaps you're not ready for that from a new acquaintance - or maybe you're so saturated that you want to be known for other things in your life besides your non-parent status.

"No, but we're ever-hopeful." So this answer leaves the door open to a quizzical glance, perhaps an inquiry about how long you have been trying, and some awareness that parenthood is not something you take for granted. Other new acquaintances will decide not to be intrusive with someone they have just met, and will change the subject, perhaps a bit awkwardly.

"No. We've been grappling with infertility, and we would love nothing more than to have a baby in our lives."
Okay - now it's out in the open, feelings and all. It doesn't mean your new acquaintance will have an empathic response on the tip of his/her tongue, but at least you've given a clear signal that these topics (oh, yes, several of them!) are open for discussion.

"No. We've experienced a/several pregnancy losses, but we're still hoping to become parents some day." This honest answer, like the previous one, suggests a readiness to talk further if your new acquaintance follows through with some empathy.

"Not yet. But we're/I'm in the process of pursuing IVF because 1) we've had difficulty conceiving 2) at my age, the doctor has suggested we will have our best luck with donor eggs 3) my lesbian partner and I want to have an embryo from her egg and donor sperm transferred to my uterus 4 ) I'm single and eager to become pregnant 5)my husband's sperm need some extra help connecting with my egg." WHOA! This puts any new acquaintances on notice that a conversation with you will be honest, as detailed as they ask for, and may stay on the topic of your reproductive status for a long time.

"Not yet. But we're in the midst of investigating whether we can adopt a child. So we're hoping for parenthood; we just don't know when it might happen." This is likely to be a conversation starter, since so many people know adoptive parents. If you offer information about your infertility, the conversation can go in that direction, but chances are that your decision to adopt will provide ample information about how your new acquaintance views this dimension of parenthood that you are trying so hopefully to pursue.

"Not yet, but my partner and I are working with a surrogate and hoping that she is successful in conceiving and giving birth to our first baby." This is a unique enough way of bringing a child into your family that your new acquaintance either will be tongue tied (with ignorance or awkwardness) or full of questions. In any case, you'll get a sense of whether this is someone you're interested in getting to know better!

"Yes." And here you are likely to offer a brief list of children's genders and ages. This offers itself as a way of saying "I'm in ‘The Club' " without providing any information of your pathway to parenthood. This works well for many previously infertile parents, who want to close the chapter of their life devoted to infertility and fully engage in the new chapters of parenthood. That having been said, most of us know we look at parenthood differently with a history of infertility in our background.

"Yes. We have two little boys, and we had a pregnancy loss/ stillbirth/ infant death of our daughter two years ago." Here you are honoring the loss of a hoped-for child who still may occupy a psychological presence in your home. It seems impossible to leave her out, yet you know that mentioning her loss may trigger some awkwardness. Since this loss has left you forever changed, you feel it is important to share this dimension of yourself.

"Yes. When they say ‘Be careful what you wish for', we never dreamed our infertility treatment would result in triplets!" Certainly this will be a conversation starter, but probably more with an emphasis on the challenges of parenting than on the challenges of infertility!

There are probably other responses to the question about you and parenthood that have occurred in your experience. The question itself arises so informally in meeting someone, and yet it leaves you wondering how much to share about your circumstances. And since we all evolve over time in our readiness to talk openly about our infertility, you may find that several of the responses in this blog have been ones you have chosen at various times when meeting a new acquaintance.

That in itself reminds us that infertility is an unanticipated detour on our journey through adulthood. Much as we might have wished not to travel this infertility pathway, most of us try to do it with strength, with integrity, with partnership and with courage. We want friends who understand us and the challenges we face. At the same time we want friends who do not define us via our infertility, but who are reciprocal in our relationships, allowing us to help them when they too fall on difficult times. And it is that wish for reciprocity that poses the challenge as we "size up" a new acquaintance and decide how much to share, how much we can trust a compassionate response, and how much we want to confide how soon. The answers are different for each of us. The important thing is that we understand why a single, inviting question can sometimes feel so toxic.....

About the Author
Connie Shapiro PhD

Connie Shapiro, Ph.D., is a professor of family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of When You're Not Expecting: An Infertility Survival Guide.

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