Families gather at holidays both joyously and reluctantly, and either way, when family members find themselves confined to a single domicile after not having had regular, every-day conversation for about a year, grasping for things to talk about often leads people to reach into the “safe zone” bowl of topics.
“How are you liking college?”
“Do you think you’ll move?”
“How’s the new job?”
No matter how joyous the coming-together, the question hardly anyone welcomes is, “When can we expect some baby news?”
Even as a childfree person, though, I can understand why the baby question hasn’t been added to the traditional list of subjects to avoid in polite conversation (money, politics, and religion):
When children are coolly and abstractly thought of as “offspring,” it makes sense that asking about them would seem perfectly appropriate at a table full of people and food. If children are viewed simply as adult-phase acquisitions, then inquiring about them is a lot like asking about a new coffee pot or whether anyone’s tried that weird green foam spray that’s supposed to turn into grass.
But coffee pots don’t come out of an individual woman’s vagina. They’re made in a factory, probably somewhere in China.
And that weird green foam spray doesn’t ejaculate from an individual man’s penis. It comes from a container attached to a garden hose.
So, already you can see how these subjects are wildly different from each other.
They’re also different because coffee pots and dubious green foam grass don’t change the entire course of people’s lives. They don’t lead to deep, meaningful, or sometimes painful. private conversations between partners in a couple. They don’t elicit looks of judgment or discomfort when the answer is, “I actually like the coffee pot I’ve had since college,” or, “Green foam grass spray isn’t really for us. We like the yard as it is.”
Here’s what new coffee pots, foam grass, and possible babies do have in common:
If someone is excited about their great new coffee pot, they’ll announce it freely and without prompting.
If someone has tried the magical green foam and they’re waiting for seeds to sprout and they’re just bursting to tell everyone, they’ll talk on their own.
If someone is pregnant and thrilled about it, or if they want to declare that they’re officially “trying,” they’ll tell you.
Asking about children isn’t really asking about children, anyway. We all know this. Couched in the words framed as curiosity is an expectation, an assumption. The only anticipated answers are a) a time when a baby is expected, and b) “Yes, of course we’re planning to have children!”
When you ask about plans for children, you’re not only prying with questions as invasive as a scalpel, but you’re also asking something every bit as surface-level rude and uncomfortable as, “So, when are you getting a better job?”
Here’s why: The implication is that, in your judgment, they’re currently at a sub-par job, that they can’t possibly be happy just as they are, that they *should* be looking for something “better,” and that you fully expect them to; if they don’t, they’re disappointing.
What if they passionately love their job and you’ve just reduced it with your question to something that’s “okay for now, but don’t you want something…you know…real?”
Or what if they’re desperately unhappy at their job and have looked and looked and looked, but every interview has led to a painful rejection that they don’t necessarily want to share with you?
Whether someone is planning to have kids (or get married, for that matter) is almost always an intrusion into complex and personal territory, and it’s time for it to be officially added to the “What Not to Talk About in Polite Conversation” list.
Eliminate this from the “safe topics” bowl, and the holidays are sure to be a more comfortable and festive time for everyone.
Kristen Tsetsi (AKA Sylvia D. Lucas) is a former journalist and the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. Her website is KristenJTsetsi.com.