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Do You Have Children? What Not to Say When the Answer is ‘No’

One of the first questions often asked when women meet socially is: “Do you have children?” Or: “How many children do you have?”

It’s as if the presence of children is the defining quality of a woman’s life. For many women, there is an easy answer – stating the number and genders. But how do you answer these questions if you can’t seem to get pregnant, or you suffered a miscarriage, or chose to terminate a pregnancy, or birthed a child and gave it up for adoption, or are waiting for the right circumstances, or don’t know if you want children or have decided to live childfree?

As a childless woman, I have been asked this question hundreds of times.

When your answer is, “I don’t have children,” often awkwardness ensues. Not knowing what to say next, the subject may be abruptly changed. Or, perhaps worse, probing questions begin, or unwanted advice offered.

Considering that currently 20% of women are childless by menopause, and many more women are postponing conceiving until their mid-30’s or 40’s, it is important to know what NOT to say to a woman without kids. Here are some to avoid:

  • When are you planning on having them?

  • You would be such a good mom!

  • That’s a shame.

  • You’ll never know real love until you’ve had a child of your own.

  • Before I had a child, my life had no real meaning.

  • You’ll change your mind.

  • Don’t wait too long or you’ll regret it.

  • You can always adopt.

  • You don’t have children so you can’t understand.

  • What’s wrong with you?

  • I never felt truly feminine until I had a child.

  • Aren’t you worried your husband will find someone else who will?

  • Who will take care of you when you are old?

When the question about children is asked, I think it really is an attempt to connect, but there are other non-invasive options to start the conversation. Certainly men don’t start their conversations that way.

If the question “Do you have children?” has alredy been asked and the answer is “no” without further explanation or comment, then I say move on. If the answer includes further information – miscarriages, infertility, waiting for the right time, choosing to be childfree – then listen without giving advice. If you have something to share about your own challenges, or those of a friend, in striving to be a mother, that could be appropriate as long as the sharing is not an indirect way to give advice.

Long ago, I decided not to answer this question with a “no”, but rather give information that the questioner could pursue if they wanted. I would say, “Not being able to have children of my own was the greatest trauma in my life.” Later I found myself adding, ” but now I can’t imagine ever having children.” In sharing this, I found other women would often share their experience of missed motherhood, or an experience of a friend or family member.

When it is recognized that 75% of women experience some form of missed motherhood, the willingness to share losses that have been incurred can increase, and with the sharing can come a greater sense of connection and inclusion.

The world is changing and many more women, and men, are choosing to be childfree so we can no longer assume that every woman wants to be a mother. In addition, many young women are postponing child-bearing until later in life, and then some are finding it’s challenging or not possible to conceive and are childless by chance.

As we get older, the focus of questions is often on grandchildren –– and you can’t have any of those if you have no children. So if we must ask the question, or if it has just slipped out of our mouth without thinking, it’s best to receive the answer with an open mind and validation for the woman’s choice or circumstance, whatever that might be.

Copyright ©Kani Comstock

You can learn more of my story and the stories of 13 other women as well as steps you can take to honor the loss in my latest book, “Honoring Missed Motherhood: Loss, Choice and Creativity.”

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Kani Comstock is the author of two books: Honoring Missed Motherhood, Loss, Choice and Creativity and Journey into Love, Ten Steps to Wholeness. Both of these books describe challenges involved in healing the past, and outline steps to be taken to claim personal authenticity and inner wisdom and find love for self and others. In addition to being Director of Coaching Programs and a Process Teacher for the Hoffman Institute Foundation, Kani speaks and leads workshops to support women, and their partners, in healing the loss and unresolved, often repressed, grief from missed motherhood,which includes infertility, pregnancy loss from miscarriage or abortion, giving a child up for adoption, choosing to be childfree, or never having the right circumstance.

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