‘I hate small talk. I wanna talk about atoms, death, aliens, sex, magic, intellect, the meaning of life, faraway galaxies, the lies you’ve told, your flaws, your favourite scents, your childhood, what keeps you up at night, your insecurity and fears… I like people with depth, who speak with emotion from a twisted mind. I don’t want to know “what’s up”.’Mark Twain
‘I am not good at small talk. I will hide in a cupboard to avoid chitty-chat.’Caitlin Moran
Have you ever been asked personal questions such as these? ‘Has your sex life been productive?’ ‘Has bonking resulted in babies for you?’ ‘Has the lovemaking in your life resulted in any offspring?’ ‘Your eggs? Any of them fertilised?’ ‘Ovaries, womb, uterus, all in good shape are they? What about hubbie’s sperm; plenty of ‘em and raring to go lively little critters, or are they few and far between and a tad sluggish?’ ‘Oh and how is it when the sperm and egg get it together in your household, is the chemistry right?’
Of course you haven’t but I bet you’ve been asked ‘Got any kids?’. It’s simply small talk; making pleasantries with people you don’t know very well. The clue is in the title it’s supposed to be ‘pleasant’, certainly it’s never the intention to cause the person you’re making small talk with to feel uncomfortable, but very often the simple question ‘Do you have children’ is one I, and many other childless women dread, as when you give the answer ‘no’, it somehow requires further explanation. It’s just plain awkward and changes the tone of the conversation from light idle chit chat to something uneasy and uncomfortable. It can make the questioner feel they’ve touched a nerve and sometimes for sure they will have done. When I’m asked the question I find I’m never fully prepared or easy with my answer. I don’t want to go into the sorrow of my childlessness, but neither do I want my status to feel ‘less than’. Often I’ve found it will end the conversation altogether.
I have wrestled with trying to find answers that I’m comfortable with and that in turn would also make the person asking the question feel at ease, but so far I have failed. I have thought of saying ‘that’s a very personal question!” but I can see the response now; astonished, puzzled looks would come my way and for sure, as with the answer no, the tone of the conversation would alter.
Answering the question for me is an on-going difficulty, I have described the various ways I have dealt with ‘the children question’ in my book Dear You but it has rarely felt adequate or even vaguely comfortable. Therefore I think the best solution would be to try and persuade people not to ask the question in the first place and to try to be more creative in their small talk, or at least just take a moment to think before asking. It is after all a rather dull and unimaginative enquiry. Do we really need to know whether someone has children or not in order to get to know them better? Maybe ask them if they’re got a dog, though as I write that down I’m yawning, it’s pretty lame, plus of course the person being asked the dog question could have just had their adorable lab Bertie put to sleep, so small talk is always a potential minefield. Asking about hobbies, occupations or how long they have lived at their current address is all a bit tedious but at least it feels less intrusive; less personal.
So, I am launching a campaign for more creative small talk; not a banner-waving, march on parliament style crusade, but a light, gentle plea to ask people to think twice before asking the children question and with it I hope that we may start to lift the taboo that surrounds infertility and the childless in general.