The question came when I least expected it. Tilted back in the dentist's chair, wondering if I were going to choke on my saliva, I clutched the arms as the technician cleaned my teeth. Then, out of the blue, she asked, "Do you have children?"
"Glug!" I said. This unclear reply didn't matter. The technician was just back from maternity leave and wanted to talk about her baby and preschooler. I was her captive audience.
I remembered a winter day two years earlier. I was in the foyer of a church I'd started attending, waiting for my husband to pick me up after a book club meeting. The chief news-spreader of the congregation was standing with me, both of us making way for parents coming in to pick up their children from the day care centre in the church hall.
"Aren't they cute at that age?" she remarked. Clearly she expected a "yes", so I said "yes." Then she asked, "Do you have children?"
"No," I said, "I have a husband - and there he is !", and I escaped into the snowstorm.
"Have you any children?" is a question I was frequently asked when I was younger. When I said "No," people waited for me to explain, and looked displeased when I didn't. Now that I'm old, I hear it less, and when I do, it jars me. I suppose I should be flattered that people still say "children", not "grandchildren."
"Have you any children?" is not a good question to ask when making small talk with someone you've just met or know only slightly. Even nowadays there are strong social pressures on women to have children, and if you ask and the woman doesn't have any, it sounds as if you are prying or getting ready to criticize. Even among women who have had children, you can still strike a nerve.
An elderly friend in a retirement home whom I used to visit always introduced me to her new friends among the other residents. One woman in particular seemed very sociable, and after she had left us, my friend filled me in on the great tragedy of her life. She and her husband had had a son, who had suffered from an incurable disease of which he died in his early twenties. If he were alive he would be about the age of my husband. I expect that the pain of losing her child has become endurable over the years but I'm sure it's still there. I was thankful that it is not my practice to ask new acquaintances, "Have you any children?"
Someone else who might find the question uncomfortable is an acquaintance of mine who has two children in their twenties, one chronically unemployed and sometimes in trouble with the law; the other trying to make something of himself but struggling. A query about her children is like opening a can of worms.
A few months ago I learned something about making assumptions when I was having a conversation with a woman in my age group who, like me, has no children. She was telling me about a young couple she knows who have an infant and don't like being parents. My friend, who is a religious woman, wondered aloud why God had blessed them with a child they don't want, while she couldn't have any. This rhetorical question about the unfairness of life was a revelation to me, because I had thought that she, like myself, had decided not to have kids.
We never know the hidden pain that a careless question can cause. So instead of asking women, "Have you any children?", ask something else, like "How about those Senators?" or "Seen any good movies lately?"