“When are you going to have kids?”
Since getting married two and a half years ago, this is a question that has buzzed constantly around 28-year-old Brenda Loh’s ears.
While she doesn’t mind close friends and relatives showing their concern, the health-care executive has also been asked by acquaintances and strangers, from a receptionist at her dance studio to her husband’s colleague whom she was meeting for the first time at a housewarming party.
Finding these interactions rude and invasive, Loh said: “I think they asked as a combination of boredom, poor conversational skills and social awkwardness. It gets worse when people start asking details of how long you’ve been trying and offer advice without being asked.”
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She observed that most hadn’t bothered to ask after her in recent months, so they were unlikely to be showing genuine concern. Although she thinks that the choice of whether or not, and when, to have children should be kept private, Loh is not alone in her experience.
Anyone in their 20s or 30s, newly married or married without children will know the drill. From family gatherings to casual social settings, the topic is often brought up as though one’s family planning efforts are fodder for public debate, or an appropriate filler for when conversation topics have run dry.
While there’s no discounting that some ask because they truly care, what many may not realise is that by asking, they thrust couples, and especially women, into an uncomfortable spotlight.
It is hard to say which is more awkward to watch – the prodding and prying of a persistent busybody, or the valiant attempts by their subject to deflect it. Typically, it is a conversation that comes to no satisfactory conclusion, simply because there is no satisfactory answer to give.
A woman who is not already pregnant can’t possibly predict when she will conceive, so expecting a meaningful answer is an exercise in futility. What about couples who know they don’t want to have children? Should they have to justify this personal decision to a waiting audience?
And if the couple does want to have children, they probably have not had good news yet, so what’s the point in laying on the pressure?
For Rafidah, 30, this same pressure has been unrelenting since she got married five years ago. Just one month after her wedding, her mother was taken aback when a friend asked if her daughter was expecting yet.
She said: “I’ve had not-so-close colleagues directly asking me if I’m pregnant, and overheard relatives who whisper to each other, wondering whether there’s something wrong with us because we still don’t have children.
“Some would say it to my face, and some would do it behind my back even though I could hear them.”
It is more than just the lack of courtesy that stings, because unknown to some of them, the admin executive and her husband have always wanted children and even underwent fertility checks a year into their marriage. Although given a clean bill of health and assured by doctors to let nature take its course, getting asked about having children often reminds them of their struggles.
These constant reminders are heartbreaking, and extra hurtful coming from relatives who actually know about the difficulties they face. Rafidah said: “To hear them say this to us quite frequently, it gets upsetting for us, and especially for me. Because they usually attribute it to me being the one who doesn’t want or can’t have a child, but less so for my husband.”
While it’s unlikely that anyone would start a conversation intending to hurt someone’s feelings, a lack of malice does not mean much if broaching a topic potentially triggers pain for those we speak to. After all, family planning is an intimate journey that charts differently for everyone, and not every path to parenthood is smooth-sailing and easy.
According to SingHealth, one in four to six pregnancies will result in miscarriage. With most miscarriages occurring within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, it is practically impossible to tell if a woman has suffered one, unless she discloses it.
And, given the heartache, how many would do so?
Loh, who knows someone who had suffered a miscarriage, said: “It is important to be sensitive to the feelings of those you are asking. The person’s fertility test results could have returned negative or they may have gone through a miscarriage. There are so many types of bad news that could be associated with the question, that it would be kinder not to probe and rub salt into someone else’s wound.”
If it is faux pas to walk up to a woman and ask whether she’s pregnant, then it should also be seen as a social misstep to be asking someone – eh, so when you having kids ah?
In asking this, the best possible answer you could hope for is that the couple is already expecting. Yet, the fact that you had to ask probably means the couple is not ready to announce the pregnancy yet, or that you’re just not close enough for them to share the news with.
As Rafidah says, “If the couple doesn’t disclose to you that they are pregnant or trying, then it’s probably not your place to know.”
So the next time you’re tempted to ask someone if they’re planning for a family – don’t do it. Instead, wait for them to initiate the discussion first.
Because if it’s fuel for conversation you’re looking for, I know another hot topic that works pretty nicely.
Try the weather.