There is nothing that will draw more boundary-crushing commentary from friends, family, and even perfect strangers than the size of your family. When my husband and I were first married (and by “first married”, I mean, like, at our reception), people started to ask… “When will you two have a baby?!” We were able to dodge the uncomfortable questions for a bit. “Well, I’d like to take the veil off first!” or “Oh, you know, we’re just getting used to married life!” or “We want to buy a house first!”. Those answers seemed to appease people for about a year. It was like we had satisfied some type of requirement on people‘s checklists by finally getting married after having lived together for three years, so we were allowed a brief reprieve from intense scrutiny.
Soon after we were married, my husband’s younger brother and his wife gave birth to their twins and the “You’re next!” comments began flooding in. But then, the unthinkable happened—my husband’s youngest sister got pregnant, not once, not twice but three times before we did. People’s gentle encouragement began to turn to panicky warnings. “How old are you? THIRTY SIX? TICK TOCK TICK TOCK! You’re not getting any younger! YOU GUYS ARE PLANNING TO HAVE KIDS, AREN’T YOU?! AREN’T YOU?!” As intrusive as these comments seemed coming from family, friends and co-workers, they were downright inappropriate from perfect strangers. I remember one day speaking to the cashier at the grocery store who was admiring my wedding ring. She asked how long I’d been married, and when I told her it was two years, she asked how many children we had. I told her none, and her smile faded, “well, what in the world are you waiting for, sweetie?”
What was I waiting for? I didn’t know. I knew I wanted children. I knew my husband wanted children. But I also knew the time wasn’t right. We were dealing with a number of things in our life that made the possibility of children at that time seem like not such a great idea. We were renting an apartment in a really sketchy neighborhood because it was affordable and close to both of our jobs (at which we were both tied down for 60-70 hours per week), I had a terminally ill father living 6 states away whose condition would turn on a dime, requiring me to hop in the car and drive 13 hours straight to be with him and my mom. And, we were broke as a joke. The time was just not right for us to have children, regardless of how much this was fucking up everyone else’s timelines.
So, time marched on. After my father’s passing, my husband and I relocated down south, took on much less demanding jobs and found our first home. And then, even though I’d reached the ripe old age of 37, the time seemed right. And, it happened. On our schedule.
So, that’s the happy ending, right? “You guys popped out a kid, and no one ever bothered you with overly personal, intrusive questions ever again?”
My daughter was barely a week old before people started to ask when we planned on having #2. And again, the same cycle ensued: for a bit, people were kind of accepting of our non-committal answers, and then came the urgent TICK TOCK comments and then when we finally, finally came out of the closet with “we’re done”, the reactions ranged from confusion to downright horror. There’s something about the idea of WANTING an only child that confounds people. After all, only children will be lonely, selfish, sad, maladjusted. Only children will be saddled with the burden of your inevitable elder care. And then when you croak, well, they will be ALL ALONE. ALL ALONE. ALLLLLLL ALONNNNEEEEEE.
“My own mother has said to me, ‘what is she going to do when you’re gone? It will be just her. That’s so sad.’
The reason that is so infuriating is because I had my daughter at 37, and we tried for a little bit to have a second but it hasn’t worked. Now that I’m 40, we have stopped trying. My mother knows this. And on top of it, I am an only child.”
“We are heartless assholes for only having one child and have no idea how we have fucked him up for the rest of his life by not selflessly giving him a sibling … And don’t we get that my sister can’t have children so the burden of grand children is in me and I’m being completely unreasonable…”
“One and done” isn’t an easy decision… at least it wasn’t for me. I’d grown up as an only child and I didn’t love being an only child. There were many times in my life that I’d pined for a brother or sister. I was the only singleton among my classmates and cousins. And of course, that led to plenty of teasing and assumptions about my character. “Oh, she must get everything she wants. She’s spoiled. Selfish. Doesn’t share. Thinks she’s the center of the universe.” Truth be told, those comments hurt. So, I was the only child who overcompensated for these assumptions by being too trusting, too generous, and too docile. And as a result, I was often taken advantage of by others. I’d vowed to myself from an early age that when I had children, I’d have at least two. But, as it turns out, that just wasn’t in the cards for us. My daughter is and will always be an only child, and I’m ok with that. So, why isn’t everyone else?
Sometimes I think people who choose to have more than one have it so easy in the judgment department. But, as I have come to find out, that’s not entirely true:
“The best reaction was from my own mom when I told her I was pregnant with the [fourth] baby…she said “are you fucking kidding me?” Thanks Mom.”
“Everyone has a god damn opinion on the size of my family. I have 4 kids, I myself have 6 siblings. 4 seems to be quite large these days. I get, ‘haven’t you figured it out by now?’ ‘Don’t ya think ya have enough?’ ‘Did you plan all of them?’ And equally as rude comments, my absolute favorite comments are the ones inquiring about the state of my vagina after birthing all these babies. I have a thick skin and a sense of humor so I usually have some witty, sarcastic comeback. Sometimes I get a little tired of answering the same ridiculous questions and it really isn’t anyone’s business. But for the record, yes we do know how it happens, 4 is more than enough, no they were not all planned but they were all wanted and loved and I do my kegels all day everyday so my vag is just fine.”
“Now that #4 is out of my body and running around I still get God Bless You a lot, I get lots of stares when I take them out by myself anywhere, and once I had someone loudly count them when they opened the door for me. Then roll their eyes.”
Ok, so we know four is generally considered to be “too many” and one is not enough, so then two or three should be perfectly acceptable, right? Well, yes, but only if the gender distribution is acceptable.
“I have one boy and one girl. So I get the “perfect, you’re done!” comment. The thing is I would have really liked to have had a big family and the only reason we are done is financial. It makes me a little sad when people say that, honestly.”
“Now that we have children, people’s comments have been rather mild, usually along the lines of ‘Oh, a boy and a girl! That’s just right!’
“I didn’t find out the sex of my second child while I was pregnant because I didn’t want to listen to the comments. The day my oldest was born I was being told that I had to had to try again for a girl.”
So, there you have it. As with all things parenting, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I’ve fielded my share of awkward questions from people and I’ve actually created a mental arsenal of answers. When a perfect stranger chatting me up in line at Gymboree asked me if I’m planning to have more, I said, “No,” and then I whispered… “fertility problems”. She looked horrified that I would share something so intimate, which is so downright ironic I could choke. When my mom brings it up I remind her that I’m an only child, and I turned out perfectly fine, other than a little pyromania. And when a coworker mentioned how ALONE ALONE ALONE ALONE my daughter will be after my husband and I die, I told that I plan to live forever, thanks to my ItWorks! wraps… can I interest her in joining my team….?
“I like to respond with uncomfortable answers. Like when people ask me if I know how children are made, I say yes, and my husbands pull out game is weak as fuck. Or, you know there’s some stuff you just don’t come back from, you’ve had 4 babies that must be a mess. Well, I do my kegels regularly to keep my vagina tight and springy but now that you mention it, one of the labias does hang kinda funny, would you like to see?”
“On the rare occasion someone asks me if I’m going to have another, I just look at them disapprovingly and say, ‘Why would I have more kids when there are so many kids to adopt who need good homes?'”
We all have a mental image of the “right” family. I mean, when I was a kid, daydreaming about the day I’d finally marry Joey McIntyre, I totally imagined having one boy, and then one girl, and a Golden Retriever named Sam who loved to play with our Tuxedo cat, Oliver. Once in a while when I see a family that resembles that (minus the Joey McIntyre, of course), I do get a little pang of jealousy. And I admit, every now and then, the thought of having X number of kids makes my ovaries cringe a bit. But I’ve learned that everyone has their own ideal and it’s just not my place to ask why it doesn’t resemble mine.
So, the next time you want to sigh when your sister-in-law sheepishly announces her fourth pregnancy, or you wonder why your neighbor isn’t “trying” for a boy when she already has two girls, or your coworker doesn’t seem in a major hurry to have any children despite the fact that she’s married, and a homeowner, and getting a little long in the tooth, remember… it’s none of your business and your casual critique might be super hurtful and intrusive.
Have you ever felt judged for your family size? How do you respond to the critiques?