As we all know, these days you are allowed to have two children, and (particularly if the first two are of the same gender) three can be overlooked, but four is really over the top, right? In the last couple of years I've begun to get to know a number of mothers of larger families, and they seem to agree: The rude and/or clueless comments about family size -- even breathtakingly intrusive and explicit comments made by co-workers about the parents' sexual habits -- begin at child number four. I hardly have to point out that rudeness can go both ways -- having zero children, or one, can earn you rude comments as well.
A friend of mine just gave birth to her fourth baby, and is looking with some trepidation at the experience of going out in public with them. Already the "so, are you done yet?" comments are showing up. It's a popular pastime among parents of multiples to think up snarky things to say back, and you're welcome to share them in the comments. Since my husband and I are both trained as engineers, we've tended to use nerd humor in our answers. Recently I went googling around, though, looking for a response that, while not sinking to snarkiness, would suitably convey the message I can't believe you would ask such a personal question.
On the way, I discovered a whole new category of rude questions: Those aimed at the parents of twins and triplets. Apparently, it is de rigueur now to ask total strangers, "Are they natural?" Goodness. Look, I'm not the only one who thinks IVF is a bad idea for many reasons, but what kind of a question is that? First of all, as several of the posts I saw pointed out, a process may be unnatural, but people never are. Second of all, what are these poor kids going to think as they get older? Third, since when is it your business, fellow grocery shopper? Wow. Here's one dad's list of snarky answers, and I must say, I like the last one very much, but I don't think I could muster the proper delivery.
I think that this mother of twins conceived via IVF has hit on the general principle for dealing with rude questions about the conception of children. From it, you can derive the answers that are appropriate to your own shockingly abnormal situation, whether it be childlessness, biracial kids, adopted children, more than three children, multiples, pregnancy past the age of forty, you name it. Her post is worth quoting at length:
Whether or not people possess natural curiosity about the circumstances surrounding multiple gestation, I do not feel that curiosity can or should excuse poor manners. In this society, for example, it is considered impolite to ask whether or not somebody's breasts are real, how they got that scar on their cheek, if that unfortunate mess on someone's head is a toupee, and whether or not the condom broke, even though the answers to those questions may prove to be positively fascinating.
So here's the deal. I would really like it if people on the verge of asking me if my pregnancy is 'natural' would stop, ask themselves the following questions, and then proceed appropriately:
- How close are we? If we've already discussed menstruation or our respective sex lives, ask away. If we're relative strangers, let's keep it that way.
- Why are you asking? Idle curiosity, or are you actually bringing something to the table?
- Will your response to my pregnancy be different depending on my answer? If your response in either case will be 'congratulations,' why ask?
- Have you considered other topics of conversation, such as the weather? An amusing anecdote? The construction on I-5? My fetching earrings? Come on, now, there must be something on your mind other than what occurred in or around my vagina immediately prior to conception.
- Have you considered the insulting nature of the question itself? Really?
- In that case, are you a huge jerkwad?
I do have a plan for the next
personhundred or so people who ask me this question, and it goes a little something like this:
Potential Jerkwad: "So, I hear you're having twins."
Akeeyu: "Well, we certainly hope to."
PJ: "So, are they, y'know, natural?"
Akeeyu: "What do you mean?"
PJ: "You know, did it just happen, or did you take fertility drugs?"
Akeeyu: "Oh, I see. You meant to ask if the conception was spontaneous or assisted?"
PJ: "What? Um...yeah."
Akeeyu: "Ohhh. For a minute there, I thought you were asking if my children were natural, which is kind of rude, don't you think? Of course they're natural. Anyway, in answer to your question, the conception was definitely assisted; we did IVF."
...[F]or now, I'm going to practice my feigned confusion and polite (but firm) correction. I'm sure Miss Manners would approve.
That's it: feigned confusion, followed by polite correction. What you really want to do is (without being rude yourself) make it blindingly obvious to the asker of such a question -- and to anyone else who might be eavesdropping -- that the question was out of line, not because of any inherent shamefulness of the topic, but because of its personal nature. And the way to do that is to make that person listen to what that question sounds like when the euphemisms are wiped away and the plain meaning is out in the open.
The formula is to respond to the first rudely personal question with a blank stare and something like "Pardon me?" or "What?" or "I'm sorry, I don't understand" or "What do you mean?" or "What are you asking?" --- whatever formula you can pull off most sincerely. Some people will realize their mistake at that point and back off. Some people will erm and uh and you know.
Now the game begins! At this point you can let them hang for as long as you want. Here you have the option of continuing to pretend that you don't understand, until either (a) they back off or (b) they ask the plain question. Or, you can get to the point, as the writer above did: "Oh, I see. You meant to ask [plainly stated and obviously rude and personal question]." Then you can choose either to answer it, equally plainly, or to say icily, "I consider that a personal matter."
Note: It is absolutely crucial that you wait to restate their question until you are certain that this is the exact point they are getting at. You have to let them hem and haw at least that long. In the case of the mother-of-multiples, she was wise to say, for example, "You meant to ask if the conception was spontaneous or assisted," which is a bit more general than if she had said either "You meant to ask if we conceived them by having sex or if they were conceived in a petri dish" or "You meant to ask if I was taking fertility drugs of some kind."
Likewise, if you are a mother of three or more children and you hear, "So... are you done yet?" they might be asking if your doctor has ordered you to stop reproducing, or they might be asking you if you're planning never to have sex again; so it's jumping ahead to reply loudly, "You meant to ask if my husband has had a vasectomy." For that one, you should wait until they start making scissoring motions in the air with their fingers, and for maximum effect, you should precede it by confusedly and slowly mimicking the scissoring motions yourself.
The principle of "Oh I see. You meant to say..." is pretty universally adaptable:
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask if I have been diagnosed with secondary infertility.
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask if I plan to have an abortion.
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask me if my daughter has a mental handicap in addition to her obvious physical limitations.
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask if my son's father is the man I'm married to.
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask if we are planning to point out to our daughter that her skin is a different color than ours.
- Oh, I see. You meant to ask if my husband and I plan to use a condom when he and I have sex in the future.
This approach should work pretty well with strangers in the grocery store or people at parties that you're not likely to meet again. For co-workers or others whom you will have to deal with frequently in the future, restating their question may be inflicting a little too much pain on them. Iciness could be bad for your comfort in the future. In that case, you might be better off just letting them hem and haw until they back off.
Unfortunately, none of this will probably work with family members. Partly, that's because icy distantness isn't appropriate with family. But mainly it's because, if you have any family members who are rude enough to even hint about these questions to you, they probably assume that, by virtue of being your cousin/aunt/mother-in-law, they really do have a right to ask you the plain question in the first place. Such that "Oh, I see, you are asking me if we know how to use birth control" might be met with a cheerfully sincere "Oh no, actually, I was wondering what kind you're using."
That's where it gets tough. Repeating the question wonderingly is not a bad idea: "You're really asking me what kind of birth control I use?" (It gives your questioner a last chance to back off and say, "Oh, of course not, just kidding, etc.") But at that point you pretty much have to fall back on: "Ah. I see. Well... you know... I love you, and I understand that it's very interesting to you. [name of spouse] and I have decided to keep that matter private."
(Incidentally, this type of answer -- minus the "I love you" qualification -- also can be appropriate for any Rude Strangers who actually come right out and ask the plain question after you ask them what they mean. )
That's where it stays. If you're pressed: "It's what we promised each other, and I'm going to keep that promise."
But you talked to so-and-so about it. "I don't know anything about that. But it's what we decided together, and I'm going to honor that decision."
Yes, it's possible to use the moment to evangelize about NFP or breastfeeding or the joys of large families or whatever. I'm not saying that this isn't sometimes the right thing to do. It may be exactly the right thing to do, especially if someone asks you why you do what you do and seems sincere about it. ("Always be ready to give a reason for your hope.") But a lot of the time, they're not interested in why. They're interested in letting you know that they think you're weird and wrong, or they're interested in having a good story to tell about the weird, wrong lady they ran into at the grocery store today. That's when the proper message really is MYOB.