What if we thought about the potential answers to our questions before we asked them?
What if we really thought about our questions and how personal or intrusive they could be if asked?
What if we took a moment to conjure or imagine the responses that our questions could elicit, even though they may be asked with good-intentions and the best of wishes?
I’m not talking about questions like, “Have you heard back from the schools you applied to?” or “What do you think about the fact that Sanaa Lathan is dating French Montana and Serena Williams is dating Drake?” I’m not even speaking about questions asked in an academic context, although those questions can often benefit from such an initial analysis.
I’m talking about more personal questions — in essence, questions pertaining to one’s person, such as:
- Why are you single? Why aren’t you married yet?
- When are you getting married? When are you two getting married?
- How far along are you? When are you due?
- When are you gonna have kids?
- Why do you always wear that cap on your head, even in the summer?
- Why do you wear the same skirt every week?
- Why do you always wear skirts or long sleeves?
The answers to these seemingly innocuous, “good-natured” inquiries can be painfully personal and perhaps unutterable to certain people or in public. Maybe we should think before we ask, or not ask at all.
I say we, because I recently made this very mistake when I was at a get together with some friends. There was an acquaintance there who I hadn’t seen in a while. I asked her if her husband was doing okay, since I was also acquainted with her husband and especially since he wasn’t present. She looked a little uneasy. I only came to find out later why her husband wasn’t there — hence the uneasiness.
The Facebook status of a couple of friends who just recently wed — “Stop asking me when I’m having children” — inspired this post. Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen’s discussion on marriage, and children and fertility issues also inspired this post, as well as Rebecca Solnit’s article entitled “The Mother of All Questions” in Harper’s Magazine about the public preoccupation with your womb and not your work.
I can’t help but wonder if we thought about the potential answers to our questions then maybe we wouldn’t ask them…
What if the answer to the question, “Why do you wear long skirts and long sleeves” is “I have a scar that I’m ashamed of” or “I have vitiligo”? What if the answer to the question, “How far along are you?” or “When are you due?” was, “I’m not pregnant actually…”? Or what if “When are you going to finally settle down?” was met with “I just ended my eight year relationship with my partner this past Thursday. I’m still in shock and denial. It still hurts. Thanks for asking”? Or what if the answer to “When are you two going to have children?” is honestly, “Maybe never. We’re infertile and we don’t have the money for IVF or adoption…” or “I don’t have a uterus” or “I don’t have a vagina.” These are details I’m sure you never expected or wanted to know, especially if you are not close with the individual and you are merely asking in passing (if you are a close friend it’s another story). But, you see, when you ask personal questions, those interrogated are put in the uncomfortable position of choosing whether to lie and gloss over their pain, be painfully honest, or shut you down as the nosy, ignorant person you are (not that you actually are, but at least your question would suggest as much). The fact is, none of these options are ideal, so ideally, some personal questions ought to be avoided.
After all, the potential answer to the question, “When are you guys gonna have kids?” might be, “I got an ultrasound this week and the technician couldn’t find a heartbeat,” or “I just found out that I miscarried for the sixth time” or “we’ve been trying for a year now but I just got my period today” or “after my last still birth, I don’t want to try to get pregnant again” or “my [insert medical condition here] makes it hard to get pregnant or have a healthy pregnancy” or “we’re looking into surrogacy…”
Besides, I’d hazard a guess that not everyone wants to discuss their fertility problems at a work Christmas party or while the Thanksgiving turkey (or Tofurkey) is being carved, and we know that, chances are, the asker isn’t expecting or wanting or even comfortable with so honest or transparent an answer.
I believe that many of us think that the common answer to questions like “When are you guys having children?” will result in a response akin to, “We’re working on it!” or “We’re just waiting for us to be in the right spot in our careers before we take that next step” or “We just got married, we’re saving for a house, and Zach just got a promotion, so we want to settle in first” and thus would ensue a jovial conversation about career promotion, birth control, mortgages and the “right” timing, peppered with elements of nostalgia, bonding, sharing and well-intended offers of advice. But this is not always so. If we took a moment to remind ourselves that while these questions sound like great ice-breakers and conversation starters, they are inherently personal, and the responses can very possibly be rooted in pain. And then perhaps we would approach such questions gingerly, or maybe not ask them at all. With all due respect, there are other ways to break the ice, or fill in a lull in a conversation.
There are so many things to talk about other than the exact details of a couple’s family planning. Talk about the weather if you must. Ask them how well they are doing that day. Tell them that you love them and mean it. Talk about your favourite music artists or the contemporary applicability of Plato’s cave allegory or Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” or Kant’s categorical imperative or Peter Singer’s utilitarianism. Talk about the American or Canadian election or the slaying of Black lives at the hands of police officers. But stay away from questions regarding the clothing choices, love life, uteri or testicular ability of others. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Maybe avoiding personal questions will force us to be creative in our conversations, or perhaps even inspire deeper thinking and better connections.
I don’t write this empirically. I have a personal stake in this plea. I write this for myself in an ambitious (but perhaps ultimately vain) attempt to create a more sensitive world through which I can move with ease and not constant discomfort or suspicion. I would like to create a more sensitive world for the sensitive and those with sensitive issues. As someone who is single and has reason to believe she will be for some time yet is considered to be at an age where marriage should be uppermost in her mind, and as someone for whom fertility may potentially be a challenge, I guess I just post this in the aims to create a world where stories such as mine can exist without being scrutinized. It’s my humble attempt to make room for myself in this world in order to live a life that I don’t have to explain to others, where I am not made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate because certain rites of passage or biological functions that come so easily to others may not or do not come as such to me.
I write this as a call to all of us (myself included) to think before we ask, to act with sensitivity and prudence, to ask questions consciously as opposed to cursorily and to realize that it is much more respectful to realize that we don’t know, then to assume that we do.