My baby threw up in my underwear drawer

I originally intended to post yesterday instead of today, but my efforts were hampered by two, yes two, injured pinkies. Two injured pinkies may not sound like much but when one is trying to type they prove quite the impediments. The left pinkie I sliced open two days ago when trying to get into my front door before the alarm sounded, only to find S., before leaving for his business trip, had accidently locked the chain on the door. Before realizing the futility of getting in from the front I struggled with the chain for a few fruitless seconds and thus, the sliced pinkie. This is certainly the worst injury- my nail is hanging on by a thread and everytime I type the wound reopens. My right pinkie I cut when I tried to move the dog’s crate into the guest room since that is where he prefers to chill. The walking wounded – that’s me.

ANYWAY.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about children and their role  as conversational subjects in the adult working world. The most recent and (to me) concerning event happened last week while I was attending a meeting out of town. Those of us involved in this particular meeting were sitting around a large conference room, discussing different approaches to crisis communication training, when one of the men I report to, in response to a question, broke out some response involving milk and cookies and mice. It rhymed, and everyone else at the table broke out in the kind of laughter that comes, I guess, from reading the same book to a toddler over and over and over again ad nauseum. At first I didn’t understand and I must have had a blank expression on my face because this man, this, it should be noted, very important man when it comes to my livelihood, looked at me and said “Oh, don’t worry Courtney – all of the parents understand the reference.” And all down the conference table men and women, both older and younger than I, nodded and one woman held a hand to her chest and sighed “Oh, my five year old LOVES that book” and I wanted either to shout “You idiots, we are here for CRISIS training in anticipation of a flu pandemic (not really why I was there but you get the idea) and we are discussing childrens’ books? Really?” or slap her.

Which is so not me.

But it’s not like the previous evening put me in any kind of mood to listen to this discussion. I attended a dinner at a lovely restaurant with many of the very same people sitting at the conference table , and while the wine was lovely and the pasta al dente I was the only person without children and, it turns out, when seven out of the eight people at the table have children that is, of course, going to be the topic of conversation. I learned about how my supervisor’s three year old daughter won’t go to bed without wearing her Cinderella shoes and how another woman’s son wants to be a nurse and how another woman started working parttime because her daughter wanted her around the house more and by the time we got to the man who adopted children with disabilities I was all whatever, your child can sign in four different languages, I really don’t care.

Again, not like me. I care about children. I would even go so far as to say I like them, and love certain ones in my life with my entire heart. And I know it’s hard for people with children to understand, when they realize I’ve been married eight years, that I don’t have any.

I used to imagine my childlessness would remain a private matter, but I have been asked by nearly everyone in my workplace every variation of the question on why I do not yet have them. I tend to be honest, if somewhat appalled, when answering these questions – I am open to having children, would, in fact, love to be a mother, but refuse to undergo any extraordinary measures to have them. With an oddly-shaped uterus, a formerly broken pelvis that didn’t heal correctly, and a history of infertility in my family, having children doesn’t seem like it will be as straight forward a proposition as it is for other folks, and I actually feel no bitterness or frustration about this. I believe I am in God’s hands and if S. and I are meant to be parents we will be.

Not even the tiniest bit of help? Not even one round of in vitro?

No. not even that.

What I do resent is the expectation of bitterness and frustration on my part when there isn’t any. Many people really seem to struggle with the idea of a happily married woman in her early thirties refusing to go the extra mile to have a child, but what REALLY gets them, I think, is my rather laissez-faire attitude about it. I had one physician I work for tell me I’ll never really know what it means to love until I have children, and another tell me I can’t really understand the crisis cancer wrecks on a family until I have a child and understand the possibility of losing him or her, as though my uncle’s prostate cancer or my grandmother’s brain tumor were somehow a walk in the park emotionally because, you know, cancer was the natural progression for them.

But we all come from different places and the struggle to understand one another is part of the reason we inhabit this big piece of earth, and I can overlook the enormous breach in privacy these questions commit, but I do admittedly have trouble with children as subject matter –  as the primary way most of my colleagues relate to one another, and to me. 

I fear none of this will translate once read.

It is not that I am uninterested in my co-workers’ children. During the appropriate place and time, like during lunch and near the beginning or the end of the day, I enjoy hearing about potty training, dating, groundings, college applications and confirmation classes – these are the children that will be in my life for the forseable future and I feel invested in their success. What I do object to, and perhaps it doesn’t happen in all fields, but it certainly does in mine,  is a discussion midway through a working meeting on the inherent value of the Wiggles, conversations that engage me about the qualities of breast pumps when I’m on a conference call, and references to childrens’ books I haven’t read.

I know I am not perfect, and I probably make one hundred exclusionary gestures every day without meaning to, but I really try not to. And maybe these thoughts are the beginning stages of some sort of old-woman bitterness, but I do think if I have children I will keep the conversation about them to my friends and family, those who ask, and this blog.

If I am really drilling down through this exploration, I guess what really irritates me the most is the assumption of want on the part of my co-workers…their assumption that I must want children even if I don’t have them. While I think I have established here that this desire is  genuine, I almost feel – at fault- for not wanting them more than I do. For not going through the tests and treatments. For not charting my ovulation and then standing on the landing, pointing an impatient finger to my watch and looking at S. meaningfully.

I nearly feel as though my lack of overwhelming desire to have a baby somehow makes me faulty as a woman, like maybe I shouldn’t even leave the possibility open if my desire is so lackluster.

But that’s sort of ridiculous.  I mean, I don’t assume that the single people I know desperately want to get married,  or even remain in a steady relationship. I don’t assume those who’ve never traveled want to, and I never force a book on someone who doesn’t claim to be a reader. I don’t invite those I know who hate movies to the cinema and I don’t cook meat for vegetarians. I believe most of us are hurtling through this life, embodying at once an ever-growing notion of who we are and a yearning for the many lives we have not lived. And since each life is individual, an unknowable inside narrative within each person we meet, I think assuming a little less, and listening with grace and gratitude a little more, are actions I am going to strive for in the new year, and hope it comes back to me.

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29 Responses to My baby threw up in my underwear drawer

  1. Becky says:

    Oh, this is all so familiar. We don’t have children and never will and I am now at the stage where when people ask me whether we will or why we don’t I have a couple of responses: ‘Because I don’t like children. I like peace, quiet, tidyness, and having a disposable income.’ Or, (fixing them with blank stare) ‘Why on earth would I want to do that?’ Either response tends to shut down the conversation pretty quickly.

    As for being the only child-free person at a table of people who are talking about their kids, argh. I left a bookclub because after 20 minutes of discussing the book there would follow 40 on Hallowe’en costumes. Of course people want to talk about their children, particularly when they are together with other parents, but as with any other topic, it’s not always appropriate.

  2. Make Tea Not War says:

    I get sick of people asking me if I’m going to have another child. I want to have another child because I hate to think of my daughter being an only child and she badly wants to be a big sister- but my husband really doesn’t. He has a lot of good reasons including the fact that he has severe migraines a lot of the time which are so far refusing to respond to treatment and he doesn’t think he could cope. I’m also somewhat ambivalent and not sure about how my 40 year old body would cope with it all & there’s money and career concerns etc, etc. I’ve mostly accepted that it’s not going to happen but it’s something that is in my mind a lot, which is complicated and upsetting and a source of marital discord and I don’t want to discuss it with every random person who brings it up especially not if they assume it’s just a simple matter of me deciding to do it. So I agree- people need to back right off and assume less about these sorts of very personal issues.

    I have to put in some small defence for people talking about their kids in the workplace though. Working parents, especially with young children under 3, generally do very little else but work and childcare so if they can’t talk about their kids they may have little else to talk about in a semi social context. Some part of them at least is probably a little jealous of you when you can talk about going out to dinner, to plays, to the movies etc. (At least that was how it was for me)

  3. appellationmountain says:

    Thanks for writing this! I love my children to pieces, but I actually find it exhausting to talk about them all the time.

    Now that they’re here, I can’t imagine life without *my* kids, but I can imagine a complete, fulfilling life without children. I’m sometimes very, very jealous of my single sister who can travel without worrying about anything more than finding her favorite sunscreen in the right size to tuck into her carry-on.

    On the few occasions I manage to get out of the house without a kid in tow? The last thing I want to talk about is that stupid book about the mouse and the cookie.

  4. Emily Barton says:

    Why are people allowed to be so rude about this topic? I decided at a very young age that if I couldn’t have children without going through some sort of medical procedure, I wasn’t going to have them. Then, at an older age, I decided that I just didn’t really want to have them, so I’ve never tried. I don’t know if you ever read it, but I posted about this myself once, many moons ago: http://emilybarton.blogspot.com/2006/06/baby-question.html. It really is absolutely nobody’s business unless you want to tell them, and people ought to know that.

    I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t hang out too much with people who do nothing but talk about their children (even those who have young children). I do remember back about ten years ago, though, when I went to a church picnic and found myself in a group of women who were doing nothing but talking about their children, and I felt very left out. I was new to the church; they knew I didn’t have kids; and I felt they should have done more to include me.

  5. cdv1971 says:

    Hi there,

    I don’t know how I got to be on your blogroll, but I’m certainly flattered.

    As a parent, I can certainly attest to the fact that we spend farrrrr too much time talking about kids in social settings. I tire of it myself sometimes. BUT, the advantage is that if the conversation lags then you can fall back on the easy kid talk.

    I do try and stay away from kids as a topic when I’m around people that don’t have kids. I used to have a friend that talked endlessly about her cats. I neither have cats nor particularly like cats, so those converstations were just painful. I feel like the kid talk with non-parents is about the same thing.

    All the best,

    Chris (A Free Man)

  6. Pete says:

    I can relate Courtney and I also get irritated by parents just assuming that people without kids want to talk about kids as the default topic of conversation. (There’s also a history of infertility in my family too.) I find it harder to relate to those friends and have tended to drift away from them a bit. I think it’s the smugness a bit (of the happily child-blessed) but also the fact that they live in different worlds driven by daily dramas that are so different from mine.

  7. Speaking as a multiple child-owner, I can also say that child-only conversations can be very dull, which is why I never lasted at those moms ‘n tots type groups – I really wanted to know what books people were reading and where they got their fab boots and not what little Harry wants for breakfast. Unless, like you, I am highly invested in kids (they belong to me or my dearest friends and family) I’m not much interested in them.

    Difficult topic, very gracefully tackled Courtney. I do think you need to have a couple of tough lines to fob people off when they are disrespectful enough to ask.

  8. Belle says:

    I think you did a really wonderful job of putting this all down on “paper” and the reason you feel the way you do. I am a relatively new mom and I often find myself closing my mouth around “the best new story you have to hear” about my daughter because I realize that others don’t necessarily ever need to hear it.
    At work I am even more conscious of it, partly because my boss is a happily married woman in her 40s who has never and will never have kids. I don’t know or need to know any of her reasons but I certainly don’t try to drag her into a conversation about “Good Night Moon.” That said, if she asks how my daughter is doing, well, I tell her the least gross thing possible at the moment!
    I’m going to try and be even more aware of what hurt/offense I could cause by speaking thoughtlessly about this kind of stuff in the future–thanks for sharing.

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    I was realizing how lucky I am as I read your post — at (almost) 35 and childless, it’s surprising people don’t ask me about it more often than they do. I talk about not having children fairly often, actually, but I’m almost always the one who brings it up (which is weird, actually, but never mind). Maybe it’s that I seem to have an unusually large number of childless friends, or maybe it’s that academics are more sensitive about it than most. Wait — academics, sensitive? No, that can’t be it. Maybe in academia, or maybe even in the area I live, there are just more childless people and it’s common enough it’s not a big deal. I’m not sure.

  10. Karen says:

    I think your thoughts have translated beautifully Courtney! And I can certainly relate to a lot of what you are saying. My partner and I have been together for 8 years now and we constantly get asked “When are you going to have children?” – Not even, “Are you going to have children?” There is just this assumption that we can/will have them. I have no desire to have chidlren although I love my best friends children and spend quite a bit of time with them. I like being the “aunty” and being able to go home to a wonderful life that I have chosen – without kids!

  11. yogamum says:

    Such a great post, Courtney! I do think it’s natural that parents will spend a great deal of time talking about their kids just because really, that takes up a lot of their mental hard drive space 😉 but you’re right, it can be exclusionary. And I think it’s just plain rude to ask people when they are going to have children, or if, or how, etc. etc. etc.

  12. Emily says:

    questions about having kids are completely off-limits.

    that said, i think it is appropriate to reference literature (and kids’ books count) in a work meeting. what is inappropriate is to constantly make one employee feel like an outsider.

    why is it not ok to go out with the team to a strip club but perfectly fine to center work conversations around kids?

    thanks for reminding us to be sensitive to people’s feelings.

  13. Cam says:

    Well written, Courtney. It is easy to forget that not everybody has kids, but to point it out as your colleague did, that’s beyond the pale. How rude! The “when are you having kids/why haven’t you had them yet” question is right up there with the following:
    – Why do you have so many kids?
    – You’re not going to have another, are you, since your last one was such a problem?
    – Was that birth defect your fault or his father’s?
    – You didn’t do natural childbirth? Drugs are so bad for the baby!
    – What do you mean you weren’t upset when you had that miscarriage?
    – How sad that your child didn’t have a dad/mom. Children need both parents. (Yes, they do on a general level, but sometimes that specifics don’t work out that way!).
    – Don’t you miss your baby now that you’re back at work? (I couldn’t wait to get back to work and people looked at me like I had 3 heads when I said this!)
    – Why are you still feeding your baby formula? You’re babying him.
    – You’re baby is so small. Maybe you don’t feed him enough.

    I have heard all of these except the first. Perfectly normal people with brains become asses when they talk about kids — their own or others.

    Why, as women, are we so judgemental about other women’s choices?

    I think you showed remarkable restraint when your colleagues were babbling about such crap.

  14. Litlove says:

    Poor Courtney. It’s mean to exclude anyone in conversation, no matter what form the exclusion takes. I’m sure being the only Republican in a political conversation dominated by Democrats, for instance, would be equally painful.

    Children are a kind of public property when it comes to conversations. People were always asking me when I was going to have another, or if I was going to try for a girl. But my experience at work was the other way round to yours – no one else had a child in my department at the university and I kept VERY quiet about it, or else I knew I’d be looked down upon for having a shaky commitment to work.

    There’s no divide like the one that separates parents from non-parents, and it’s always useful for each side to be reminded of the enormity of that gulf!

  15. Katie says:

    Good for you Courtney! People need to back off. I respect your decision and the fact that you’re not bitter or kicking and screaming to force this life that people think you should have.

    This is also a good reminder to me to be sensitive in asking questions about peoples’ plans for families. There is a friend who’s been married for about 5 years that I corner all the time to tell her about how I had a dream she was pregnant and such. Probably not all that helpful.

  16. auntjone says:

    Way to stand your ground. I agree with charlotteotter- you need some comebacks. “None of your f’ing business” comes to mind but it is probably as inappropriate as discussing children in a mixed group….

    When J and I decided we wanted a baby I also decided that if we had trouble conceiving (it was our first try, I was 33, who knows if it will work?) we would not go to any extreme measures. I also believe that we are granted children as a gift from God and I wasn’t about to tamper with His plans. Thankfully I got pregnant the first month we didn’t take precautions and now have our dear, sweet Niblet.

    I try not to dominate conversations, in any setting, with inane babbling about the baby but if someone asks I’ll gladly share!

  17. Smithereens says:

    Whenever I see my childless friends, I try not to talk about teething and burping and other disgusting stuff and I sigh when I hear them talk about going to the movies and exhibitions!

  18. Rahul says:

    Well done, well written …. what happened to privacy and individual rights and not judging others for being different?

  19. marty says:

    I loved this post. Because seriously, like another commenter said, why are people allowed to be so rude about when you’re going to have children? It’s such a personal thing.

    One thing that people say that bothers me is the whole issue of regret. Like, if you don’t have a baby now, what if you want one in ten years and then you’re too old and TOO BAD, SUCKER! Won’t you be a miserable fool? Well, no one can predict what will make you happy in the future. And why is future you’s happiness more important than present you’s? Oh God I clearly need to go to bed. But I loved this post – beautifully written and right on.

  20. auntjone says:

    One other thought that just occurred to me. A good friend (33 yrs old, if it matters) is not sure about having kids. She’s married, educated, and in a job she loves. I asked her point blank, “Which do you think you’d regret more: having kids, or NOT having kids?” That had crossed her mind but she didn’t know which would be worse. And that’s a tough one to answer but I don’t think it is unfair. I think it would be hard to regret having kids, wouldn’t it? I was a teenage mom and I don’t regret keeping my son for a minute. I regret marrying his dad but that’s another post….

  21. Becky, often when I am asked if I am going to have children my new answer is “Why?” – There are some very, very cool moms out there in the world who make having children look fabulous, but the last time I held a toddler she put mashed potatoes in my hair and her mom said “oh, isn’t that cute!”

    Ms. Make Tea – I actually agree that working parents should talk about their kids at work…I understand that the work place can be a great outlet for discussions like these and I actually think we need to do everything possible to support working mothers…I guess my frustration crops up when conversation about children is used as a social commodity to gain leverage/attention in inappropriate situations, like planning for a flu pandemic…

    A! At least, S. says you are A., our friend in DC, you must know we are always, always, always interested in your kids, from spit-up to pooping to whatever the book/toy craze of the moment is. My point, which I don’t think I wrote very well, is the weird way talking about kids in a very particular setting – ie, the work place – almost takes on an exclusionary value.

    Emily, I remember your post very well. I honestly don’t know what it is about this topic that makes people feel so very opinionated but it is a definite source of frustration for me. It’s so very personal (says the woman who blogged about it, LOL) but treated as public…

    A Free Man – who knows how anyone gets on my blogroll! Someone must have recommended you, or I found you on my own, regardless, I love your site, which should be proof I actually dig a lot of kid talk. A place and time for things, etc…

    Pete – you make a good point with the different worlds bit…the spheres are so entirely different that it can be hard to find areas to connect to…

    Charlotte – thanks so much for saying this was graceful because it sure didn’t feel like it while writing it! I guess one thing I’ve learned is my line between public and private is much more distinct than I ever realized…

  22. Belle – welcome! I actually think the hurt/offense comes when personally asked about why I haven’t had children yet, while the talk about children only bothers me when it invades certain spaces….

    Dorothy, actually, I will bring it up sometimes too now that I think about it, and I wonder if that is some sort of defense mechanism – like, I will bring it up before even allowing someone to ask about it?

    Karen – I think you make a very good point about our roles in the lives of other children, and how very valuable those roles can be as well!

  23. debra says:

    It is as though you entered my brain, scooped out everything I have been thinking for years, and plopped it all oh so elegantly here for us all to peruse. Thank you!

    And two injured pinkies? Ow! Hope those are feeling better soon!

  24. Amity says:

    Great post Courtney. It’s so rude of your co-workers to exclude you like that. When I’m out with adults, especially those who don’t have kids, the last thing I want to talk about is my rugrats, unless asked or particularly relevant to the conversation.

    Next time someone asks when you’re going to have kids, try saying “Why do you want to know?” That usually stops people in their tracks and reminds them that they’re asking for selfish, nosy reasons.

  25. Courtney says:

    Yogamum – I know you are right re: the mental drive space and I do think it’s natural to talk a lot about one’s children…I just believe there is time/space that’s appropriate…

    Emily – I am sure there are loads of things I need to be more sensitive about as well – reading all of these comments has made me recognize at least a dozen…

    Cam – that list is fabulous. FABULOUS. It’s amazing the gall people have!

    Litlove – you really hit the nail on the proverbial head by pointing out that children are a kind of public property in terms of conversation but now that I think about it I have probably excluded people lots of times when it came to political conversations…

    Katie – well, I actually don’t mind when friends ask me…you could corner me all you want and we would have a long discussion over coffee! For me there is a huge difference between my boss and my friend…

    Aunt Jone – the whole regret thing is such a hard question to answer! I guess the one thing I know I would regret is making child-bearing the center of my thirties through in vitro, etc – that’s what I would regret more than any other scenario.

    Smithereens – there is that grass is always greener scenario, isn’t there?

    Rahul – welcome! I’ve bookmarked your blog to add the next time I do my blogkeeping!

    Marty – AMEN to the whole regret issue, although Aunt Jone does make some interesting points on the issue…

    Debra – oh wow, thanks for the kind words! And the pinkies are on the mend, thanks!

  26. Make Tea Not War says:

    About regret- I don’t think anyone gets to live a life without regret. There’s always the path not taken, the alternative lives that could have been, the piano lessons you gave up too soon, the horrible boyfriends you should have ditched sooner and the one that got away

    I think it is better to regret not having a child than to have a child and regret him or her- which I’m afraid does happen.

  27. nova says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. As someone who does not plan on having children, this resonated on so many levels.

  28. mme3rivieres says:

    So, so, so well-written, and well-thought. I’m tremendously happy with my childless life right now, as I’m sure I would be happy with a life with children, if someday I have them. But it’s so dismissive and rude when private matters (like children’s bedtime stories) get so casually brought into places like strategy meetings as if OBVIOUSLY they belong there because they belong EVERYWHERE.

    No one would be this exclusionary and thoughtless about other private issues, but when the topic is children, there’s simply no critical thinking involved. It’s getting harder and harder to be polite about it.

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