"I think we need to return to some good old-fashioned boundary drawing." Readers agree with Lynn Harris -- people are rude!

By Salon Staff
Published June 23, 2005 5:19PM (EDT)

[Read "So, Why Aren't You Knocked Up Yet?" by Lynn Harris.]

I enjoyed reading Lynn Harris' article. I am interrogated every time I visit relatives, mostly as Harris observes, by their neighbors and friends. My personal favorite: I told a neighbor that I wouldn't consider children for a few years (not sure I want them, more interested in finishing grad school and getting a job), and he called me foolish and advised my husband, who also doesn't want children yet, to sabotage my birth control. It is certainly strange that these sort of invasive -- and in this case borderline criminal -- comments pass for friendly chat.

-- Candice Morey

Lynn Harris' article made me smile. I had almost forgotten about the gabbling pack, having just celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary. (Everyone who knows us has already asked.) But a few weeks ago, my husband and I attended a dinner party where we were seated at a table with three other couples, all well into their 70s. The meal was delicious and the small talk cordial ... then the lovely woman to my husband's left asked him if we had children. He replied no. She asked how long we'd been married. He replied five years. She asked if there was a problem, perhaps? At this point, all other conversations had stopped and I noticed everyone staring at Bill and me. He mumbled, no, no problem, we just decided not to have children.

Cutting through the deafening silence, I chirped out that we basically had dorked around until we were too old. The woman asked how old I was. Forty, I replied, and I am not interested in squeezing out a baby at 40. It's just how I feel. The silence turned stony at this, and everyone frowned. Someone else icily informed me that woman are having babies well into their 40s all the time now and I shouldn't be so close-minded. Bill and I looked at each other, then looked at our plates and gave dessert our absolute attention, but the mood was definitely shot at that point. I realized that evening that Lynn is right: The questioning never stops. All right, menopause: Full speed ahead!

-- Denise Stauber Baikie

Thank you, Ms. Harris, for perhaps salvaging my day. I read your article just minutes after suffering the attention of yet another well-meaning curious idiot wanting to know when my nonexistent baby is due. So I can sympathize.

In my case, genetics and a surgery mishap have conspired to funnel all extra weight into my lower abdomen, so yes, when I put on a few pounds, I do tend to look pregnant, I guess. And then the comments begin. This morning a co-worker I barely know stopped me in the mailroom:

Her: Are you expecting?

Me: Expecting what?

Her: A baby?

Me: No.

Her: Oh, I'm sorry, (gestures toward my stomach) I thought you were.

Sometimes the well-meaning idiots recover from their faux pas with disturbing ease, sometimes they stammer and blush for minute after excruciating minute. I tend to stand in silence and let them suffer. After all, suffering is how we learn, right? Also, pregnancy is an emotional issue for me, and it is easier for me to recover from whatever sadness and humiliation this stranger has brought crashing down on me if I channel all that emotive energy into silent fuming and the perfection of a tolerant but dismissive facial expression.

But I am only childless, not heartless, and so as a courtesy to well-meaning idiots everywhere, let me offer the following bit of advice: If you have to ask, don't.

-- Victoria Herd

I agree that there seems to be a loss of boundaries, and that any question/comment seems to spring forth from people's mouths without any forethought into whether it is really any of their business. I've dealt with it myself on numerous occasions, like the biddies that approached my mother to offer their condolences on the fact that I'm not married yet and to compare me to my senile older great-aunt who never married, or the ex-boyfriend's mother (whom I'd not seen in years) who patted my arm sympathetically and told me "it would happen for me someday." There are dozens of more instances where this has happened, and each time I hear those words come from people's mouths I cringe and then plaster the fakest smile I can muster on my face. Because to show any sign that you aren't the happiest person when someone has made a comment like that clearly means you are a broken, sad person and that gossip will spread even faster than your lack of marriage/babies.

I have several friends who are married and I've witnessed most of them get the baby question on their wedding day, I see their smile dim just a bit before they laugh it off. I wish people would learn to keep their mouths shut and realize that everything in my life is not their business. Perhaps I should hand out your article the minute I see that look on their face and know they are getting ready to launch into their litany of questions.

-- Suzanne Burkey

Whenever I hear people complaining of unsolicited advice and/or privacy-invading questions, I am reminded of Miss Manners' recommended reply: "How very kind of you to take an interest" (to be repeated as necessary, tone varying from sympathetic to icy). For some reason, I seldom get such questions anymore.

-- Midge Coates

I, too, have recently ended a long and entertaining singlehood with a marriage to a member of the opposite sex. We hadn't made it through the reception before the baby questions started, and we hadn't made it out of the hotel before the baby questions were really on my nerves. I am not fortunate enough to have a family who has maintained a "saintly silence" on the matter and have endured hounding, heckling and absolute torture at the hands of both our parents on the question of when we will be producing grandchildren. I have a medical history that may or may not allow me to be a parent. I also don't know if having children is something I desire, as I have not ever felt the apparently overwhelming need for children that my friends have described for me.

However, I have finally come up with an answer for those prying asses who have no business prying into the state of my womb. I simply reply, when asked how long until I spawn, "Well, I'm not able to have children and my medical condition makes us undesirable as adoptive parents. " That shuts them up right quick. Nobody has asked yet what my medical condition is, but I figure I can come up with something suitably horrible on the fly, if needed. A rude question does not deserve an honest answer.

-- D.L.L.

In her excellent article, Ms. Harris discusses what I like to call the "impertinent questions" cadre and the American "right to know anything, the instant I want to know it" culture of entitlement where private information is concerned. I too have suffered from an onslaught of impertinent, invasive questions and I'm fairly certain that everyone else has as well.

The question I posit is, Why are we not calling this behavior into question? I never thought to question this behavior myself until I became friends with a woman who grew up in the United Kingdom. I was out with her when someone began to pester her with invasive personal questions. My friend turned to me, directly in front of her interrogator, and in her charming British accent told me, "Americans are perceived as so rude in Europe because they have no compunctions against the asking of impertinent questions." It was as if a light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly understood this behavior in a way that I hadn't before. Raised in a culture that values emotional availability and honesty with regard to one's life and motivations -- I had answered all of these invasive, nosy, impertinent questions as though the asker had some right to this information just because they'd thought to ask for it.

No more! I am now a firm believer in the value of naming this behavior each and every time I see it and refusing to answer such questions. "Are you in menopause yet?" is an impertinent question. It is absolutely OK for people to say, "What a rude question! I'm not going to dignify that with a response."

It's only when more of us start standing up to the amateur Jerry Springers on the street that this behavior will regain the social sanction that it once had. Once upon a time you didn't ask people you'd known for a long, long time these sorts of questions because you'd been taught that this was rude. People would gasp and withdraw from you if you were to be so bold as to ask a newly married woman whether she was going to be pregnant soon.

I'm a pretty liberal guy, embrace very progressive politics, and am generally pro-advancement and progress in our culture across the board -- but on this issue I think we need to return to some good old-fashioned boundary drawing.

Naming this behavior for what it is -- rude, invasive, nosy, a social trespass -- puts the responsibility for any awkwardness right back where it belongs, on the asker. By refusing to answer such questions, our integrity as people with a right to privacy is maintained. The more we indulge these people, the more they'll feel they have a right to bellow, "Have you had the amnio yet?" to complete strangers across a crowded subway.

-- Robert Wolf

Lynn Harris must have been that fly buzzing around my kitchen this weekend when my mother came to visit. "You should have a baby soon. Women are so unlucky, nature isn't kind. Look what happened to your sister -- she had to have a cesarean!" I guess that's what happens to women who have babies over 30 -- they get cut open. Funny thing is, I'm not even married! And I'm only 27. Ms. Harris is right; the inappropriate, invasive questions are outrageous. If people would spend more time worrying about their own lives and less time worrying about mine, we'd all be a little better off.

-- Ronda Kaysen

As a 28-year-old married woman with cystic fibrosis, it's not likely that I'll risk bodily harm by attempting to carry my own child -- if I could even get pregnant in the first place. Like Lynn Harris, I was amazed by the intrusive questioning from acquaintances, even close friends, regarding our "childless" status after just a few months of marriage. My husband and I were married less than a year when I suddenly realized that my drinking habits were under close scrutiny by a group of friends (who have children themselves, of course). If I passed up a glass of wine in favor of iced tea at a party, a sudden chorus of "Oooh, she's not drinking, is there something we should know?!" followed.

Once my husband discussed my disease more openly with these friends and told them that we would likely pursue a surrogate or adoption when we were ready to have children, the teasing subsided and, to be fair, everyone expressed nothing but concern and sympathy for our situation.

But to this day it bothers me that we were forced to disclose our reproduction woes, when we hadn't even started "trying" yet, to make even friends understand that what they considered harmless banter was in fact quite devastating. I agree that it takes a village to raise a child, but when it comes to conception, it's a two-person thing. I thank Lynn Harris for reminding us all that the decision to have children is, and always should be, a personal one.

-- Larissa Marocco

Lynn Harris is right, it never ends. My husband and I took five years spending time together before getting pregnant. I wasn't even done [weaning] my daughter before people started asking if I was going to have another right away (we had one, we are only having one, we only ever planned on having ONE). When we tried explaining we only wanted one, the Look came. The Look that says, "You're not really a parent unless you have more than one kid," or "Oh, you'll have more -- just wait and see." Five years later we're perfectly happy with the ONE we got!

I'm just waiting for an acquaintance to come up and ask, "So! When you gonna die?"

-- C. Wichtendahl

The best thing I ever did when pregnant was perfect my icy stare. That, coupled with the phrase, "I beg your pardon," shut up every nosy stranger (and not such a stranger) who tried to rub my stomach or ask prying questions. The trick is not to ask it like a question, but snap it out as it is intended, as a conversation ender.

-- Katy German

A resounding hallelujah! on this article. For me, it maps out perfectly how annoying but well-intentioned "advice" (on deeply personal matters) turns into nightmarish intrusion after a few years of infertility. It is absurd to pardon rudeness because of "good intentions." We must call this what it is: at worst, rudeness, no matter who the offender is -- strangers, friends or family members. At best, dangerous, given the personal nature of these comments and what you almost certainly do not know about the situation.

This topic really burns me up, and I know a couple hundred infertile women on ivfconnections.com who would agree passionately with me. Thanks, let's write it into the new "Emily Post" that includes reproductive issues.

-- Ellen

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