During a recent interview, Dolly Parton found herself answering a question that she has been asked countless times over several decades: Why doesn’t she have children? Sure, she has written more than 3,000 songs, provided nearly 150 million books for children through her Imagination Library, and recently helped fund research that contributed to the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. But what about kids? What about motherhood? Keep in mind that Parton is 74 years old.
While it’s tempting to draw our own conclusions, we don’t actually know the full story. (She has mentioned having fertility issues in earlier interviews, but it’s often more complicated than that.) And we don’t have the right to know: Parton — along with the rest of us — doesn’t owe anyone an explanation as to the goings-on in their uterus (or lack thereof). But unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the questions, so here are some tips for handling and responding to the (usually well-meaning) requests for information regarding your lack of children, from experts and people who’ve been there.
Childfree by choice or circumstance
Let’s start by acknowledging that there can be multiple reasons why a person isn’t a parent. In some cases, people can be childfree by choice, meaning that they’ve decided that parenthood isn’t in the cards for them. In other situations it’s circumstantial and beyond a person’s control. This could include having infertility issues that can’t be overcome, infertility issues that can be overcome but require more money than someone has, never meeting another person they want to start a family with (and not wanting to do it alone), or getting caught up in adoption attempts that never worked out.
The bottom line is, people without kids aren’t all in the same boat. For people who are childfree by choice, questions about why they haven’t reproduced is definitely irritating. But for those in that position for reasons beyond their control, it can be devastating.
Why do people think it’s OK to ask about a lack of children?
As annoying — or heartbreaking — as such questions can be, there’s a sociological explanation as to why people still do it, according to Dr. Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine, and author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence. “I think that comes from the reality that we are all socialised to believe that having children and becoming a parent is something that we all will do, and that we all should aspire to do,” she tells Lifehacker.
Blackstone explains that humans’ interest and concern about whether or not other people are procreating is rooted in our political, economic, religious, and social systems, which rely on the creation of more humans for their continued existence. “Because we assume — for all kinds of reasons — that everybody wants to become a parent and will do so, it doesn’t even occur to many people that it’s not OK to ask about that,” she says.
For those who are childfree by choice, Blackstone recommends reframing where they think these questions are coming from — namely, that they’re a result of our collective socialisation, rather than a nosy person who is trying to shame you into procreating. “For me, that helps. It makes me feel less annoyed,” she says. “I know it’s not necessarily because you think I’m a terrible person, or because you’re judging me — you just don’t know any better, really.”
What about gender?
Yes, it’s 2020 and many people acknowledge that gender is a social construct — or at least that families don’t all consist of a cisgender woman married to a cisgender man — but Blackstone says that in her research, she has found that women do have to deal with these questions more than men.
“There’s lots of evidence to show that it’s really women that the pressure is on, because we assume the men are about ‘spreading their seed’ and they don’t have to settle down, and they’re not responsible for rearing the children,” she explains. “So all of that is built into all of our assumptions, and it means that women are the ones that are the primary caretakers — or at least are assumed to be.”
But, Blackwell points out, this doesn’t mean that men are all off the hook. “Where it comes becomes particularly relevant for men is in this idea of ‘carrying on the family name,’” she explains.
How to respond to questions about why you don’t have kids
If you are someone without children — either by choice or circumstance — you may already have a set answer for questions about it, like Parton. But for others, it’s something that can be upsetting and flustering every time it happens. Here are some examples of ways other people have answered questions about their family status, from a variety of perspectives and experiences:
Mention something you’re passionate about
When Blackstone receives questions about why she doesn’t have kids, her favourite response is: “I don’t have any kids, but one thing that I’m really passionate about is…” and then she’ll share something that she thinks might be a point of shared interest, like travelling or a particular hobby. She says that it can be an effective way to signal that you don’t think their question was appropriate, while also still being respectful of the person asking.
From Lindsay Bryan Podvin, a Financial Therapist at Mind Money Balance:
I simply respond with, “Nope, not having kids.” If I get pushback, I say, “I don’t need to justify my choice.” …While I’m childfree by choice, I know so many people who are struggling with infertility or jumping through adoption hoops, and when someone asks this question, it presses on such a painful part of a person. Any time we can help people understand that asking about a person’s childfree status is harmful is helpful.
Ask them why it matters to them
From Reese Spykerman, an e-commerce conversion expert:
Turn it around and ask them why it’s important to them. Disarming an unwanted question with a question of your own completely changes the dynamic and helps shift you away from either a defensive or a combative position. It often can also illuminate for the other person the inappropriate nature of these highly personal questions.
Ask about their reproductive decisions
Let them know you’re happy
From Mike Greenberg, a writer at Mythology Source:
I just try to show them that I’m happy. Voluntarily choosing not to have kids goes against society so much that it seems to shock some people. You can’t ‘convince’ these people no matter what you do. The best way to do is it to simply let them talk, and be happy.
Focus on being ‘selfish’ now and selfless later
From Lauren Peacock, author of Female. Likes Cheese. Comes with Dog.: Stories About Divorce, Dating, and Saying “I Do”:
I am choosing to be selfish now so that I can be selfless later. Choosing my career now and working towards these goals are things that I want for myself. When you throw kids into the mix, your life is supposed to revolve around them. That isn’t a bad thing, that is just the realistic way the world works (or should work, at least) when kids come into the picture.
Keep it vague
From Kate W., co-founder of PleasureBetter:
When [my husband and I] are asked why we don’t have children by people who we don’t feel a level of connection and trust with, we’ll lead with “Oh there’s other things we care about right now.” That “right now” leaves it open-ended in their mind that we might have kids someday and we feel fine leaving it at that. Or sometimes we’ll even just say “We just don’t.” Not everybody needs to be privy to the motivating forces in your life.
It’s OK for your response to change over time
From Connie Vanderzanden, of Accounting Department Inc.:
Before I made the choice to be childfree when I was in the midst of infertility, my go-to answer was that we were choosing to wait a little longer. Of course, every month there was hope and possibility, so answers could also go the route of “we are trying.” I had to make a choice though. Living with the possibility of having kids kept my life stuck. Making a choice [to be] childfree allowed me to get back to living, which was something I had avoided during my infertility treatments. Now, the question I get is “Do I regret my choice?” The answer is simply, “no.”
Bore the person with details, then ask about their family
From Corinne Segura, founder of My Chemical-Free House:
If I know the person who’s asking, I will give them the full explanation. I usually find that by telling people a lot of information they just get bored by the time you’re a few sentences in, so just keep going until you have bored them and then you can just stop and ask him them questions about themselves and kids, which is almost certainly a more interesting topic for them.
Show them the receipts
From Bryan Truong, founder of GameCows:
[My partner and I] tried the typical polite responses, but it never stopped, so now we’re kinda jerks about it. Our go-to is, “Oh we’re not done having fun yet. Do you want to see pictures of our trip to Angkor Wat this year? What did you do this summer?” People with kids tend to blindside you with the question and tend to have a blind faith that everything about having a kid is better than not having a kid. Our solution is to rapid-fire questions back and show pictures of us drinking piña coladas on the beach or where we’ve travelled to. We want kids someday, but it’s just not in our plans right now. We don’t begrudge them having kids, but there’s a definite feeling of resentment that we feel from them because we don’t.
Use humour (if you can)
From Israel Gaudette, founder of Link Tracker Pro:
When I’m asked why I don’t have kids yet, I respond with: “As soon as I figure it out how. Got any recommendations?” For a couple who has fertility issues, this is the best way [for us] to add humour while politely responding to this touchy and painful question. When we first knew we’re not going to have a baby at all, we were devastated. And it was even more devastating in times when someone asks why we don’t have one yet. We are very sensitive about it at first, but eventually, we learned to cope up with it. It’s not their fault for not knowing the real reason why. And you can’t prohibit them from asking either. So we decided to just go along with it instead of taking it personally.
Be honest with close friends and family members
From Isabel Firecracker, a life coach for childfree women and the founder of The Uprising Spark:
If the person who asks is a family member or a close friend, I believe that engaging in an open and honest conversation in which you can help them clear up any doubts about the childfree lifestyle helps break down misconceptions of our community: things like childfree people are selfish, immature, hedonists, and lazy, among others. It also helps normalise the conversation around this topic, which is something that most of us are striving for.
From James Hartman, founder of James Hartman & Associates, a political consulting and communications firm:
As a gay man who is often mistaken for straight, I get asked this question a bit. My response is generally that I’ve been trying to get pregnant, but it’s not working… “I have other priorities” is a gentle way of answering, but still somewhat sharp. “Parenthood is just not for me” might be the kindest response.
Tell them it’s ‘not the right time’
From Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn:
My wife and I were finally able to conceive after a long, arduous journey and many expensive fertility treatments, but we got this question for over 10 years after we were married. It was an almost constant assault, I think partially because people knew my wife adored kids and was very good with them.
At first we were honest, saying we were trying, but having trouble. But that led to extremely awkward conversations with the other person just backpedaling like crazy. It was uncomfortable for everyone involved, so we stopped doing it. Instead we just ended up saying it wasn’t yet the right time for us. That kept questions to a minimum, as people will read into that what they wish.
Explain that parenthood isn’t an option for everyone
From Talia Miele, BASW, a disability and chronic illness advocate:
As a person with a chronic illness, more often than not my days are dictated by severe levels of chronic fatigue and immense global pain, having children hasn’t been an option…Because this is an invisible illness and I don’t look sick people often ask when I’ll be having children. Usually I respond more politely than I’d like to, and work to use it as an opportunity to educate about invisible illnesses. I explain the limitations I have because of particular symptoms and the support lacking for the chronic illness community who do want to have children.
Let them know you have the same question
From Jeff Walker, head of Best VPN Canada:
I respond with: “That’s really an awesome question. Well, I wish I knew the answer.” It’s the truth. I’ve been wondering all these years why I’m still not a parent. At my age, I’ve been bombarded with a lot of inquiries about why I don’t have kids yet. And I want to be honest as much as possible not only to those asking me but to myself as well.
Have your own answers to questions about not having children? Share them in the comments below.
This article was originally published in November 2020.