We were at a baby shower for a coworker, eating cake and making small talk when the attention turned to my friend. Amanda was in her mid-thirties and had been married for almost seven years. We shared office space and lunchtime conversations. I cringed when the question was asked, “So, Amanda, when are you going to start a family?”
The question seemed light-hearted enough; it was a sort of tease. What the questioner didn’t know was that Amanda and her husband were in the midst of a long and confusing journey through infertility treatments. She didn’t know of the tears and the disappointment and the years of waiting.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that 12% of American women, age 15-44, have used infertility services. These treatments can be expensive, emotionally exhausting, and long, affecting both men and women. Research further indicates that 15-20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. This means that someone you know, someone in your social or work circle, has dealt with the pain of infertility or miscarriage. It is a journey that is often private, relatively unseen, and difficult.
What does this mean for our casual small talk? It means that we should stop asking about people’s reproductive roadmap, especially in work-place settings. Don’t ask when someone is going to start a family, when they are going to have more children, or even when they are going to become a grandparent (i.e. when are your kids going to start having kids?). You simply do not know what journey the individual is on…and you could put them in an awkward situation. What if she doesn’t want to ever have children? What if his wife is having difficulty conceiving? What if she is preparing to leave her partner?
As a general rule of thumb, unless someone volunteers information about their family plans, do not ask. And if they do invite you into that space of conversation, proceed with great awareness and care.