BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I’m 27 years old and have been married to my wonderful husband for three months, and already the inevitable onslaught of questions regarding our reproductive choices has begun. It seems that we are constantly asked about our plans to have a baby by every extended family member, co-worker, friend, and acquaintance.

I find these questions to be incredibly invasive and rude, as it is really nobody’s business what I do, or don’t do, with my uterus. I have struggled with anorexia for 10 years, and the possible complications of a pregnancy related to my physical, emotional, and psychological health are severe enough to deter me from ever wanting to become pregnant.

Those close to me understand my reasons for not wanting to get pregnant, but it’s not as easy to explain my choice to others. When pressed about our “baby plans,” I generally coldly shut down the conversation, because that’s easier than dealing with the incredulous questioning that follows my answer of “No babies for us.” I want to be able to provide a polite response (without having to go into too much personal detail) that effectively ends the conversation for good, but I am not sure what to say.

Alexandra
Burlington, Connecticut


Dear Alexandra,

You’re right that the decision about whether or not to have children is very personal, so I can understand why these questions feel invasive. At the same time, depending on the context—the person’s relationship to you and the reason behind the question—what these people are asking, even if the words sound similar, might be very different. There’s also a difference between a private conversation with a friend, a group conversation at a party, and an encounter with a relative at Thanksgiving. These differences matter, because they’ll help you to figure out how to respond.

Let’s consider the various intentions behind these questions. First, most people don’t mean harm when they bring up babies. It’s usually a matter of being tone-deaf, unaware that they’re raising a topic that for many feels intensely private and for some feels intensely fraught. They may toss out the question as if they’re asking something on par with “How’s the new job going?” rather than “How much money do you make?” In particular, people of an older generation or a more traditional cultural background might automatically equate marriage with babies, so for them, they view this question as nothing more than casual small talk or perhaps an expression of support and interest: I’m so excited for you in this new chapter of your life! What’s next?

Then there are those who have a better sense of how personal this is, but ask from a place of care. While this question is hard for you, someone who asks about your personal life may be trying to create intimacy and build a friendship with you; if you automatically react by coldly shutting down the conversation, you may also be shutting down the possibility of growing closer with this person. For instance, some people who become parents do so through adoption or surrogacy, so even though you might explain why pregnancy isn’t for you, they may ask more questions—not because they’re nosy, but because this helps them understand more about you: Do you not want to be pregnant, or not want to be a parent?

If becoming a parent is important to those who ask, or their experience of raising their children has been fulfilling, they may struggle to understand your decision, or worry that you’ll be missing out on something, or wonder whether you’ll change your mind and regret your choice. Sometimes, too, because “No babies for us” is so vague, people might assume that you want to be parents but are having fertility issues. In these situations, people may ask more questions because they experienced fertility issues themselves and want to pass along information about what worked or offer support for you.

In all of these scenarios, the thing to remember is that the questions you get aren’t meant to irritate you. For the most part, they reflect the beliefs, desires, and experiences of the people asking. In other words, their questions are more about what parenthood means to them as they try to understand what it means for you. Given the variety of reasons that a person might be asking these questions, one way to handle them is to reply, in an open, curious tone, “Why do you ask?”

It’s an elegant response that turns the question on them, relieving you of the need to answer right away (or at all) and also giving you a sense of where the person is coming from. If the person thought they were simply making small talk, your question might help them to see that their “innocent” question isn’t really so innocent. If a friend knows that you don’t want to have children but wants you to explain why, now you’re asking that person to explain why this matters to them. And that’s a very different conversation from the one about whether or not someone—you, in particular—should have a baby.

One thing I hear a lot from people who don’t want children is that they’re often asked to defend their choice, whereas people who decide to become parents don’t undergo such scrutiny. If someone like you, newly married, says, “I want children,” it’s generally the case that nobody asks them to justify their position, or warns them that they might change their mind and regret their decision (even though this could, in fact, happen). There’s no interrogation, no “Are you sure?,” no lecture from a child-free friend about how much better life is without children.

Saying “Why do you ask?” changes the conversation from one about why you and your husband aren’t going to be parents to one about the relationship between you and the person asking about your personal life. What’s behind their need to understand your decision?

The same answer—“Why do you ask?”—can be used for intrusive questions about whether a person is going to have a second child, when a couple who’s been dating a while is going to get married, why a couple is splitting up, or any number of other sensitive things in one’s life that other people may bring up.

Once the conversation shifts in this direction, you’ll feel less irritated, because you’ll have more control—now the onus of explaining lies squarely with the other person. The result is that the conversation will end there, or you’ll have a deeper conversation with someone who matters to you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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