Speaking out about invasive questioning

We’ve had a bit of a hiatus from our regular monthly posts, but the good news is that we’ve been busily analysing data and writing up our findings, which we hope to share on this page as soon as we’re able to.

In the meantime, we’ve been noticing a number of people speaking up about not having children, or being childfree.  Here’s an interesting post written earlier this year by a blogger called Jamie Berube called “You Shouldn’t Need A Reason For Not Having Kids“.  In her post Jamie talks about her experiences of being quizzed about why she doesn’t have kids yet. She points out how uncomfortable it is to be asked such questions and, “depending on whatever my circumstances might be …absolutely devastating”. Regardless of whether someone’s ‘childlessness’ is wanted or not, she argues, this questioning is invasive and inappropriate, even when when it is ‘well-meant’.

This intrusive questioning is explained by Jill Reynolds, a researcher from the UK who does research about single women’s experience.  Jill attributes this kind of questioning to normative  social expectations. When people don’t comply with what is expected of them–getting married and (then) having a baby (or preferably more)–then they are opened up to being questioned by others and having to account for themselves.  These questions are often fueled by people’s own unquestioned assumptions.  On the other hand, it would be an “unusual conversational move” to ask someone about conventional behaviour: “So why did you decide not to stay single?”, “Why do you eat meat?”, “Why did you change your surname when you got married?”, or “Why do you have (so many) children?” etc.

Questioning behaviour that is considered to be normal, self-evident, or socially acceptable comes across as strange.   The answer is supposedly self-evident. Strangely enough, though, research shows that often people often can’t give an answer as to why they went along with the norm, especially when it comes to having children.  Stephanie Meyers argues that “…awkwardness in accounting for oneself and testiness about one’s chosen course bespeak autonomy deficits. If women [and men] were autonomously becoming [parents] or declining to, we would expect to hear a splendid chorus of distinctive, confident voices, but instead we are hearing a shrill cacophony of trite tunes” (Meyers, 2001, p. 752).  In other words, people usually don’t have an answer because they’ve never stopped to think about their ‘choices’ or to examine their assumptions.  This also means that they probably haven’t considered that other people might have different priorities, desires, or values, that take them along a different path.

Sometimes, questioning ‘normal’ behaviour can even seem rude.  The fact is, it can be no less rude than asking someone about their reproductive, relationship, or other choices that don’t comply with the norm.  The difference is that those who have followed the expected path have the power of normality on their side. They’re not the potential weirdos and won’t face possible stigma.

Speaking out about how it feels when questioned about non-compliance, like Jamie did,  is important to promote empathy and raise the visibility of different ways of living in the world–like being voluntarily childless. Of course, there will always be people who can’t try to understand or accept others’ choices, but the least that one can do in that case is to try to respond with respect.

Can you identify with Jamie’s experience?

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One Response to Speaking out about invasive questioning

  1. This is an interesting point. I know I have experienced this, and I’ve also had people ask me why I’m a vegetarian. I guess people just want to question what is “different” in our society. When a person is doing something that is completely opposite of what is the norm, everyone else takes note and wants to question it because it’s something they’re not used to. While with being a vegetarian, usually the questions are out of curiosity, I don’t think this is always the case with having kids. People become invasive and rude. I think with vegetarianism it’s not as drastic as not having kids.

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