Navigating the “Do you have children?” question.

A patron was making small talk recently, and then it became large talk. He doesn’t know anything about me other than what he can see. Some of what he sees is the mask that I have to put on as part of working customer service. I like helping people, but I’m not their friends. They get confused sometimes.

He asked me how I was doing, and then after that, asked me how my husband was doing. He’s never met my husband. He knows I am married because I wear a wedding ring. He doesn’t know I’m married to a man, even though I am. Just because I am a woman wearing a wedding ring doesn’t mean I have a husband. Nuns wear wedding rings. Lesbians wear them too if they are in committed relationships.

I replied with the vague and noncommittal, “He’s fine”.

Then he asked if we had children, to which I replied “No”. He pressed. “Why not?”

Stupid question.

One – it is none of his business.
Two – what if we did and were heartbroken that we were infertile?
Three – what if we did have a child and s/he died?

I said no, that they are too expensive. Usually that is enough to stop this line of questioning. Sadly I get it a lot. I don’t get why strangers feel it is OK to ask these questions. Perhaps they think they are being friendly, but they don’t realize the potential minefield they are entering. They just don’t think. It could open up a lot of heartache for someone.

He pushed further, and I was done. He said “When you got married, didn’t you want to have children?”

He only knows my name because he’s read it on my nametag. He’s crossed my boundary already and hasn’t read my lack of engagement as a “go away” sign. I’ve not asked him how his wife was doing (I know he has one because he uses her library card as his own) and I’ve not asked him if he has children. A lack of reciprocal questions should indicate stop asking questions.

I was done. I didn’t want any more of this. I didn’t want it to start off with. I pulled out my biggest card.

I said the truth.

“Both of us were abused as children, and so we don’t want any.”

End of conversation.

There is nothing more to be said. No more pleading to get us to have children. No more trying to change our minds. No more prying.

In the past I would have felt bad for even saying that. I would have felt bad that I had to cross over the line of polite conversation into this. I would have felt bad for having to establish my boundaries.

Now I don’t. Now I know I must, and if I don’t draw a line, essentially people will invade my mental space. It is just like if a person shows up at the door to my home. I have the right, the duty, the obligation to establish how far he can get in.

Normally, I have the ability to decide if I even open the door, but a customer service job blurs that line.

Here is some advice – don’t ask strangers if they have children. If you ignore that advice, then don’t push if they say no. Don’t ask why. Don’t try to talk them into having children. There are plenty of kids on the planet as is. And there are plenty of bad parents who should have thought twice about having children. Maybe if they weren’t pressured by family, friends, and strangers into having them, they would have saved everybody the trouble.

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A punch to the head woke me up.

If you have told someone that something they do makes you uncomfortable, and they keep on doing it, then it is up to you to terminate the relationship.

That may sound harsh.

But it is as if you’ve put up your feelings for a vote. Who wins? Their needs or yours? Ideally, you’d both win. Ideally, everybody would be happy.

But if they feel they need to continue doing something that you have said is distressing or harmful to you, then they have voted. Their needs are more important than yours.

I went to a gathering once and I brought a jewelry project to work on. It is like a security blanket to me. I like having projects because it makes me feel more comfortable. I feel more exposed when I have nothing to work on.

A lady there wasn’t comfortable with me working on a project. I wasn’t right next to her. The project wasn’t loud or big. It wasn’t like I was taking notes. But she felt that in order for her to share her thoughts she needed me to not be doing anything and to look right at her.

She didn’t ask me directly. She mentioned casually, to the air it seemed, that she would rather each person pay full attention and not work on anything. It took me a little bit to understand that she meant me, she was so vague.

So I had a choice. Make her feel comfortable, and me feel uncomfortable, and stop working on my project. Or, pretend I didn’t hear her and keep on working. I’d feel a little comfortable because I’d have my project, but a little less than before she spoke because I would know that I was making someone else feel uncomfortable.

But really, I wasn’t making her feel uncomfortable. That was her choice.

I put my project up. And I developed a small amount of resentment to her, and a little bit to myself. I was upset that I didn’t stand up for myself. I was upset with her that she confronted me at all, and that she did it in such a passive-aggressive kind of way. It was my choice not to tell her how I felt. It was my choice to let her needs be more important than mine.

I had a coworker who thought it was funny to hit me on the back of my head when she walked by. She wouldn’t hit hard – she would often just catch my hair. That is an invasion of my personal space. That is a violation of social rules – we don’t touch each other unless it is mutual.

Now, I hate having people walk behind me anyway, but there is nothing I can do about it at work because of the arrangement of the desks. I don’t have an office. I don’t really even have a desk. I have a space that I usually work at when nobody else is around. It is a little discomforting to work in a place for many years and not really have a “place” to be, but that is for another post.

I first thought she was getting a rise out of it, out of getting in my personal space. So I dealt with her like I dealt with my big brother – pretend that I liked it. I figured that she’d stop because that works with big brothers. Don’t let them get the satisfaction of seeing you upset. Pretend it doesn’t bother you. It didn’t work. I had to tell her to quit, and in telling her I learned something very telling about my boss.

She laughed at me for telling this lady to quit hitting me. I should have seen that as the sign that it is. Hindsight is 20/20 they say. I learned this lesson later – don’t trust her with anything real. She isn’t really human.

I knew a guy in college named Carson who hurt me badly. He and I were sitting in a friend’s dorm room. I was sitting on the bed and he was sitting in a chair facing me. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point in the conversation he reached over and pushed me sideways. My back was against the wall, and being pushed sideways meant that my head caught the part of the doorjamb where the doorknob was. It hurt a lot. I pulled forward, turned around, and saw what had caused the pain in my head. I told Carson to be careful – I’d gotten hurt from his shove. I figured it was an accident.

The second push wasn’t an accident. He took my shoulder, pulled me back to see where the doorjamb was, and then shoved my head sideways into the doorjamb.

Without thinking, I hit him as hard as I could right between the eyes. Every bit of energy and force I had in me was directed into that punch. I’m grateful that I didn’t hit him anywhere where it could have caused actual damage. I could have bloodied his nose, broken his teeth, bruised his eye. I could have killed him if I’d hit the right spot with that much force. It was an instinctive punch, and it did the job.

We stared at each other for what seemed like ten minutes. I’m sure it was only a minute, but time had slowed down. It does that when crazy things happen.

He broke the silence. “Don’t ever do that again.” He glowered at me.

“Don’t ever do that again.” I responded, indignant. He’d hurt me intentionally. There was no reason for it. I’d never done anything to him to deserve that. I’d never done anything to anybody to deserve that.

The first time is free. The first time is an accident. Once you’ve been told that you’ve harmed me, and you do it again, everything is over.

If they hurt you and you don’t tell them, then it is on you. If you tell them and they continue to hurt you, then they have made their choice. It is on you if you stay after that.