Infertility and the struggle with small talk

031416 rock stack secure

This post is a two-fer. First, I celebrate a personal progress milestone in the infertility story. Second, I offer some small talk tips in the event that I made you more socially anxious about conversations with strangers due to my story in part one.

Learning to be secure in my childlessness

Social events with people who don’t know me well (or at all) can be tricky with my infertility. Particularly events involving babies and children. It’s a bit of a trap. I haven’t completely figured out how to navigate this one.

One, I delight in my friends and their kids, so I want to celebrate with them at these occasions. That makes avoidance a non-option for me. Two, my childlessness inevitably comes up in small talk conversations with strangers, and I feel like a tight rope walker about to slip and fall as I navigate the conversation. Polite small talk offers opportunities for strangers to remind me of my body’s failure to carry a pregnancy to term; they unknowingly hurl rocks with their simple questions.

And, finally, at a recent gathering, I feel like I made some personal progress.

As multiple people asked, “Which child is yours?” I said, “Oh, none.” They blink. Pause. They haven’t yet realized this conversation is not going to play out in the smooth and stereotypical way they intended.

Then, they followed up with, “So, do you have any children?” I responded, “No.”

As they glanced down toward my ring finger bling and ask, “So, how long have you been married?” I fill in the relevant data: over ten years.

And then, I let all those conversational rocks land with a thud.

There’s awkwardness at that point. I can see the questions forming; their lips open and shut before sound can come out. They don’t know what to do.

Normally, I’d jump in with a save — fill in enough of my story to defend myself or explain my status. I decided I don’t have to do that anymore. I gave myself permission to let the awkwardness hang and not give in to the compulsion to fix it.

I don’t need to do verbal gymnastics to smooth over the awkward for the other person. I decided I don’t have to say things to defend my childlessness or to tell people that I’d love to have kids. I don’t owe an explanation for my parental status or lack thereof. I don’t have to announce my infertility. I don’t have to justify my childlessness by saying the cutesy, “not yet,” or talking about our plans to adopt.

I can let the conversation be awkward. I don’t have to carry the awkward. I don’t have to try to preempt judgment or pity. My story is MY story, no one else’s. No one else is inherently entitled to it. I don’t have to share my story to prevent people from thinking I don’t like children. I don’t have to justify my identity to a stranger I just met. I don’t have to fit someone’s prepackaged womanly mold to be okay.

I’m testing out a different way of thinking about infertility, and it goes like this. Infertility is NOT okay. For obvious reasons. But, while the situation itself is not okay, I am okay. Saying “I am okay” is NOT the same as saying “my infertility is okay.” Because, as I said, infertility is not okay. But still, I’m going to be okay. I am okay.  I don’t have to defend my reality or have a solution to patch over the awkward for others.

And letting go of the need to defend my reality is huge for me. It’s letting go of the need to be liked by someone I just met. If my maternal status or lack thereof is a hang-up for someone, that’s his or her issue — not mine. I don’t have to carry that burden. I’m not obligated to explain my fertility (or lack thereof) to a stranger.

Taking the scary out of small talk

In case I’ve made you paranoid about social interactions, I have a few tips for being a safer small talker at events. Small talk is awkward. I loathe it. It sucks the life out of me. And it’s not just the infertility thing. Being an introvert also contributes to the dread of shallow conversation. Also, I don’t want to unintentionally jab at wounds people carry. So many people’s deep wounds are stabbed by the standard small talk questions. Let’s try not to wound each other with our attempts at polite conversation.

First, I avoid asking people about their parental status or their spouse or their occupation, unless they volunteered some information about those categories first. Why? If they don’t fit a stereotypical mold for those questions, guess what? I’ve just unintentionally lobbed a verbal grenade at them. If someone wrestles with infertility or simply doesn’t want children, I’ve made them defensive by my question. Or if someone just lost his job or can’t find a job, I’ve just jabbed an open wound with what I thought was an innocent question.

Plus, if people have kids or a job they love, this stuff inevitably trickles out naturally in the conversation. People can’t help but talk about these things.

So, what works for me? If I’m at something someone I know is hosting, I ask, “so, how do you know [insert host’s name]?” That usually leads to reciprocity, and people have interesting responses that typically generate other natural (and safe) conversations. I might also ask, “what’s one of your favorite memories of [insert host’s name]?” Sometimes I get hilarious stories out of this deal. And, either way, it’s a much more memorable conversation than swapping job titles or children counts. Plus, these conversations aren’t fraught with as much risk for damage as the societal defaults.

If I’m at a church/business/non-profit event, I ask, “how long have you been affiliated with [insert organization’s name]?” I generally follow that with “what made [insert organization’s name] appealing for you?” That generally provides enough content for a non-awkward exchange.

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