Making peace with awkward small talk

Trail of the Cedars

Every time I think I’m done writing about infertility, life throws surprises, and I find myself with new stories to process. Starting a job in a church and meeting loads of people brings up new rounds of questions for me.

I’ve been infertile for a decade, and I keep thinking I’ll finish working through my issues at some point. It’s naive, and, frankly, I should know better because grief doesn’t quite work that way. We get better at carrying it. But, still it sneaks up on us in cycles and waves.

I started writing in the middle of the story because I found myself aggravated by the published materials sanitizing the dramatic, painful middle with happy adoption endings or magic surprise babies. Finding material that helpfully wrestled the tension in the messy, broken middle was difficult. And so, I wrote my story here.

Mostly, I’ve made fragile peace with this story. This is my life. I can’t change it. And, there’s so much that’s wonderful in my life. Infertility is only a portion of my story — not the whole thing.

But, in the midst of getting-to-know-you small talk these days, I found myself with new waves of shame and deeper questions. Every time I think I figured out how to navigate the small talk game, like in this old post, the rules of the game change.

Suddenly these days I feel unexpected shame and embarrassment over the lack of children. It’s not having my nose rubbed in the thing I wanted, but don’t have. The days of jealousy and envy are mostly gone; I might visit for a minute, but I don’t live here anymore.

Instead, it’s this sense of private shame that I’m not okay because I can’t have biological children. That I’m not woman enough or adult enough or that somehow God is actually mad at me or punishing me for something.

Let’s be clear. I’m not finger pointing outward. These days I assume people mean well.

Other people aren’t the problem. The problem is ME.

I want to fit in, and I want to be competent. And somehow not being a biological mother makes me feel incompetent as a Christian woman. Feelings and facts are not in alignment here.

I know it’s a lie. But the feelings wash in, and I’m looking at someone’s face trying to recenter on what is true about me.

Then, I come back to the present and remember.

I still haven’t answered his or her question about my (non-existent) kids.

Crap. How much time has actually lapsed while the hamster wheel in my brain was whirling?

And that’s immediately followed by ALL HANDS ON DECK panic, like a scene out of Inside Out.

What do I say?!?! I have to say something! Like now.

There is no right answer, and everything is just awkward. And I HATE this part! It’s like a final exam essay question that totally caught you off guard even if you did meticulously research everything on the study guide the professor gave. 

I plan for this to be my home and I want to be friends, but we just met. If I haven’t even hugged you before, I’m pretty sure it’s weird to be sharing intimate medical details. I mean — we’re just making small talk, nobody needs to know 10 years of angst and loss and surgeries.

But, I love children and I work at a church with youth, so I don’t want you to think somehow I secretly hate kids. So, is just saying “no, we don’t have kids” enough or will you  wonder or judge? Do I need to care about this? Probably not. But, right now, I can’t help myself even if I can’t control what you think anyway. 

If I say the cutesy, “not yet” I feel like I’m using the potential of foster children as a crutch to feel better about my life situation. That feels icky and gross, and I’d prefer to avoid it.

Plus, while we’re in the process to become foster parents, that doesn’t sanitize the infertility story. These children aren’t props for my personal story. Having foster children won’t erase the inability to have biological children.

It’s a way forward for all of us, and that’s a redemptive thing. It’s a way to choose life and hope. But, the possibility of loving these kiddos doesn’t suddenly make me more of a woman or Christian or adult than I was before. I’m still me, and I’m NOT a saint.

Most importantly, I don’t want to share much of these kiddos stories, even their status as “foster”; their stories are theirs, not mine.

Plus, I’m working on reclaiming parts of my story as private instead of public. Just because I’m curious about someone doesn’t mean I have the right to information. Likewise, just because someone asks me something, it doesn’t mean I have to tell him or her. I get to choose.

But, I still feel compelled to explain, like I have to wrap myself as a presentable and tidy package instead of the mess I feel I am.

Eventually, after all these thoughts rush through my brain, something tumbles out of my mouth. It’s different every time, and each time, I pray it’ll get better and less awkward the next time.

Thus far, no such luck.

And so, I find myself asking, how do I accept awkward as okay? When will I accept that awkward doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong with me or someone else?

Sometimes, awkward just is.

And more, sometimes awkward is how we actually make connections.

Maybe we’re all sitting around trying to overcome awkward. But, maybe this is not a matter of overcoming or winning, but about accepting.

I’m infertile, and I get to choose what to share or not. It can be different every time, and that’s okay, too. And maybe this will just be uncertain and awkward every time it comes up. Maybe that’s okay.

Which leads me to the realization that maybe I’m not such a special unicorn. Maybe it’s not just me with the bag of awkward stories. Maybe we’ve all got that sore subject we hope to avoid in chit-chat. Career? Kids? House? Pets? Marriage? Religion? Politics?

Do we all sit around with radars flaring red alert? What’s your OMG-can-we-avoid-this-subject-please?

And as I zoom out a little further from myself, I find myself rethinking ways that I make small talk.

I never ask people what they do or if they have children. And, now, I begin to wonder if that reticence hurts, too.

Maybe they’re dying to share and my withholding makes them feel I’m not interested. I am. I just don’t want to poke deep wounds in the interest of small talk; I wait till it trickles through in the conversation. If I wait long enough, these details always spill through.

But, still, I wonder — does it hurt if I don’t ask and I just wait for details to be shared?

Maybe none of us really know what we’re doing, and we’re all just trying to figure it out as best we can. Maybe some of us just have a higher tolerance for awkward.

I hope mine grows soon.

2 thoughts on “Making peace with awkward small talk

  1. I can so relate on so much of this! Both being asked questions I don’t enjoy answering, and not wanting to pepper new acquaintances with questions they may find awkward. But I do think the more that each of us can be willing to live in the awkwardness, the less awkward it will become for all of us. Maybe it’s because I’m over 40 now but I do feel slightly more comfortable these days with not needing to explain myself all the time, and not needing others to explain themselves to me. Many people could do with a bit more mystery and silence in their conversations 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m trying to lean into awkward, and figure out appropriate sharing instead of over-explaining in hopes people will like me. I have to keep reminding myself A)it’s really okay if people don’t like me. B) I don’t actually control whether someone likes me or not; that’s all entirely up to their choice and discretion. C) My tendency to assume everyone dislikes and judges me (until proven otherwise) is not based on fact or logic, and is usually wrong about 99% percent of the time.

      All I can do is choose to lean into grace, love and acceptance or not (for others and myself). And some days it’s easier than others.

      I’d just like it to be easier like all the time.


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