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“Childless at Fifty? What is wrong with you?”

Posted in Aging, Life & Love, Relationships, and Women's issues

DSC00801There are two questions I get asked with an annoying regularity. They come as a pair.

The first is: “Why aren’t you married?” This one I despatch easily – I either go for the laugh – “still waiting for that billionaire”. Or – if the questioner is an ass I will say: “No-one ever wanted me. I guess I am just not lovable enough.” My voice will catch and I will look down sadly (a la Princess Di). If I’m lucky I stop them in their tracks – if not – I get the follow up:

“Got any kids?”

Not being married and in your 50s is like having a weird stain on your clothing or food in your teeth. People want to help you – but they don’t know how. So they look away.

Not having any kids implies a problem. After all – we are genetically programmed to continue our species. The subtext here is: single women, married or divorced women, straight or gay women, women over 40 (and sometimes even over 50) … can have kids. So why haven’t you? What is wrong with you?

We western chicks in our 40s and 50s were given carte blanche for life. We’re the first generation of women after feminism – we got to take on the world and make our own choices: work, travel, contraception, abortion, partners. We could follow our natures without fear of punishment and social disgrace.  We could choose not to procreate.

But was it a choice – or was it the price we paid all that freedom?

womens-lib

I did flirt with the idea for a couple of months in the mid nineties – but I didn’t want to give up my job. There was no way I could have lived on the road with kids along. And leaving them at home for weeks at a time just wouldn’t have been fair.

Plus – and I never told this to anyone before: I never saw myself carrying something around in my body. The thought was odd and alien. The idea of milky boobs and black lines up my belly just made me feel squirly. Still does.

When I was living in NYC – there was a group of women in the building who had adopted babies from China. They celebrated cultural holidays and held birthday parties in the lobby. It seemed to be the ideal solution – everyone got what they wanted. But I wasn’t moved enough to try it for myself.

As camparigirl and I explored the issue – we came to realise that many of our close girlfriends are childless (urgh – even that word implies that something’s lacking). We decided to do a bit of a poll – and see why that was.So we asked: did you choose not to have kids. Or is it just the way it panned out?

The replies surpassed our expectations. Who knew our friends had been sitting with all this pain and wisdom?  Or, that they would be so willing to tell us about it. Not everyone was thrilled: as Simonetta (an ex Music business guru – just turned 60) pointed out succinctly: “Asking a woman why she is childless is even ruder than asking how much money she makes.”

“For me it wasn’t much of a choice”, said Annamaria, (52 – who writes for TV and Radio):  “My maternal instinct never kicked in. I remember, even as a child playing with my dolls: I would pretend they were my students, not my children”.

Kimberly, a writer/professor in her mid-40s – seconded that emotion: “Friends and even strangers would tell me that having children is the best thing this world has to offer, and if I didn’t, I would regret it. They told me that I would never know the beauty of ‘true, unconditional love.’”

sofagirl (right) and Carla in the mid nineties
sofagirl (right) and Carla in the mid- nineties

“I would say in all honesty I had no maternal instincts until I hit 40”, admitted Carla (49/ex rock-chick and now property flipper). “Which didn’t give me much time. But I look back now and see my life was pretty selfish, and in some ways, I was very immature, certainly about relationships.”

“(For me) it boils down to one thing: I don’t have the energy ..”; this is Kimberly again. “I would rather focus on my career and my husband. I feel my choices may be considered selfish, but they are also selfless. I know I will never hold my own sweet child, but I just don’t think I could ‘do it all’.”

Mercia (a Marketing exec who just turned 41) came to that realization too, but for different reasons: “I understood very early on that my personality would not have allowed me to be a working mother. The guilt and pressures of doing both (jobs) well would’ve driven me crazy. I made the conscious decision rather to be financially independent and have a career.”

Balancing children and work was obviously a key consideration. But relationships – failed and otherwise – also played their part.

Carla: “I met someone six months after my 40th birthday and spent a year with him in Australia.  As someone whose relationships have not segued into one another, and who has spent many years as a single woman: I remember, vividly, sitting on the plane home – coming to terms with the fact that, not only did I probably face spending a few years on my own again, but that along with the loss of the relationship – had gone my last chance to have a child.”

Mercia’s marriage “was not in a good place from the start. I was determined to not have children until we could sort out our problems. We never did. We got divorced. And I am very grateful that I did not have children.”

Kimberley too was satisfied with her decision: “I made choices and one of them was to have a career and, hopefully, a good, long, happy marriage.”


For others it was a question of timing – which Carla laid out candidly: “it came down to: wrong man right time, right man wrong time.” she wrote. “I have just married for the first time at the age of 49. My husband is 47 and has one daughter. There is no doubt for either of us that, had we been younger, we would have tried to have a child together.”

As we read the letters from our friends; we realized that we had known in some peripheral way that these internal conversations were being had – the frank phrases were simple framing something we had seen in action. But some of the words we read stopped our breath: for other friends – their choice not to have children had been informed by loss.

A Spanish friend told of a miscarriage late in her second trimester. An event so devastating, she couldn’t bring herself to ever try for a baby again. “The blood and the pain and that little body that I saw; it was awful. I just couldn’t do it. For me, it wasn’t possible anymore”.  She was 36 then, and 20 years on the wounds are still fresh.

F had terminated her pregnancy when an amniocentesis revealed her baby had Downs Syndrome. “I know what people say – that Downs babies are loving and non-judgemental and sweet, but what if I hadn’t been able to love him? What if I couldn’t bear to be with him – how would that have turned out?”  She decided never to take that chance again. And lost her partner in the aftermath.

And for others – being childless wasn’t by choice, it was the end of a dream: “If you don’t mind – I don’t want to take part in this” wrote one friend. And I understood: hearing the echo of sadness. For her something she had hoped and wished for, had never come to pass. L was more direct: “You know the answer to that Sue – I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to marry me let alone have kids with me. And I didn’t want to do it on my own.”

I wonder if I will be quite so cavalier next time someone asks me “Why never married, why no kids”. Going for the laugh, now seems shallow – the easy out. After all – these are questions that go to the heart of femininity, to the core of being a woman. The answers we give will define how successful other people – and sometimes we ourselves, feel we have been as a female.

Perhaps we owe it to all the women before and after us to look the questioner in the eye and say: “you know – that’s a complicated one – and I would like to do your question justice. How long have you got?”

(All names have been used with permission. Image of girl-and-bird, sofagirl-and-carla both copyright campari and sofa, images of Helen Mirren, Oprah Winfrey and the Women’s Lib sign – all in the public domain.)
A version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post 

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43 Comments

  1. I’m 41. I don’t care for children. Actually, I DISLIKE most of them. The only ones who have ever pulled ever-so-slightly at my heartstrings are those of close friends or family members. But I still don’t like them enough to want my own. People who ask why I don’t have children are extremely rude. My dear late grandmother told me I should respond with a, “It’s so interesting that you would ask me something like that.. (followed by an awkward pause to make them really uncomfortable)” but I’ve never gone that route. Instead, if they don’t know me well enough to know that I’d rather eat my own eyeballs than spend more than 5 minutes with a child (never mind 18 years), then I simply say, “How do you know we’ve tried and simply can’t?”. That usually shuts them up and makes them realise that it’s none of their bloody business and to think before they consider asking a woman that question in future.

    July 14, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      It’s one of the rudest questions one can ask and I am always appalled that people would go there. Even worse than “when are you getting married?”. It’s nobody’s business and extremely painful if someone has actually been trying to conceive or if they know they can’t. I always knew I didn’t want children either. There are some kids I adore and I totally relate to but I never felt that urge to have someone spring from my loins and I always felt I shouldn’t need to justify myself.

      July 15, 2016
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  2. I turned 32 a couple of months ago, and I already feel out of sorts. My younger cousins are getting married and having children, and it’s still not something I really see myself doing. I graduated from college and jumped into a career, which allowed me to start my own business last year. As my uncle so perfectly captured it, “that is your child.” I can’t imagine having a child right now, and I’m blown away by full-time working mothers, especially those that own their own businesses. I also empathize with the ladies in your article who mention that having a maternal instinct, or at least until much later than other women. I always wanted to tag along with my brother and his friends growing up, playing sports, war and GI Joes. Dolls, playing house and more ‘feminine’ activities didn’t hold my interest. I used to get irritated when people asked me when I was going to ‘settle down,’ and sometimes I still do. But I’m so happy where I’m at right now that it doesn’t usually even bother me. Happiness isn’t the same for everyone, but some people just can’t see that.

    May 21, 2013
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    • Do you know what I love about your comment? It starts a bit tentative, nearly apologetic for why children wouldn’t work for you at this time but, by the end of it, your resolve on what makes you happy and complete right now is in full display. Circumstances change, and so do our needs – being aware and responding to them, rather than to outside pressure, is what matters. Thanks for taking the time to share.

      May 23, 2013
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  3. […] recently read a really interesting post on Campari & Sofa titled “Childless at Fifty? What is wrong with you?” where she shares responses to a poll she took of her childless childfree friends to understand just […]

    May 5, 2013
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  4. My wife and I have been married for 14 years and do not have (and never planned to have) kids. When people (quite rudely) enquire why we are childless my wife allows her lower lip to tremble and announces that she is unable…. Of,course that’s chiefly because she had her tubes tied years ago but it generally shuts people up 🙂

    May 1, 2013
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    • Good for her! I find it amazing that people consider it rude to talk about money but have no qualms asking about such private matters!

      May 2, 2013
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  5. Flossy
    Flossy

    A thought provoking article. I have plenty of friends who are childfree by design – they don’t like them and/or have zero maternal feelings or because their health wouldn’t allow it; and others who are childfree by happenstance, ie wanted or wouldn’t have minded kids but the right sperm wasn’t there at the right time. I’d like to throw two things into the pot.

    One is that university educated women have an extremely low birthrate (there was a piece on Woman’s Hour about exactly this subject yesterday morning) and there’s a lot of speculation what this signifies and what the ramifications might be for society – perhaps educated women have thought about the options and chosen the route they wished (frankly i think if anyone actually really THOUGHT about the consequences of having children, they just wouldn’t, so perhaps it’s just as well we’re biologically hardwired or no one would have kids), or that by the time a degree is completed and a career launched to an individual’s satisfaction, fertility options are then more tricky.

    The other is my personal ‘I’m going to write into the Times’ theory on the subject which makes me so incensed every time I hear that ‘women have prioritised careers so it’s their fault they don’t have children’. I believe we women in the late 40s or 50s, so the children of the first pill era of the 60s, are also the first generation to be handed a generation of men for whom birth control has been a huge boon. Just as it gave us a choice to procreate or not, so it has men, freeing them of responsibility for their sexual actions that they would have found it difficult if not impossible to evade in the past, but also as a consequence permitting them to be a generation of men who have prolonged their adolescence for as long as possible leaving a significant number of women who were ready and peer group men who just weren’t ready to man up. A generalisation of course, but so so common in stories from our generation as to be noteworthy.

    We are from a generation of women for whom it was possible to work, study, steer our own lives – those of us fortunate enough to study or start great careers after leaving school by and large wouldn’t have even thought about having children in our late teens or in the middle of studying for a degree, the time now professionals are saying we should procreate as we’re at peak fertility. The generation prior to us would have had to pay for that decision by, so often, having to drop out of their studies or jobs to take care of children, so sealing their fate. For us, our decisions have been informed both by choice, and, as you said, ‘the price we paid for all that freedom’ – but the ‘we’ must include the men of our generation – they too need to be prepared for those decisions, that commitment. The next generation of women is already learning from the paths we have taken, just as we learned to follow or reject the generation before us.

    And personally I give thanks every day for all childfree ‘aunties’ out there (I was one myself for decades). In my experience they are the most fun playdates, the best aunties, the best buddies, the best riding to the rescuers, the best sanity savers. For our little chap at least, I consider him community parented by my (largely childfree) awesome best friends, and I have no doubt he will be a better boy and man because of it.

    April 30, 2013
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    • YAY – thanks for the ‘shout out’ to Aunties – I never had a close one and would have loved to. I spend as much time as I can with my nephew and nieces in CT and try to see my other niece in London at least once a year. Your piece is really thought provoking – I look forward to seeing your by-line in the times.

      May 2, 2013
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  6. silvia
    silvia

    I love the word CHILDFREE, it could be a useful neologism.

    April 29, 2013
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  7. Have you traveled to India?! This is probably all you’ll be explaining and you’ll get nothing but sympathy. As though you were broken somehow and needed fixing. And if you did have one, then it’s about finding the second! And if you did have both, it’s about how bad a mother you are. I don’t think there’s escaping all the different crappy discussions on children whether or not you have them. They are all offensive at all levels. And it’s funny how large sections of society around the world, most of the world really are soooo far behind on simply understanding the concept of individual rights and human choice. And it’s even more horrible that it’s we women that do that to each other. Someday .. Someday ..

    But I loved how you actually went out there and got all those responses. There are so many reasons to not have a child and so many more reasons why it’s no one else’s business.

    April 28, 2013
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    • I did spend some time in India – and ironically was never asked this question.
      I was asked – all the time – why my hair was so short, and why it was so red. Kids and teenagers would come up and ask to touch my head. I was offered scarves and hats by older women. Very interesting

      May 2, 2013
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  8. I’m at the young age of 27 with this decision still ahead of me. I haven’t felt the maternal pull or the need to hold my own sweet offspring in my arms yet, and I’m curious as to if it’ll ever come. I held a firm no kids stance up until 26, which in they grand scheme of things isn’t long, but I’ve recently resolved to more seriously consider it. Being in a serious relationship for the past 3 years means the questions about marriage and kids are nonstop and I find them so absolutely rude. “No I don’t have an answer for you, if we did we’d have married last year with a 2nd one on the way; we’re still working it out, thank you, and it’s none of your business.” But I guess it’s safe to say it never stops.
    Thank you for sharing this!

    April 28, 2013
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  9. I don’t understand why people think it’s okay to ask such personal questions. It’s rude!

    I have noticed since moving to Italy, only Americans ask me this question. Perhaps it’s because Italy has the lowest birthrate in Europe. Not having children (or only 1) is is not unusual for older women.

    Also, I’m childfree not childless.

    April 28, 2013
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    • The childfreee vs childless debate was had by us a couple times. We decided that neither term was ideal – Childless implied a lack in us. And Childfree implied that having children was a jail or trap. Maybe we should put our heads together and come up with another term? One that works equally for those who chose not to have kids (like me) and those who really wanted to but were not able. There’s a challenge for us all.

      May 2, 2013
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  10. Thank you for this beautifully written piece. I have many single friends on the cusp of turning 40 and all have different feelings about having children and being married for that matter. It is often an awkward topic of conversation. I am married for the second time to an amazing man, but we are struggling to conceive. I realise more and more that the quality of one’s relationship(s) is the most important thing. At the end of the day life is a series of choices which can take you down different paths. Each person has their own journey and one has to respect that. There is no right or wrong, only that which is true to yourself.

    April 28, 2013
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    • Life has a funny way of delivering when we least expect it – and in a format we never anticipated. Holding thumbs for you.

      May 5, 2013
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  11. I’m 46, newly married, and do not have children. By the time I found a man I really could love, my eggs were no longer quite so fresh. I’m happy with the way things have turned out though. Our world needs more supportive, aunts, uncles, and neighbors–if it takes a village, hopefully everyone in the village doesn’t have kids of their own!

    April 28, 2013
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  12. The stigma is ridiculous. I think the maternal instinct is a cultural myth that gets embedded in women’s minds, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then they crave kids because people tell them that they will. It’s a choice, nothing more.

    April 27, 2013
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  13. I’m young, and I have so much respect for women who do not have kids. I don’t plan on having children for many reasons, some of which you covered. But I hope by the time I am 50 that question doesn’t come up and people will understand my choice. When I say I don’t want to have children and I don’t care that much about marriage people look at me like some crazy feminist. But the truth is that I do want love, I just don’t care if I marry him or not, and I don’t want children. Whether it is a choice or not it is so personal; how insensitive to question someones lifestyle because you do not agree or are going to be critical. I understand people are curious about others choices but I hope we can learn to respect them.

    April 27, 2013
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  14. I just think its bloody rude to ask anyone that …my late mother-in-law used to drive me mad with going on about when would ‘they’ start a family when ‘they’ had just got married, as though the only raison d’etre for a woman was to breed.

    April 27, 2013
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    • I agree. It is no-one’s business but yours. As for me, I have children and they enrich my life hugely but they also count as the hardest thing I’ve ever done!

      April 27, 2013
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  15. Great article here.Having kids has been the central focus of my life, but that`s just me. I have friends who have no kids. It`s not a question of selfishness at all, there are myriads of reasons and it`s nobody`s business, except their`s and their partners if they have one.

    April 27, 2013
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  16. Thanks for a great post! When I met my current partner I told him I didn’t want to get married and didn’t want to have kids. This has suited us both perfectly. I am now 43 and do not have children and have no regrets about this. When people (strangers) ask me why I don’t have kids, I tell them I like reading and sleeping too much. A more serious answer would be that I have never had the urge/desire/maternal drive, but this is apparently difficult for people to understand. At one stage in my mid-thirties I did think long and hard about it, afterall you cannot get through life at this point it seems without someone reminding you that you are ‘getting on’ and your ‘clock is ticking’ – i.e. it’s not as if you can ignore the issue. The closest I came to ever thinking I should ‘give it a go’ was at a time when I was in a job I really hated and and one morning saw a woman pushing a pram around the street. “That looks nice, ” I thought, “I could do that.” Then I realised I should just get a different job! Sure, there are no doubt many experiences I have missed out on by not having a child but I certainly don’t think my life has been any the lesser and the people who do have kids must surely realise that there is a world of experience they miss out on because they are too busy with and exhausted by their offspring.

    As for being selfish for not having children. This is an interesting one, isn’t it? I have often wondered “why do people continue to have children in a world that is already overpopulated and rapidly becoming under-resourced?” My opinion is, that logically if you are a smart educated woman with access to birth control and freedom to make decisions about your own life and body and had any awareness at all about just how messed up the planet is and will continue to become, then you would NOT have children. And in fact the most selfish thing you CAN do is to procreate and bring another child into this crazy world. But I suspect the decision to have kids is not about logic or reason at all. It is driven by something else that is more mysterious and obviously there are a lot of smart educated women with access to birth control who still desperately want to have kids. My point I suppose is that I don’t really think the ‘selfish’ argument is a good one since it can be used both ways.

    I guess I am just grateful that I was born into a society where I get the choice and have enough friends without kids to help me realise that I’m not a freak. But I’m also glad that I have some wonderful kids in my life thanks to my family and friends. That’s enough for now – gotta get back to my book.

    April 27, 2013
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    • Many of the women we spoke too, and it was an eye-opener, confessed to having given the thought quite a lot of consideration. None of them got to their decision casually which is a testament to the introspection of women. Thank you so much for sharing your story. And what are you reading or writing?

      April 28, 2013
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      • Have been reading a lot lately as I’m blissfully jobless on a year of travel (one of the benefits of being child free). Two books I would recommend: Game Control by Lionel Shriver (ironically enough on the topic of world population pressures) and An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel (which has a very interesting climax). I’m keeping track of my reading this year by using the Goodreads website: http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/16284691

        April 29, 2013
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    • It is always nice to hear from someone who has thought about it, and decided not to, and been happy with that choice. I am in my mid-thirties, so I know it’s crunch time. But honestly, I don’t have the desire to have kids. I worry that I will come to regret this later on … but I don’t think that a vague concern like that should be the deciding factor.

      April 29, 2013
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      • When you are ready – you will know. Life has a way of folding things into your timeline when you least expect it!

        May 5, 2013
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  17. Lisa
    Lisa

    i’m only 27 and my relatives are pressuring me to get married so i can have kids b the time i’m 30. having kids is a nice idea, but not any time soon. honestly, i’m scared more than excited to have kids. sometimes i think that i’m not meant to have kids because i don’t have that “maternal instinct”. this article is such an eye-opener.

    April 27, 2013
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    • Our bodies are wired to have children, we were engineered to procreate our species. I have seen girlfriends overcome by a “want” that would have stopped at nothing. And that is fine too. You are stil young and have some time to sort your feelings on the matter. You will reach your own conclusion and it will be the right one because it will be yours. What I resent is the pressure the external world, oftentimes in the form of our families, put on us. It comes from a place of kindness but can generate a lot of confusion. When the time comes, you will know

      April 28, 2013
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      • Lisa
        Lisa

        i guess you’re right. thank you for the advice. 🙂

        April 28, 2013
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  18. This subject is all too familiar and thanks for bringing up such a sensitive issue. I just turned 40 and am happily childless, although I know my entire family looks at me like I am the “weird” one because the only children my husband and I have, are furry, four legged ones. The best kind if you ask me 🙂 No seriously, I am always irritated when people repeatedly ask me “When are you going to have kids??” and find it incredibly insensitive and rude. What if I couldn’t have any? What do they know about me to make them feel comfortable to ask such as a question? I also admit to sometimes feeling abnormal that I don’t feel like my biggest reason for living is to give birth. Glad to see there are others out there who feel some of the same things I do. Another great post!

    April 27, 2013
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  19. Hey, I’m single and 52yrs old and in my experience people have “presumed” I am married, and often times, when they find out that I am single, the next question they ask is if I have children. “Yes, I do,” I say, “I have 2 children.” And suddenly they see me differently. Perhaps, it is too much of a complication for some? Shrugs. I am happy as I am.

    April 27, 2013
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  20. I have been in a happy marriage for 4 years now. Friends and family soon within a year after we got married started asking about when a little package would arrive. Almost every time I visit my grandfather he pats my belly and says something along the line of have you gained a little weight or is their a baby in there (so embarrassing). Little do they know, as much as I would like to have children in the near future, I developed bipolar disorder 2 years ago and the whole getting pregnant and having babies has gotten a lot more complicated….the balancing act of staying on dangerous but needed medication, a team of professionals that I need to consult related to whole pregnancy process, big concerns about keeping me healthy and mentally stable, lots of risk management.

    April 27, 2013
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  21. Sofagirl,
    I really enjoyed the way you wove all our stories together. Such interesting responses. I guess I am not alone…
    Thank you for treating such a delicate subject with such sensitivity and truth. Our truths. Great post.
    Greekgirl

    April 27, 2013
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  22. Janet Rörschåch
    Janet Rörschåch

    There is a rule in our family never to ask anyone about having babies. If a child arrives, great. Otherwise, we know there is enough pressure, whatever is happening in a person’s/couple’s life, not to perster.

    On a different note, this was a challenging, yet enlightening read. You are tackling some very interesting subjects. As uncomfortable as some of them are, thank you for expanding my boundaries.

    April 27, 2013
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  23. I remember getting comments at my wedding reception about when the baby was coming. And then, just like the kindminimilast said, after our son was born, it was when’s the next one? Some people really don’t understand boundaries, or personal choice.

    April 26, 2013
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  24. I found it strange when I first got married and everyone kept asking when there would be a little one added to our family. I felt it was too personal a question to simply blurt out in the middle of small talk and there was a great deal of desire to just enjoy the moment still in me. Years later, we now have one young son who is just plain wonderful. The questions haven’t stopped though- they’ve simply shifted gears. ‘When’s the next one?’ ‘Are you trying for a second yet?’ Again, it’s assumed that we want another. When we say we’re happy as a family of three, we get funny looks and lectures on the horrors of only children. This is strange as I am an only child and really enjoyed the experience, but mostly, it’s odd because it’s none of their business!

    April 26, 2013
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