Seven years ago today, I walked down the aisle in a little church in Austria and got married. It was a delightful day filled with friends and family and, thanks to the language barrier and a slightly inebriated organist who played Here Comes The Bride thrice, hilarity.
My husband and I, once recovered from all the merriment, had a debrief. We discussed who’d kissed whom, who’d been the must drunk (definitely the man who decided to stick a fair few of the wursts the hotel dished up to sustain everyone at around midnight into his flies and walk around with them hanging out), who’d gone to bed first and last (me and my husband, respectively – I clambered into bed at around 2am, shattered, while he stayed up until dawn), and, of course, what had been said.
Resoundingly, the comment that rang in both our ears was the question of babies. Despite there supposedly being no stigma remaining among our friends and family about fornicating prior to marriage and even having children, it seemed that to those around us our tying of the knot wasn’t merely to signal and celebrate our seriousness about one another, but also as a precursor to having children – or at least I couldn’t think of any other reason for the shower of child-related chat that I had directed my way in the wake of my nuptials (especially considering that I’d never expressed even the slightest interest in getting, as one well-wisher put it, ‘sprogged up’).
After speaking to my husband, I dismissed the questions as politeness – after all, in the few minutes you spend chatting to the bride and groom, there’s little to say beyond ‘congratulations’ and ‘you look beautiful’ – so maybe the baby chat was a nice way of showing interest in our relationship for those outside of it?
But then the comments followed me from the happy zone of wedding weekend into my life. It started with ‘any plans to have kids?’, then turned into ‘when do you think you want kids?’ I wasn’t offended, obviously – but I did wonder why these questions continued to come my way and why, when I was so busy doing things other than reproducing, it would even be a topic of conversation. ‘First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby,’ seemed to be a line from a nursery rhyme that was still playing in so many people’s ears – and after a few years of it, I was pretty bored of churning out answers.
That said, I am, by nature and by vocation, rather an open book. I don’t mind talking about my lack of desire to have children at the moment, even though some have then questioned my ‘feminine instincts’ and asked whether I am nurturing, to which I always firmly respond that being a mother doesn’t mean that one is nurturing and feminine or vice versa. I’m enjoying my career and we quite frankly just haven’t reached the stage as a couple where we’re planning parenthood. And while the conversation is one I’m very willing to have, answering, say, my second cousin’s husband’s questions about why I haven’t had children in the time that they’ve produced two wears thin pretty quickly.
Now, after seven years, two responses prevail whenever the topic of children arises around me: ‘do you want kids at all?’ This from bolder, more forthright sorts. Otherwise the topic of children is mostly met with silence and a look of sympathy, which, on the occasion I’ve probed, I’ve learned is reserved for women with fertility problems. This is where the rub lies for me. Conversation I can handle, but slightly spiked comments or silent (erroneous) judgement drives me mad – and I feel both keenly.
I was recently at a friend’s house when their mum popped over for a cup of tea. After covering the usuals, we started talking about children and the huge responsibility that having them is. I said ‘well exactly, that’s one of the reasons I just want to wait. I’ve got Monty anyway!’ Their mum, who is a warm, charming woman and of whom I’ve always been enormously fond, let out a sigh of relief and said ‘gosh Madeleine – I’d just assumed you were struggling to conceive! That’s great news.’ I know it was intended kindly, but the idea that she’d been quietly thinking things about my fertility stung.
Much worse than my annoyance is the fact that if this is my experience, it is likely to be the experience of many other women, too. Those women may not be childless out of choice. They may have fertility issues, not be in a position financially to have children, their partner may be impotent, their marriages unhappy. They may be painfully, heartbreakingly childless. So while for me, being (currently) childless bears no pain because it is (to the best of my knowledge) a choice, for many, it won’t be, and the question will provoke unspeakable pain and possibly embarrassment. My advice if you’re going to a wedding and don’t know what to say to the bride afterwards? Ask if she’d like a glass of water. In my experience, brides are always thirsty and this is the one question they’ll be delighted to hear.