Photo: Getty images
‘It must be about time for you to start working on baby number two?’ says a new acquaintance with a knowing smile at my friend’s birthday party.
He was making polite party conversation, but fielding well-meaning inquiries about baby number two is not my definition of small talk.
The guest couldn’t see my rubbish ovaries lurking underneath my party dress or the anguish behind my party smile. He couldn’t know that while I was lucky enough to get one miracle baby from IVF the chances of getting two is extremely unlikely.
A friend who unsuccessfully tried to conceive for seven years says that she dies inside every time somebody asks her if she’s planning on having kids or why she's waiting so long. Another friend who’s had three miscarriages will quip that ‘one child is enough’ before making a beeline to the privacy of the toilet to bawl her eyes out. And yet another friend whose equipment is in perfect working order but hasn’t met a suitable partner feels these questions like a knife to the heart.
The infertile aren’t some kind of freakish minority and this party guest wasn’t just unlucky to be breaking the ice with me.
According to the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) approximately one in eight couples in Australia experience fertility problems at some stage during their child-bearing years.
And these figures don’t include the women who long to have children but aren’t lucky enough to be part of a couple. So there was a good chance that two or three other women at the party could also have done without the baby-plans chit chat.
Baby questions aren’t just secret women’s business either. According to the VARTA, approximately one third of infertility cases are caused by a male factor and one third by a female factor. The rest are either a mixture of male and female factors or have no known cause.
And, given that our — and most other — cultures equate virility with masculinity, I assume, men hurt just as much as women when they are reminded of their loss and grief.
The heartbreak of miscarriage is also surprisingly common. The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health found that by their early 20s, six per cent of women had had a miscarriage, and by their early 30s it was 15 per cent.
But despite how common infertility and miscarriage is, they remain silent, secret conditions. Rather than divulging some of the lowlights of our recent medical history and all the check ups, consultations and procedures that we’ve been through we lie, joke or change the subject.
We want to spare the other person from awkwardness and embarrassment and we want to spare ourselves from becoming that dreaded of all social beings: The Object of Pity.
Comments like ‘at least you get to sleep in and can afford to go on holidays,’ or ‘it could be worse; at least you don’t have cancer,’ don’t make anyone feel better.
So how do you navigate this mother of all social mine fields?
My general approach is to bulldoze right through social taboos. There’s only one thing I like more than debating politics, sex or religion, and that is debating all three at once. But I have a simple rule about the social etiquette of kid questions. Don’t ask. Ever.
That might sound a little extreme, particularly given that talking about people’s desire and plans for kids is a staple in the small talk conversation starter pack. I’ve been asked these questions by colleagues, waitresses and even the RACV man changing my flat tyre. I’ve even broken my own rule and asked the ‘are you trying for kids/more kids’ question myself to fill an awkward silence in a conversation or because I genuinely wanted to know. And quite frankly I, of all people, should know better.
Taking the kid questions out of our party conversation repertoire really shouldn’t be that hard. You wouldn’t ask someone about how often they have sex or whether they orgasm easily — unless of course it’s the kind of party where you put your keys in a bowl when you arrive.
But if it's not that kind of party, and a kid question is about to roll off your tongue, then take another sip of your drink instead.