Essentially, the question of "if" someone plans to have kids, and certainly the question of "when" (a common follow-up) both carry an implied "should," says public-health expert and certified health education specialist Mackenzie Piper, MPH, CHES, senior manager of programs at Power to Decide, an organization focused on reproductive-health access and education. Not to mention, the exclusionary nature of who is asked either question (and, perhaps more crucially, who often isn't) maintains still widely accepted biases rooted in racism, sexism, ableism, cissexism, and heterosexism. "It may inadvertently assume that the person asked can or wants to have children—which is simply not the case for everyone," Piper says.
"The question may inadvertently assume that the person asked can or wants to have children—which is simply not the case for everyone." —Mackenzie Piper, MPH, CHES
Both elements—desire and ability to have kids—are unique to every person, and, typically, invisible to the asker. This makes the question of whether or when someone is going to have kids at best irrelevant or prying, and at worst, triggering.
The choice to have (or not to have) kids is entirely personal
At its core, the decision is rooted in a slate of ultra-personal matters, including not only health and fertility, but also willingness and desire to raise a family. These factors can, in turn, be affected by everything from the nature of a person's upbringing and family relationships to their current finances, career, relationship status, and so much more, says Piper.
“For some, the intentional decision to not have children could be simply because they appreciate the autonomy and freedom of a child-free life,” says clinical psychologist Lauren Magalnick Berman, PhD, owner of the Fertility Psychology Center of Atlanta and chair of the Mental Health Professional Group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “Others want to devote their energies to their marriage or career, while still others have no great yearning for children in the first place.”
And, contrary to antiquated beliefs, those who fall in the latter camp can certainly live a full, happy life. In a recent survey collecting data from 1,086 adults in Michigan—matched by YouGov on gender, age, race, and education to reflect a representative sample of 1,000 Michigan adults—about a quarter of participants reported not having or wanting children. And after controlling for demographic traits, researchers found no differences in life satisfaction between those folks and the parents and soon-to-be parents.
“The United States has a longstanding history of policies, practices, and beliefs that have celebrated the childbearing and parenting of some…while judging and restricting the childbearing and parenting of others." —Piper
Of course, demographic qualities do impact an individual's experience of pregnancy and childrearing, however—and, as such, these factors can also weigh heavily in a person's choice to have or not have kids. In fact, a person’s race, ethnicity, or sexuality may even determine whether they have access to the resources necessary to make an informed choice in either direction, says Piper. “The United States has been plagued by a longstanding history of policies, practices, and beliefs that have celebrated the childbearing and parenting of some—namely, white, cisgender, heterosexual women of a certain economic background that society saw as 'fit'—while judging and restricting the childbearing and parenting of others, like women of color and LGBTQ+ folks,” she says.
Within the LGBTQ+ community, specifically, there's a broad fertility information gap. In fact, reproductive-health testing company Modern Fertility and LGBTQ+ dating app HER recently surveyed a small group of its members and found that 80 percent of respondents reported not knowing that people with ovaries could use blood tests to estimate the count and health of their eggs, and 46 percent of respondents reported not feeling comfortable speaking with a health-care provider about family planning.
In this way (and a host of others), pregnancy is not an equal opportunity for all people from the get-go, adding another layer to the complicated question of whether someone chooses or plans to have children—that is, another reason not to ask someone the question at all.
The timing of a fertility decision is equally as personal
While people with eggs have declining fertility as they age toward perimenopause, a whole host of fertility options point to modern parenthood having no definitive age ceiling. For someone who's planning on utilizing one or more of these options (which include egg and embryo freezing, surrogacy, and adoption), the question of "when" is irrelevant. And, alternatively, someone who is planning to have a biological pregnancy that they carry is likely already aware of their age and the associated conception timeline—so much so that the question of "when" will only pile onto their mental load.
Not to mention, there are ample reasons why someone might delay any kind of pregnancy, says Dr. Berman, citing personal advancement in education or career as some of the most common, along with workplace obstacles like limited paid parental leave, child-care expenses, and lack of work flexibility.
Statistics demonstrate a trend toward delaying, too: Though the overall birth rate has been declining for the past couple of decades, the rate for those ages 35 and up has either increased or remained steady each year (up until 2020, that is, when pregnancies among all age groups declined, again, likely due to the effects of the pandemic). That shift is a helpful reminder that timing is an increasingly less relevant factor in becoming a parent, reinforcing the irrelevance of the "when" question, too.
The question itself assumes elements of a person's fertility
Beyond timing, a number of medical factors can also play into a person's biological ability to conceive—from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and pelvic inflammatory disease in people with eggs to low sperm count or motility, or undescended testicles in those with sperm.
In fact, about 10 percent of people with eggs between the ages of 15 and 44 in the U.S. have trouble getting or staying pregnant, and it’s estimated that 26 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. That experience of loss can often come by way of a physically painful and emotionally devastating medical process, too, says Martin Chavez, MD, an advisor to at-home health-testing company Everlywell and director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at New York University's Langone Hospital. "In some cases, pregnancy is life-threatening to either the person conceiving or the fetus, or both, and the topic of pregnancy itself could stoke health-related fears," he says.
With that in mind, it’s very possible that anyone being asked whether or when they’re going to have kids is already trying, and perhaps, having difficulty conceiving; is medically unable to do so; or has suffered pregnancy loss. In all those cases, the person may wish to avoid the topic entirely. “For people who want children but have been unable to become parents, this question can be a trigger for profoundly upsetting emotional experiences,” says Dr. Berman.
On the flip side, however, the often mentally and physically taxing process of managing infertility could very well prompt a person to seek out discussion and an outlet to share their experiences. The key difference here is allowing this friend or loved one to bring up the topic of their own accord—rather than asking the question—and to offer support, rather than make presumptions, says Dr. Berman.
"The number one thing is to listen to someone in just the same way you would if they came to you with any other problem they were managing," she says. Empathizing with whatever difficulty they're facing is also far more useful than offering advice, unless it's explicitly solicited, she adds.
What's more, suggesting various pregnancy alternatives or offering scenarios of what you'd have done differently can have the same assumptive effect as asking someone who does not want to or cannot have kids if or when they're planning on it. Of course, diminishing these presumptions overall will require large-scale changes in policies, practices, and services to support all people in whatever their family goals may be, says Piper. But removing the question of "if" and "when" someone is planning to have kids from our lexicon is a choice-supportive step in the right direction.
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