How to Compassionately Discuss Having Children (Or Not)

When I was a junior in college, I started thinking about what I wanted to do after graduation. As I was highly involved in the service and justice department at my school, I thought a service year abroad would be an excellent option. I started researching programs like the Peace Corp and was interested in many projects and locations.

I spoke excitedly about these opportunities with my family and was taken aback by my father’s initial response. Instead of asking about where I wanted to go, he asked, “What about the children?” I was twenty years old AND single at the time. Though I wanted to have kids “someday,” I had never been asked to consider my future as secondary to my ability to produce a human life.

I ended up moving to Chicago for a volunteer year at a social service organization, but I visited home often. One year when home for the holidays, the first questions I was asked by virtually each family member was whether or not I was dating and when I was going to “settle down.” In these conversations, I felt frustrated at having expectations placed upon me that I didn’t ask for. I was uncertain if I wanted a life-partner or if I wanted children, but my curiosities weren’t validated. 

how to talk about having kids

Why it’s so difficult to have conversations about having kids

I am now twenty-eight and engaged. My fiancé and I have both discerned that if we are able, we would love to someday have biological children. However, we know that it may not entirely be up to us. Many factors contribute to a person or family’s ability to have and raise a child. Fertility and other health related challenges, barriers to adoption, and socioeconomic inequity are three of many factors that may influence a person’s decisions about children. These issues can create a deep sense of loss of control for many people who want children, but are unsure if they can have them.

Decisions about your family dynamic (and the process of making these decisions) are incredibly personal and complex. Whether someone chooses not to have children, has children easily, experiences challenges having children or raising children, or is unable to fulfill their desire to have a child, their experience is valid.

As members of communities, it is our responsibility to recognize and respect this validity. You might feel nervous about talking to friends or family members about the decision to have kids. Perhaps you’re worried that you’ll say the wrong thing or hurt their feelings. However, as humans, it’s in our nature to want to connect with others about their life experiences. You might also find that engaging in these conversations helps you clarify what you want your life to look like.

Below are some guidelines on how to respectfully engage in conversation with someone regarding decisions about children.

1. Reflect on why you’re seeking this information.

While we are curious creatures by nature, we are not owed information about another person’s life. Prior to asking a person about their decisions regarding having and raising children, ask yourself, “Is this my information to have?”

2. Ask for consent before engaging these conversations

As with any personal conversation, ask the person you’re talking to if it’s okay for you to ask them questions. Even if you’ve had a conversation with someone about their decisions before, they may not be in the space to speak with you in that moment. An example of a consent-oriented questions would be, “Are you open to talking about your decisions regarding children?” If they say no, respect their decision.

3. Approach your questions with curiosity.

The way that we ask questions can often contain bias or judgement. By approaching a question with curiosity, you can create safety for yourself and the person you are talking to. If you say to someone, “You’re not having children? Wow, I’m surprised, you were always so great with kids,” your well-intentioned question may feel offensive or painful for someone who does not want to or cannot have kids. A more appropriate question may be, “I am curious about your decision making regarding having children. Are you open to talking to me about that? I’d love to understand your experience.”

4. Practice active listening in your conversations.

Listening to others intentionally is more difficult than we may realize. Often, we are generating follow-up questions or responses in our minds prior to someone finishing their full thought. To actively listen, focus on what the person is saying. Check for understanding, and take a moment before providing a response. 

5. Ask for permission before offering advice.

While someone may be open to sharing with you about their decisions regarding child-bearing and rearing, that does not mean they are ready or open to your advice or experience. If you have meaningful words or experiences to share, ask if it is okay to share before offering them up. 

6. Remember information shared in these conversations is likely private.

Child-bearing and rearing is incredibly personal. While someone may feel comfortable talking to you about their decisions, they may not be ready for other people to have the same awareness. If you are wondering if you can share information regarding their experience, ask first.

7. It is okay for someone to change their mind.

It is valid for someone to change their mind regarding their decisions about having children and raising children. Some people are fulfilled by their careers, friendships, and romantic relationships and realize that having children is not an authentic decision. Others may say that they do not want children, and then decide later on that they are more open to that life. Others may want biological children, but later realize adoption is a more appropriate choice. Whatever someone decides is valid and is not up for judgement. 

Making decisions about the formation of our families is a complex experience. Often there are several layers to the process that are not known to the public. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know. It’s important to approach these conversations with care and respect. 

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Mental Health Think & Feel Women's Health

About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.