I work in an office where I interact daily with the elderly (age 70 and up). I’m usually delighted to engage in conversation when they oblige because I’m curious about their stories - where they are from and how they became who they are - but recently I experienced the divide between our generations, and it was hurtful. Being true to myself allows me to further exist in being and becoming more of who I am. Gone are the days where a knee-jerk reaction - taking offense with an angry response and a grudge - is where I choose to land. Instead, I opt to volley questions leading to understanding, or simply agree to disagree and leave judgment out of it. You be you, I’ll be me.
But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Shame shoved his finger in my face.
Recently, I found myself locked in a discussion with a 74-year-old man forcing his perceptions and literal shame onto me. I was taken aback, stunned, and couldn’t quickly decipher what I should do and what I wanted to do in the moment.
This particular man, when visiting the office, pulls a chair right up to the edge of my desk - his position blocks me into my corner desk, essentially trapping me - and we talk about our lives. On his previous visit over a month ago, we had an enjoyable conversation where I learned about his life when he was my age. I was looking forward to spending a few minutes with him in the lobby.
As he eased into his chair, angled toward me, we talked about the weather and what we were doing for Easter. Then the conversation shifted to family.
“Remind me, how many kids do you have?”
“I don’t have any.”
“What? What’s wrong with you? What are you waiting for?”
“My husband and I have decided we aren’t having children.”
He leaned forward in his chair, eyes wide, and pointed his finger at my face, “Shame! Shame on you! Shame-Shame-Shame! Who is going to carry on your family name?”
I’ve never had anyone shame me so blatantly for my decision not to have children. It felt like I had been stabbed; my blood warmed and rushed through my veins searching for an exit wound, my heart was beating fast and the muscles in my face froze. I held his gaze, crossed my arms, and sat up straighter, purposefully positioning myself not to shield his words, but to hold my own in. Through my clenched teeth, “We have nieces and nephews.”
My brain was running a loop, “He’s 74 . He’s a client . He’s 74 . Don’t let him get to you . He’s 74 . Hold your tongue. He's 74. It's not worth it." I wanted to react. I imagined excusing myself and leaving him sitting alone until his appointment time. I also imagined slapping him.
At this point, he was shaking his head back and forth furiously, “No! No. No. No." Then he settled into a deep sigh and rubbed his temples.
I said nothing. We sat in silence blinking at each other.
“Well, I hope you have an accident then.”
At that, my shoulders - which had been slowly crawling up my neck to my ears - released. My hands fell into my lap, and I laughed. I can only imagine the number of people who’ve silently wished, or even prayed, for my husband and I to accidentally get pregnant because they think we would make great parents and they know what our lives should look like, better than we do.
I laughed; because in that moment, he reminded me that his opinion of my choices has nothing to do with me, and it's not my problem.
His eyes fell away from mine at my laughter, and he delivered what I can only guess was his version of an apology, “I guess since I said that, I’ll wish for you to have a boy. Boys are easier than girls, so at least I’ll give you that.”
And that was just the beginning of our conversation.
I’m not going to have a baby because you think I should.
I’ve never wanted to have a baby, or be pregnant. I thought as I grew older, or even after marrying Mat, something in me would shift - an internal clock would begin ticking, slowly at first and then speed to double and triple time, like a drum - and I’d feel a hormonal flurry or a quiet voice would chant into my subconscious, “Babies are everywhere. Everyone is doing it. It’s time to procreate. You know you want to.” But the clock doesn't exist inside me; those feelings never came and I accepted my body’s decision to remain barren by choice.
In my 20s, it was brushed off, “Oh, well, you’re young. You’ll change your mind.” When I hit my 30s, the questioning only became more intrusive, “Why not? Doesn’t your husband want to be a father? You shouldn’t take that away from him. You don’t have much time either. You’ll change your mind.”
I can only imagine the pain of this probing shame game if I wasn’t physically able to carry a child and actually wanted to. Getting pregnant and having a baby - or choosing not to - is between my husband and I. Our reproduction, the health and vitality of my ovaries and his sperm, is none of your business and it's okay if you never understand our decision.
I struggled talking to this older man and knowing how best to handle the conversation. Had he not been a client, I may have given in to my nature to react; and hindsight 20/20, I wish I would’ve responded with more questions, “Why is it so important to you that I have children? In what way is my decision not to have them affecting you?” I could understand he comes from an era where it's possible women “like me” didn’t exist or, more likely, didn’t speak up because they wanted to avoid ridicule, but my understanding doesn’t give him a pass.
For thirty minutes, he continued to shame me. Our conversation turned from family to the fact that I don’t like to, and rarely do, cook. I walked right into it; I wanted to keep turning his eyes into saucers.
"The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I feel bad for your husband. If you were my wife, you’d be in the kitchen and having babies.”
Generational gap or not, no one is going to guilt me into behaving the way they behave - the way they perceive as “right”.
I’m confident with my choices.
It could be easy to allow this conversation to derail me and send me into a spiral of confusion. I’ve experienced it many times, the second-guessing, "Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I should just have a baby so people will leave me alone. Maybe I should say I want to but I can’t. Or maybe if I had a baby it would change my mind." Nothing about giving in to that thought process would yield positive results.
Encouraging me to carry on the family name or tell me how much I’d love making a human that exhibits mental, physical, and emotional traits of my husband and I in a sweetly blended bundle of DNA is not going to change my mind. Telling me my husband and I would make great parents isn’t going to do it either. I don’t doubt I’d make a wonderful mother if I had a child, but I don’t need to find out. And it’s not going to make your life any different if you never find out either.
As I’ve replayed the conversation in my mind, I find I’m more amused at the entire exchange than anything. It’s funny how riled up some people will get at choices that have nothing to do with them, like our decision not to attend a church. But mostly, it's reminded me that there is no opinion or threat of regret or amount of shame or guilt that will convince me there is something wrong with me for doing things differently than someone else - for owning my life and experiencing it in my own way.
This old man reminded me to remain calm, exude confidence, think for myself, and celebrate who I am. I’m perfectly happy with the way I’m turning out, and my husband and I are looking forward to many more years of a life together without children.