We were at the zoo in Kansas City, and we'd gone on the wrong day. It was too hot to be strolling on asphalt, and the Kansas City Zoo is huge but being cheapskates we didn't want to pay to ride the tram, so we'd walked miles. Being surrounded by hundreds of children was getting on our nerves too, but what are you going to do? Like going to see a Disney movie, you know at a zoo that there will be children.
A few hours into our visit, we were sweaty and tuckered, and borderline cranky. I wouldn't have argued if Stephanie suggested going home, but I wasn't going to suggest it myself. We'd seen only about half the zoo.
We were standing in a short line to buy a frozen concoction at a concession stand. Shaved ice chips for Steph, and an ice cream sandwich for me. The woman behind us in line had three pre-teen kids with her, hollering, screaming, hitting each other — a bit out of control, but we've all seen worse, and I try not to judge. Kids can be difficult; that much I know.
The woman, presumably mother to those kids and yearning for a conversation with adults, started talking with us. Steph and I weren't outgoing people but we could chat, so we chatted with this lady: "Sure is hot today," and "I'm ready for an ice cream," etc.
This stranger's second sentence to us was, "Where are your children?"
I opened my mouth to say something, but Stephanie was already answering. "No kids for us," she said cheerfully, and this woman's face wilted. You'd have thought Steph said, "We ate them," or "We came to the zoo but left our kids in the car."
"You mean you're barren?" Yeah, that's what this woman said to Stephanie. This was someone we'd never met before, assuming that our lack of children was a problem, assuming that only a medical issue could explain someone being childless, assuming that the medical problem must be Stephanie's instead of mine, and assuming that she had the right to ask personal (and potentially painful) questions of a stranger. That's a whole lot of assuming. Also, who uses the term "barren" outside of The Bible?
Steph smiled and sounded sweet-natured as she gave this woman an extended answer to the second question she shouldn't have asked. "Oh, goodness no. I'm as fertile as the Nile — had two abortions in the past year. I just don't want children, and neither does my husband. It was one of the first things we made clear on our first date."
Stephanie was lying about one thing, maybe two. First, she never had an abortion, though she strongly supported a woman's right to choose. And I'm pretty sure it was our second date, not our first, when we talked about neither of us wanting children.
Meanwhile, this nosy woman's mouth had fallen open, and I began silently counting the fillings in her teeth (eight). Her face was turning red, her skin tone deepening even as we looked at her. Several seconds passed before she whispered, "Oh." The kids she'd brought were playing "tag" or "it" or something rather rowdy, and in a moment that could've been scripted but I swear actually happened, one of the kids accidentally stepped on the woman's toes. Her expression became even more comically pained, and I smiled, not trying to be obnoxious but amused and unable to hide it.
Steph stepped up to the counter and ordered our treats, and this stranger turned to me. She scrunched her face as if deep in thought, and said, "But what is a woman's purpose, if not childbirth and child-raising?"
At that I laughed, only for a moment, and more amused than angry. "My wife's purpose is the same as mine — we're here to enjoy life as best we can, and maybe to make the world a better place."
Steph turned around, holding her flavored-ice in one hand and offering me an ice-cream sandwich with the other. "My purpose in life, at this moment, is this snow-cone," she said, and she face-pointed in the direction she wanted us to go, so of course I followed.
"What the heck was that about?" I asked, intentionally loud enough to be sure that stranger heard as we walked away.
"Some people speak before they think," Steph replied, equally loudly, then added, "if there was any thinking at all." We heard nothing more from that woman, and within a few footsteps the sounds of those three children faded.
Stephanie was quick-witted and almost always knew the right thing to say, but with this woman she had an advantage — we'd had similar conversations before, perhaps a dozen times by then, with strangers incredulous about our choice to be childless. Missouri is a Republican state, so we heard such questions quite often while we lived there, and Steph had heard the questions many times more before we'd met. The rudeness was always astounding but no longer surprising.
Of course, we cast no aspersions on those who choose to have children. It's your life and it's the only life you get, so do what you want to do. If you want children, please have children and please love them and raise them well.
And if you don't want children, don't have them. It's not complicated, but it's a rather personal decision, so never once did we bring up the topic with strangers. Frequently, though, strangers brought it up with us, and an honest answer often brought aspersions our way.
Sometimes, like that day at the zoo, these too-chatty strangers would stop talking when we answered plainly. Sometimes, though, they wouldn't shut up — they'd bluntly offer fertility advice, or they'd say we would change our minds and have children soon. Occasionally, we were told with a smirk that we'd have kids accidentally, as if the decision was not ours to make. We were threatened with having no-one to care for us in our old age, as if that's the purpose of having children. And sometimes when we said we simply didn't want kids, people responded with anger, as if we'd said, "We hate kids."
* * * * * * * * * *
All the above is only an extended preface to what I'd intended to write today. It was an hour or so later, and we were still at the zoo, still hot, sweaty, and tired but having a good time. There were children everywhere, and the sound of children being children was background noise, so I hadn't even noticed the one child who was crying.
Stephanie, though, noticed. A little boy, perhaps four or five years old, was by himself in front of the elephants, afraid and bawling. Steph quickly let loose of my hand and ran toward him, and as she approached, she said in a soothing voice, so as not to frighten the boy, "Hey, it's all right, it's all right." With a few more words she was crouched next to him, and she asked, "Are you lost?" He shook his head yes, and she said, "Well, we'll find your family." The kid smiled, and Steph asked, "Is it OK if I pick you up?" He nodded yes, and she lifted him in her arms.
Soon we were sitting on a nearby bench with that boy between us, and Steph handled all of it perfectly. She asked the boy's name, and remembered it, made him the center of attention and referred to him by name over and over. She distracted him from his worries by talking about the elephants, and who knew Steph had so much knowledge about elephants? She delivered an elephant-monologue that ran at least several minutes.
When I suggested that we take the boy to the zoo's main office, Steph said, "His family must be terribly worried, and the office is a long walk up the trail. They'll be looking here, long before they'd go there." Which makes sense, so we stayed where we were.
And indeed, a few minutes later the boy shouted his brother's name, and his brother far away turned and saw him and shouted out-of-sight to their parents. Soon we were surrounded by this boy's family, happy to have found him safe and sound, full of thanks and kind words for Stephanie and I. Though I hadn't done much of anything; it was all Stephanie to the rescue.
So, no, we didn't hate children. Steph had worked as a baby-sitter and as a nanny. I babysat nieces and nephews a few times, and did some paid work as a baby-sitter too. Steph was great with kids, and I'm OK with them. We simply wanted to spend our lives with each other, not raising children.
And in all our conversations with rude, incredulous strangers inquiring about our plans for having children, not one of them ever seemed to understand that life without children is a valid choice, too.
Moms and Dads out there, please, stop and think before you say something. Asking strangers when they'll be having children is right up there with asking about politics and religion. It's a question you simply shouldn't ask of someone unless you're already close friends, and if you're close friends you probably know the answer already, so you wouldn't have to ask.