I live in a country that is recognised to be very pro-natalist and traditionally has big families. I’ve found it quite hard to integrate seamlessly into the local population of my city: it’s a closely-knit world; families and single people alike seem to belong to long-established cliques that can sometimes seem impenetrable.
After the age of 35, you definitely need to have meaningful things in common with people to take you beyond the usual small talk, into friendship. I mostly socialise with ex-pats, as often happens, especially when the other half is also foreign.
Thanks to the deskbound, 9-to-5 working day, it turns out that the local people I spend many of my hours with are mammies. I’m surrounded by them, and their children’s framed photos and screen-savers. I have coffee breaks with ex-colleagues who are older-generation specimens, now morosely waiting for grandchildren. As such, I have to field a lot of comments (almost always from mothers of the fifty-plus age bracket) that are not directed straight at me but can sometimes feel like a kick in the stomach.
When she hears that one half of a couple is seriously ill, one of my older mammy acquaintances who knows me well immediately asks ‘Have they family?’
Translated, this means: ‘Do they have children?’. I like to believe that she thinks the different wording is more sensitive to my situation. Perversely, I always insist on responding with something like ‘Well, he has brothers and I think she has a fairly big family…’, to which she repeats:
‘No, do they have FAMILY?’
I’ve given up getting into semantics with this woman, so I relent and admit that they do not, in fact, have children. At which there is much tutting and fretting, and ‘God love them!’ and ‘What has she got to get up for if he dies?’, and ‘Why would you go on living?’. Then, the deathblow:
‘It’s better if it’s the woman who dies – sure he can go and meet someone else and have a family’.
Ah, where to start. Of course everyone has a different view on these scenarios, depending on their own subjective reality. When parents imagine the death of a partner, they visualise telling their children, dealing with the aftermath, coping alone with confused toddlers or angry teens. Couples without kids usually think of just one thing: an empty future.
Here, death seems to arise a lot as a conversation topic, in a tiny population that seems to have high rates of cancer. I’ve had a variation of the ‘Have they family?’ conversation about three or four times in the last couple of years, and I know it is completely natural.
It makes me nauseous, though, when the other person knows me but still decides to hit me up with the long soliloquy about how appalling it is that the surviving partner will have to carry on alone, without the kids they tragically failed to have. I sat through a version of this at work where the instigator concluded with, ‘Ah and think of Christmas every year, it doesn’t bear thinking about!’ with a slow, incredulous shake of the head at the wretchedness of it.
Is it selfish to want people to rein it in a bit, when they know I’d be in exactly the same boat? Am I being self-indulgent in saying this, feeling sorry for myself?
But it confounds me as well when people don’t know the other person’s situation at all yet still say weirdly presumptuous things. I seem to encounter a lot of over-fifties with adult kids who do this. I was entering work one Monday morning when one of the more mature gents said to me in passing, sans preliminaries, ‘Had you a good Mother’s Day?’. Er, say what? I’m not particularly sensitive any more to comments like that, but it seemed a bizarre thing to say. It’s not his fault: he doesn’t know that I neither am nor have a mum. It’s just something I personally would never say to someone I only know professionally.
One result of experiences like losing a parent young, or coming from a fractured family, or not being able to have kids, is that you never assume. You tend never to say ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’, not even to twenty-year-olds. Or, ‘Do you have any little ones yourself?’ on someone’s first day in the office. These things don’t kill people, but if they happen to be smiling in the face of secret despair, you might just have ruined their day for a while.