With less than a week until Christmas, most of us will be preparing for a host of social activities where a degree of small talk will be involved. Unfortunately, for a lot of us, the art of small talk is not something we’re well-versed in, so we revert to the inane, yet deeply personal.
It doesn’t matter what stage a woman is at in her life, at some point, she will be asked one of the following – how’s your love life or are you dating anyone (if single)? Are you moving in together (when in a relationship)? When do you think you might get engaged (if in a long term relationship)? When are you having kids (if married)? Are you breastfeeding or when are you having more (if with children)? It’s no coincidence that these questions chime with the benchmarks that we are taught by society to tick off by a certain point as we get older, an old-fashioned barometer of what happiness and adulthood is – a shopping list of what life should look like.
The problem with these questions, despite their seeming innocuousness, is how loaded and intrusive they are. We are all told from childhood the life stages we should have reached by a certain age, that those who don’t adhere to those norms are falling short. We make judgements and assumptions when someone is single at a certain age; when we find out someone is in a long-term relationship but not engaged; or married and without kids; or with kids and not breastfeeding.
For women, it is not enough to just exist independently - still our lives are not our own. We think we have the measure of female independence and empowerment, that because we own a girl power T-shirt or went on a women’s march that we understand the extent of our gendered conditioning, but the pervasiveness and normalcy of these questions show that we are far from understanding the depth of what these notions mean. It is patently clear that, for the most part, we are still seen as care-givers and home-makers. Feminism is about not measuring women by the traditional norms that have been dreamt up by the patriarchy to bind them; about not judging or making women feel bad if they haven’t followed the status quo.
To be a woman, you must still do what’s expected of you, and if you don’t do it by the time it’s expected, then others want to know why. From a young age, women are taught what our role is; we might be allowed, if we fight hard enough, a fulfilling career, but if those benchmarks haven’t been ticked off, it isn’t enough – and you’ll be grilled as to why and be made to feel as if you’re underperforming. We’re all familiar with that awkward two second lag after you tell whomever has asked - insert invasive question - that no, you’re not in a place yet to get engaged, or that you’re holding fire on kids, or aren’t dating at the moment. It doesn’t matter how solid you are about your life choices, you’re left feeling exposed, vulnerable and like you haven’t met the bar in some way. It’s a point worth making that the people who ask us those questions are rarely our closest friends and family. People who love you wouldn’t probe because they know it’s personal, that you’ll talk to them if you want to.
The interesting thing is we aspire to these life moments because we think it’ll make us safer and more secure, but the world is unpredictable. Marriage and 2.4 children might be the epitome of happiness to many, but nothing is absolute. Life throws us some dud cards sometimes; it can be disruptive and changeable. The only thing we can really control is our internal happiness, how secure and confident we are as people, but sadly there isn’t an invasive question that quite covers that or a soundbite that will convey it.
Perhaps it’s best to think of the possible scenarios of any of these types of questions. So, you’re in the company of someone at a party who got married earlier that year and decide to ask them when they’re going to start a family. The best scenario is that they don’t feel ready yet – or maybe they’ve decided it’s not right for them ever - and you’ve, off the cuff, just questioned their presumably considered decision to do so based on your own fairly basic viewpoint of how life should be. The worst is that this couple are desperate to have children, they’re trying, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe they’re undergoing IVF and it’s been pretty gruelling. Maybe she’d had a miscarriage and is desperately trying to keep it together – and you’ve blithely jabbed at her Achilles heel. You can never know what's happening in someone’s life or what they’ve been or are currently going through, so spare them the intrusiveness.
Let’s take the casual ‘are you single’ question. Either someone is happily single with a rich, fulfilling life that they love and you’ve made them feel that they have to defend their status, that they’ve, somehow, fallen short. Or maybe that person is looking for the right partner, but it hasn’t happened for them yet. Yes, they’ve tried online dating and put themselves out there, and no, they’re not just being picky. It’s still to come for them and you’ve made them feel worse. Maybe they’ve had a few bad experiences and are giving dating a break, and you’ve made them feel insecure about that choice. And remember that it’s not a single person’s job to entertain you with their dating stories.
The same template follows for couples who have been in relationships for years, but who aren’t engaged. Often this question comes ahead of a big holiday - do you think he'll propose? Maybe they’re not ready yet, or don’t believe in marriage, or maybe it’s a contentious point within that respective relationship and you’ve just prodded it like Trump in a North Korean china shop. Even after we’ve got married and had kids, the judgement continues – are you breastfeeding? When are you going back to work? Are you sure he or she is old enough to be left at nursery? Is your baby definitely warm enough in that outfit?
The truth is, as a wise friend once told me, that if you’re not close enough to a woman for them to freely volunteer that information, then don’t ask it. We have to stop treating these life choices with such old-fashioned reverence, that to be married or to have children or to have a partner is the most interesting thing about any woman; that those are the things that define us. It goes without saying that this is a gendered issue – when was the last time you heard any man be asked if he were trying for a baby? That said, men face interrogation about their career and superficial ideas of success. How much are you on? What car do you drive? These questions - usually a misguided attempt to bond with someone - are rarely asked with malice, but rather with a thoughtlessness that has impact. To anyone who often unthinkingly strays into this line of conversation, there’s so much material you can use as small talk: did you watch Killing Eve or where have you been this year? Travel and holidays are prime time small talk fodder, and the answers are nowhere near as banal.
To all the women – so every single one of you – who has been made to feel sad or vulnerable because of someone else’s shortage of good conversation, because of their limited parameters of what happiness should look like, let's be the generation not to tolerate this antiquated, basic chit chat. We can do better than that.
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