A while back, tucked inside one of my longer posts was a link to a conversation Rosie O’Donnell had in February with comedienne Chelsea Handler on her show in which she discussed her phobia of dwarfs. Driven by Handler’s insistence that sex with a dwarf would be “child abuse,” the conversation devolved into musing about how dwarf women give birth:
O’Donnell: When a little person has a normal-sized person, I don’t understand how that happens.
Handler: That I don’t understand!
O’Donnell: I don’t get it. How come the little person isn’t dead when the normal-sized baby comes out?
Handler: Sometimes two smalls make a tall.
O’Donnell: But how does it come out?
Handler: I don’t know. I think anything can come out of that.
For your information, Chelsea, when it comes to achondroplasia—the most common type of dwarfism—“two smalls” have the exact same chance of having a “tall” (25%) as they do of having a child with two achondroplastic, homozygous genes, which is always fatal. (The baby is usually stillborn or dies within the first few weeks after birth.)
O’Donnell has since apologized for talking about her phobia of dwarfs, though Little People of America have rightly said she missed the point. Many have said that as an openly gay woman, she should know better when discussing prejudice, but I was more surprised by her callousness in light of her being an adoptive parent. And I notice my (hyper-)sensitivity to that issue seems to grow every time I encounter it.
And of course I seem to be encountering it everywhere nowadays. “When ya gonna start makin’ babies?” Almost all of us in our late twenties and thirties are used to being asked this regularly. I’ve been told I should take it as a compliment, since it’s rarely asked of couples who would make terrible parents. Yet I’ve been amazed at how intrusive the questions and comments can be, how often something as personal as parenthood is treated like small talk. It’s understandable as more of my peers become parents; the prospect of making humans is daunting and people need to vent about it. Those who don’t want children while living in a baby-obsessed world feel the need to vent back. All this venting results both in community-building and in tactless comments that knock those outside of the community.
One of my friends who miscarried was told by a stranger, “Well, it wasn’t a real baby.” A friend who adopted a girl from South Korea was told by a fellow church member, “Her eyes aren’t that bad.” A friend who had a C-section was told she must not feel as close to her child as women who give birth “naturally.” Childfree friends have been told that their lives will be never be “complete” until they’ve had children. A biology professor who had two foster daughters was asked if he was worried they would inherit their imprisoned father’s criminal tendencies because “that stuff’s in the genes, y’know.” I’ve been told it’s selfish to want a child with achondroplasia, it’s selfish to want a child without achondroplasia, it’s selfish to allow my child to inherit my achondroplasia, it’s selfish to play God with genetics, it’s selfish to want to biologically reproduce what with the world population exploding, and it’s selfish to worry about any of this because it’s not like I’m infertile. All of these comments were well-intentioned.
Usually people are simply thinking out loud when they say such things. It is important to remember that no one can be expected to know exactly what to say in unusual circumstances, lest I end up lecturing as if I’ve never inadvertently offended anyone. Almost all of us have good intentions, but many are unaware of how quickly we redirect conversations back to our own experiences, how easily we forget to prioritize listening over interrogating, empathy over curiosity, respect over Thank-God-that’s-not-me! complacency.
Hereditary conditions, finances, disabilities, infertility, relationships and emotions ensure that having children is not a universal experience. There is no right way for everyone and any opinion that can in any way be construed as a judgment can cut someone deep because babies and bodies are entangled in supremely visceral feelings. It’s no coincidence that Roe v. Wade was argued based on the right to privacy: Something as sensitive, as complicated and as profoundly emotional as your reproductive choices should be volunteered at your discretion.
That said, parenthood is all about making decisions that will inexorably affect someone else’s life, not just your own, and this is why it is such a hot-button issue. Our reproductive decisions, more than any other decisions, are the intersection of personal freedoms and social responsibility. As the daughter of a social worker who worked for Child Protective Services, I have firm beliefs about right and wrong when it comes to parenting. As someone whose genes make the prospect of parenthood unusually complicated, I’ve begun to see how judgmental those beliefs can come off when the presentation is sloppy.
As an avid reader of Offbeat Families, I know that sharing knowledge and experiences can help others in so many ways. But as someone who feels very ambivalent about offering up my not-yet-existent children’s potential situation as conversation fodder, I’ve become less trustful of many of my most well-meaning friends and family members. Questions about my situation so quickly transform into lectures about their situation. (I’ve also noticed that the more nervous someone is, the more they lecture.) Besides making me more guarded about my personal experience, it has also taught me to stop myself from making snap judgments about others’ reproductive choices. When dealing with anyone else’s family planning, I have been humbly learning to:
1) Fight the urge and try not to ask others about their reproductive choices, especially in the context of small talk. Let them volunteer it. Go ahead and volunteer your own stories, but don’t press the other person if they do not respond in kind. We can never assume what’s lurking under there.
2) Beware of talking about the decisions you made in a way that inadvertently hurts those who must make different decisions. This is also very tricky, but if you are convinced water birth is the only way you can imagine doing it or you are proudly childfree or you know exactly how to make sure it’s a girl, be aware that people in different financial or medical situations may not have these options at all.
3) When someone does want to share something you have little experience with (e.g. adoption, stillbirth, staying childfree, etc.), prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to. Relativizing struggles can be helpful and I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends, but my guard goes up when someone without achondroplasia tells me right away they know what I should do because they know someone whose baby has diabetes, they took a college class on bio-ethics, or they heard something like it on the news.
4) Only offer your ethical opinion if the person makes it perfectly clear they want to hear it. Every society bears the responsibility of taking a legal stance on complex reproductive issues: prenatal testing, genetic counseling, birth control, abortion, sterilization, drug testing, assisted reproductive technology, the life of the mother vs. the life of the fetus, custody, adoption, foster care, etc. We are all compelled as citizens to be aware of the laws concerning these issues. And we all have our own opinions about them. But anyone directly affected by them is likely to have heard it before and to have been thinking about it longer than we have. I’ve been thinking about the effects my dwarfism may have on my kids since I was fourteen.
5) Don’t gossip about others’ decisions behind their backs. It makes your listeners aware how they will be talked about when it’s their turn to decide about having children. There is a fine but crucial line between trying to understand situations that are new to you and using someone’s situation to tell an interesting story.
6) Do try to actively listen when invited to, saying truly supportive things, as one or two particularly fantastic friends of mine have, such as: “I can only begin to imagine what I’d do in that situation.” “Let me know if you don’t want to answer this question…” “On a much smaller level, it sounds a tiny bit like what I felt when…” “No matter what you decide, I know you’ll be great at it because…” “I’m always here to listen if you ever need to spill, as long as it helps.”
Of course, in listing here what I have learned not to do, I can only hope that my own past SNAFUs have been minimal. Insensitivity, by definition, is the disconnect between intention and effect. Embarrassed apologies to anyone whose toes I stepped on while stomping through my own bigfooted opinions.
Cross-posted on August 27, 2012 at Offbeatfamilies.com