Child bearing, like politics and religion, is not considered a safe or polite topic of casual conversation in the States. You do not break the ice at a cocktail party by asking when a couple plans to have children. Even if the response is a well-practiced quip, the woman who has undergone three unsuccessful IVFs will think you’re a dolt.
Reasons for not having children can range from the medical to the monetary, but they are all personal. And of course there are couples that simply do not want to have children, and this choice is not one they will want to defend over the cashew dish. Even if a couple already has a child, you don’t ask when they will have more.
This does not appear to be the rule in the Netherlands. Here, people ask. At work, in the pub, of strangers, of friends. In the past, I’ve been asked not only why I don’t have children, but whether I can or if I just don’t want to, and I’ve been told whether I should. Perhaps it was my ambivalence about the subject that kept me from being offended.
I never counted on having children. I could see living very happily without them—the freedom to travel, to focus on career, to live spontaneously. And I did these things while married. My former husband and I lived in three different countries and three states in the years we were together. We both got to go back to graduate school. He started his novel and I advanced in my career. We partied. We traveled. And we talked about children, in a “someday” sense.
I also never assumed having a baby was a choice I could just make—I’ve watched too many friends go through the frustration and heartbreak of infertility. I began to think of getting pregnant as something that takes more deliberate intervention to achieve than it does great measures to prevent.
Of course nobody was asking when my Irish fella and I would have children, because we weren’t dating that long, but it was more than that. When the man in question is in his 50s with no history of long-term, serious relationships and no children, people assume it’s something he doesn’t want, or that he is by now too set in his ways to entertain. And at 37, I’m definitely considered of advanced age in the Netherlands, especially for my first child.
But since learning that I am pregnant, people here have not been shy about asking whether the baby was planned. Nobody State-side has asked, but I suspect it’s just out of politeness, or that people have drawn their own conclusions. Mostly I think people assume that not preventing enough is the same as trying, which certainly seems logical.
But I think there may be a gray area between preventing and trying. We were sometimes very diligent about protection and other times less so. But I wouldn’t say I was hoping to be pregnant. The timing was all wrong for some very obvious reasons, like I was still married, and I hadn't yet told all of my extended family that I was separated, never mind dating. When I took the first pregnancy test, it was to eliminate pregnancy as a possibility and to put my mind at ease.
When it was positive, I took another, then another. If I had been trying, then wouldn’t I have taken a positive result as a success? And yet I wasn’t aghast either. With each positive result, I sat and waited for the panic attack that never came.
It was manageable news, but without being sure it was good news, I wasn’t sure how to share it. I Googled: “how to tell your boyfriend you are pregnant.” From the resulting advice, you could easily distinguish those who were definitely not trying—“know what you will say if he starts verbally attacking you!”—from those safely in the “trying” camp—“buy him a ‘World’s Best Dad’ shirt and let him guess!” Nothing fit my situation.
I refined my search: “how to tell your boyfriend you are pregnant when you haven't been dating very long, but you are pretty sure he will be happy once he gets used to the idea.” No hits.
I went to his house the next morning. I brought croissants. I had planned a small speech. But when he asked how I was, I just said, “I’m pregnant.” After a few seconds of silence that felt like millennia, he said, “Well, we have to buy a house, and we have to learn Dutch.” And he put the kettle on.
If you measure “trying” by how we reacted to the news, then maybe we were. Or maybe we just didn’t think it would actually happen, and got lazy. It doesn’t really matter at this stage—we’ve skipped over “trying” and are getting ready for “doing.”