I’m sure people used to say odd things to me or ask personal questions about Kristen and Courtney when they were little dudes, but I don’t remember. They were little dudes way back before perimenopause took control of my brain. Now I walk into a room and don’t remember what I came in to get, so how am I going to remember what some stranger might have said to me a dozen or so years ago? But on a fairly regular basis, I get some of the strangest questions about Laura, and I wonder if strangers have always been so personal with other strangers, or might this be recent phenomena in society? I don’t think it necessarily strange that a stranger might be wondering such things (although, get a life, and think about something useful), but I think it strange that a stranger would actually ask such questions of another stranger. So I’ve been pondering for some time why it is that someone, someone I may be standing behind in line at Trader Joe’s, someone whose table might be next to mine at a restaurant, someone whose name I don’t even know, asks a question that I wouldn’t even ask someone I knew. The kind of personal information that you might only find out about someone after the person felt that he or she knew you well enough to share it.

How personal are the questions to which I refer? How about the one that I often get asked during the summer, when Laura and I are out and about without Tom in tow? I have been asked more than once, in a hushed tone, “What ethnicity is her father?” or “Is her father of another race?” By way of explanation for the question, not an excuse for the behavior of the questioner mind you, but for the record, Laura does have lovely, dark, olive skin, and it gets particularly tanned during the summer despite the gobs of dermatologist-approved sunscreen that I zealously slather all over her. But sheesh people out there, so the kid has dark skin. Why do you need to know the ethnicity of her dad? What earthly reason would anyone ask this question? My husband happens to be a WASA (that is, White Anglo-Saxon Atheist), but I think people who ask such questions, particularly in hushed tones, should be kept guessing. So I deliver my standard, cheeky answer, in an innocent tone of voice, “My husband is American.”

Now I come to my personal “favorite” personal question. Let’s say I’m standing in Target and a woman sees me buying an item that is clearly for a child, say a Polly doll, a pair of size 6X jeans, or Goldfish crackers. She’ll ask, “Do you have children?” Now this kind of question is part of the small talk that women in line at stores make, the small talk that briefly connects those of us who might spend any number of hours each day without adult human contact. I say yes and almost inevitably the next question is, “How old?” Experience has taught me that it’s likely to get interesting from here. I reply that I have a twenty-two-year-old, a twenty-year-old, and a six-year-old. And then, here it comes, hold onto your mouse pad, the inquisitor poses this question: “Was the little one planned?” Or even better and more to the point, I am sometimes asked, “Was your youngest an accident?” I mean, think about the implications of this question! Was I too lazy or too stupid to use birth control? Still, I always truthfully reply with a smile, to a face that will go from inquisitive to skeptical in seconds flat, that we had wanted our youngest for a very long time before we were lucky enough to finally have her. But Blog This Mom! Reader, do you know what I really want to say? I want to give an answer that’s just as personal and intimate and inappropriate as the question. I am simply dying to one day say, “Did we plan to have her? Was she an accident? Darn right she was a boo-boo! It all started, I suppose, when I had been delinquent about taking my birth control pills for a few days, here and there. You know how that can be! Then one night we drove home drunk as skunks and barely made it into the house. If fact, we were so drunk that we couldn’t get upstairs to the bedroom where we have our trapeze and silk handcuffs, so we had to get our groove on right there on the living room rug. Of course, once we got going, we sure as heck didn’t want to stop to put on a condom! I mean, if we were going to stop to put on a condom, then we might as well have stopped to put on our cheerleader and football player costumes too. No, we didn’t stop! Nothing ruins spontaneous sex more than responsible birth control. Don’t you agree? Part of the fun is taking the risk! Besides what are the chances of a pregnancy resulting from unprotected sex anyway? Then, just a month or so later, I realized my period was late. My periods are usually right on time, but I’ll spare you the details of my menstrual cycle, as I’m sure you wouldn’t want to hear such personal information. So, sure enough, we had ourselves an unplanned pregnancy, and nine months later we gave birth to our little accident! Now, of course, we’re stuck with her, but what can you do? Shit happens.”

I know these kinds of questions happen to other people. I know that people whose babies’ skin color isn’t an exact match of theirs, people whose babies aren’t neatly spaced apart every couple of years, people whose babies have two moms or two dads get personal and stupid questions. And so I thought about it, and decided that I have a choice. I can’t stop the bonehead questions, but I can do something about how I perceive the reason behind the questions. And, most importantly, I have control over how those questions affect my emotions and reactions.

I think that part of the reason that these questions get asked is because people are trying to find personal connections in a society that finds them slipping away a little bit at a time. People used to sit on their front porches while their children played hide-and-seek around the neighborhood. Now everyone is in their backyards. People used to drop in for coffee, or catch up during telephone conversations. Now we sit behind computers and send emails or comment on each other’s blogs. Kids used to knock on the door to see if other kids could play every day after school. Now only the occasional play date is arranged, by moms, well in advance, to accommodate busy schedules. I’m not saying that these changes are all bad. I’m just as much a part of this society as the next mom. I love email! I love my backyard! My kid has a busy schedule! But sometimes I too want to connect. And although it might be done in a cloddish way, perhaps the stranger asking me a personal question just wants to connect too. So if I choose to spin an insensitive question into something positive, then maybe I can respond good-naturedly, and teach the stranger—and, more importantly, my listening child—a little lesson in graciousness. But if I allow such insensitive remarks or questions to annoy or anger me, then I’ll be reacting to, and therefore allowing myself to be controlled by, a tactless stranger. I’m not giving up my power and grace that easily, at least not on my good days, and certainly not with my kid watching.

8 comments on “We the People”

  1. I’m sure my mom gets those questions as well with having a 25, 20, 18 and 5 year old. Though the pregnancy was an accident in her case (dieting pills and birth control), but none of us feel that my brother was.

  2. Wow, Cheri. That was fantastic. Definitely your best entry yet. At least in my humble opinion. And it makes me feel so much less alone in my struggle despite the fact that many of the comments I receive reveal an ingrained, societal bias called racism. Still. No matter our differences on this planet I firmly believe humans are all more alike than different.

    Again, great entry. You made me laugh and you made me think. Love your site.

  3. I get the same questions and when I say I have a 30 year old, 2 – 24 year old twins, a 6 year old and twin grandbabies… ususally the first question is (in fairness I do lump them all together when I answer) All from the same father?

    Thank you! Your post will give me something to stop and think about before I open my mouth to say whatever smart-assed answer was about to come out…

  4. Judith Martin/Miss Manners:
    “Miss Manners is afraid that a great deal of casual conversation consists of the first things that pop out of the tops of people’s heads without passing through the brain.” 11/15/2006

    Pick your battles & don’t let the weenies get you down.

    Best, Gail

  5. Fine entry…although I do take exception to the purchase of Goldfish Crackers being evidence of small children. The wife and I live on them.

  6. I couldn’t agree more, Cheri. Great post. When I first met Jarrah, I thought I was going to get all bristly when people asked questions about her, but I find that more often than not, I’m either amused, or (dare I say it?) grateful that people ARE looking for some connection in our sadly-free-of-front-porches world. Quite frankly, I get really bored during the day without adults to talk to, and sometimes having a conspicuous mother-daughter connection is an ice-breaker! 😉

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