The Most Insensitive Question People Ask Perfect Strangers All the Time

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On Friday night, my fiance Olivier and I were celebrating our five-year anniversary with cheap (we knew we were getting what we paid for…) massages in Chinatown. The place was totally kitsch: Fluorescent lights and potted bamboo trees at the entrance; a linoleum-tiled floor in the back waiting room with blue mood lighting, a giant trickling fountain surrounded by mini Buddhas and ferns, fake “star” lighting in the ceilings, and leather reclining chairs with plastic covering the foot stands (for a classy touch). Olivier and I were enjoying the scene when we were ushered into the back, into separate rooms for our hour massages.

My massage “therapist” (if you could call her that…) began making her way around my back, and about five minutes in she asked me about my relationship with Olivier (you might already see where this is going).

“We’re celebrating our five-year anniversary tonight with massages!”

“He’s your boyfriend?”

“Fiance. We’re getting married in December in Mexico. We can’t wait! It should be a nice vacation for all of our guests.”

“Nice.” Pause. “How old are you?”

I hesitate, deciding where my gut tells me this is going (nowhere good) and if I want to give this almost perfect-stranger more personal information (what the h*ll, she’s seen pretty much my entire naked body anyway). “It’s my 30th birthday next week!”

Pause. “Oh happy birthday! So you’re going to have baby right after you get married? 30 you’re married, 31 you’re pregnant, 32 you have baby?”

No response. “Uh…I don’t know about that.”

Awkward silence. We don’t talk for the rest of the session; whatever slight bit of relaxation I felt…gone.

After Olivier and I left and were on our way to dinner, I asked him about his massage. Not great (his massage “therapist” seemed to know even less what she was doing than mine). Then I told him about my experience, including the highly inappropriate personal conversation my “therapist” initiated. He laughed.

“My lady asked me the same question — if you were my girlfriend — and then how old I was. When I told her she seemed disappointed, like I looked younger.” He laughed. But “are you having a baby?” of course never came up.

I was discussing this with a group of friends last night at my monthly writing club. One girl, a model in her 30s, related with a story from a casting call she attended last week: “When I walked in, the casting director said he wanted to see our personalities. Then the first question out of his mouth: Do you have kids?” Needless to say, she was taken aback at this direct association between her personality and her choice to procreate. She replied no, thank you very much, do you think I’d have these? pointing to her flat abs in jest, then under her breath, “two dead ones.”

I didn’t go there; I don’t know whether the two were miscarriages or otherwise — and it doesn’t really matter. In both of our cases, both a man and a woman decided that because we were women of a certain age, though we were essentially perfect strangers it was OK to bring up a very personal question and insert an opinion where it wasn’t asked for. And in my case, it became very clear that a man in the very same situation did not receive the same line of questioning (if the baby question even crossed his “therapist’s” mind, which it probably didn’t).

We as a society and especially as women need to stop imposing these expectations on each other. Because we are so much more than whether or not we decide to spend our lives barefoot in the kitchen. If a woman makes the choice to have kids and be a stay-at-home-mom, I’m all for that — if not, that’s OK too (I’m personally still figuring it out). But stop judging. What if my friend wanted those two babies and miscarried? That’s a tragic FIRST question to be asked by someone who literally just learned your name. What’s more, my friend in jest was right — as a model her body is her tool, so did he, the casting director, really expect that she would be interested in growing and pushing out a baby with her source of income? And what if my fiance and I don’t want to have kids in the first place? These conversations made it clear in my mind, at least, that to many people any choice other than pumping out kids is out of the question; even self-centered and greedy. It reminded me of this recent tongue-in-cheek video “NEW! Try, ‘NOT HAVING KIDS'”:

To summarize: If you don’t have kids, you’re a selfish a-hole who watches other parents struggle to carry their strollers down the subway stairs while you and your partner laugh and lick your ice cream cones.

I suppose men who don’t have kids might eventually start to hear the kinds of comments my friend and I received…maybe a decade from now. I can’t really say because I don’t know many men that age on a friend-level. But my hunch is more likely than not, people mostly just consider 40-year-old bachelors “career men” who want to focus their lives on their work. If you’re a 40-year-old woman without kids, I don’t think people will make that assumption unless you’re Mother Theresa.

PS: If you live in Manhattan and weren’t already deterred enough by my story, let me tell you —  I’m all for saving money, but don’t bother visiting Eden Spa, which was recommended to me by my hair dresser (we’re going to have a talk the next time I see her). Neither Olivier’s or my “therapists” seemed to have a clue what they were doing: They’d push in a spot on the right side for two seconds and then jump to the other side and do something totally different. At one point my “therapist” shook my leg so hard from the foot that I thought she was going to dislocate my knee.

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