If you have one child, surely you're going to have another? Well, not necessarily. There are many reasons why people don't. For some, it’s personal choice, for others it can be fertility-related or due to anything from financial to medical to relationship issues. So why do people keep asking? Mothers experience it all the time – at playdates, over the garden fence, at work drinks. Often, the questions are entirely innocent. Most people aren’t purposely trying to be rude or intrusive, it’s just that, sometimes, the subject and its honest answer can be complicated, and painful.
Abigail Webb, a mother of one, has had three miscarriages since having her first child four years ago. She says she regularly gets asked when she’ll have another, and the conversations can be uncomfortable. “Somebody said 'Maybe you're only supposed to have one child' – that was really hurtful to hear,” she said.
Jessica Cole, a 29-year-old mother of one, agrees. “I wanted another, but my partner didn’t. It’s not the kind of thing you want to discuss on the street.”
The question can also be loaded with stereotypes about what makes a family 'complete'. The assumption that you need more than one child to be a ‘real family’ is commonplace. Upon announcing her second pregnancy, one mother was told by a friend: "Oh, you’ll be a proper family now."
Katherine Twamley from UCL's Department of Social Sciences says her research has shown that people are very sensitive to criticism of their parenting choices. “We live in an age of moral panic around ‘parenting’ where many people think – and government politicians also suggest, based on very tenuous research – that parents can straightforwardly control the kinds of outcomes their children have. This increases pressure on mothers to make the ‘right choices’, even though the right choices are rarely very clear and, anyway, will be different or not always possible for different parents.”
One of the reasons the question gets asked a lot is that some people have strong ideas about only children or how close in age kids should be. Many think it’s best to get the sleepless nights out of the way all at once; others say bigger age gaps can be easier. Some even suggest people should time their pregnancy with their friends'. Generally, though, life doesn’t work like that. One US study revealed that, in 1995, 1.8 million women suffered from secondary infertility (the inability to conceive or carry to term a second child); in 2006, it was 3.3 million. In 2010 it accounted for six out of 10 infertility cases. There are also around three million single parents in the UK, some of whom would like more children but haven't yet met the right partner.
With UK childcare the most expensive in the world, it’s no wonder that having more than one young child can be a sticking point, with major implications for parents' careers and finances. A recent study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics found that, while the addition of a second child has little effect on the working hours of mothers in skilled jobs, it has a substantial and negative effect on low-skilled women, who are forced to reduce their hours considerably or even give up their jobs altogether.
Many mothers, having experienced these questions themselves, are now careful not to do the same to others. “Before I had a baby, I would've been one of those people who said, ‘Are you having another one?’ I don't do that anymore. You just don't know what's going on with people so I try and be careful,” says Jasmine Cole, a 33-year-old mother of one. “If you're really that desperate to know, then you can ask questions that allow them to volunteer the info. You could maybe say you like the idea of having more kids and see if people want to say rather than just asking straight up. It's an issue that women face again and again.”
Rachel Johns, a mother of two, agrees and says people shouldn’t do it.“Why? Because it's none of their business." She says that unless someone is friends with you on that level, it's an intrusive question. "It's like me saying, ‘Are you applying for a bank loan?’ It's a life question and it’s not everyone's business.”
If you don't want a bullshit answer then don't ask the question, says Aisha Khan, a mother of one. “You don't know whether someone had miscarriages after their first child, or if they can't have another baby, or they don't want one – you just don't know their circumstance. To make them feel rubbish if it's something they want – or don't want – is an invasive thing to do,” she says. “You end up just saying, ‘Oh, maybe one day, I’m still getting no sleep with this one'. But really, you just don't want to talk about it with them.”