Why Not to Say “What Not to Say”: In Support of Asking Questions

Aug 1 2013

It was the great American philosopher, Cookie Monster, who once said, “Asking questions is good way to find out about things.”

Although I agree with Mr. Monster on this one, I always giggled when teachers said a similar thing, “Ask questions. And remember, there are no stupid questions.” Because there are stupid questions, of course. And rude questions. And thoughtless questions. And nosy questions. And ignorant questions, too.

I’ve asked them. I’ve been asked them.

When I had my first miscarriage, for example, a loss that blindsided me like a Mack truck in the night, a church lady asked me if I’d considered examining my life for sin or cutting aspartame from my diet. No kidding. All at once. Like miscarriage by sin and diet soda is a thing. I didn’t respond because I didn’t know what to say, but I have fantasized about a do-over in which I look Church Lady kindly in the eye, and say, “What the hell, friend?”

When Greg and I adopted our three-month-old daughter from Vietnam a year later, a stranger stopped me at the grocery store to ask how I’d tackle the uphill battle of teaching my baby girl to speak English. After cocking my head to the side, baffled, I replied, “I imagine she’ll just pick it up from listening to me.” The woman walked away, shaking her head at my pathetic lack of a plan.

When we brought our son home from Guatemala a few years later and his speech and development delays became apparent, we fielded loads of questions, usually from kids but not as exclusively as one would hope, about what was “wrong” with him. “Some of us wear our differences on the inside,” I’d say, “And some of us wear them on the outside. He gets to keep his on the outside where he can be loud and proud. That’s the way our family rolls.” And then I’d bite my tongue so I didn’t follow up with the question I longed to ask the grown-ups, “Why? What’s wrong with you?”

And when our biological twins arrived a few years later, we got to dispel the notion that we “finally managed to have kids of our own.” “No,” we said again and again, “they’re all our own. That’s what adoption means. That’s what birthing them means. They’re our own.”

So believe me when I say I know about the questions. The well-meaning ones. The heartfelt but poorly-worded ones. The stupid ones. I’ve heard them a thousand times in a million ways.

  • About having an only child. We had one for five years and one kid is a lot of kids, man.
  • About being a stay-at-home mom and a works-outside-the-home mom. I’ve been both. Both are awesome, and both suck hard.
  • About infertility.
  • About adoption.
  • About pregnancy.
  • About bottle feeding and breastfeeding.
  • About how to get kids to sleep. (Sleep? Ha!)
  • About developmental delay.
  • About twins.
  • About having five kids. “You have five?!” they ask, stunned. And I like to reply, “Yes, just the five.”

Sure enough, I know about the questions. I do. And I understand the special kind of crazy they can make us.

But there’s a writing trend lately that concerns me which I’ll call the “What Not to Say’s.”

  • What not to say to a mom of an only.
  • What not to say to a mom of many.
  • What not to say to a mom of none.
  • What not to say to adoptive parents.
  • What not to say to parents of kids with special needs.
  • What not to say when mom heads back to work.
  • What not to say when mom stays home.

I don’t know about you, but WHEW! Even though I’ve been all these moms, I can’t keep track of all the things I’m not supposed to say. And I realized these articles have made me afraid. Afraid to engage with my fellow moms. Afraid to take risks in relationships. Afraid to ask questions to find common ground. Afraid I’ll hurt a mama friend even with the best of intentions if I don’t word a question the way she’d like to hear it.

ID-10032700It’s not that I disagree with each What Not to Say specifically. When I read them, I nod in sympathy and chuckle in understanding. But I do disagree with these articles cumulatively because, while it’s a good idea to educate the public to respect our family make-ups, the myriad lists of Questions to Avoid risk shutting down conversations entirely. Instead of teaching people to use discretion or find compassionate language in general, the What Not to Say specifics silence well-intentioned, kind-hearted folks who’d rather say nothing than say it wrong.

Now of course there are people who ask questions for intrusive reasons. Or selfish reasons. And there are people with a poor sense of boundaries. But I’ve found over time that most people who ask questions are looking for a deeper connection. Or are trying to find answers for their pain. Or want to know how to better relate to someone in their life who seems to have a situation similar to mine. Or are trying to understand this shifting world. And, while I can’t always answer the questions, nor should anyone have to, I don’t want people who need answers to stop asking for them.

What’s more, even if we can somehow keep track of all the What Not to Says, silencing the questions will harm my children. My kids are going to have to deal with questions constantly, partly because of our family make-up and partly because they interact with other kids who, you know, ask questions.

I won’t always be there to coach my kids through responses like “I don’t want to talk about that right now. Let’s play.” Or “I have a hard time with words. Will you be my friend and help me?” Or “All the kinds of moms are real.”

When I engage with people out in the world — people who ask gentle questions, people who ask cruel questions, people who ask kindly-meant questions in a wonky way — my kids watch me model appropriate responses. They learn both how to engage and how not to engage as needed. And they learn I’ve got their backs. Always.

At the end of the day, I’d rather field the tough questions than shut down the conversation.

Turns out Cookie Monster was right. “Asking questions is good way to find out about things.”

Even if the questions sometimes suck.

photo 3 (48)BethAbby3

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I’m very curious what you think.
Do you agree? Bring on the questions? Or are you, like, No way! There should totally be a list of What Not to Say!

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3D Character With Question Mark image credit to renjith krishnan via freedigitalimages.net