The Soul of Good Manners

At times, it feels like it’s the only conversation the world wants to have with a mother: You have how many children? And are you done? 

It’s what your doctor wants to know, and your dental hygienist, and your hairdresser, and your check-out person.

On my post from last week titled The Repulsive Truth, Maureen commented:

“I’ve also been blessed with four and have responded with a bland, “You never know,” when asked the dreaded question by a stranger or acquaintance. I’d really love it if we could get that question out of what passes for polite conversation. How can we reconcile the need for faithful Catholics to model and discuss openness to life and NFP with a desire for a certain degree of family privacy? Where does, “Yes, we’d welcome another child, but we aren’t necessarily attempting to conceive this week,” meet “Mind your own business, ma’am!” ?”

The question of whether or not to have another child is one of the most intimate conversations a husband and wife will have with one another, and Maureen makes a good point: it does not belong in the realm of polite conversation.

On one hand, it’s a good sign that people are still interested in family status when meeting a new person. The question is an effective shorthand that provides clues to how you live, whether or not you’re married, and your religious beliefs.

So much information packed into a seemingly innocuous question. No wonder we find it so troublesome to answer.

Our problem is not so much that we haven’t found the perfect quip with which to respond, one that balances wit and piety with a dash of evangelism.

The problem is that it’s a question about your sex life that should not have been asked. It satisfies a culture that, perhaps without realizing it, has become accustomed to obtaining fast and false intimacy with new acquaintances.

So let’s assume the best of people, that they really don’t realize how personal the question is. Maybe rather than providing a five-second homily summing up Humanae Vitae, or some other response that tacitly affirms a willingness to delve deeply into matters that are no one’s business, we should refuse to answer at all.

Ever notice how in presidential debates, when faced with an inconvenient question, the candidate will answer a different question of his own choosing, one that highlights an issue he actually does want to talk about?

For example:

Q: “Senator McGilligan, what do you intend to do about global warming?”

A: “My record will show that I have repeatedly passed legislation to shore up the fading auto industry.”

Is there a connection between the question and the answer? Maybe, maybe not.

You don’t actually have to answer questions literally. You don’t have to answer questions at all. You can tell an anecdote, change the subject, reveal a story about someone you saw on TV. People don’t always notice when their questions go unanswered.

See here:

Check-out lady: “So are you done?”

Shopping mom with lots of kids: “I did intend to buy more pasta.” (smiling serenely)

Question satisfied, personal invasion avoided, and you have maintained an air of mystery, one that maybe, just maybe, will inspire someone to, I don’t know, buy more pasta too.

Conversations about our reproductive choices are best had with people with whom we are on a first name basis, and in a leisurely setting of mutual respect and friendship. Then we can talk about our motives for desiring a larger family, discuss our beliefs in a more philosophical manner, and hopefully exhibit the more nuanced character of our lives. We are liberated from presenting a picture of rosy perfection to strangers, and treating our children like commodities (because the number of children we have –or don’t have– is not in itself a testimony to the depth of our faith).

And still, you are not a bad Christian for not desiring to discuss your sex life even with close acquaintances. There’s nothing wrong with deflecting the question to hold up a mirror to it’s personal nature.

For instance:

Q: “Are you done?”

A: “That’s a question I get asked a lot. How do you usually answer personal questions?” (smiling serenely)

The virtue of chastity helps make up the soul of good manners, so it’s no wonder we have lost one with the other. Maybe a worthy first step in creating a culture of life is to help build up a proper respect for our own personal boundaries.








Welcome New Advent readers! Thanks for dropping in.

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Dorian Speed

    This is the best post of all time.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    I’m torn here. On the one hand, you are entitled to your privacy, and I understand your feeling that your personal space has been invaded by strangers. On the other hand, though, you are a beautiful witness to God’s grace and His plan for all families. You are the New Evangelization, standing there in the flesh, holding a toddler’s hand. I hope you’ll not turn them away with a well-crafted retort, but will instead take a deep breath, then answer their impudent questions–showing them something of the joy of cooperating with God in creation.

    • Hilarious Results

      I think her point is that certain types of questions — the ones regarding one’s sex life, whether implicit(are you done) or explicit (do you know what causes that) — are beyond the boundaries of legitimate inquiry or even the adjective “impudent.” Those questions need not be answered. Instead, a different question may more fruitfully be answered or the question put back to the questioner. All with great civility, of course. Boundaries boundaries boundaries.

  • Bearing

    Yes, it is more that there is a fine line between “Mind your own business” and “Always be ready to give a reason for your hope.”

  • Mary Emily

    Yes, why is it your business if my husband and I have sex? And when? And what might the result of that coupling be? My mom, who had 7 (starting in 1970, ending in 1983), would often respond laughingly with, “What a question?!?! Thank you for your curiosity, but my sex life is very private.”

  • Agatha

    I have gotten this question many times, along with the variant when I’m noticeably pregnant: “Is this the last one?” It’s so awkward isn’t it? Sometimes I say “There won’t be another one this week” or “We’ll see.” I always say it blandly. Let me tell you why.
    Oftentimes, the person asking the question really wants to talk about his or her own struggles or dilemmas in this area, and this is just a way to start the conversation. It can be easier to talk about openess to life with a complete stranger, who will never be encountered again in this life, than with one’s friends. People have told me they want more children, but the spouse is reluctant. People have told me they’ve been sterilised, and they are a bit sad about it. People have said how lucky my kids are to have siblings.
    Of course, it hasn’t all been positive, and occasionally I meet people who are hostile, but I have tried to be as calm as possible while it’s happening, and I pray everyday for the Holy Spirit to use me as He sees fit.

  • Christy

    I’ve felt this way for a while now! I feel the dichotomy between the Catholic view of the sacredness of life and our culture’s consumer attitude towards children the most when I hear this question. It’s usually asked in such a stark sounding way, as if we should be completely in control of our fertility. I’ve sometimes ducked the question like you say if I’m getting weird vibes from people, or if its someone I see occasionally but don’t really know personally, like my hairdresser, I try to be positive in responding. I feel across the board though that this is so very personal and intimate. No one should be asking these questions. I feel the same way in Catholic circles when some people put pressure on those with not as many children, or asking if the latest baby in another family came when they were trying to postpone or not-its nobody’s business other than the husband, wife and God!

  • Maria

    You know it can be kind of embarrassing and hurtful to only have one child and be asked why there aren’t more. Count your blessings and be grateful. You won’t change Human Nature. Sometimes life doesn’t offer itself as easily to some as it is for others.

    • Hilarious Results

      I share your pain. Prayers …

    • Anne

      Yes Maria, When you have “only” one you can be marginalized in certain peoples eyes. I have had people approach me and say “You should have another…your child will be lonely etc.” Little did they know the heartbreak of the two miscarriages that I endured. I loved to think about Pope John Paul II who was raised with just one sibling. I thought of the Holy Family. And I came to believe that my little family had nothing to be ashamed of when we stood next to those very large beautiful families(God bless them). Am I less of a mother or a Catholic?
      Amazingly, God sent us another when I was just shy of 44. It was a total surprise, an easy pregnancy and an easy birth. Now at 62, I am just finishing homeschooling my son who is going off to college.
      Whether you have one or twelve you are blessed and we need to stop judging and give as much credit to the mother of one as the mother of many. Only God can read that mother’s heart.

  • Melissa

    God bless you, Agatha.

  • Ellen

    Woah. Yes! This!

  • Julia at LotsaLaundry

    My favorite was always a sweet smile with a perky, “Why do you ask?”

  • Stefanie

    Babies are beautiful and their mommies are beautiful. New life is beautiful.
    Regarding being asked to divulge way too much information: I know quite a few young women — now in their 30′s — who are ‘finally ready’ to go off birth control and have babies…and guess what? They can’t conceive or keep a pregnancy beyond a few weeks. These are women who used to disdain multi-kid families while they were in pursuit of self-adoration. They are consumed with talking about their attempts/procedures for ‘getting pregnant.’
    Jiminy Crickets… I guess there is too much social boldness going on these days. It used to be just within your own family, i.e. aunties bugging you endlessly about ‘are you dating?’, then ‘when is your boyfriend going to marry you?’, then ‘your mother would really love to have a grandchild…’
    I am steadfastly NOT being this way with my own now-grown children…although my husband does leap into the fray, much to my chagrin!

  • Alishia

    I have a friend with eight who always answers, “We’ve always been open to life.” I find it nice enough. I’ve used it and since it’s. somewhat positive answer, people don’t know what else to say! But they’re always gonna be nosy. I find I dread this question more, “five kids?! And what’s the age span?” Five kids under seven years is always a shocker.

  • Rachel

    Thanks for the beautiful post.

    Two things regarding the comments:
    (1) Kathy says above: “I’m torn here. On the one hand, you are entitled to your privacy, and I understand your feeling that your personal space has been invaded by strangers. On the other hand, though, you are a beautiful witness to God’s grace and His plan for all families. You are the New Evangelization, standing there in the flesh, holding a toddler’s hand. I hope you’ll not turn them away with a well-crafted retort, but will instead take a deep breath, then answer their impudent questions–showing them something of the joy of cooperating with God in creation.”

    We have to always remember that a mother “in the flesh” with children already simply is a sign — the words and the reply to an impertinent question aren’t necessarily the witness. If we miss that, then we think we must always articulate the Good News perfectly with our words. Simple being is a witness. Everything else flows from there.

    (2) Mary Emily writes that “Yes, why is it your business if my husband and I have sex? And when? And what might the result of that coupling be? My mom, who had 7 (starting in 1970, ending in 1983), would often respond laughingly with, “What a question?!?! Thank you for your curiosity, but my sex life is very private.””

    Be careful with this one. In fact in some way it is my business if two people are having sex or not. I’m not saying that in any voyeuristic or pornographic way, but there’s a reason the Church is so concerned, it seems, with all matters of sex. It’s not because she is weirdly obsessed with it, but because she understands that it is so bound up with family, which is the basis of culture. A “what happens in my bedroom is none of your business” response can easily be applied to, say, premarital relations or in fact, “gay marriage.” The fate of the family (and thus, what happens in the bedroom) is my concern, qua common good. One of the reasons the question can be asked so nonchalantly in the first place is because we have no broader cultural understanding of what’s at stake in sex and the family.

    And thanks again, Mrs. Duffy, for a beautiful reflection.

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  • Alicia

    This question has never bothered me. People ask questions all the time. They ask kids how old they are; if you’re pregnant, they ask if you know whether it’s a boy or a girl; if you’re a family with school-aged kids and are out and about during the day, they’ll ask whether you home school; if you’re buying a lot of hotdogs, they’ll ask if you’re having a party. These are just friendly, small-talk-ish kinds of conversations. It really doesn’t bother me. Am I crazy?

  • Erin Pascal

    Good point! I kinda get these kind questions often too even from those who are not included in my circle and it always tempts me to answer it in a not-so-good way–good thing I haven’t lost my cool so far. What I do is I just kill the conversation by saying, “I don’t know.” and I get no response after that 95% of the time. Thank you for sharing this! :)

  • Kelly @ In the Sheepfold

    When we were dealing with secondary infertility, it seemed there was no limit to what people would ask me. Apparently we simply weren’t “trying hard enough” or something like that. At one point I was tempted to ask “Should I send you my charts?” to one overly inquisitive relative.

    In the fullness of time, we had four children. Two arrived when I was in my mid-forties. Suddenly we were getting, “Are you gonna have another?” I usually responded, “We’ll be sure to let you know.”

  • TheReluctantWidow

    As an adoptive mom, I get a variation of this question. After our second adoption people assumed we were done. Then we announced the third but it was somewhat OK because we were adopting a girl and had two boys already. The fourth adoption was a bit hard for others to take. We were struggling with attachment issues with our daughter. People were critical that we were somehow cheating our other children financially because of the cost of adoption. As I have struggled now to parent four children as a widow, and two of my children have significant attachment issues, I sometimes perceive a bit of attitude like “well you wanted them…” Yes, I did and still do. It’s just incredibly hard sometimes and please forgive me if I’d like to blow off steam by sharing my frustration.

    Oh, and the other comment I got all the time after our first adoption was “oh, you’ll get pregnant now for sure” as though adoption was a consolation prize. We could have gotten pregnant with fertility drugs, artificial insemination and/or in vitro. We chose to adopt and in particular to honor Church teaching regarding in vitro. Never have regretted not having bio children. I have the children God meant for me to mother.

    Oh yes, and I should also say, this is one of your best posts.

    • Nancy

      Another adoptive mom here, who has to field lots of idle curiosity kinds of questions from strangers. I do the smile serenely thing a lot, because I don’t want to make my kids the focus of yet another person’s questions in the check-out line. I often will ask “Why do you want to know?” If they’re considering adoption, I will offer to meet with them to talk about it . . . or if they ask “Where is she from?” I will usually just give the name of our home town, and move along. :)

      I also hear your pain about having any kind of trouble with adopted kids — there can definitely be a vibe of “you asked for it!” And doubly so, in your case, as a recently widowed mom. Sending love to you, and praying for grace, peace and strength for you.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Only one kid myself, but I think it’s probably the norm for anyone with a small child in tow (or a baby bump) to be some sort of cosmic beacon for random strangers wanting to ask totally inapropriate questions. Whether it’s “are you done” or “when are you having more” or “how dilated are you” I think it helps to look at the (completely inapropriate questions) as an opportunity to practice our answers. Some day our kids are going to ask those same questions and they aren’t going to pull any punches. It’s nice to have gone through all the really awkward answers with people we never have to see again and don’t have to worry about scarring for life. I absolutely cringe when people ask personal questions about my son’s father, but its even tougher when my son asks and I’m not prepared. God always gives us what we need… maybe sometimes we need help practicing what to say to hard questions.

  • Maureen

    I’ve never been quoted in a blog, to my knowledge–thanks, Betty.
    As I read the many comments above, I’m recalling a family dinner in which I would have loved to use any of the above responses rather than what I did. There are moments in which words flow from our mouths without having been met by all our regular filters. When they are out there and can’t be retrieved and placed in the proper receptacle, it’s so easy to wonder how something so unlike me came out of this person that so closely resembles me.
    Our youngest of three at the time was an infant when a cousin’s husband asked, in a partial lull in a dining room full of kids, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents if we were done yet. I responded, “I don’t know. Are you?” It was rude and ungracious and I have no idea where it came from; I prayed no one noticed and think the conversation went on in another direction. I was so preoccupied with my poor response that I wasn’t even considering the awkward situation in which I’d landed in the first place. I can’t imagine so many folks are truly rude, rather simply participating in culture unaware that others do have more private boundaries.

    • J H

      While I understand your awkwardness, I don’t think that there can be a bad response to this question. I think this is a case of: there are no bad answers, just stupid questions.

  • Hidden One

    When in doubt, reply in Latin.

    • Christopher Milton

      perhaps: “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam”

  • jason

    You pick:
    “Oooooo, I have not thought of that before. When I discuss it with my husband, I will be sure to call you. Can I have your number?”

    “Wow, that’s personal. When is your next period?”

    “Someone has to pay your social security, food stamps, and medicade.”

  • Lisa

    Great post! It would be wonderful if there was a casual breezy way to respond to this and still be a witness to the faith….all while avoiding any awkwardness. Maybe an answer to ‘are you done yet?’ could be….’I don’t know. If God sends more, I’ll take more’ and leave at that. What do you all think? It avoids answering if you are trying or not and it indicates an openness to life. Hmm.. I may try this next time.

  • Silvia

    Its too easy to be rude to people who ask these kinds of questions. Even though I’ve heard it a few times, I’m still shocked that people think that this is ‘ok’ to do.
    My mom had six and her favorite response to the MOST rude ‘Haven’t you heard of birth control?’ was ‘Why yes, I have, but I don’t like the sound of it’. Always said with a smile.

  • Mark D

    Oh, for goodness sake. We have five children. It never bothered us in the least when people asked us that question. I say stupid things all the time; therefore, it is my duty (and yours) to be charitable.

    Hey, I don’t know, Elizabeth, maybe you are one of those rare people who never says a dumb thing. If that is the case, throw that stone.

  • Long time mom

    “Are you done?”

    (Crouch down a little and whisper the answer in a spy-like collusion): “Are you?”

  • John Z

    I don’t mind the intrusion and actually view the question as an opportunity to share our thoughts and then redirect a similar question to them. I’ ve tired of the superficial small talk that is all too pervasive today.

  • http://NCR Catherine

    I find that if I answer with an honest, “My husband is just too good looking, I can’t keep my hands off him.” but said with a laugh usually throws people who are already getting their arguments ready in response to what they suppose will be an overly pious, religious discourse and they are the ones quick to change the conversation, since the hidden inappropriateness of the question is brought out into the light of day and they are the ones feeling its uncomfortable results, as I’ve already moved on.

    • Hilarious Results

      I really like this.

  • Gina

    I always say, “I don’t know! We make them so cute!”
    That always gets a chuckle, and sometimes an apology for asking…

  • Bryant

    GREAT post. I love the concluding response, “I get asked that question a lot. How do you usually answer personal questions?” A good rule: always answer a question with a question. E.g., “That’s an interesting question, Mary. What makes you ask?” It’s gentle, disarming, and puts all the pressure where it belongs: on the questioner.

    • Eve

      great answer!

  • Eve

    I have been asked all those questions many times. I settled on a guileless answer. Depending on the question I would say, “I do know” and then to finish say, “aren’t they beautiful”.

  • ama

    Done? Oh no! I’ll be their mother for the rest of my life!

  • Marty

    It’s an annoying question perhaps but it’s not an invasive prying into your sex life — that’s way oversensitive. Also it’s better to just be honest and open rather than try to be witty and possibly cutting while maintaining your composure; don’t encourage passive-aggressive behaviour that’s an even more annoying response to an annoying question.


  • Patrick

    As a father of nine I have said in the past, ” I will be happy to share with you the intimate details of my married life….if you will share with me your tax return”. Not a friendly response…but it gets the point across.

  • Brian

    As a Father with nine children, I get asked this often. My response is same as a friend of mine with nine as well:

    “There is always room for one more”

    Try it. It changes the whole discussion.

    • rebuildmychurch

      Dad of 8. My response, “We’ll see what God does!” Bring Our Lord right into the conversation and causes many to pause – probably for many reasons. I wouldn’t call it the ‘new evangelization’ but it does make explicit my values.

      Thanks, Elizabeth, for your thoughtful reflection.

      Ad maximam Dei gloriam!!

    • Clare


      Best response here! Bring the joy and love and generosity of having children to the world.

  • Susan

    My response to “are you done yet?” is “I don’t want to impose limits on God’s generosity”
    My husband’s response is “we’ll see” followed by “how much money do you make?”

  • Andrea

    Hi Elizabeth, I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to read through all the posts yet, but it occurred to me whilst reading your blog and the first few comments that these people aren’t actually asking you about your sex life. I know babies come from sex and so do you; so does all the public. But within our contraceptive culture that understanding, unitive and procreative, has been separated. Therefore the question to them is more along the lines of ‘which car are you thinking of buying’. Is consumer driven but has ideological connotations. As you going for a gas guzzler (like having lots of babies and the ‘overpopulation myth) or buying a Prius (the name of the car might be wrong, I’m not very versed in these things, but you know the bi-fuel one that’s both hugely expensive and also gives there owners an apparent sense of moral superiority like the two child model).
    Personally I thought your first response was the best.

  • Gabby

    I love that after announcing our 5th pregnancy, a co-worker asked me how much a vasectomy costs… I was so shocked at the time…, I have had many great laughs retelling the story though!

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  • Patrick B.

    We have many family friends with 6, 7, 8 or more beautiful kids. We’ve only been blessed with three so far (one’s with our Lord already,) but I think a wonderfully frank response to give (if one wanted put the questioner totally back on their heels – if they deserve it) is:

    Q: “Are you done yet?”
    R: “Oh, did we have too many? Tell me, which one(s) would you have wanted us to abort?…Go ahead – just point ‘em out.”

    I know it’s kinda mean, but sometimes people just ask for it… ;^)

    Anyway, great article & God Bless You for your work.

  • FirstTime Reader

    Question: Are you done having kids?
    Answer: Why, do you want to adopt one?
    Answer: I’m just waiting on you to catch up.
    Answer: Could you tell me how this keeps happening? I hear it’s something in the water.
    Answer: I’ll stop when you have one more.

    Question: How many kids do you want to have?
    Answer: As many as God thinks I can handle.
    Answer: How many can we have on welfare?
    Answer: I’ll take a donation if you want to support the cause.
    Answer: Less than the Duggar family.
    Answer: How many is too many?
    Answer: We were actually thinking of getting rid of one. Which one do you think we should give away?

    Question: You have 3 boys. Are you going to keep trying until you get a girl?
    Answer: No, we are going to keep trying for the fun of it.
    Answer: No, we are going to keep trying until we get a monkey.
    Answer: Yes, can you show us how to do that?

    Question: Wow, you have 3 boys within 4 years. Are they twins?
    Answer: Yes, separated by many months.
    Answer: Are you for real?
    Answer: No. (and then just walk away.)