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.








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