It's usually used as a casual icebreaker, an easy conversation starter, but to ask a complete stranger if they have children is surely asking for trouble. I reckon it's better to stick to chatting about the weather, the food, the décor, pretty much anything else really. In some cases, politics or religion could be a safer bet than enquiring about the biological functions of someone you've just met.
I've been thrown the old "Do you have children?" line twice that I recall. Both times it was borderline awkward. The first occasion was at a wedding reception about twenty years ago. We'd no sooner introduced ourselves than the woman I was seated next to at the dinner table asked me if I had any children.
Looking back, I know she was only trying to be friendly. Unfortunately, at the time I would have been about halfway through my twenty-year campaign to remain childfree so I probably winced at the question. I guess I said: "No".
To elaborate could have been rude. I wasn't going to bore her with my rationale for not having children. Since these reasons included fear of childbirth, concern for the environment and a desire to not betray the feminist cause, it struck me as a bit deep considering entrees hadn't even been served.
Of course, now I understand that this woman must have had children and if I'd only answered: "No, do you?", I'd have given her permission to rave on about her own offspring. Lucky I didn't then.
The second time I was randomly asked this question was at a cocktail function my husband and I attended at the Auckland Art Gallery. A couple I'd just been introduced to were exchanging concerns about their daughter, hoping she was doing okay with the babysitter in their absence. It wasn't long before the woman excused herself to telephone the sitter.
"Everything's fine," she reported to her husband upon her return. Then, by way of explanation to me, she said: "She's only three years old and it's the first time we've left her."
I probably nodded or smiled. There'd been no need to explain. It wasn't any of my business. Then the woman asked: "Do you have children?" Maybe she was feeling self-conscious about sharing their childcare woes and wanted to give me a chance to reciprocate.
"Yes, I do," I replied. It was the first time I'd answered this particular question in the affirmative.
"Oh, how old?" asked the woman. This was where it got awkward. "She's nearly three weeks now," I replied. I think there was stunned silence. Without being privy to the background of either situation, this encounter had potentially revealed so many things.
The couple had displayed signs of being clingy, overprotective and uncertain in their choice of babysitter. On the other hand, I was exhibiting a cavalier attitude to my newborn, a lack of maternal instinct, a recklessness by being out socialising instead of at home changing the eighth wet nappy of the day.
More charitably, they were just concerned parents and I was a confident delegator. Regardless, this whole scenario could have been avoided if that very personal question hadn't been asked. Enquiring about someone's ability to multiply seldom ends well.
My two examples were trivial in the scheme of things. They were merely semi-uncomfortable situations. Sometimes the enquiry can bring up all sorts of pain and complicated feelings. The target of this question might not yet have found a life partner. She may have lost a life partner in tragic circumstances. She may be struggling with infertility. She may have suffered a miscarriage or a series of miscarriages. One of her children may have died.
I know a woman whose eldest son died in an accident. "I don't know what to say anymore when people ask me if I have children," she said. "I used to say I had three but is two the best answer now?" Her concern was how to respond to the question truthfully without making the other person feel uncomfortable.
So next time you feel the urge to initiate small-talk with a stranger, perhaps consider resisting the do-you-have-children line of enquiry. Because you're really asking them about their philosophical beliefs and whether they're partnered up. You're asking about the functionality of their ovaries and womb. You're asking about the motility of their partner's sperm. You're asking whether they've carried all their babies to term and which of their children are still alive. It's probably safer to ask which party they're voting for next election or which god they worship.