At my last trip to the nail salon, I was enjoying a relaxing chair massage and getting into a good book when the manicurist looked up, poised over my big toe, and asked with a hint of derision, “Who cut your toenails?” What does she mean? I thought. I cut them a few days before this moment, in fact. Had I somehow cut wrong? Were they crooked? I used clippers. Were they too short or too long or too jagged? How does someone fail at toenail clipping? I spent the entire pedicure trying to figure out just how I had managed to mess up something so simple. It took me the entire fifteen second walk to my car for me to realize, I didn’t care. I’ve succeeded at a lot of things in my life, and if toenail clipping isn’t one of those things, I guess I can live with that. A simple question, innocent enough, easily brushed off. But it got me thinking about those questions not so easily forgotten.
As a thirty year old woman making my own way in the world, the most common one was, “Why aren’t you married?” This inquiry found me everywhere from the grocery store to the doctor’s office, and came from close friends as well as strangers, sometimes several times a week. It was a well-intentioned but pointed reference to my failure to follow cultural expectations. I had always meant to get married. There was just that small issue of finding the right guy. There she is, each question pointed out, single and thirty. Look at those crooked toenails.
Over the years, I have watched several close friends go through the agony of infertility, mourning the ‘never was’ and anxiously grappling with the future for ‘what will be.’ Time after time I heard them asked by friends and strangers, “When are you having children?” “Don’t you want kids?” These questions were well-intentioned daggers of inquiry, striking the heart each time. I watched them swallow back hurt and find a reply that didn’t expose their deep wounds. Look at those crooked toenails.
Now, as a newlywed with a full six months under my belt, I am getting the “When will you have kids?” question multiple times a week. And while it’s more annoying than hurtful, I can’t help but wonder, when we ask these questions, as we so often do, what are we really asking? Are we questioning, “Why can’t you behave like everyone else?” “Why have you failed to meet our expectations?” Or more pointedly, “What is wrong with you?” There are so many paths in life, and many of them are not of our own choosing. It is up to each of us to make the best of what life gives us and to persevere when it is not what we would wish. How much easier would that be if those around us didn’t stop to point out the difficulties? If we accepted that not everyone is willing or able to walk the traditional path? If we stopped pointing out the absent, so that we could focus and enjoy those things present? If you’re guilty of this, don’t worry. We all are. We default to those timeless social interactions without even thinking about the impact. But instead, how about asking “What are your plans for the future?” or “Is there anything exciting coming up?” so that the response can be something positive the listener would want to share? After all, no one’s life is perfect, so let’s try not to point at each others’ crooked toenails.