When you meet new people in the military community, there is a bucket of general questions people usually draw from to quickly find some common ground. One of the first few questions is inevitably: Do you have any kids?!
It’s understandable – most military families do. In fact, most military families have lots of them! Which is why people ask… and why they are stumped for further conversation when hubby and I say, “Nope!”
Sometimes this leads to more awkward questions such as, “Why not?” or “Do you plan to?” in an attempt find a relatable point of view. Most often, questions like this lead to some awkwardness and an eventual parting of ways. Occasionally you find those who successfully navigate the conversation, who I find are actually worth keeping around. And every so often, you get the people with Mommy/Daddy Brain who react as if you've just told them your hobbies are mountain biking, crocheting, and dicing up the homeless to sell as meat on the black market.
After several awkward moments and many failed attempts at conversation, I adopted a new response.
This opened me up to a whole new world of people who treated their pets like their children. I even discovered that some people who I thought had children had actually been talking about their pets the whole time!!
Young couples without children, older couples who had kids that had already left the nest, and others in between who had gotten sick of explaining their choice to not have children – many of them were using their pets as baby decoys! It was brilliant!! Most times if you had already bonded over a story with someone, they didn’t seem to care that your story was about a furry baby instead of a human one. The point was simply having something in common.
So when I started answering, “No, but I have a cat!” I found myself among several pet owners (both with and without human kiddos) who appeared thrilled to confess the love of their own little furry babies. And should the conversation ever skip the standard questions about kids and home life, you could often pick up context clues to determine whether someone was telling a story about a pet or child.
Some clues were more obvious than others, since most people don’t name their human children “Muffin” or “Killer”; but you can apply the general idea that if the name is one not often heard, a person may be talking about a pet (especially if the name ends in an "ee" sound). Also, kids aren’t normally described as ‘begging’ for treats or getting out of their ‘leash’. A more subtle clue, however, might be agelessness. Parents tend to make reference to their offspring's age, even if indirectly ("The joys of having a toddler..", "My 3 yr old..", "After her birthday.."); whereas pets will remain ageless and descriptor neutral ("My little one.."; no concrete descriptors such as son/daughter/toddler).
Clearly it is a fine line, though, since pet owners and parents can often hold meaningful conversations about their children without disclosing if they’re of the fuzzy or human variety.
This pet/kid tactic came in very handy for me when I was volunteering at our last duty station. Interactions were often brief, spontaneous, and informal with service and Family members who visited the office. A quick point of common ground went a long way toward making someone feel welcome. But I found it was also a great way to break the ice with newer office mates! Often when someone new would show up, it would be kind of awkward until you found a point of shared interest. More often than not, this new tactic provided an immediate commonality!
Shortly after the holidays we got a new volunteer. This was an easier time of year to get to know someone because you could ask questions about their holiday experiences. Normally if kids or pets were a factor, they would get mentioned in this discussion anyway – avoiding the awkward scenario of asking. So when we met, I chose the safe route!
I have heard tons of stories about dogs reacting to new types of weather (especially snow) since military families have a tendency to move from one extreme climate to the next. It never gets old. Like children, every pup has it's own unique personality that adds something to the stories.
Anyway - Perfect! I thought. She’s a pet person, like me. We are going to work so well together!!
Then I made one...
First-time Kid/Pet Conversation Rule: Never get too specific. In a world of paranoia and obsession, you never know when you may accidentally strike a nerve or open Pandora ’s Box.
Questions that get into details too soon could put you on a parent’s watch list or open you to an earful on how someone dared to disqualify Mittens at last year’s cat show! Or, perhaps even worse, this could happen:
This realization was only made worse by the fact that she just happens to be Native American. For a few moments I found myself sweating bullets, trying to think of an explanation for what I'd said. Of all the things you could have asked, Alex, why that?! Could that be misconstrued as some kind of horrible racist comment?! OMG She must think I'm awful!!
Fortunately, she turned out to have a great sense of humor and we both burst into laughter over my mistake. A few weeks later I actually had the privilege of meeting little (very human) Bailey, who was absolutely adorable.
After that little incident, I decided not to play pet roulette anymore. I still tell people that I have a cat when they ask about children, but I don’t play guessing games when people talk about their own little loved ones. Four-legged or two, doesn’t matter to me. And I certainly don’t ask anything too specific…