Etiquette Lessons: The Dos and Don’ts of Relating to Your Single & Childless Friends and Relatives

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

As our culture shifts toward more inclusive perspectives, it’s time we consider the single, childless women over 40 who often struggle to feel seen in a world that prizes marriage and motherhood. Here are a few etiquette tips to help you show your respect for these unsung (and sometimes unintentional) trailblazers.

1. Don’t ever assume that you know how a single, childless woman came to be single and childless.

Don’t assume that she’s controlling or inflexible and couldn’t maintain a relationship. Don’t assume she’s too picky. And don’t ever, ever assume that you know her reproductive history, no matter how close you are. Many women have had miscarriages and abortions or have struggled with infertility and have chosen not to share this information with others.

2. Don’t give single, childless women advice about pursuing marriage and motherhood.

Not all single, childless women are unhappy with their circumstances. Don’t demean their life choices by assuming they are. And for those who are grieving over the partnership and children they didn’t have, remember that we are all different and experience life in different ways, at different paces. Just because you met your husband through a dating app doesn’t mean your single friend should sign up for an account. Just because your childless friend didn’t find a partner in time to have a baby doesn’t mean she wants to adopt. Encourage her to find her own way and be there for her as she navigates this tender territory.

3. Don’t have a separate set of expectations for single, childless women.

If you’re someone’s boss, don’t give the single, childless woman the extra work to do on weekends because your other employees have kids. If you have an aging parent, don’t expect your childless sibling to take on the burden of caregiving just because she doesn’t have children. And don’t assume that your single, childless friends or family members should be available for babysitting or emotional support 24/7.

4. Be inclusive!

Ask new acquaintances about their hobbies and passions instead of leading with, “Are you married? Do you have children?” On social media, don’t consistently and exclusively target only the mothers in your audience. At parties, cultivate a variety of conversations that don’t all focus on motherhood.

5. Never assume you know how a single, childless woman spends her time.

Don’t ever utter the words, “Gosh, what do you do with all your free time? How luxurious!” To put it bluntly, that’s rude. Just like any other woman, single, childless women have lives full of activity, stress, and obligations. We take care of ailing family members. We work. We have hobbies and side hustles. We struggle. We argue. We wrestle with grief. We try. No, we don’t stay up all night with colicky babies — we have different challenges. But I can assure you, we’re not sitting on the couch all day, watching soap operas, drinking champagne, and toasting our frivolous lifestyle.

6. Don’t speak or act in ways that indicate single, childless women have less important lives than wives and mothers.

Let’s make this simple: Every woman’s life is valid and important. Don’t demean someone by implying anything less than that.

7. Stop. Comparing.

Seriously, this goes for everything, but especially comparing mothers with non-mothers. Following the track of logic that leads us to conclude that non-mothers don’t measure up to mothers, mothers with one child also come up short against mothers with two children. And mothers with two children aren’t quite up to the standard of women with three… And so on. Do you see the absurdity of this? So really, let’s give this one up.

8. Instead of asking, wait and listen.

No matter how close you are with your single, childless friend or relative, they might be carrying grief and disappointment about their circumstances that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with others — especially with those who are married with children. If they want to talk about it, let them do so in their own time. Don’t ask sensitive questions. And never make a single and/or childless woman feel like she has to explain her choices or circumstances. Just for the record: she doesn’t.

9. Don’t dump your ageist concerns on us.

You don’t need to mention how hard it is to find a good partner after 40. You don’t need to tell us how hard it is to be a stepparent. And you can definitely keep facts about geriatric pregnancies to yourself. If you got married and had kids in your twenties or thirties — awesome. Congrats. But the rest of us were given a different set of tools to work with and we’re doing what we can. Don’t make it worse by feeding us ageist doubts and fears. If you don’t have something positive to bring to the conversation, then don’t say anything, at all.