When you run into someone who looks young for their age, you probably don't ask if they've had a facelift. Few people would ask a thin person if they've been ill. Why, then, do some people think it's okay to ask a gay couple which of them is the "real" dad who contributed the sperm? Or where the egg came from?
New York author and gay father Andrew Solomon addresses this particular brand of rudeness in a cheeky manners column in the current issue of Town and Country magazine called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Solomon writes that business acquaintances, random people on flights and tipsy neighbours not only ask whether he "had to use the cup," but whether he brought his "own 'materials' to the hospital for that purpose."
"The details of conception are a rather unusual place to begin conversation even with heterosexual couples, and call me a Victorian throwback if you must, but I prefer not to disclose the physical details of my reproductive activities with people who have not yet told me their surname," he writes.
Solomon is busy doing the media rounds for his new book Far from the Tree, in which he uses his own story about becoming a father to frame an exploration of how parents cope with children who are born very different from them – from deaf children to dwarfs. He has publicly sketched his complex family tree – which includes his husband, a female friend, a lesbian couple and five children they've had together helped by IVF, surrogacy and gamete donation – but he doesn't think that gives strangers the right to prod into specifics.
"I don't feel I'm keeping any of it a secret," he said during a stopover in Toronto. "… but don't take the fact of these children as an excuse for ignoring the ordinary rules of privacy."
As the definition of family expands to include all kinds of parents (older, divorced, single, gay, lesbian, transgendered) and all kinds of kids, so too, it seems, do the boundaries of what used to constitute private information.
"Sometimes we cast the rules aside because the idea that someone who doesn't fit the mould owes us an explanation," says Andy Inkster, of Toronto's LGBTQ Parenting Network.
When Toronto parenting blogger and lesbian Meri Perra and her partner are asked who the "real mom" of their two kids is, "we both are," is the quick response. Her partner was once asked about the family photos on her desk by a new work colleague: "How did you and your partner get pregnant?"
"You just don't ask that. You don't ask that of any woman," she says.
We've barely assimilated the obvious rule of not asking a woman with a bit of a belly if she's pregnant. Parents of twins have long been asked whether their bundles of joy are "natural" or due to assisted reproductive technologies. So we may have a way to go before the sight of two dads with a toddler is just two dads with a toddler.
While the notion of privacy has been eroded in the era of the Foursquare app and reality television, Solomon says there is a connection between blush-inducing small talk and underlying prejudice. Just last week he was asked: "So, how are you going to raise these children of yours?" Holding back a zinger reply, he answered as politely as he could. But he felt the implication of the question was clear: "That what I was doing was a little weird and bizarre and I have to justify that. I find it tiresome," he says.
It's the same way Inkster felt when time and time again, people assumed any woman standing next to him was the mother of his infant daughter: "It was often someone I didn't even know."
Toronto therapist Sara Dimerman says that while our culture is becoming more aware of alternative families, curiosity can drive us to ask what seem like inappropriate or insensitive questions. If we ask a complete stranger, we should be prepared for a non-answer. But there's more wiggle room if you know the person.
"If you're comfortable with it, these are normal questions of curiosity and who better than you to provide them with accurate information in a way that helps the rest of the world get a better understanding of what it's all about?"
As Solomon puts it, "The spirit in which the question is asked matters more than the question itself. Most people welcome someone who is warm and kind and wants to understand more."
Mikki Morrissette, the author of Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman's Guide, says that single-moms-by-choice are another easy target. In one case, she says, one 9-year-old boy was astute enough to pick up on enquiries about his father. He started telling people his dad worked overseas.
Dr. Marshall Korenblum, the psychiatrist-in-chief at Toronto's Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families, says the effect of this kind of repeated questioning is negative for children.
"It emphasizes the otherness of the child and makes the child think there's something inferior about themselves," says Korenblum. And if those queries or comments are whispered, it only emphasizes the shame. "It's as if the question and the answer both have to be hidden."
Solomon says that for him, awkward queries miss a larger truth about his family. "The thing is to recognize the humanity of both the fathers and the children and to acknowledge how much effort and love is involved in producing a child when you can't do it through a drunken night of pleasure, and how much focus it requires, and to try and dig for a little admiration on that front rather than judgment on what a real family is supposed to look like," he says.
It seems, a manners refresh is in order, with the aim of connecting over the common ground of parenting. Toronto etiquette columnist Karen Cleveland urges a little humour – especially when the children are around. "Assuming that small ears might hear the parent's response, one could address the question of the child's genetic origin without really answering it all. If asked, they could deadpan, 'well the stork, of course.'"