I’d heard the question a million times before — and a million times since.
But as I stood there with a stranger, making small talk as I treated her hands to a sea salt scrub, she asked an innocent question I myself used to ask all the time. Today — her inquiry blindsided me.
As she waited for my answer, she naively scrubbed the oil and salt all over her hands, completely oblivious to my struggle. I internally broke out into a sweat, faltering for an answer and hoping she didn’t notice my hesitation.
“One,” I stuttered out. “I have one child.” Liar . . . My conscience screamed. You had two. Why didn’t you tell her you had two?
This should be the easiest question to answer, right? Except — it wasn’t.
Scrub, scrub, rinse. Scrub, scrub, rinse.
I finished helping all of the guests with their spa hand treatment, and I never asked a single one of them how many kids they had. Because now I knew how hard that was to answer.
No — not just hard to answer. Impossible to answer.
Three weeks before this conversation, I had lost our little, much-wanted baby due to an ectopic pregnancy. I knew our baby was early, sure. But try telling my heart that. All my heart knew was that a new little baby was growing in me — a baby I loved — and now that child was gone. And I had no idea how to make an account of her existence, her value, her inherent worth to others. To strangers.
And how could I — when I didn’t even count her in the lineup of my children?
Not telling the stranger about my baby felt like I was failing her. And yet at the same time, it also felt like this stranger didn’t need to be privy to the deep grief I was feeling. She didn’t need to know how hard it was for me to pry myself out of bed to make it to that event, and how I was barely holding myself together in front of her.
Related: On Replacement Children
It’s been almost five years since that conversation. The one that has changed almost every conversation I’ve had with strangers. My situation hasn’t gotten any less complicated — if anything, it has gotten more complicated. But I have learned the power of a safe, predetermined answer.
“We currently have one child . . . ” (Or two or three, depending on where we were at in our fostering/adoptive process.)
And I learned the safe questions to ask when meeting a stranger at my networking events. “Tell me a little about yourself” or “Tell me a bit about your family . . . ”
They are open-ended — so they can say as little or as much as they wanted. If they want to disclose how many kids they have in their home, or if they were married they could. But if they want to answer in such a way that I would have no idea that they wanted to be a mom more than anything, but couldn’t get pregnant, I’d be clueless about their struggle with infertility. If they wanted to mention their daughter or son in heaven they could — or they couldn’t. If they didn’t want to have to explain that they were married for 20 years and recently divorced, they wouldn’t have to. Disclosure could be up to them.
This system has worked for me for the past five years. Until we got unmistakably pregnant yet again.
For as long as I could, I hid my burgeoning belly under loose tunics while out in public. I’m used to being the one eyeing the pregnant stranger in the grocery store, jealous of her swollen abdomen, resenting my four years of trying and five losses. I’m not used to being the pregnant one in the grocery store, inadvertently triggering anyone around her who was dealing with loss or infertility.
And so I hid in flowy shirts and loose dresses. For as long as I could. Until the day came that no matter what I wore, my belly was obvious.
In my blatantly fertile state, the dreaded question resurfaced, only a little different this time . . .
Related: How Many Kids Do You Have?
“Is this your first?”
Of course, this time it was only asked to me when I was out and about solo. And still, I didn’t know at first how to respond.
If I simply said no, they’d ask how many children I have.
The easy answer would be, “This will be baby #3.”
An easy answer . . . but also a lie.
I have had one live birth, five losses, one adoption, one foster child I consider my son but is no longer in my arms, and one baby on the way.
To be true?
“Number nine,” I would have to say. This is baby number nine.
Except, I only have 2 kids in my arms.
But no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise, I can’t bring myself to say, “This is baby #3.”
So I’ve settled for: “We have two girls at home.” It is a safe answer. Enough info to let them know this baby isn’t my first. But not so much that they would ask about my complicated history.
I can’t count my kids. I don’t even want to try. And if I’m really honest, I’d tell you I’m tired of being asked to.
The truth is — my history is complicated. But it’s not just me. Families today in general are complicated. Dang complicated.
*There are embryos you transferred in IVF that didn’t make it.
*There’s early miscarriage, late miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death.
*There’s, “My kids, your kids, and our kids” in blended families.
*There are children you fostered forever, loved as your own, and had to return.
*There are failed adoptions.
*There’s the step-child you raised, then lost access to when you divorced.
*There are the children you are taking care of for others, but have no legal rights to.
*There are children you are estranged from.
*There’s the apparently “childless” mom who has had to say good-bye to every one of her kids.
*There are a million ways to count our kids — the ones in our arms and the ones in our hearts.
And so I’m making a public plea to all you well-intentioned lovely strangers who are trying so desperately to be polite and follow the example of millions before you. When you encounter a mom, or a women you think might be a mom, and you feel the urge to say something . . . don’t ask her to count her kids.
If you are just passing by, and feel you must say something, a simple “You have a lovely family” will do just fine.
And if you need to start a conversation, the best way to go would be, “So — tell me a little about you . . . .” That way, she can tell you as little . . . or as much . . . as she wants.