There is no sentence in existence that throws me more than the question, “How many children do you have?”
I’ve been asked this question—or some derivative of it—in essentially every setting in my life: at the grocery store, at board meetings, at any and every social function, at the maternity clothing store (haven’t they thought that through?), and literally walking down the street, approached by strangers. Until I lost my first child, it hadn’t occurred to me that this question could be anything other than harmless. But for me and many other loss parents, especially for those with a recent loss or whose grief is palpable, it can be the most cutting, most scarring question to field.
This question is asked so frequently and with such nonchalance, I can only speculate that it remains prevalent because of privilege. Many people who haven’t experienced miscarriage, perinatal loss, infant, or child loss have the privilege of believing that their happy, healthy outcome was a given. But it is not a right, nor a guarantee; it is simply a privilege to have all of one’s children, to never have experienced the tragedy of loss.
Related: An Open Letter to a Happy Mama from Her Bereaved Mama Friend
I don’t have access to this privilege, so I’ve developed multiple answers over time. In the early days, when the loss of my son was a gaping open wound, I felt compelled to answer this question honestly, no matter who asked. It caught people off guard, forced their lips into sympathies, or worse: obvious, awkward pity. But speaking him into existence during those unexpected moments felt like my only option—it felt supremely unfair to him to leave him out of my sentences, out of my present tense.
When I became pregnant again after losing my first son, my physical appearance itself elicited another painful version of the question, manifesting in “Is this your first child?” Depending on who asked, or in what setting, I would weigh the benefit of expelling the truth versus keeping it to myself at that moment. Predictably, I had a few vulnerable moments when I felt like sharing was the wrong decision, and in turn, moments of regret when I falsely answered, “Yes.”
Related: The Unique Grief of Losing Your First Born to Stillbirth
Somewhere between the early days of oozing grief all over strangers in every interaction and now, I refined my answer to reflect my current emotional state, which is thankfully more stable. I do not wear my loss on my sleeve as I once did. In the beginning, I was not capable of withdrawing it from the conversation, nor could I imagine an alternative to the truth. What I’ve learned with time, however, is that my outward response is protection for my ability to function in daily life. For me, speaking of my son in the confines of safe conversations with supportive friends and family doesn’t invalidate my experience, nor does it negate his existence. It just means I can keep a smile on my face, or better yet, I can keep from breaking down and crying in a parking lot in front of a stranger.
This doesn’t mean that other answers to this question are unacceptable, or what you choose to share—or keep private—is the wrong way to respond. A friend of mine in the loss community shares her loss in the first couple minutes of most interactions with strangers. While that isn’t what I would choose, I respect her ability to be vulnerable and forthcoming. The bottom line is this: we each have to do whatever we can to take care of ourselves—and all of our children, here and not.
Katie Colt is a writer, songwriter, musician, and mother. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Mommy Nearest, and most recently at Kveller, as a 2017 Writing Fellow. Katie lives near Chicago, IL with her husband and son.