I dread the conversational “How many children do you have?” asked so eagerly, so innocently. Nor did I realize how often people feel compelled to ask it. Woven into the fabric of small talk, along with the weather and where are you from and what do you do?
When I was in college, I used to “count money” at church. I had been a bank teller for years so had some skills in flipping through bills and change quickly. I would stay late and count the offering plate, preparing the deposit for the bank. Always done in pairs, sometimes I knew my counting companion, sometimes it was a stranger. This process would usually take a few hours, so small talk became inevitable, especially with a stranger.
One time, I was working with a woman several decades my senior. She said something about her grown daughter, and I automatically asked “How many children do you have?” She paused for several moments, and looked at the table, refusing to meet my eager gaze. “I have two daughters. And we lost our son.” I do not even remember how I responded, but I know that I didn’t pry. Later, I found out that her son, as young adult, had committed suicide with a gun, in their home, on New Year’s Eve. I was taken aback, but the moment passed. After all, this wasn’t someone I knew.
Now I understand, and can put myself on her side of the table. How much harder to answer that question for a stranger who didn’t know. To have to choose how much to reveal, with the added stigma around suicide. I know. There is silence and stigma around babyloss as well. Different, to be sure, but still a topic that is often passed over with discomfort.
I have to choose, when answering that dreaded question: do I make this person uncomfortable, by including the two children that I lost? Or do I make myself uncomfortable with a half-truth? It is almost always the latter. We are trained to keep conversation light, especially with strangers or casual encounters.
The question hit me again the other day, as my bursting pregnancy shape makes me an even easier target: “When are you due? Is this your first?” No, I did not respond to the nail technician completing my pedicure “Well, actually this is my fifth child. We lost two.” I simply gave a short, crisp “No. Not my first.” Left it at that.
Since losing Nelle, I don’t think I have uttered the words “How many children do you have?” to another person. Or if so, it was only in the context of my support group, in which I know the answer includes a lost baby. That question has been removed from my repertoire of small talk. If I were backed into a corner and had to ask, how would I phrase it? How would I want someone to ask me this question, in a way that was kind and open? “How many living children do you have?” “How many times have you been pregnant?” “How many children do you have at home?” Each has its own unique awkwardness.
What I would like is to answer without reservation. In pregnancy, to say “This is my fifth. I have two children at home, and we lost two.” To be able to honor the space that my girls occupy in my heart, to let the moment exist honestly, while also letting it pass as soon as the words leave my lips.