One of the hardest questions a babyloss mother can encounter is, "how many children do you have?". It's usually an innocent question, posed by a stranger, perhaps when meeting a mother and her child or children for the first time. Another common experience may be for a mother who has no living children to be asked, "When are you going to have kids?". Again, this is a well-meaning question asked all the time, by all kinds of people, in all kinds of settings. And yet, it is this question that causes babyloss mothers to truly struggle on their grief journey. On a personal note, nearly eight years after my own abortion due to fetal anomaly, I still stutter and stall when I am asked about the number of children I have. After struggling with this question, and advising countless other mothers who have experienced the loss of a little one, I would like to provide some tips about how to answer it.
The best defense may be a good offense. This is especially true for mothers in the early stage of a loss, just returning to work and social engagements where the question may, again harmlessly, come up. Questions like "I thought you were pregnant?" from those who knew that a mother was expecting, or new friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, may ask the "how many children?" question. One strategy is to let close friends--people whom you trust--play offense for you. Have somebody who knows your situation tell others that you recently experienced a babyloss and do not want to answer any questions about your child or children or pregnancy. They do not need to provide any further information. However, not all questions can be avoided, so give yourself permission to answer quickly and change direction if you're asked about how many children you have. A sample script may go like this:
Q: Do you have any kids?
A: That's something I'd rather not talk about-it's been a difficult time.
Q (awkwardly): Oh, I'm sorry.
A: Don't worry about it. How about you? Got any kids? I'd love to know more about you, if you're ok to talk about it. Or:
A: Don't worry about it. I'm just not ready to answer questions about that right now. (Changing subject): So, how did you and Adam meet?
Avoiding the question does buck the social norm of answering the "how many children?" question, so this response might create some awkwardness, but you are not responsible for how others feel. Turning the conversation around and asking sensitively about another person's children, or changing the subject completely, helps your others move beyond a slight moment of awkwardness and resume small talk as usual.
It's OK not to be totally truthful. This suggestion can be difficult for loss mamas, because there may be some guilt surrounding not acknowledging the baby they lost in regular conversation (On the topic of guilt, check out Babyloss and Guilt). However, protecting your heart is very important, and sometimes that means answering a question about your baby differently than you expected. This doesn't mean you are a bad mother, or lying, but that your baby's story, and your loss story, is sacred--and not everybody deserves to hear it. You have permission to say: "I don't have any children but hope to one day"...if you have lost your first or multiple pregnancies and have no living children. I want to give you permission to say: "I have three kids"...if you have lost one or multiple pregnancies and have three living children. If you want to let others know that you lost a baby, but aren't ready to say how it happened, you can simply say, "I was pregnant, but we lost the baby." If you choose this route, as above, try not to own how others react to your story, and don't own their responses or reactions. Talking about babyloss may make others uncomfortable, but it's you that needs to focus on your own needs in a given situation. If you are pressed for details, you are allowed to change those details as needed. This happens commonly with women that have ended a wanted pregnancy. Given the polarizing nature of abortion, it may be healthier to tell strangers, coworkers, or acquaintances, that you had a late miscarriage, or a sudden loss. The details of how your pregnancy ended belong to you, and only you can decide who is worthy of hearing the entire story.
Consider the context. Along with the above advice about "truthfulness", consider when you might and might not want to tell the entire story. For example, if you're checking out at the grocery store, a quick and dirty "I have two kids" can suffice, without the need to explain more. In fact, if you are with strangers you may never see again, anything goes with regard to what you tell others--and truly, let yourself slide if you avoid telling the truth completely for convenience and self protection. What's most important is that you limit your emotional labor and investment in short-term, low-gain scenarios. So, save the full details for a context in which you feel safe and comfortable sharing with an audience that cares about and is invested in you.
Practice a short version of the story. If you feel comfortable telling others that you lost a baby, it can be helpful to practice telling the story into your phone, to your spouse, or another safe and trusted person in your life. Again, because loss does cause others to feel speechless or awkward (even though it shouldn't!), it can be helpful to keep your story short. Some suggestions include:
- "I have two living children and one baby that did not survive."
- "I have two earthly babies and one angel baby".
- "This is a hard one for me to answer, because I just lost my first baby."
- "I've had multiple miscarriages, so I have no living children."
If your conversation partner presses you for more details, consider planning for and rehearsing this scenario, again, before it happens. Enlist a friend or, better yet, your therapist, to walk through some of the more difficult questions people ask, and determine how you might answer them. Prepare for responses like:
- "Wow. Have you always had trouble conceiving?"
- "How did you lose your baby?"
- "I had a friend that had a bunch of miscarriages but now she has a healthy baby!"
- "Everything happens for a reason."
The powerlessness others feel in the face of babyloss can sometimes result in hurtful responses. You are not required to answer any follow up questions, so practice putting up boundaries to respond, "I don't want to talk about that", or simply, "Thank you for saying so. Let's talk about something else!", or more nuanced responses that you can come up with with the help of supports in your lives.
Tell your story in writing. If (and only if!) you feel comfortable, write a blog, Op/Ed, poem, or just plain narrative about your babyloss experience, and share it with others. Submitting to compassionate sites like Modern Loss or Still Standing that help normalize and create conversations about grief and loss, and then sharing your story on social media, can be a helpful way to get your story out there without having to invest more emotional energy into telling and retelling it. Writing can be therapeutic and empowering, and the process of working through your story with text can help you come to new realizations and understanding about the experience.
I will repeat what I said earlier: remember that the key to answering the "how many kids?" question is to limit your emotional labor, because answering the question will always require more energy from you than your conversation partner. Protecting yourself by engaging in the strategies suggested above can help you continue to process your loss as you search for meaning, empathy, and self-compassion, moving forward.