How many children do you have?
It’s a simple question, one which we ask countless times when meeting new people, making polite conversation, at soft play, weddings and parties, during drunken exchanges in poky pub toilets with other Mums who can’t handle their drink. And for most of us it’s easy to answer, just a number, a name, an age, and it’s said even without thinking, forgotten as soon as it’s left your mouth, swiftly moving on to the next question without a second thought.
But for us, for bereaved parents, it’s a very difficult question to answer and instantly triggers a whole chain of thoughts, emotions and worries. It’s a case of instantly weighing up the situation, predicting how the other person will react, what kind of conversation it will lead to, whether, actually, it’s just easier to simply say four.
And yet often I find myself thinking, easier for who? For me? Absolutely not, because for me it leads to feelings of guilt and self loathing that I denied a baby who is very much a part of our family. I will inevitably go home that night and beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t include Joseph alongside the others, that I allowed the taboo of baby loss to make me feel that I should stay quiet about a child whom I carried, gave birth to and held in my arms.
And yet for others? More often than not, it is easier to stay quiet, to avoid the inevitable conversation that follows. “Oh five children, wow!” they will say, “How old are they?” And I will find myself answering, “Two, three, four and ten.” and watch as they mentally calculate the numbers, maybe thinking hang on a minute that’s only four, perhaps assuming that I must have twins, or more likely that with five children I struggle to remember what day it is, let alone the age of all of my children.
But for others who look at me questioningly and press, “Didn’t you say five?” I have to bring myself to answer, to tell them, “My second son was stillborn. He would have been ten.” And a light hearted conversation, polite chit chat, or a passing comment, suddenly becomes an awkward silence, the mood instantly changing, a look of sympathy and the flustered response of, “Oh I’m sorry.” And when they swiftly move on, probably off to down a large drink at the bar, I’m left apologetic, with regret, and, even worse, at times, embarrassed.
Sometimes, and I’ve never said this out loud before for fear of others thinking that I have lost the plot entirely, when a random stranger asks me how many children I have, I simply reply “Five.” And when I am asked how old they are, I tell them, “Two, three, four, ten and twelve.” And I omit to mention the fact that Joseph died, or that there are now only four, and I nod and laugh in agreement when they tell me that our lives must be manic, that I have my work cut out for me, that my hands must be full. And for a moment, just a split second, I allow myself to imagine that there are five children to go home to, that our lives are every bit as crazy and manic as I’m sure it must be with five, and I relish in that moment, imagining how it would feel to live a life without one of your children constantly missing.
Over the years you would be surprised by the number of people who have failed to include Joseph in our family. Not just strangers, but family members and friends, those who I would have expected more from. And possibly even more surprising, I have lost count of the number of health professionals who so easily omitted Joseph when discussing our children. “So you’ve had two children?”, one midwife asked me during my booking in appointment with Eva, a pregnancy which I was already hugely emotional and anxious about. “Yes that’s right.” I had told her, “Lewis in 2004 and Joseph in 2006.” And she had stopped writing in my green notes, put down her pen, and peered at me over her glasses, the look on her face still etched in my memory, four years on,, “The stillborn??” she had asked, “He doesn’t count.” And I had been so shocked, and so deeply hurt that, it was only afterwards when I cried in my car on the drive home, I berated myself for not correcting her, for not telling her that, in no un-certain terms, he did count. And he does count.
Losing a baby has taught me that there is so much more to a Mother than meets the eye. It made me all too aware that the childless lady I chat to on the bus may still be a Mother, that the happiest of family photos may well be hiding a heart breaking loss, that a Mother’s eldest child isn’t necessarily her first, and that every single baby counts, no matter how short their stay. But most of all it taught me that a Mother isn’t defined by the number of children in her arms, but by the number of children she carries in her heart.
And so the next time someone asks me how many children I have, I will tell them, without hesitation, there are five.