How many kids do you have?

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by Sara Barry

Lights flashed and the disco ball made shapes on the floor. Kids shrieked and balls and bins clattered. Typical bowling birthday party.

“I don’t know you manage with three,” said one mom of two. “I thought I wanted three or four until I had kids.”

The conversation unfolds with “You get used to what you have” and “Two is good for me” and “I always thought we’d have three.”

I don’t chime in. I don’t say, “I always wanted two or three. Three really, but as I got older and hadn’t started yet, two seemed more likely.”

I don’t add, “I wanted two or three and somehow I got two and three.”

I have three children, but in so many ways, I get only two.

***

A few weeks later, we’re at the lake for my girls’ swimming lessons. I point my little girl to a mom nearby with somebody in the same class and my big girl swimming to the side.

“So you have just the two?”

Pause half a beat.

“Yes.”

***

How many kids do you have? Since the day Henry died, that has been a hard question. He was our first, so I had one but none. I was not the person I was before he was born, but I didn’t fit in with other moms either.

A year later, my older daughter was born, and I re-entered the world of moms with kids. But the questions, How many kids do you have? Is she your first? Do you have other kids? still stymied me.

I know I am not the only parent who has lost a baby who struggles with these questions. There is no one answer. There is no right answer.

“How many kids do you have?” might be simple enough but for the follow up: “Oh, how old are they?”

I recently joined a writing group. We’re all moms, and one of the getting to know you questions was “Tell us how many kids you have and how old they are.”

I have three. 8, 6, would be 10.

And yet, “So you have just the two?” Yes.

Both true in their way.

I suppose I can explain my thinking sometimes. For the writing group, I’m going to write about Henry. I’m going to write about babyloss. He’s going to come up. That day at the lake, the meeting was likely a one-shot deal and I was tired. I wanted the short answer, not the essay answer that the question seems to require.

***

I give the full answer sometimes because I need to claim Henry. I need to keep him present in this world.

I give the full answer sometimes because a mom of three, one who died is who I am.

I give the full answer sometimes because I’ve learned that sometimes when I give the “three, one died as a baby” answer, I open a door for somebody else who may have an unseen child too. I open the door for people to say, “My sister’s baby was just stillborn” or “My best friend’s baby is dying.” And “I don’t know what to say to her?” or “What can I do?” And when that door opens, it pours light in on all the hidden losses, the tiny, powerful lives unseen.

***

I have three kids. My daughters are heading into first and third grades. My son died as a baby.

I have three kids, but I’ll only ever know what it is to have two.

I have two daughters that I love to the moon and back and a son I love and miss always.

How many kids do you have? Three, or just the two, depending on the day, my mood, the asker, the reason for asking.

It should be a simple question. It isn’t a simple answer.

I still pause when I get the question. And sometimes, some variation—How many kids did you want? How many do you have? How old are they?—still catches me off guard.

How do you answer the question: How many kids do you have? Would you answer differently here than you would at a store or the park? Do you have a set answer or do you decide each time what to say?