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The Question I’ll Never Ask Another Mother

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Asking other moms and dads questions about their families is an organic part of connecting with other parents. It’s how we gather information about how much or how little we have in common with them. “How old is she?” and “Do you work outside the home?” are questions I ask frequently. But there’s one question I won’t ask anymore.

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I met Jessica at prenatal yoga. We were both pregnant with sons, and I laughed at the jokes she cracked as we propped our growing bodies up on bolsters. Most of my friends at the time didn’t have children, and I was eyeing her as a potential new mom friend. She even drove a Mini Cooper, my favorite pre-kids vehicle.

But one week in the last stretch of pregnancy, Jessica didn’t show up to class. After class, the teacher told us that Jessica had stopped feeling movement in her belly, and after consulting her practitioner, she found out her baby had died. I was shocked and scared. I’d thought that once we made it past the first trimester, past all the screenings and ultrasounds, we were in the clear.

I always felt bad, wondering what it must feel like to see me out with my son, alive and growing, the same age her son would’ve been.

Jessica, the other expectant moms and I had thumbed through a book of baby names the yoga teacher had brought in one day, checking out the meaning of the names we’d picked for our sons—hers was Gus, mine was Max. We’d winced at the instructor’s description of the “ring of fire,” and we’d tried not to laugh while the instructor took us through a series of squats and Kegels. How could her baby be dead? The rest of the day I cradled my belly and cried, thinking of Jessica, her husband and little Gus.

In the shadow of the devastation I felt for her, I was truly sad that we wouldn’t be new mom buddies together. I sent her a card with my condolences. Every once in a while, after my son Max was born, we bumped into each other. I always felt bad, wondering what it must feel like to see me out with my son, alive and growing, the same age her son would’ve been.

A few years later, we ended up reconnecting through Facebook. Jessica had another son, and I’d just had a daughter. Our second children ended up in the same classroom at preschool, and over time, we became good friends, just as I’d hoped we would when we were taking prenatal yoga together.

Recently, during a conversation with some other mom friends, Jessica brought up how much she hates when anyone asked how many children she has. Another friend piped in that she hates it, too, as she’d had two miscarriages.

“I don’t ever ask parents that question,” one said. The other instantly agreed.

I was surprised at first, and then embarrassed. I’ve often asked other parents how many kids they had; the question was part of my arsenal of parenting-related small talk. I’d never even considered that it wasn’t a benign question.

And yet, I should’ve known better.

After my brother died at 21, I learned firsthand how innocent questions can sear. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” became a dreaded inquiry anytime I met someone new.

I’ll always be my brother’s sister—just like Jessica will always be the mom of two boys.

The dread wasn’t because it made me think of my brother. Anyone who has lost a loved one can vouch that they are never too far from your mind. What was upsetting was the dilemma that the question put me in. Did I tell them the truth, that I had a brother but he died? So many people don’t know how to talk about loss, and if I told them the truth, it often made us both uncomfortable.

Yet saying I didn’t have any brothers or sisters didn’t feel right either. I did have a brother, for 21 years. I wasn’t raised as an only child, as the answer no would suggest. Saying no feels like a lie, like a further eradication of my brother’s short life. I’ll always be my brother’s sister—just like Jessica will always be the mom of two boys.

My own parents hate fielding the question, “How many children do you have?” and yet somehow, in the haze of new parenting, I’d forgotten that.

For a few days, I pondered whether I should really take this question out of my vocabulary. Do we really need to be so tentative with our words, just in case they might find someone else’s soft spot?

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Then, a few weeks ago, I sat next to Jessica when someone asked her if she had other children. I held my own breath as she paused before answering. Would she tell people she’d just met that she had a baby who died? If she didn’t, would she feel bad for not acknowledging Gus? If she did, would she then be put in the role of comforting them, of shepherding them out of the ensuing awkwardness?

When she said, “no,” that she didn’t have any other children, I got it. And I won’t be asking people how many kids they have anymore. It’s a small sacrifice, a minor mental retraining, in the face of what Jessica and my parents are walking through. It’s one I’m happy to make.

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