It’s such a simple question until it’s not.
Last week I was at an academic conference, out to dinner with a grad school friend and another young female faculty member, one of my friend’s collaborators whom I’d just met. Three gals at a hip restaurant, talking science and life in science, catching up on the one hand, and getting to know one another on the other. And then out it popped, a question I’d been bracing myself for for months, but still somehow it caught me by surprise.
“So, do you have kids?”
For a moment, I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. It just stopped me cold. That got awkward, so I said, “Nnnno.” It came out sticky, just like that.
The situation was even weirder because my grad school friend sitting next to me knew about my second trimester loss — she’d heard about it from another mutual grad school friend I’d seen at a conference over the summer when I was three months pregnant and just starting to tell people. Then I went back to give a colloquium at the same place in the fall, only a few weeks after our baby died, so it was obvious. I guess word got around after that.
I was clearly being weird at that point, so I just said, “Well, [friend] already knows: I had a placental abruption when I was four and a half months pregnant this fall.”
New science acquaintance expressed her sympathy, and fortunately someone changed the subject. I smiled and nodded for a while, feeling a little shell-shocked, and eventually rejoined the conversation. But ugh, did I feel bad about what had happened. Both about being so awkward as I was first meeting this cool young scientist (did she think I was a drama queen? would she forever think of me as that poor young professor whose baby died?), and about having initially denied my daughter’s existence. There’s suddenly no good answer to that deceptively simple question.
A related question that tormented me particularly in the early days was whether or not I am now a mother. The medical establishment is fairly ambiguous on this point. On the one hand, I was about a week and a half shy of the dividing line between “miscarriage” and “stillbirth” (in the US) and no birth certificate was issued. On the other hand, I signed two hospital forms on a signature line labeled “mother,” one authorizing an autopsy and the other specifying how we wanted our daughter’s body disposed of afterward. There’s certainly no denying that I went through labor and gave birth to a baby, albeit a small and dead one, and that I briefly held her and admired her perfect tiny fingers and her still-fused eyelids. But I’ve had none of the traditional experiences of early motherhood: the sleepless nights, the struggle to breastfeed, cleaning up explosive poop, watching the chubby limbs start to explore, the first smile… I feel a little bit like a fraud claiming to be a mother even though I do think of the baby I lost as my daughter. I know it’s absurd to feel like a fraud, and that my identity is up to me to define, but I just wish I had had the chance to do something — anything — more for my daughter than decide what to do with her dead body.
So, we’ll see how I answer this question in the future. I’m sure it’s not the last time it’ll come up. Like so many other things about this experience, I am tempted to think that it will no longer be an issue in the hazy someday when I finally have a living, breathing child, but I know that’s not the case. The trouble spots will just morph into new questions: “Is this your first?” and “How many children do you have?” I’d appreciate any suggestions… how do you deal with these difficult questions after loss?