‘How many kids do you have?’ For years, this question was a trigger. Like salt in a fresh wound, it stung.’: Birthmother shares adoption grief, making peace with others’ opinions

“‘How many kids do you have?’

Our lives are like a rotating door of new acquaintances. I believe anyone can think that way, but full-time nomad families like ours experience this sentiment even more strongly than those who live the classic American dream.

Our in-person group shifts frequently, resulting in more introductions than one would normally face in a sedentary life. Every time we change our surroundings, whether it’s at a campground, a library, or somewhere in between, we’re bound to meet new people. It could be a new group meet-up, a new church, a new coffee shop, or a new park acquaintance for you… For us, though, it’s completely new states and towns every two, three, four, or five years.

I’m sure we have this in common, whether we’re sedentary or nomadic. ‘How many kids do you have?’ they nearly always ask when I meet someone new.

To be fair, it’s an innocent question. I’d call it common small talk when you share a few moments with a perfect stranger, but it’s not always small talk… is it? I suppose the only people who agonize over how to answer are mothers who’ve experienced loss. Loss feels like such a heavy word. I feel its weight and I don’t use it lightly. I know the grief of loss all too well, both as a mother of miscarriage and a ‘birthmother’ through placing my first daughter for adoption.

Adoption grief equates to a loss in our hearts for those of us who have experienced it. Yes, our child is alive and thriving, which appears to rule out the possibility that we’ve lost anything, but perhaps that knowing adds to our bodies’ confusion. Our children are still alive, but they are no longer with us. We’ve missed out on a chance to bond. We’ve lost contact with each other. We’ve had a lifetime of firsts and lasts taken away from us. We’re at a loss for words, but they’ve arrived. They may not be right in front of our eyes, but they’re here, this side of heaven, ya know?

Before I go any further, I’ll use the pronoun ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ to avoid speaking for ALL birthmothers,’ but based on the innumerable discussions I’ve had, it’s safe to believe this is a universal emotion for most of us.

‘How many kids do you have?’

The hesitation doesn’t lie in what I feel, but rather what I am willing to feel. Let me explain. I know how I feel. Deep in my soul, I know my body counts every child. But when I answer honestly and include my birth daughter in my headcount, it’s not uncommon for there to be more questions that require more explanations.

‘Well, where’s your other one?’

For years, this question was a trigger. Like lemon juice in a fresh wound, it stung. Thus, in meeting new people and engaging in small talk, I’ve always had to assess whether or not I could handle the emotional toll of the conversation and then plan accordingly.

This pain has been exacerbated by cultural conditioning. For decades, we’ve been asked to sit down and shut up. And for the most part, birthmothers have done exactly that. Only recently have birth moms stood up and began sharing their stories. Only recently have professionals been encouraging open adoptions and continued contact with birth families. Only recently have adoptive parents and professionals begun to ask us how we feel. Only recently have some of us begun to move from the shadows and into the light.

‘How many kids do you have?’

I decided to lean into the pain, on my journey, and stop worrying that my truth might make someone else uncomfortable. I decided silence perpetuates ignorance. I decided it will always hurt. I’ve decided I don’t owe anyone a simple answer.

‘How many kids do you have?’

‘Three daughters!’

*notices two kids with me*

‘Wow, all girls! Where’s your other one?’

‘She lives with her parents. I’m a birth mom in an open adoption.’

Occasionally, the conversation comes to an end there. It happens from time to time. I’ve come to terms with both.

Apart from the pain of knowing my daughter isn’t with us, I’ve also had to come to terms with other people’s quick judgments of me. In the end, it’s none of my business what others think of me. Too much praise can make me reliant on other people’s approval. Too much criticism can make me doubt my own value. I simply express my truth without hesitation or regret, giving the other person the option to hear a new perspective, develop a deeper understanding of me, or evaluate me based on the limited information they have.

In any case, I’m a mother to three daughters, one of whom does not live with me.”