Guest comment: Do you really need to know how many children I have?

At the start of my career, during a networking training session, the speaker advised against bringing up the subjects of politics, religion, or children, with connections. It seemed unusual at the time for children to be included alongside those highly evocative subjects and through the years that soundbite stayed with me. Sadly, I have learnt the hard way why the speaker included that warning.

"How many children do you have?" A seemingly innocent question, but for me it is a loaded bullet. My beautiful, living, healthy son is a younger brother, an elder brother, a middle child and an only child all in one. How do I share that with a new connection without exposing the hole in my heart and risk destroying a potential professional relationship before it has begun?

I know that people do not raise the question to be cruel, nor are they deliberately ignorant. My suffering and my ‘otherness’ are invisible to the outside world. The loss of my children is a trauma that I relive regularly, that hits me out of the blue and full in the face with the least amount of notice. But unlike other visible characteristics that cause individuals to feel or indeed be isolated from a group, the very nature of my difference is that there is literally nothing to see.

As a professional pension trustee making connections is a key part of the job and my calendar is full of trustee meetings and events with other professionals. The dilemma I find myself in when such a seemingly innocent question is raised, is how to remain true to myself and the memory of my children without jeopardising professional connections.

Sometimes, when I am feeling strong, I have the courage to tell the truth. But I know, even if I manage to hold myself together, I run the risk of making the other person feel uncomfortable. That is not my intention, nor do I wish to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Therefore, many times I swallow the words and edit my experience to conform to what is expected of me. I speak only of my living son. I do not share that once upon a time, for eight days, my first-born son was alive. Nor do I mention that in the darkness of the 2020 pandemic, early one morning before the dawn had broken, my third son entered the world and never took a breath. In order to fit in, I betray the memory of my sons and erase a part of myself.

I know there is nothing anyone can do to change the course that my life has taken. I am grateful for all opportunities to speak about my living son; he is the reason that I am still here. Work for me is a respite for my feelings of inadequacy and failure as a mother and as a woman. It is a place where I can focus on an aspect of my life over which I have some control. So, whenever we meet, and I hope that we do, please grant me some relief and consider whether you really need to ask directly how many children I have.

Baby Loss Awareness Week is 9-15 October, more information can be found at: https://sands.org.uk/about-sands/our-work/baby-loss-awareness-week-2021

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