5, 7, 8
Impossible answers to easy questions
We have 5 children.
You can see them, running wild round our yard, shouting through our home, stacking dishes in the sink after dinner. Seeing is a common way we count things, numbering them on our fingers. We have one whole hand, spread wide.
Five boys, I tell people upfront to get the gasps and gawks out of the way. Tell a stranger you have five children and they think you are crazy. Tell them you have five boys and they think you are insane.
Didn’t you try for a girl.
Did you want all boys.
That must be terrible.
That must be a lot of work.
You must be the queen.
You must be a saint.
Five kids makes you odd in this day and age. Five of one gender makes you a freak show. People count us whenever we are out in public together. Perfect strangers comment every time I take them to the store.
I spend so much energy defending my choices, delighting in my kids as proof and protest that big family life is indeed a worthy way to live. But behind my full court press of defense lies a murkier truth.
Why answering the question of how many kids feels impossible.
We have 7 children.
Two are buried six miles from our home under a shared gravestone. Sometimes when I water the flowers there, I think about that poem: the dash between is what matters. Each of my girls has the same birth date and a different death date. But the dash between was never enough.
This lone stone will tell the story long after we are gone. The cruel math that any stranger can do to calculate how young the twins were, only a breath of one day or two. To imagine the parents who had to deal with death two days in a row.
But they are still mine, forever ours, carved in stone, etched into the cells of my body that carried them, birthed them, gave milk for them, mourned them.
Even if they get left out of the count by nearly everyone else.
Five boys! Everyone exclaims. No girls? Didn’t you want any? Didn’t you ever try?
I tried with everything I had.
Every time someone asks the same old questions, my heart sinks another inch deeper. Down into the soft earth where my daughters’ soft bodies are buried.
We have 8 children.
I birthed them all, the five I pushed forth under hospital lights, the two that were pulled from the slice of my stomach, and the one I labored to keep but lost on the long, bumpy drive to the emergency room.
The only time I tally them is in my prayers. And on every doctor’s form.
How many pregnancies have you had? (Include abortions, miscarriages, stillbirths, live births.)
Every time I sigh in solidarity with everyone who has to scratch the hardest parts of their lives on thin paper that someone will shred later.
7 live births. 1 miscarriage.
Each August on the eve of my oldest’s birthday, the night before I became a mother who held a baby in my arms for the first time, I remember the lost life that changed mine. The one I carried for mere weeks, long enough to make plans but not long enough to keep them.
If I number every soul I was given to hold beneath my skin and learn to love unseen, they will always count eight, my favorite number from childhood. Now the one I tuck away, smoothed over and over like a stone in my pocket, hidden.
How many kids do you have? A nurse asks me over check-in. A stranger chats on a plane. The pause between their question and the answer—my held breath and hesitation—tells the whole story. I never know the right response.
Life holds complicated questions, prickly thorns that jab our hands when a friend or relative or stranger thinks they’re handing us a rose.
Are you seeing anyone? Didn’t you want to get married? When are you two having kids? What do you do for a living? Why aren’t you drinking? Where are you from?
For years I stumbled over the simplest question. How many siblings do you have?
Four, I said sometimes. Three, I answered others.
Did I want to drop a grief bomb? Would the other person understand? What was my life after my brother’s death?
From the age of ten, I learned to read the room, to scan my own capacity for truth-telling depending on the context. New friends would awkwardly mumble “sorry,” and I would respond with a chipper “it’s ok!” as only a young person could. Nothing could be further from the truth, but how could I convey any of that in casual conversation?
After all I have been through, now I always say we are five.
We are always five. Love is present tense.
I have five. I have seven. I have eight. I have none, because they came from God and belong to God and go back to God, and I never own them even in the beautiful bittersweet between.
What painful irony that life’s most precious parts are the ones we must hold loosely. The children we are given, the partners we choose, the family we love, the friends we adore. All of them will wound us and all of them will leave us eventually—or we will go first, trailing their grief in our wake.
And yet such superabundance, to love within the vulnerability that we might get hurt. What a life richly lived. What a holy use of our time here.
Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. (Luke 6:38)
Even laps disappear when we rise. Within the heart is all we hold.
Five, seven, eight, none. Infinity, infinity, infinity.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you or someone you love has lost a child before or after birth, we have free resources available at Mothering Spirit. My husband and I also co-authored the book Grieving Together: A Couple’s Journey through Miscarriage, and you can find a free excerpt here.
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