Friday, 26 August 2011

How Many Children Do You Have? (Part 1)

I have rewritten part of this story I wrote in 2000. It's funny how a story is never really finished. There are always additional thoughts to add. All those years ago, I often pondered the question "How many children do we have?" It felt like six but...


One question I always have trouble answering is “How many children do you have?” My tongue stumbles over the words as I try to decide whether to reply “five” or “six”. Do I just count the children everyone can see or do I also include Thomas who died last year?

Perhaps it is easiest to say “five”. I remember this was the answer I gave someone shortly after Thomas’ death and I also remember how I felt that I had betrayed him. Didn’t I consider him important enough to mention? God had given us the gift of Thomas and I wasn’t acknowledging this gift.

But then again, a simple “six” gets me into trouble too. If I am questioned further about such things as the ages of our children, I sometimes get the feeling the enquirer thinks I have misled her. Only children that can be seen and have need of our mothering skills seem to count.

Earlier this year, I visited a local shop that I hadn’t been into for quite some time. The owner remarked how much Charlotte had grown and asked me how old she was. After I had replied that she was a bit over two, the woman said wasn’t it wonderful when babyhood was over – all those sleepless nights, nappies…She then said, “You have five children, don’t you?” I could hardly tell her that I’d been hoping for lots of sleepless nights but instead, our baby had died. She would have been so embarrassed. So I smiled and agreed, “Yes, I have five children.”

“Five on earth, one in heaven”, works well with some people but is not the right response for everyone. “Five living, one dead” is just too blunt. You can see people want to know how our child died but no one talks about death so the conversation comes abruptly to an end.

It is very interesting to listen to our children’s explanations of our family size. They definitely think there are six of them. On Mother’s Day this year, I was very surprised to receive a gift from Thomas. The children had decided that Thomas would have liked to have given me a present too so they arranged one on his behalf. Whenever there is a greeting card to be signed, someone always remembers to add Thomas’ name. ”Well, he is part of the family, Mum.”

Our eldest daughter, Felicity, once said, “There are six children in our family but Mum only has to feed five of us.”

We have a special family friend who regularly corresponds with Felicity. At the end of each of his letters, Father J always asks for his regards to be passed on to, “Mum, Dad, Duncan, Callum, Imogen and Charlotte and praying for the intercession of Thomas.” It gives me such pleasure to see all our names together.

Of course, numbers aren’t important. I don’t need my children to total a big number to increase my status as a mother. It’s the children represented by those numbers that are important. Each child, whether living or dead, is such a great gift from God. 

I used to think my children were mine by right, that I was entitled to each and every one of them. How clever I felt whenever we conceived another child. How proud we were of our ability to produce a growing family. The reality is that if we'd been given children in proportion to our merits, I wouldn't have any children at all. 

I ponder sometimes why some people have many children without a problem and others have great difficulty even conceiving one. Why would God bless me with children and not send another woman a child of her own? It is a great mystery. So much sorrow for those who never know the joys of parenthood. 

And so I am grateful. I thank God every day for each of my beautiful blessings including Thomas, on earth for such a short time but my son forever.

4 comments:

  1. This makes me realize how we can unwittingly cause distress by asking personal questions. Finding that balance between being friendly and being too curious is something that I must admit to having got wrong, on occasion - despite having good intentions. But, this question of how many children we have is such a conversation-opener. Maybe, it does define us, in some way - our stage of life, our religious beliefs, our likely stress levels!

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Vicky.

    At past homeschooling camps, one of the ice breakers, to help us get to know each other, was "How many children do you have?" I hated it. I tried to avoid it by suddenly disappearing from the room. If I were caught I replied, "I have a daughter x years of age and another y years of age and a few children in between."

    Maybe some people won't understand my probem with this question. There can be lots of heartache hiding behind the question and answer of family size.

    I never like to define my family by size, always by the individual children whom I feel very blessed to have. I also hate the comparing of family size. Sigh! A few rambling thoughts that don't make much sense.

    God bless.

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  3. Yes, I wrote the last sentence a bit flippantly, without thinking deeply enough, but I realize that family size only defines us in a relative way, which is personal to us, as God doesn't will all of us to have large families.

    Also, I think a lot of people find small talk difficult - it's not always easy to find safe ground and, for a lot of people, talking about their children is something they can relate to and something they know the other person will usually be proud to talk about. I wonder what other ice-breakers we could use, bearing in mind that often we don't know much about the family we're trying to get to know. What ice-breakers do you use? Do you think there is such a thing as safe ground for every situation? (that's a genuine question - not an excuse for obtuse insensitivity). :)

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  4. I think you are quite right, Vicky: most people would look at family size as a defining factor. They would think that the number of children we have tells them a lot about who we are. Unfortunately sometimes family size can be very misleading.

    Could we say, "Tell me about your family?" or perhaps, "Tell me about yourself." Although our children are very important, they are not 'us'. Can we be defined by factors other than children?

    I am happy to talk about Thomas and the children I have lost. It's not a case of me wanting to avoid the subject. I guess I am just aware how distressing it can be to describe one's family with bare numbers and then have someone make a judgement on that number. And who do you count in that number? Society in general isn't very good at including our lost babies in our family size.

    I know for a lot of people the question "How many children do you have?" evokes a lot of pain.

    Thank you, Vicky for your thoughtful response to my post. It is appreciated.

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