It was the first day of the year that felt like spring and the park was full. Everybody seemed to be taking advantage of the good weather and parents seemed eager to get their children out into the sunshine before it set for the day.
I watched Ieuan pull himself up onto the climbing frame, his face set in concentration. I watched the young boy he was playing with do the same before they ran across the little bridge and followed eachother down a slide.
“I think your son is the boy playing with my son,” a voice said from beside me.
I turned to the mother who shared my bench and smiled.
“They’re playing very nicely,” I replied, “How old is your son?”
“He’s four,” she said, “This one’s just turned two.”
She turned her attention to the pram postioned next to her and pushed her other son’s hair to one side as he slept, “Do you have any others?”
And there it was. That fork-in-the-road question. I used to dread this question. It used to fill me with a hot panic that clogged up my throat and rendered me speechless. Because this question, for me, offers two possible options. The first is to lie and say nope, I just have the one and let the other person continue on with their day no wiser whilst I go home and cry because I feel guilty for lying about my daughter just so a stranger doesn’t feel uncomfortable. The second option is to the tell the truth and be proud that when someone casually enquires into my life, I can speak Evalyn’s name and proudly talk about her.
I always go for option two.
“He’s my oldest,” I nodded in Ieuan’s direction, “I also had a daughter who was born in November but we very sadly lost her.”
She turned to me quickly. “O my God, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“O it’s completely fine,” I told her, already expecting her reaction, “I’m OK talking about it. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable but when people ask how many children I have, well, I have two.”
I offered her a reassuring smile and she mirrored me, although she seemed more tense than before. I opened my mouth to speak but she was already rummaging through her bag to pull out her mobile and check for any messages or missed calls she might have. Anything to get away from the conversation.
Realising her phone offered no distractions, she started to slowly stand. She offered me another smile as she hooked her bag over the handle of the pram and squinted through the sun to locate her boy who was standing with Ieuan at the swings.
“Right then,” she sighed, “I have to go but it was lovely meeting you.”
“You too,” I said as I watched her walk over to tell her son they were leaving. I saw his little face change and heard him exclaim that it wasn’t time to leave yet. And he was right. According to my clock, he still had fourty-five minutes of play time left because it was only 4:15pm and he wasn’t due to leave until 5pm.
I could only pressume that the mother had forgotten I was sat next to her when she had had her phone conversation and told the person on the other end how lovely the weather had turned out and that she was going to stay out later and enjoy it. But then she had a conversation with a woman who told her about her dead baby and suddenly there was an urgent need to get away. She had to walk back past me to get to the exit. Her son still couldn’t understand why his time at the park had been cut short. Sorry kiddo, I silently told him.
Here’s the thing.
Don’t ask a person a question if you don’t want an honest answer. We live in a world where it is deemed acceptable to ask personal questions of strangers. We see a pregnant women and feel it’s alright to ask her how many months she has left. When is she due? Does she know the gender of the baby? We ask childless parents if they think they’ll have children and don’t pressume for one moment that they are unable to. We believe that if someone has one child then surely, they will have another? We ask parents who have children of the same gender if they’ll try for another in the hope of having the gender they don’t have. Because surely that will make their family complete, right?
This is human nature. We ask questions and that’s OK. I don’t mind if people ask me questions as part of a conversation. What bothers me is the change in behaviour when someone doesn’t get the response they were expecting. But you asked the question. I’m sorry if my response makes you uncomfortable but that is my answer. That is my answer to your question and I find it amusing that when you don’t hear the words you were expecting, you then try to back away from a conversation that you started. How are we meant to break through these taboo subjects if society isn’t willing to talk about them? I don’t blame that woman for maybe feeling uncomfortable. It’s what I’ve come to expect. I just hope that as she walked away she asked herself why.
I have had all sorts of reactions and not all of them have been negative. A mother once asked me the same question at soft play and I gave her the same response, silently bracing myself for the awkward silence to follow.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she replied, “Do you mind talking about it? Are you alright if I ask questions?”
I was more than happy for her to ask questions. For twenty minutes she got to learn about stillbirth and I got to talk about my daughter openly with a stranger who was more than accomodating of my story. It wasn’t a sad conversation. There were no tears or ‘woe me’ moments. We were just two mothers talking about our children. I liked that. I liked this woman for making me feel that I fitted into a society that had made me feel like I was on the outside. She made me realise that stillbirth could be spoken about in an open, positive way and that maybe, with a bit more awareness, this won’t have to be a taboo subject anymore.