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Is she your first? Answering a common question when you’ve lost a child

Sep 8, 2020

Standing near the edge of the sandpit at the park, I’m watching my 18-month-old daughter alternately trickle sand through her fingers and stick some in her mouth. The mom of the other kid playing in the sand has struck up a conversation, and we cover the basics, “how old is yours?” and, “are they sleeping through the night yet?”

I know this mom’s next question is inevitable — it’s one I never ask, but I get asked every time: is she your first?

The question seems like good fodder for conversation between strangers, an easy parenting detail to explore. But I’m a loss-mom. Twice over in fact — my first son would be 14 and my second 11, were they both still alive. Now that my daughter is here, I’m encountering this question on the regular and yet somehow, each time, I feel unprepared for it.

I decide to experiment with answering in different ways until I find what works best for me. Here’s what I discover.


When Christa Couture wasn't having luck finding mom friends, she went on 'Tinder for Moms.' Read about that here.


No, she’s not my first

This is the honest reply and in the beginning, the one I share consistently. It lands with different people in different ways: once at a drop in playgroup, I answered, “no, I have two sons, but they died.” The parent asking was so apologetic and upset, she picked up her kid and moved away.

I felt alienated and alienating. But I also understood that as a new parent in the throes of love, joy, sleep deprivation and postpartum hormones, my experiences can be an overwhelming reality. No one wants to contemplate losing their child. I get it, but with my daughter on my lap, I feel so lonely being the symbol of heartbreak.

Another day at the playground swings, the mom next to me asks The Question, and I share the truth: “No, I have two sons, but they died.” I look away and brace myself for the discomfort.

I can sense her holding her gaze on me and I look back, “I’m so sorry, that’s heartbreaking.” She means it, and she’s not thrown. I smile because I feel seen and relieved. She smiles back and we continue the conversation with ease, comparing our toddlers’ eating habits.

Yes, she is

The uncertainty of how folks will react is stressful. And because swapping anecdotes in the playground is sometimes the only social interaction you have as a new parent, I need those short and sweet interactions as much as possible to feel like I’m still part of an outside world.

Pushing our strollers next to each other after leaving the library, a mom I’ve seen in the neighbourhood asks The Question.

"'Yes,'I say. And at first I feel like I’m erasing my sons."

“Yes,” I say. And at first I feel like I’m erasing my sons. But then it also feels like self-preservation — having a conversation with another parent in passing doesn’t have to cover all the bases, and when we reach a corner and turn to go our separate ways, I realize it’s totally OK to enjoy the interaction and keep it simple. It’s not truthful, but it’s also not unnecessarily complicated.

The only time this backfires is when one of those conversations leads to swapping numbers for future playdates. I walk away excited to have made a connection with a fellow mom, and it dawns on me: if we become friends, I’ll have to “come out” about my sons. Oof.

No — and no buts

There’s a third option.

“Is she your first?”

“No,” I say. I don’t elaborate, and quickly continue, “How about you?”

"People notice either consciously or not that I’m changing the subject, and people are generally happy to follow my lead."

I redirect with questions and bring the topics back to the kids in front of us — eating solids, finding a daycare or, these days, how they’re coping in the pandemic. People notice either consciously or not that I’m changing the subject, and people are generally happy to follow my lead.

This becomes the answer I like best, because I am a mom of three kids. It’s a huge part of who I am as a parent, but also, the loss of my sons is a tender and precious part, and I don’t need to tell the whole story every time.

The better question

There are many types of loss parents experience — deaths, yes, but also difficulty conceiving, miscarriages, even co-parenting or custody situations hold grief. Maybe the best way to ask about how many kids a person has or if they plan to have more, or really anything related to family, is to not ask at all. We can listen and respond to what each other offers and find meaning without probing beyond that.

Is she your first? I don’t need to know.

How are you coping with parenting these days? That I’m interested in.

Article Author Christa Couture
Christa Couture

Read more from Christa here.

Christa Couture is an award-winning performing and recording artist, non-fiction writer and broadcaster. She is also proudly Indigenous (mixed Cree and Scandinavian), disabled, queer and a mom. Her memoir How to Lose Everything is out now with Douglas & McIntyre.
 

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