' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: How to Answer: Do you have any children?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

How to Answer: Do you have any children?

Do you have children? Or, how many children do you have?

Simple enough, unless you are a first mother. The person asking obviously doesn't know you well, so even if you are Out as a first mother, do you really want to go into it right then and there? You may be at the bridge club. You may be meeting someone in an airplane. You may be at a cocktail party and getting along like a house afire with the woman you met over the canapes. You may be with friends of yours having lunch and somebody has brought along a new person, and she is getting to know you and the question looms, and you know the whole answer but geeze, you think, Do I have to go into it right now? 

Of course not. Pick your moment. Talking about relinquishing a child is not light party patter.

Since I never had other children, I used to say: No, and elaborate no further. End of curiosity.

After I published Birthmark, it got a little easier, because I was OUT, but since I did not become a household name not everyone knew my story, and so I would still be asked the question. Because I am a writer, I am often asked, What are you working on? I often fudge the answer. Telling the whole truth, at say a dinner party where the wine is flowing, kinda stops the music. I've often answered: I'm not talking about my writing, which is an answer that often works, since writers sometimes do not talk about their work, and are allowed that privacy. But one agent bugged me mercilessly because, as he said, he never met a writer who didn't want to talk about what he was working on. I finally did tell him when we were alone. It was fine. 

But away from the writerly world, when simply asked the question--Do you have any children? I say: I had one daughter who died. That stops further inquisition and so the whole adoption business can be ignored. No one is likely to say, Oh, what horrible death did your child die? And the person asking the question is momentarily taken aback, realizing she has just reminded me that my daughter died. She has no idea of the back story and I can leave it at that. Or I might tell the rest of the story, if I feel safe. If my gut says it's okay.

Before my daughter died a few years ago, and considering the fact that we had been in reunion for decades, I might say: Yes, one, and not offer any further information. Usually since I did not appear ready to elaborate further about how she is a brain surgeon in Chicago, the person usually left it at that. Most people who want to talk about their kids launch into what great things they are doing at the moment: they are on dean's list, in the second grade, building a clinic with the Peace Corps in Uganda, or talk about the grandchildren.

Mothers who are married with other children say: My husband and I have three children, not adding on: and I have a fourth....

Or you might say: I have three sons (whom I raised), thinking, but not adding: and also a daughter I gave up for adoption.

Only once, surrounded by two very good friends and my husband did I answer the question this way: I had a daughter and gave her up for adoption, and then I found her and we had a relationship for more than two decades, but she died in 2007. At that point, the woman's jaw was indeed dropping. One of my friends said: I wondered what you were going to say. I was in a good mood--feeling enough bravado to tell the whole truth--and we were at the beach, and the sun was soon going down, and I wasn't going to let anything depress me that afternoon. It was reality I answered with, and have made my peace with that. The woman asked, she got an answer. Oddly enough, together we chatted for a few moments about the situation, but the subject changed soon enough. If she had asked me more questions about the details, I probably would have put her off and told her that I'd talk to her another time, but the casual acceptance of my friends prevented more adoption chatter. I didn't feel this was a big teaching moment--maybe it was, I haven't seen the woman since--but at that moment, I simply felt like telling the whole truth. I just knew she was sympatico. My gut spoke up and I responded.

Another time I answered: That is a very complicated question. Of course, that does demand more detail. Once you say that, you have committed to reveal.

There is a scene in the movie, Admission, where Tina Fey, playing a birth mother in the closet, has to say: I don't have any children but I understand the value of teamwork. (I gave the movie a big thumbs up.) But it is that moment--the rest of the world will pass over it quickly and not remember it--that stays with me because I had been there, done that, and knew it was a little stab to the heart. Of course the character Tiny Fey is playing knows she has a child, but must answer the way the world sees her: a childless woman. 

So the question--Do you have any children?--is one of those tricky little reminders of the reality of our lives. There are times when it is possible to use the question as a teaching moment for everybody who thinks birth mothers ought to stay in the closet or under a burka. I once told a stranger in an airport (when I was on my way to a CUB retreat) where and why I was going to Richmond. It turned out she was an adoptive mother of a son and didn't want to attack me; she was interested and we ended up having a decent chat before one of us got on a plane. At a dinner party once, when I was asked the question, and was talking quietly to the woman who asked, I told her the whole truth, and she said: Me too. She was deep in the closet. We had a few moments to chat sotto voce at the table, and I hope that my revelation helped her a bit.

Another time I told a man I'd never met before about the memoir I was writing, and he just listened, without expressing dismay or shock. He'd just told me about the film project he was involved in. So when he asked what I was working on, I told him, in a soft voice. I thought no one else heard. Our mutual friends of course knew my bio; all my friends know my story. The man didn't dig and ask questions that were uncomfortable, or start talking about an adoption he was aware of and how wonderful it all worked out for his good friends, the adoptive parents, yadda, yadda, yadda. There were six of us on a boat on a Sunday afternoon. But then a half hour later, our mutual friend, having overheard my whispered revelation, brought it up, the man's wife was stunned and began peppering me with questions and I could see that the next half hour was going to be me defending myself--now all six people are listening--and I basically had a panic attack, and said: You know, could we change the subject, I just can't talk about this now. I felt like I was on trial.

My friend, said, I'm sorry, I heard you mention it. There was momentary embarrassment all around. It ended up quite a muddle, the woman who asked for more information was chagrined, etc., but so it goes. I'm not perfect, nor a paragon of calm even now, after all these years of being Out. I still have to pick my places when being Out is reasonable. That certainly is one big difference between being gay and Out and being a first mother and Out. At least in my circle, no one would ask someone how and why it happened if they were gay, or start talking about their gay friend who got married to a straight woman and how that worked out, and maybe it will for you too.

Do you have children? is a hard question for others too: women who are infertile and wish they had children; parents whose children died, however they died. For us the question is different because we do have children--but.

Yet the more we can be truthful about the question--Do you have children?--the more we can move the ball forward and expose that the confidentiality that legislators cling to when they deny adoptees their rights to their original birth certificates is largely a myth, and anyway, in terms of the rights of the adopted, immaterial.

I'm all for being Out--and I wish all mothers could be Out to their children, all their children, and their extended families--but I recognize in day-to-day social intercourse, we need to pick our moments. Jane wrote about talking about this issue recently with other lawyers in a social setting, and undoubtedly did a lot of good. People need to know birth mothers are the woman next door, in the next office, the nice lady you meet at the park. Apparently on some blogs, birth mothers rarely rise about crack whore, but though some of us are addicted, we are also just like the rest of the world. Except that we had a baby and couldn't keep her.

So the next time someone asks, Do you have children? listen to your gut. You have a nano-second to check in. It may be a moment when you can say, Yes, and tell the whole truth. If it's not, recognize that, and answer however it feels right. You don't have to be Out every moment or every day just because you are reminded by what seems like such a simple question.--lorraine


From FMF
When a first mother hears people talk about adoption
Admission is a movie with a lot of heart: ♥♥♥♥
Reunion gives birth mothers a 'second chance' 
(Jane's review)

Second-Chance Mother: A Memoir of Adoption, Loss and Reunion "When Denise Roessle became pregnant out of wedlock in 1969, she inadvertently joined the ranks of the million-plus young women who fell prey to the Baby Scoop Era — a time when relinquishing their newborns for adoption was the socially-accepted solution to erasing their sins and filling an increasing demand for adoptable infants. She was told to move on with her life, assured that she would forget and have other children she could keep. She finished college, married, and became a professional copywriter and graphic designer. But she never had more children. And she did not forget. After reuniting with her grown son in 1996, Denise began writing on this more personal topic. Her articles have appeared in national adoption magazines and newsletters, and she continues to be active in the post-adoption, adoption reform, and birthmother support arenas".--Amazon 


  1. Hi Lorraine, great post! I am an adoptee in reunion, and I am always curious to know what first mom's are thinking.

    I think as an adoptee I feel the same why as far as when I decide I want to participate in show and tell. It was not until I began writing/blogging about adoption that I became confident enough to speak about it. Confidence is key! Confidence also means healing in my book. You always have to be prepared for how people are going to react as you explained.

    You really drew me in when you said one might respond saying "she/he died". That really was an interesting way to think of it. I am sure it can feel that way at times. I would hate for anyone to think of it that way because what if there were hope that a first mom and child meet.

    You are right though, we have the right if and when we decide to share. People do not always seem get it. I try to share as much as possible because I think it always helps so one or educates someone about adoption. They get the TRUTH, not what they read in books or probably see on TV.

    Great post!!


  2. Soon after my daughter found me three and a half years ago, I mentioned to her that I called all of my aunts and uncles to let them know about my daughter. She was pleased to no longer be a secret.
    That interaction has been my guiding light on answering the "do you have children?" question. It is always, yes I have three.
    Most often I tear into a critique of coercion in adoption. How it was wrong then and it's wrong today. I have learned in these three years to not give people a whole lot of room to hang themselves. Early on I heard way to many comments like "You did the right thing". No I did not do the right thing! I was coerced into thinking that I wasn't good enough to raise my own daughter simply because I wasn't married. With the slightest level of support I could have raised my own daughter. I take control of the conversation dismissing adoption myth at every turn.
    Frankly I really don't give a hoot what others think of me. What I really hope for is for them to think differently about adoption.
    And then there are times, especially in business situations, where I have to tread lightly because I never know when I'll come upon a self entitled adoptive parent. Not to lump all adoptive parents together. Many adoptive parents like my friend Erin "get it" especially now that they can see the pain their adoptive children have been inflicted with by being given away.
    Thanks for a great post, Lo. Many parents that have had children die don't mention them in the "How many children do you have?" question. They feel it's just too personal to talk about a deceased child to a stranger. That might be part of your reluctance to mention your daughter at every turn.

  3. Barbara:

    The inclusion of children who died is probably different for parents who had children die very young. Also, since I only had one child, and she did not die until she was in her forties, it is different from someone who loses a very young child and then goes on to have others.

    The truth is, I have talked about adoption so much in my life and mostly with strangers, yet I still get all embroiled emotionally and sweaty with rapid heart beat, etc. and so do avoid it at most social gatherings. It was the same with Florence Fisher. She simply tells people: It's a party, I don't talk about adoption at social gatherings. Because I am so Out, people assume I can and will talk about it all the time, but I won't. Also, I can't say I was "coerced" by my parents, since I wasn't, and so I shoulder more of the "choice" to give up a child, despite what I felt was no choice at all.

    You sound like you have this more under control than I do! A good thing. We do have to educate but we also have to take care of ourselves. It's a personal matter. As for your attitude, You Go Girl! I'd like to have you by my side when I feel I need to start explaining from the beginning.

  4. I would agree with Barbara in that I don't want my daughter to ever be a secret again. I am typically very open now when someone asks me about this, but I still get panicky and tense when I am asked this question. However, it still depends somewhat on the situation. If I'm talking to a complete stranger that I have no connection to, I might just say something like I have no children at home or my husband and I have no children.

    I had a situation recently where someone else decided to speak for me on this subject which was really ipsetting. I was out with a couple who know my story and another couple who were friends of theirs that I had not met before. The two women have young children and spent a lot of time talking
    about them. After a bit, the woman I had not met before asked me if I had kids. I was going to go into the short version of my story - I have a daughter who was adopted by another family - but my friend cut me off and said that I had an adult child. It was very obvious that she did not want me to talk about adoption and perhaps she had her reasons (maybe she knew her friend would not be understanding of it) but it was completely insulting and unnecessary. It made me feel once again like I have something to hide or that my child is somehow less than theirs. And this was from a supposed friend!

    As usual, adoption ruins something that should be normal and natural.

  5. I would love to know how my mother answers the question.

    Since she's in the closet, I know she is not forthright with the answer.

    But, then again, in her mind, it may well be true. She doesn't really view me as hers.

  6. I have the same conflicted feelings when asked that question since my surrendered son is my only child. We were reunited when he was 21 years old and he is well into his 40's now, but still I feel like I need to skirt the issue when asked specific questions about him from people I don't know or in a social setting. I've been out and open since the mid 80's but just hate getting the questions about where is he, what does he do, etc. mostly because my son lives a very dysfunctional life. It's clearly my unresolved issues around the whole situation because I immediately assume strangers are going to think my surrendering hims is the cause of his many problems in life. I have no problem being open with people I know, but just weary of going there with those I don't. Thanks Lorraine...good convo about this topic.

  7. SkiptheheartsandflowersApril 8, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    I am like you, Lorraine, in that I sometimes feel ok sharing and sometimes prefer to keep things private. I gauge the situation I am in. I have been asked casually by store clerks, for example, and feel no need to get into a lengthy discussion. I have found that casual friends I have shared some of my story with do not know how to respond and say little. Some never bring it up again. (As when someone has died, people do not know what to say and avoid saying anything.) It seems weird that they never enquire about my lost daughter following our initial discussion. Even my own family rarely enquire how my daughter is doing--how our relationship is going.

    I have been "outed" at times by the 2 kids I am raising, such as at school in front of friends' parents. They will casually mention their big sister, sometimes raising someone's eyebrows. I want them to feel free to mention their big sister. I have never wanted them to consider her a secret. But it can be uncomfortable being outed at a moment I am not feeling up to discussing the whole story.

    Barb, you are brave to be vocal about adoption coercion and dispelling adoption myths. I have found that even my own mother and siblings are wholly uninterested in hearing about adoption myths. They just want to live in head-in-sand land believing adoption is just wonderful.

    I sometimes wonder when I am out and about, "How many other first mothers are in this crowd?" I wish we had some sort of code--a special ribbon or button to wear that would alert other mothers, but not OUT us to the whole world.

  8. Excellent post, Lorraine! My long-time friends all knew about my son. When I met new people, I would say I didn't have any children, then if we became close I would tell them privately. Once I got married (my husband had a teenaged son), I'd say I have a stepson. I never wanted to answer questions in public. After my son and I reunited, I told EVERYONE! However, to this day, if I meet someone new and they ask, I say my husband and I each have a son.

    The book situation... Many of my friends will tell people that I am an author when they introduce me, and of course they ask what I wrote. I'm happy to talk about that now, but simply say, "it's a memoir about reuniting with the son I gave up for adoption when I was 19." I've had kinds of reactions, most positive, like "oh how wonderful that you found him." AND I'm amazed at how many will then spill their story, that they are also a birthmother or an adoptee (usually when they can talk to me privately). There's a lot of us out there!

    Thanks also for the plug for Second-Chance Mother! I'm looking forward to talking about it at the AAC Conference later this week.

  9. Great post Lorraine....I "came out" in the 80's, had always said "I have no children" but inside felt like a liar so I cautiously started saying "I have one daughter"; I couldn't deny her anymore. Now 43 years later my company had a 3 day weekend and my daughter came as my guest. At dinner the CEO asked her "Why do you call your mom Deb?" and she proudly said "We have a unique relationship" DO WE EVER! - she introduces me to her friends as her "tummy mummy" - and she has grown to love me. I am blessed.

  10. These comments have reminded me of a situation once where I was visiting someone and the hostess, an adoptive mother, introduced me as a "birth mother." I gotta say, I was floored and uncomfortable. Like I now had a Red Letter A on my breast.

    But like Skip the hearts...I sometimes am in a large group of people I do not know and wonder: are there any other first mothers here? Hey, I wish we could meet and talk sometimes. Most of the women my age who are my acquaintances and friends had abortions.

  11. Yikes, Lo! That was just wrong... I have never outed anybody about anything. This is my friend, she is a birthmother, adoptive mother, adoptee. What does that have to do with anything? When I introduce a friend I met in a support group or anywhere otherwise connected to adoption, and people ask how we met/became friends, I always think of some other answer. It's their story to tell, not mine.

  12. Your blog hit home with me as it just happened to me today when an ultrasound tech, who was working on my 84 year old mother, asked how many grandchildren I had. I said 5, even though it is really 6! My lost daughter (reunion gone wrong) who is 43 has a daughter she had when she was 16 and unmarried. Being 1987, she kept her. My granddaughter has cut ties as well. She is very smart and graduated from a prestigious college and grad school and is engaged. I have learned these details from stalking her on the Internet and FB! It is so painful. I worry that my daughter will die young also, as I don't believe she is well. I learned through my raised daughter that she has a debilitating disease, and she is a smoker. She doesn't even keep in contact with my r-daughter anymore which used to be somewhat comforting. I have reached out repeatedly but there is just silence.
    Thank you, Lorraine, for the good work you do.

  13. Great thread as always! I can proudly say that my mom says she has 5 kids...although I can't say that she has always done so but she did tell most close friends and my half siblings. (I wasn't unveiled when I sent my letter to find her 20 yrs ago they all knew)

    I do,however, 'out' my husband all the time. He too is an adoptee in reunion, and I met him at an ALMA meeting in '94. (As a search assistant I offered to help find his dad - he thought I was offering more, lol!) So although its his story it is interwoven with mine so I tell it. I just feel bad that our daughters have to use a wall sized family tree for school projects!

  14. I used to find it harder to say I had four children when my oldest son was not communicating with me and would waver back and forth between saying three or four. Now that we are in reunion it is always 4 sons and I can proudly include details about all of them.

    Yesterday was my oldest son's birthday, and it was the warmest day yet this year, fitting as he loves warmth and the outdoors and everything is blooming, and he likes his outdoor-related birthday gift:-)

  15. Maryanne: I know exactly what you mean. Before I found Jane and had a reunion, I would answer, No. Then after reunion, I said, Yes, one.

    When she was not talking to me, I still said One, and nothing else, hoping whoever was asking would not ask anything further, as the One, without additional information does indicate: let's not talk about him/her. And I did not want to talk about it.

    Now that she has deceased, it is easy to say One, she died. Circumstances change our reaction to the question, but the general public would hardly guess that the question is such a trigger for a whole segment of the population, not only first mothers but those who are infertile and desperately want children.

  16. Marynne, my daughter's birthday was Friday. Are you also a 1966 mother? I can't remember.

  17. No, I was 1968, April 9, a couple days after Dr. King was killed, then two months later Bobby Kennedy. An awful year altogether. One good thing came out of it though, my son:-) But for years the forsythia and daffodils were a sign of sadness for me. This year, Mike sent me pictures of their kitties and puppy including the puppy sniffing a daffodil, very cheery!

    I met Mike's father in early 1966 and thought it was true love.


  18. My son's birthday is April 14, 1966 the most beautiful time of year. It is always the saddest too. I will be spending that day with him.
    Its our day he says what a loving son.


  19. This is always a hard and painful question to get asked. Sometimes before going into a situation where I am going to meet new people I actually get anxiety over it and I pray no one asks me this! I consider myself to be fairly open about being a first mom, but unsure of how to reply to someone that I don't know very well when they respond to my answer. The awkward silences of no response at all are the worst. I am learning to be more selective with who I share, it is a difficult question for many reasons, mostly that people, in general, seem to be so uneducated about adoption and even when I do share, few are still open to learning something new, but I have found some that are.


  20. Here are two quotes for those whose surrendered children were born in April. The first I associated with my son for many years when we had no connection. The second is more how I feel now, and especially with the picture of his cute dog sniffing the daffodils on his land. "The winter is over and gone....."


    "APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain."
    --T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"

    "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

    --Song of Solomon, The King James Bible

  21. Before reunion I didn't include Christopher in the count. Each time I said the -1 number though, my heart cried. Since reunion I proudly include him in my kid count and his kids in my grandkid count.

  22. I HATE this question. I never have a gracious way to answer it and not feel ashamed.

  23. I am a birth Mom, reunited with son 2 years ago. Prior to that I would answer the question "do you have any children?" by saying...."None that I know!" It was a truthful answer and usually got a laugh out of people, and they went on to the next subject. Disarm them with a short truthful sentence!

  24. Susan: Great answer!

    I hope that it gives readers a suggestion on how to handle the question.



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