By Carrie Goldman
I figured it would stop in about five years, when I no longer looked young enough to be adding to my family. It had started a decade ago, during my second pregnancy. First, a quick appraisal of my protruding stomach—taking in the small girl with pigtails already chattering by my side—and then the Question.
“Hoping for a boy this time?” asked the sales clerk, the customer, the grocer, the person in line, the passenger on the plane, the nurse in the doctor’s office.
“We’re not finding out,” was the standard answer I gave, which tossed the ball back into the other person’s court and usually fulfilled my conversation obligations.
The Question, I have learned, is built on automatic assumptions that society holds about a woman’s life, her path to parenthood, and her values, but rarely do those assumptions reflect my truth.
Our second baby was born, and she was another wonderful girl. The Question slightly shifted. People would see me with my two little girls, and ask, “Will you try for a boy next?”
“We are thrilled with our girls,” I would respond. I know The Question is born of curiosity, not malice, and that most people are simply trying to be friendly and make conversation.
But I began to notice the cultural bias behind the curiosity. I grew weary of the gender-based marketing that divides stores into seas of pink and blue and made a point of crossing into the boys’ section to buy superhero shirts and Star Wars toys for my daughters. I stacked little footballs and toy trains alongside princesses and jewelry kits. There are all different ways to be a girl and raise a girl.
When my girls were six and three, I became pregnant again. The Question came at me as soon as I began to show, sometimes in the form of a comment. “I hope your poor husband gets a boy this time!”
I would turn to my attentive little girls and tell them, “You girls are my world, and Daddy’s too. When people say things like that, it shows us how they think, but it is NOT how Daddy and I think.”
Our third baby was born, and we were overjoyed with another little girl. It has been almost five years since she arrived, and our family is complete.
Not a month goes by that a smiling stranger doesn’t comment on how I have three, count ’em, THREE little girls, asking if I will try for a boy next.
For years, I focused my responses on pushing back against the subtle stereotypes behind The Question. It was easier to channel my inner tumult on an external issue than on the additional reason why the question wrenched my heart, the silent response in my head. I had a boy. But something went horribly wrong when his kidneys formed, and he died before he got a chance to live his life.
That silent response erupted unexpectedly into conversation last week, when I was at Trader Joe’s with the trio, and a fellow customer watched my two youngest girls loading up a mini shopping cart with a crazy collection of foods.
She smiled at me and said, “Looks like you have some great helpers. Will you try for a boy next?”
Before I could reply, my oldest daughter said, “She had a baby boy that died and then she adopted me.”
There. There it was. I had a boy. The woman, poor thing, turned pink and beat a hasty retreat. My oldest daughter resumed grabbing cartons of berries. She piled them in the cart that her younger sisters were fighting over.
I tried to make reassuring eye contact with the woman, seeking to let her know that it was okay, that we are okay, but she had fled.
I wondered what led my daughter to speak up with that answer. Perhaps it was nothing more than the blunt honesty—a refreshing quality, really—that we find in children. Or perhaps she was seeking to validate her own place in the family, letting the other woman know that we do not need a boy anymore because we adopted her. Adoption and identity are complicated issues, and our oldest needs frequent affirmation that she belongs.
As we walked through the store, I thought about how simple and freeing my daughter’s answer was. In one sentence, she managed to dispose of the question that always stumps me. It felt good not to have to go through my internal dialogue before coming up with the right response.
It is difficult to reconcile the benign attempts of a stranger to make small talk with the intense thoughts that rush through my head. Do I commit a lie of omission in my response and deny the existence of that baby boy? It feels like a betrayal. Do I breach the unspoken rules of appropriate disclosure by responding as bluntly as my daughter did, thus forcing the other person into an awkward position?
I am not alone in this experience. I have two good friends who lost their first daughters and are now raising little boys. My sweet friends puzzle over how to answer the simplest of questions such as, “How many kids do you have? Think you’ll go for a girl next?” I have two more friends who, like I, lost baby boys and are now raising all-girl families.
The zigzagging of thoughts, the rapid internal dialogue, plays out again and again. I usually make a game-time decision to give a response that opens the door to new thoughts about the value of girls in society, because it does address one of my issues with the Question, while preserving my private pain. But every single time, a voice in my head says, I had a boy. But life is strange, sad and wonderful, and now I am the blessed mother of three phenomenal girls. This is my path.
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs To Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. You can see her work at www.carriegoldmanauthor.com, including her new children’s chapter book, Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing! co-authored with Juliet Bond.