Before You Ask How Many Children I Have . . .
3 September 2013
180. I have about 180 children. That’s how many I have.
Each fall, without fail, when school starts, parents, teachers, and students ask, “How many children do you have?”
* * *
In 1997, my first classroom was in a trailer that was spitting distance from Brigham Young University. With thirty-six sixth graders crowded into a trailer on the playground, I prepared for Back-to-School night. My husband helped me color a birthday presents that I hung on the wall for each child.
I had a disclosure document explaining our classroom rules, the curriculum, and my teaching philosophy.
But, I wasn’t prepared when the parents asked, “How many children do you have?”
At that time, I had five stepchildren and six step-grandchildren. I was 27. How could I explain that?
When I said, “I don’t have any children,” the room became quiet. Faces that a second before looked optimistic and happy, appeared shocked. Culturally, in the heart of Mormon country, I was an anomaly. I was difficult to explain.
Even now, teaching in a less devout part of Utah where being Mormon is an anomaly, I’m still asked, “Do you have children?” And, while the looks I receive are less judgmental, it’s still hurtful.
* * *
Less than a month after I married, my husband’s youngest son was killed in a car accident. When we talked about having children, he said, “I can’t ever love and lose someone like that again.”
Next fall marks the twentieth anniversary of Tommy’s death. To this day, when Dwight says his name or speaks of him, the sound that comes from him is simply pain.
Occasionally, we tell one another that if we’d had a baby in 1994, we’d have a grown-up now.
* * *
My mom grew up in Salt Lake as an active Latter-day Saint. More than anything in the world, she wanted six children. Instead, her appendix ruptured. She couldn’t have children. People, including family, were mean. Behind her back, they whispered that she and my dad cared more about having a big house (which they built themselves for the big family they wanted) and money.
Until they adopted my brother in 1967, my mother couldn’t attend church on Mother’s Day. It was too painful.
* * *
When I lived in California, I visited a gynecologist who told me I needed to “hurry up” with the babies. I was thirty-five.
And, just like in Mormon country, the first question from the parents where I taught was, “How many children do you have?”
My salvation in California was my writing group. I wrote about how having children just hadn’t happened. I wrote about how parents and doctors marginalized me for not having a baby.
Another writer commented on my piece. “That makes me so angry. Pushing another human being out from between your legs doesn’t make you a mother. As women, we mother our siblings, our partners, and, even our parents when they get older.”
She taught me that, regardless of what I pushed out of my body, I mother.
* * *
Six years ago, I miscarried.
If I’d had a boy, he’d be Thomas Grant Hooker — named for my dad and Dwight’s son. If I’d had a girl, she’d be Lucille Grace Hooker – named for Dwight’s mom and what I wish had more of.
* * *
Last week, on the second day of school, a sweet little eighth grade girl asked me, during class, “Do you have children?”
Smiling, I gave my standard glib response. “I have about 180.” I gestured with my arm toward the class.
She was not deterred. “No, I mean, do YOU have children?”
She replied, “Oh, you’d be a great mom. You’re funny, but serious. You’re nice, but strict.”
* * *
Time magazine wrote about “The Childfree Life” last month. In the article, Laura Scott who runs the Childless by Choice documentary project said, “To make this choice, you really have to be able to manage an navigate all assumptions that are going to be made about you.”
However, sometimes, the choice isn’t entirely yours to make.
As for me, sometimes I think that I’m a better teacher BECAUSE I am childless.