“How many children do you have?” It seems like an easy enough question. Most mothers will take a quick inventory in her head and answer within seconds. “Two with one on the way!” or “just our one perfect angel.” Simple question, yes, but for a birth mother, it might not be so easy.

After I placed my daughter for adoption, I found myself wondering if I was still considered to have a child. I was very young at the time so I wasn’t being asked if I had any children, or how many, very often, but when I did find myself in this situation, I had an internal moment of panic where I tried to figure out how important it was to tell whoever was asking the truth. I found myself taking the weight of such a simple and widely asked question and asking myself “What is the truth?” I gave birth to a child, but I am not the one who she directed her first “mama” to. Most of the time, I would give my answer of “Yes, but I placed her for adoption,” because I knew the praise and words of admiration regarding my decision that would come after. Then, I would head home to cry to myself and feel the loss of not being able to whip out a photo or give details of sweet baby noises I was not getting to hear. As I continued to grow and work through my stages of grief, it became easier to decide whom to share my answer with. Sometimes, if I was making small talk with a stranger, I would just answer “none yet” with a smile to myself knowing one day I would be able to answer “Yes I have a child” with confidence. Little did I know then how much more complicated it would become.

Once I became pregnant with my second child, a new cycle began. It had been four years since I placed my daughter for adoption. Enough time had passed for my life to become more stable, and I knew I would be able to parent, unlike the first time. At the same time, four years was still short enough for me to remember every detail of my first birth. Looking back, I remember being so happy to find out I was having a boy because I did not think I would be able to nurse a new baby girl without my heart breaking all over again with the loss of my child who I never got to nurse. Being pregnant again brought up a whole new set of feelings that I did not expect. Grief mixed with joy is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it on a personal level. Merriam-Webster defines grief as “deep and poignant distress” and defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure or delight.” How can two things be such polar opposites, yet be mixed in your heart at once? My heart was full of bliss at the thought of my baby boy coming home in my arms, yet there was still so much of it full of sorrow for the daughter I never got to bring home.

The complicated issue of giving birth to a child that you will be parenting after placing one for adoption was like a double-edged sword the whole time. I knew the end result would be much different, but it was so hard to not compare my two experiences. The father of the child I placed is the only man I have ever had children with, and he is, to this day, my husband. (The details of how this came to be is better saved for another day with much more time to fully understand.) He was not involved in my first pregnancy, so this was a whole new experience for him. Anyone who has already had children and then has another with a first-time parent would understand the omniscient feeling that comes along with that. I had already done this; therefore, I knew everything and he knew nothing. (This sounds like an awfully familiar tone that may have crept into our marriage even to this day.) He also could not fully understand the heaviness that overcame my chest every time I had to answer if this was my first delivery. Each time, I had to fill out paperwork and write down the information for my past medical history, there was that old familiar feeling of sadness that would creep into what most women considered one of the happiest times of her life. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I was not spending every day of my life crying, or even thinking about my child I placed for adoption. At this point in my journey, I was still keeping my feelings locked deep inside and only allowing myself to really feel the “ugly” part of grief when I was alone. Of course, I was delighted at the thought of parenting my son. It’s just that when you are a birth mother, you will always have that slightly crisp edge to your heart. Placing your child for adoption feels like you cut a little piece of yourself away and have to live the rest of your life with a scar that only you can see or feel.

The moment my son was born, there was a whirlwind of emotions. Seeing his perfect face for the first time is truly a moment I could have never prepared myself for, and the amount of love I felt for him at that moment put to ease any doubt I had about being able to separate my feelings for my daughter and my feelings for him. I was lost in my adoration for him and could not hear anything except for his tiny cry until I heard the nurse say, “time of birth 3:36 a.m.” I literally laughed out loud. The nurses and my child’s father looked at me like I might have lost too much blood and was close to losing it. I quickly explained to everyone what I could not believe. My daughter’s time of birth was 3:36 p.m. I still, to this day, shake my head with bewilderment at such a coincidence. As a classic over-thinker, I have spent many hours pondering what kind of other meaning this could have. Was this a sign from my daughter that she was always with me? Was this a sick joke that proved I would never be able to move on? I have come to discover that being a birth mother is beautiful and full of moments like these. These are perfect little pieces that connect your life as a birth mom to your life as a parenting mom. You never know when something totally random, or totally intentional, will happen that reminds you of how lucky you are to get to be a part of this journey.

As my son got older, and more years passed, my feelings about placing my daughter for adoption continued to evolve. I finally started attending a support group that helped me realize I didn’t have to keep my grief inside and only show the happy mask I thought was required of me. It really transformed the way I thought about my personal path in the adoption world, and gave me more confidence in my response to “how many children do you have?” Two beautiful children, one I carry in my heart and one I carry on my hip.

Fast forward three and a half years later, and the moment had finally come. I was pregnant again and was having a girl. Nervous was an understatement. Obviously, by this time, I was a pro at filling out paperwork and answering questions regarding my past deliveries. But the thought of a baby girl, one that was coming home with me to grow up in front of my very eyes instead of through photos was petrifying. I was not worried about the act of giving birth, not worried about sleepless nights, piles of diapers, or how my son would adjust to sharing the spotlight. I was fearful that I was going to take one look at my new baby girl and only see the daughter I had placed, the one I never got to take home. I was downright scared I would not be able to love her because I would not let myself. I thought my heart could only handle one little girl, one that was growing up miles away from me. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not have that mother-daughter connection. I gave my heart away to a baby girl almost eight years ago and did not think I had room for another. I have come to the understanding that most parents of multiple children feel this way at first. You love your firstborn so much that you cannot imagine loving another. Then, the baby arrives, and you realize your heart stretches to however big that heart needs to fit everyone inside. I knew that being a birth mom wouldn’t make me less capable of loving another child of the same gender, or that the gender even mattered, it’s just that I had decided the day I placed my daughter into another woman’s arms and walked away, that I would not be able to feel love for another baby girl ever again.

I bet you can guess, but I was wrong. My youngest daughter was born and my heart, not unlike the Grinch’s, swelled up three more sizes to fit her in. Her eyes literally sparkled from the second she came out, silent and not crying only because she knew how badly we wanted to hear it. I knew that every ounce of doubt I had was completely diminished. I did get to have another perfect slice of birth mom heaven because my youngest and my oldest daughters could be twins. Brown-haired, brown-eyed, tiny carbon copies of the father. While I once would have questioned this moment as something tainted, I saw how lucky I was to get to experience life this way. I am one of the few people who get to live with my heart spread out across the country. From my own living room into a living room, I have never seen, my heart dances in the form of three perfect beings living life the best way I could give my children. The daughter I placed for adoption thrives in a life I would have never been able to give her and I could not be prouder of my decision to give her that.

“How many children do you have?” is a question I will continue to get my entire life. Even now as I write this, the newest member of my family growing from a tiny sprout into another perfect being inside of me, I feel excited to tell my truth to the answer of that question. “Three with one on the way, one of which I placed for adoption.” There is no right or wrong way to answer the question. It’s all about what is comfortable for you at that very moment. I have been fortunate enough to have had mostly positive experiences when speaking to people about my decision to place my child for adoption. Each person processes it in his or her own way. While pregnant with my second daughter, my doctor never seemed to remember who I was, so each time I went to see him, he would need to be reminded of my history and then tell me how amazing it was. My most recent doctor purposely stated my newest child would be my third and when I corrected him, he responded with “I see that in your chart but you never know if people want to be reminded of the child placed for adoption.” That one initially stung until I remembered the girl 14 years ago questioning if she was, in fact, still a mother after placing a child for adoption. I became a mother the day I decided that what was best for my child was living the very best life possible, even if that meant it wasn’t with me. A mother can be a multitude of things–Step-mother, adoptive mother, helicopter mother, dog mother, birth mother. These are all describing words, and being a mother is really just a feeling that cannot be taken away. So, answer that question, “How many children do you have,” in whatever way you want, and smile to yourself knowing your truth is the only truth there is.