In a Facebook group I belong to, a mom recently asked if people would share how many children they have. She’d always wanted a large family, she said, and was just curious whether or not people actually did that.
So, being the mother to eight that I am, I chimed in. And went on my merry way.
Of course I kept getting the notifications telling me when another person would post a comment. And as I glanced over the responses, I was astounded to see that no small number of people had taken this as an opportunity to tell us big families that: it is impossible for our kids to be happy, our families are not “viable”, and there is no way for these kids to receive the attention and love that they need.
I suppose it wasn’t terribly surprising, considering the group, but it WAS kind of sad.
Since when did fertility and the love between husband and wife become so detestable? I’m not saying everyone has to want a bunch of kids, and I’m not saying all open-to-life people will go on to have a bunch of kids, but these people were genuinely suspicious of families with more than two children.
Truth be told I often forget that we are not the norm–that having eight kids is not typical. And I forget simply because this is my life, and I’m busy living it, and I’m not (usually) too worried about what other people think. Of course I’m reminded of our relative uniqueness whenever folks with two or three understandably wonder how we do it, because they already feel maxed out. But I suspect this tendency to question the capability of large families is based on the assumption that when you add to your family, the dynamic remains the same, while the workload increases a certain amount for each additional child. When, in my experience, that is not actually the case.
Because families are comprised of people, they are ultimately a complex series of relationships. I may have eight kids, but my oldest is eleven years old now–and this is much easier in many ways than when we had three kids ages two and under. Or four kids three and under. Oh, the good old days! It’s true that I now have more laundry, more meal prep, and more to manage, but it’s just different. Kids are more independent in certain ways, and able to pitch in. Our family functions pretty well if I do say so myself, and things did not get infinitely more difficult with every baby. Not that there aren’t trials and joys implicit in each parenting phase, because there are. But you know what I mean.
So why have a big family? I used to feel a little bit guilty about it, wondering if we were indeed short-changing our children by giving them so many siblings. If we had fewer kids they could have their own rooms, we could eat out more often, and I’d have more spare time. I probably wouldn’t yell as much. But over time I’ve seen the wisdom and beauty in living out openness to life in our marriage, in giving our yes to the Lord and allowing Him to bless us with a tangible expression of our married love. I won’t tell you that raising a large family is easy, but I will say that there is a lot of love, and so, therefore, it is good.
One of the things that came up in the Facebook group discussion was the issue of priorities. Because you just can’t do it all. And sometimes I think outsiders assume that in being open to life, we are trying to do it all. But it is actually quite the opposite–having many children forces you to figure out what’s important, and drop the things that don’t matter. Otherwise you’ll go positively crazy. In my own experience, this has actually been a good thing, because who of us couldn’t stand to simplify? Or to practice detachment a little bit more? But this issue of priorities is probably the reason many couples opt not to have a big family, because changing an endless stream of diapers doesn’t really measure up to the alternatives (travelling, having a career outside of the home, not losing sleep over how you’ll pay for college.) So they choose the latter. Assuming we big families are the only ones making big sacrifices, even though in limiting their family size, they’re actually sacrificing something too.
I recently read somewhere that folks should not use the word “sacrifice” when talking about parenting their kids. There is a sense in which I agree with this (because no child should have to feel that he or she is a burden), but in another? I think it’s ridiculous. Because parenting is the height of sacrifice! We set aside our own comforts, dreams, and wants, for love of another. We run the risk of losing ourselves. We give until it hurts. Moms to many do this several times over, but there’s a secret we’ve learned somewhere along the way, too. It’s something other people don’t always understand, and it’s nearly impossible to quantify or explain. And it is this: when you abandon yourself to the joys (and sorrows) of motherhood, you experience a depth of fulfillment that is unparalleled. When marriages, intrinsically ordered towards children, bring forth new life, we are seeing the creative capacity of God and of man. It is a thing of beauty, mystery, and renewal. It is in keeping with natural and divine law.
And yet, we women are supposed to have evolved beyond having babies. We have the pill, we have the IUD, we have the capacity to limit our family size in a way greater than any prior generation. And not only that, but public opinion, and the mainstream medical community, are now on the side of birth control–something our female predecessors did not enjoy. We are living in what is arguably the golden age of contraception and family planning. So the very idea of someone eschewing the cultural narrative, and of opening themselves up to the messiness, unknowns, and trials of large family life, is absurd. And even a little obscene. It confounds modern minds because it is most definitely anti-modern.
So we large families find ourselves and our beliefs vulnerable to speculation, interpretation, and occasionally attack. It makes little sense in the world’s economy to welcome needy person after needy person into our homes and hearts. When parenthood is seen primarily in the form of a pie chart–where there is a static, finite amount of love and attention available, to be divided up equally among members–it is a scandal that you would behave in such a way so as to produce smaller pieces of pie. But this context for understanding the family does not take into account the love that flows between siblings, or the way that love grows exponentially with the addition of each new family member. It doesn’t reflect what happens when a squishy baby arrives, and softens everybody’s rough edges. It doesn’t tell the full story.
There was a time when I too would have questioned the judgment of a married couple throwing caution, good sense, and money to the wind in exchange for a fifteen-passenger-van and four sets of bunk beds. But that was before I had the misfortune of actually using the pill to prevent pregnancy, and it was before I became a mother, and before I encountered the life-giving truth about the vocation of Holy Matrimony. Now, I’m raising my eight kids, ya’ll! Which is funny, because I never really anticipated having a big family, but here I am. And I don’t worry too much about whether or not other people think that’s the best thing or a good thing or the right thing for kids, because I know, I know, that children are not only a precious gift but that they are also natural to, and good for, marriage. And I now know too that children are a gift to one another.
Contrary to what people on Facebook were arguing, raising many children is not the same thing as being a teacher or running a daycare, neither of which ever appealed to me in the least. And contrary to what most people think you don’t have to be a saint. Kids (usually) come one at a time. You learn as you go. Sometimes you mess up. There are happy moments and sad ones, too. It’s life, and it’s full. Oh.so.full.
If you’re thinking about having a large family, you will no doubt encounter those who say that having more than a few kids is unnecessary at best, and selfish and irresponsible at worst. Women today have recourse to contraception, good earning potential, and even just two children will keep you plenty busy. But take heart, because well-meaning as these people may be? They simply don’t see the whole picture. You can have a happy, fulfilling marriage while also being open to life. You can have joy-filled, funny, well-adjusted children who have many siblings. It won’t always be easy, but like most good things, it’s worth it. Dinners around a full table, lively road trips to the coast, the Christmases and birthdays and even the mundane moments, they are a gift of inestimable worth.
It really is okay to have a large family!
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