I married young, before most of my peers, and by age thirty I had three children. Despite the fact that larger families were rather out of vogue, as well as the subject of criticism and ridicule among many of my socially conscious set, I wished for more children. But with some trepidation, we took steps to make sure there would be no more babies. This decision made sense logically; I secretly feared our marriage ultimately wouldn’t make it, and single parenthood is hard enough with even one child. In my heart, however, I continued to long for a larger “bunch.” I felt in some primal way that my family wasn’t quite complete.
I found myself sidling up to the mothers I’d occasionally meet at the park or La Leche League meetings or at my kids’ schools – mothers with four, five and six children, and asking about their lives. Were they happy? Did they ever feel overwhelmed? In fact, I found that these mothers-by-choice of large gaggles of children were some of the most serene, self-actualized people I knew. Their lives had a clear “center,” and it gave them a sense of direction – a North Star, if you will.
But in a culture where approxmately 2.1 children-per-mama is the statistical norm, even my three children – born in fairly rapid succession over only six years – stirred some comment. “Don’t you two know what causes that yet?” people would ask me and my husband. Even with three, we had to buy a “big family” vehicle – the dreaded minivan – and we no longer fit in restaurant booths for four.
And then my marriage did end.. For several years, I was single, sharing the parenting of my three growing children across two households with my ex-husband. I figured I might marry again, but I assumed that if I ever did, the man in question would certainly say that three was plenty. I was wrong. The man I married told me he not only loved my three, but wanted them to have more siblings. I was thrilled. And today we are the “HickJu Bunch,” as we jokingly tell people (his name is Hickman, mine is Granju). After I gave birth to my youngest child 11 months after our wedding day, we have four children between us, and hope to have a fifth. And while it’s pretty unlikely, even a sixth child isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility for us.
When I tell people I have four children, and that I would like to have more, the most common response is one of – for lack of a better word – distaste. “I would never want to do that,” women say to me. And you know what? As a strongly pro-choice woman, I am extremely pleased that we live in a culture where what women want has become the primary factor in whether they have five children, one child . . . or no children at all. That’s because there is no question that raising a passel of kids is time-consuming, expensive, and requires a certain tolerance for chaos. I freely admit that it isn’t for everyone, and I’d never suggest that anyone take on the role unless it’s something she really, really wants.
Historically, large families were literally foisted onto women. Pushy husbands, religious or cultural expectations, and lack of access to birth control conspired to knock women up – again and again and again. Today, however, most American women who become mothers to a brood are making a conscious choice. And it’s a choice that is worthy of the same respect given to those who choose to have one child, or no children at all.
But I will tell you from personal experience that it is not always afforded that kind of respect. While we do appear to have a pop culture fascination with big families – witness the interest in the Duggars, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and even the Jolie-Pitt brood – our focus is somewhat akin to the way one would observe a circus sideshow act, complete with requisite smug ridicule. In fact, many of the people I know personally who make it a point to actively support reproductive rights don’t seem to believe that those rights should also extend to actual reproduction; this is especially true for pro-choice folks who seem to believe I am committing some kind of heinous eco-crime by giving birth.
There’s no question that more people potentially have a larger environmental impact. For me to deny this would be intellectually dishonest. However, it’s simplistic to suggest that a world full of tiny families – or even zero population growth – would offer the answer to all the world’s woes. And until the earnest parents of only one child who lecture me about my family size start using cloth diapers (I do), or move from the car-centric ‘burbs to an urban neighborhood that allows them to walk most places (I have), or join the local food co-op that supports sustainable, organic agriculture (I’ve belonged since college), well, I suggest they reconsider their holier-than-thou criticism.
Don’t misunderstand, I am certainly not claiming any prize for exemplary green living, but I do notice that large families seem to be an easy target for criticism from individuals who should take a hard look at their own environmental footprint before worrying so much about mine. I believe that one of my primary responsibilities as the mother of all these children is to teach them to be conservationists in their own lives. And a large family – where people simply have to share, make do with less, and live with hand-me-downs – offers a perfect laboratory for imparting this mindset.
Beyond worrying about the environment, critics of larger families also seem to focus on the idea that children with many siblings miss out on parental attention. I’m not sure this is such a bad thing. While children certainly need and thrive on appropriate levels of parental involvement and attention, our twenty-first-century American belief that the relationship with one’s parents is the only family relationship that really matters to children is questionable. In today’s smallish families, mothers and fathers alone are expected to be everything to their children: providers, nurturers, playmates, educators and more.
In larger families – particularly larger families that are also lucky enough to have cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents in the mix – children get more attention from more people, all of whom love them and share a bond with them. I frequently tell my children – as my parents told me – that their brothers and sisters will be there for them long after I am gone; it’s the relationship likely to last longer than any other one they have in their lives. This is a gift I feel proud to be offering my children, even if it does mean that I have less time for individual flash card drills.
Whether we remain a family with four kids, or end up with one or two more, I am happy with my choice to become mama to many. That doesn’t mean I don’t have days when I am very tired, or days when I wish I had more money to spend on things like pedicures for me rather than another pair of soccer cleats. I sometimes wish I had more time to write and fewer loads of laundry to wash. And don’t even get me started on what it’s been like parenting my eldest through adolescence thus far.
Raising a bunch of kids is hard work. But it’s the best, most satisfying work I’ve ever done. And for those of you who may be considering making the same choice – and it is a choice – I say go for it. Deciding to give birth to another baby is an exercise in optimism. Big families may be old-fashioned, but so are plenty of things that the modern world could use more of, like an abiding faith in the future. It’s not crazy to embrace chaos for the sake of love.
Photo Credits: Richard Wain of Dam Design