Friends send me articles on the theme that the world has become less welcoming to big families and that parents with many kids face subtle—and often not so subtle—scorn. They assume that, as a mother of five, I can relate to this experience. But I don’t.
Some of the questions Cassandra Chesser describes in her article in The Federalist are familiar. Especially having lived in three European countries over the last decade, all with anemic birth rates making families with even three children a rarity, I have had plenty of curious looks and questions about the decision to have more children than many others do.
Sure, a few nosy people asked about my religious affiliation and even if the kids were all from the some marriage (they are), which are certainly more personal questions than I’d pose to a stranger. There have been a few subtle jokes about the facts of life and countless comments about how full my hands must be. But for every time there has been even a hint of implicit criticism, there have been a dozen imbued with admiration.
When people ask me questions or make comments, I understand why. Many are asking about a path not taken, or one that they are toying going down, but worry about the unknowns. They aren’t really asking if I find caring for or traveling with so many children hard, they are asking if they would find it hard. Many don’t know women with five kids and have drawn conclusions about what that means based on their grandmother’s stories or train-wreck reality shows.
I’m an Ambassador for Plentiful Children
I’ve always tried to approach these conversations as if I’m an ambassador for big families. I emphasize the upsides that they probably don’t see and try to put the well-known challenges in perspective. I explain how each baby tends to get easier, when her cries are no longer a mystery and there are other little hands anxious to entertain the baby.
Sleeplessness and tantrum-y toddler phases are never easy, but by the third, fourth or fifth child, you know for certain that this too will pass, so even dark days don’t seem quite so bleak. Having many kids close in age means they have a great ability to entertain and support each other, which is a joy to watch now. I presume this will become even more important to our family as we all get older.
My oldest is only 11, so I sometimes find myself staring at big families with teenagers. Especially if the family looks happy—if the kids are laughing with each other, if mom and dad seem to be enjoying themselves too—I watch for signs of what they’ve done right. If we are sitting near each other on the plane or standing close in a line, I may be the one asking probing questions: Do they usually get along? Has it been hard? I’m asking about them, but really I’m asking what I should expect and if I’m going to find it hard. I’m looking for advice on how to prepare for what’s ahead and hoping for encouragement.
Some People Are Rude, But Don’t Take It Personally
Undoubtedly, some people who make comments about how many kids I have aren’t looking for advice or curious about big families. They think that having so many kids is irresponsible and they are bracing for our family to disrupt their experience. I vividly recall an older man groaning “Oh god,” as I sat down next to him in a crowded plane with a protesting 18-month-old on my lap. I ignored him, settled my little girl down, quietly read her books, and she was pretty good the rest of the flight. The man remained grumpy, sighing anytime her tiny foot dared to cross over the arm rest.
We got through it, and after the flight an older woman nearby made a point of congratulating me for how well-behaved my kids were, loudly enough so the man next to me was sure to hear. People like that—offering me help and congratulating my kids on how well-behaved they are—are a far more common experience than the jerk we sat next to on that flight.
Certainly smaller families are a trend. But it’s also a trend to find offense and linger on any and all perceived slights. Mothers of big families should brace for interest from strangers and perhaps some awkward questions. But, in my experience, much more of the attention you receive will be positive than negative.
You’ll also be better off if you don’t give power to those who appear to be judging you. A minority may actually think you are harming the world by leaving too big a carbon footprint (and forget them if they do), but they may also be jealous or simply curious and clumsy at trying to find out more about what your life is like. You’ve got enough going on and don’t need to waste time feeling insulted, but rather ought to have confidence that your decision to have a big family will pay off with plenty of people to love and support you in the years to come.