Having a lot of children raises eyebrows. Heck, having children in any circumstances not reflecting a perfect sequence of material acquisition and career advancement raises eyebrows. Having a large family flies in the face of common sense. Thankfully for my children, common sense ain’t that common.
While we know the reasons that reason ignores, and while each child coming after the second adds a new thickness to our hides, comments about family size always hurt. The intensity of the burn ranges from mild annoyance at the grocery store to lasting pain and resentment at the hands of our families. No one likes to feel like an idiot, not even mothers of 4+ children.
We have 9 kids so we’ve been raising eyebrows since 1999. I have almost heard it all. I have heard really awkward. Awkward as your three year-old making a clear-as-springwater observation about someone’s dress or facial hair. I have heard outrageous. Outrageous as only an older person with cognitive issues and no filter could possibly muster. No one has ever called me “selfish” but most moms of many have been called selfish to their face. Come spend a weekend with 5+ kids, it’ll knock the selfish right outta ya. I rent my family by the week — if you can last that long — for self-centered relaxation. Try it if you dare.
I am asked often how I deal with negative comments about my family’s size. I have a supernatural ability to ignore things that bug me, that’s the easy answer. I’m like the Penguins in Madagascar:
That said, I had two meaningful interactions with older folks when I was a young mom expecting my third child. One had had one child (whether by choice or circumstances, I don’t know) and that one child had died suddenly in his mid-forties. The second had had 10 children in close range. The one with one child still had regrets at age 80 about not spending more time with his family, about not seeing his son grow-up. The one with 10 children told me of the people in her nursing home: “All these people were sorry for me when I was having my children one after the other. Now they think I’m lucky.”
These two conversations had a profound impact on me. On my perspective on having children and making family-centered decisions. It taught me that (1) none of us gets another kick at the can once our fertile years are behind us and once our kids are grown; and (2) that raising young children is the grunt work of parenting, the tiling of the field from which the harvest will later come forth. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition: we don’t get to pour the time, care and affection we didn’t pour into our children once they are grown and we don’t get to have more children once we are older and lonelier. The blessings of children are not the sleepless nights, the bum-wipings and the ear-piercing shrieks. No. Those are the latrines of parenting. The blessings come later, once the field has been tended and nurtured, early in the morning, late at night, in the cold, in the rain, back-broken and exhausted, when you felt like it and when you did not.
Most people make their family size decisions in the here and now. That’s fine, whatever floats your goat. But we never consider what comes after the crazy years of raising small children. Of course two children under 3 is enough! Children under 6 are crazy animals. Maybe some people have large families because they love being pregnant while chasing a potty-training toddler who still doesn’t sleep through the night but I sure as heck did not. I have more children because I know that however intense these years are, they are but a flash in comparison to the other lifetime I will spend in my older years.
Bear with me for a second. I started my family at 21, now I’m 42. That’s 21 years of having little kids in the house. Assuming my 9th is my last, I have another 5 years of little-kid-madness ahead of me, for a total of 26 years. Insane right? That said, assuming I live as long or longer than my grandparents, who died between the ages of 80 and 100, I have another 42 years — probably more like 50 — of life without small-kid-insanity on the horizon. Fifty year. I haven’t even been alive that long! That’s what I mean by “another lifetime”: 40-50 years of friendship and support and family meals and visits and help and whatever other amazing things will come out of having a large gang of properly attached people around me. And no one will burn-out supporting me because the work will be split 9 ways, times their spouses, times their own kids.
My husband and I were on a dinner date last year and while chatting with the waitress she pointed at a large group seated nearby. She mentioned that it was a group of 14 celebrating their mother and grandmother’s 80th birthday. All her children and grandchildren were present around the table and the matriarch was beaming, seated in the center of the table as I had seen my own grandparents do so many times when their descendants were visiting. I counted 4 grown children and their spouses with 6 grandchildren among them. The small popular restaurant was almost full and renovations were underway to open-up a mezzanine overlooking the main floor. I told my husband: “It just occurred to me that if most of our children get married and have children, and if some of their children have spouses and children, we will need to book the entire restaurant when we turn 80. It will be full to the rafters.”
When I get totally overwhelmed by the present moment, I remember the “after” and the rafters. People who think we are nuts today can’t see what we’re seeing. This is the truth.