Parentgood: In Defense Of Large Families

Alright, the title is a bit misleading. I don't feel any need to defend large families, or that they've been denigrated here, or anything like that. I was just trying to draw some eyeballs. And let me state at the outset that I, much like others before me, don't in any way think there is a "right way" to do families. Everyone is different, it takes all kinds, and I've no reason or desire to judge the way anyone else does it.

The last few Parentgood posts have been, in some way or another, about not-having kids. There was the having of someone else's kid, the not-going-to-have-them, and the prepping for an empty nest. All were much appreciated perspectives. So I thought maybe I'd just offer a little bit of my experience, since it's noticeably different from those previous entries. Quite obviously this isn't going to be the thing for everyone, (again, to each their own, and no one should condemn anyone's choices in this realm), but I thought maybe I could shed a little light on life in a big family.

First, I am the oldest of 13 children. So I have some insight into truly big families. Second, I have 4 kids of my own. Not exactly a big family, but certainly not a small one by the going standards. (As an aside, we'd be open to more, but that might not be the possibility we once thought it was. Doctors visits are pending, and prayers are appreciated. But not what this post is about.).

One of the things that stands out to me most about being part of a big family is that there's a certain generosity of spirit that is more or less required. The family motto is "there's always room for one more" and we really carry that out. We had 50 people at Thanksgiving dinner, and we've had bigger. There's always enough because everyone is always giving, contributing to the common cause. Indeed, my parents are the most generous people I've ever met. They are far from well off - we spent much of my youth as considerably poor - but the amount they give surpasses anyone else I've known. And I suppose that's especially true in the Biblical "widow who gave her last two coins" sense.

A more quirky aspect of the large family is that nearly everything is a large production. You can't have a get together without it being an event. You can't do an outing without it being involved. I still carry the habit of sliding to the back of a group and counting the heads of everyone in front of me. Just the role of the oldest, I guess. But with this comes a real feeling of accomplishment. Admit it: if you successfully took a dozen people to the zoo or hosted a 30 person bonfire, you'd feel pretty good about yourself. That's just a regular weekend in a huge family, so you learn some real skills, and to feel good about them.

It's also amazing to have such a wonderful support system. Whenever we need help, family is there. That's been true of little things like a couch to crash on or painting a room, and that's been true of big things, like a dentist sister who can do a root canal or planning a benefit for my nephew who was born with half a heart. That support is also amazing for dealing with the emotional baggage we all face. Grief, especially, has hit us hard these past years with a couple of deaths in the immediate family. But we're all there to help each other pull through, to provide support and comfort, and that system is amazing.

Sometimes there is a sense that with big families you don't really get to know your siblings, or that you're not as close, or, most horrible: that there is a finite amount of love to be had, so it gets spread thinner. Nothing could be further from the truth. My siblings and I all know each other really well. We're incredibly close, and, if anything, that love in the family is multiplied, not spread thin.

Finally, I want to talk about being a parent of a bigger family. I take it as an acceptable premise that a person's identity changes in some way when they become a parent for the first time. I don't know too many parents, if any, who wouldn't acknowledge that. I remember a conversation with a good friend after we both became parents for the first time, and we both expressed how much better we understood life, now that we were parents. We understood our parents, we understood love, we understood God, and so many other things in such a better way.

For me, there was a somewhat similar experience when I went from having 2 kids to having 3. Somehow, something about having a third kid, where you could no longer split them off, one to each parent, shifted my identity again. I became less of a parent and more of a family man. Yes, I am still a parent to individual children, and I have that relationship with them still, but there's a larger family sense that I'm more vividly aware of now that I have a larger brood. There are things I try to do "for the family" now, in a way maybe I only did "for Aquinas" or "for Aristotle" prior to Neitzsche's arrival. I'm more aware of the way in which the kids are interacting with each other, and how one kid's experiences are affecting the others.

Honestly, it's really cool. And really humbling. I became more of a servant when I had my third kid than I ever was before. And I like that. Now, I know it's not for everyone. But given my experience, it's something I'd recommend to those on the fence. I know I'm better for it.

33 thoughts on “Parentgood: In Defense Of Large Families”

  1. I'm the oldest of six (two adopted), but I am happy we had just one. I think certainly family size is dependent on your living situation, and growing up in family of eight on a farm outside a small town was comfortable; my closest neighbor and best friend were unusual for our area in that he was one of just two siblings. After living in LA and now in StL, I have a different view of larger families. At the time and place I was growing up, my parents had a reasonable chance of ensuring we all had a good opportunity to establish ourselves successfully (and we did), but with the cost of education etc. that's not something I could feel any confidence in now.

    I guess personally I'm proponent of ZPG, and we were comfortable having just one child. I've resigned myself to the fact that being grandparents isn't going to happen, too, but I certainly get my fill of younguns when working with the kids choirs at church.

    1. I have not yet resigned myself to never becoming a grandparent. It does seem distinctly possible, as the Boy claims he "doesn't like children" even though he's quite good with them, and the Girl, who knows. But I am getting more adept at keeping my mouth shut on unbidden life advice. Which is hard for me.

  2. Going from 2 to 3 definitely increased the chaos level for us. Have to learn to let go and focus on priorities and "good enough." Hierarchy of needs really come into focus.

    1. Having the same experience. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff is oriented toward families of four instead of five. It's a lot easier to get a car to fit two kids.

      1. Oh yeah, this is certainly true. I just embraced the minivan.

        Also, growing up, we had a 15 passenger van. First time I drove after getting my license I had to corner back that thing. It was awesome.

  3. I initially wanted 4 or 5 kids and my wife wanted 2. After having 2 in diapers at the same time, I settled at 2. One boy, one girl. Several times we broached the subject of a #3 child, but never pulled the trigger (or the goalie). With both of us working long, long, long hours, it would have been tough.

    1. Let me just say that the "long long hours" thing is something I can so relate to. We had our fourth right as I started up my own practice and my wife started her first year of teaching (about 4 weeks after the baby was born). Those were tough years. There's a reason we didn't have a fifth in there.

    2. We, too, never committed at the same time and ended up being satisfied with two. I had originally figured for two and my wife for four, but those numbers evolved and jumped so often you wouldn’t say either of us came out winning, or anything like that. By the time we realized we were definitely done, I had become the one who thought one more might be fun.

  4. My mom was the youngest of 11 kids and my dad was an only child. I have a brother and a sister, so they kind of compromised in the middle. We stopped at 2 boys and I think that is a good number. When you're home alone with them, you have one hand for each. When your spouse is with you, you each can take one. Also, those middle kids seem to be the most likely to get messed up, but I don't think that should be too big of a deal as long as the parents are aware of issues and consciously work to avoid them.

    1. Also, those middle kids seem to be the most likely to get messed up

      For most of human history, middle children would have been the plurality if not majority of people so they would set the norm and messed up would be not them.

        1. For most of human history, infant and childhood mortality was high and life was, generally speaking, brutal. So, we had that going for us. Which was nice.

  5. I'm glad that I only had the one sibling because of my pretty strong introvert tendencies. It was rough enough growing up with three people who didn't understand how important it was for me to have some peace and quiet after being forced to socialize all day at school or whatever!

    My mother was the second youngest of 10 children, my father the youngest of four. Of the nine siblings on my mom's side with children, she has the least number of children. There's my brother and I. She wanted more, but she was lucky to have the two she did with her endometriosis. I have somewhere north of 60 cousins on that side of the family, with an age range of about 40 years between the youngest and oldest. I likely have well over a hundred second cousins, and honestly I can't even keep track. On my dad's side, one brother has three kids, but everyone else had two. The wide differences between the Big Family Gatherings on the two sides were always pretty jarring for me. And hearing my folks talk about their home life sounds so different, too.

    1. I wonder, though, if your introvert tendencies would be any different if there had been another, or if you would have simply been introverted with one exception.

  6. TPR's sister has three kids - a 7yr old and twin 3 year olds. We were just down there for the oldest's birthday this weekend. As you said A more quirky aspect of the large family is that nearly everything is a large production. Even getting just the three of them to do anything was hell. Dang, half the time getting my wife and kid out the door in anything resembling a decent time is a hassle. I can't stand it. As you all know, I spent a large chunk of my 20s being nomadic to a degree, and a big part of that was coming and going as I more-or-less pleased. Drives me nuts.

    We've been talking about a possible #2. My wife's stance is 4, but she can't articulate why that is when I asked besides "I've just always wanted 4." I'm good at 1 honestly. 2 would be OK, but I really don't want to get to where there are more kids than parents. Things are hard enough as it is, I can't imagine reasonably managing 3 kids, a marriage, jobs, and our house. Something would have to give, and I'd be worried it'd be us.

    I'm glad for those of you who find joy in big families. More broadly, I'm glad for anyone who finds joy in their situation. But I know myself well enough to know that I am not a big family person.

    1. I respond not to suggest that you should have more than you've said, or that your preference should be other than it is. You do you.

      But I did want to say that my experience when I had 1 was similar. I had no idea how I would be able to handle 2. Same when I had 2 and went to 3. I very much worried that something would have to give. And I've heard that same worry from so many people. The response from people on the other side is pretty much always "my worry was misplaced." I look back now and see how silly I was to worry. Again, that's not to say it's in the cards for you, but just to let you know that things having a way of clicking together in a way you can't see until you're there. It's similar to how parents often think "I could never take care of a disabled child" and then go talk to parents of children with disabilities, and they'll tell you they're able to handle it. Love grows when you test it. And whether more kids is right for you or not, know that your capacity for it is almost certainly better than you're giving yourself credit for.

      1. Philo, this is a beautiful and optimistic sentiment, but I guess I don't believe that all people are always able to rise to every occasion. (Note, this has nothing to do with Mags!) Yes, it can and does happen, but it's not guaranteed.

        I have seen family members with mental health challenges struggle mightily even as they've lovingly welcomed new babies. I have seen the sleep deprivation and chaos of life with a newborn and a toddler push someone to the brink of a major depression. It's true we don't know how we'll handle something until we experience it, and as much as I believe in the capacity of people to do more than they thought they could, I also believe in being aware of one's own strengths and limitations. Whether a person has zero children or ten children, life is going to test all of us in ways we never anticipated, and however we journey through life, we are going to learn a great deal about our capacity to love and to face more than we ever thought we could.

        1. Oh, certainly. I didn't mean to suggest that all people are always able to rise to every occasion, and I meant to be very clear that Mags should go whatever route is right for him and his wife. I just wanted to provide my experience, as another point of data for him. Even coming from a huge family I worried about what adding #s 2, 3 &, 4 would do. Now I see my worries were misplaced. That doesn't mean things are magically easy or anything like that, simply that I've stood where he's standing, took this particular path, and seem to have come out the other side.

  7. I'm the middle child in a brood of five, and grew up in a very Catholic community so big families were the norm. I knew several kids in grade school who were already uncles and aunts, and a few who had nephews or nieces older than them. But the wife and I committed to zero population growth a long time ago, so we stopped after the two girls came along. Still, I occasionally wish I'd taken my wife up on her offer to try one more time for a son.

  8. Grew up as an only child (I had two half-brothers, but only saw them occasionally).
    Now a father of 6.

    My wife and I joke that people will say to us "You must really like children?" and our response is "Heh heh... Yeah, you'd think..."

    Joking aside, I did not fathom that we would be parents of 6 when we first got married. We knew pretty quickly that we wanted kids and had our firstborn within 2 years of marriage. #2 came about 21 months later. We put the brakes on for a while (I was changing careers at his point). Once we got settled in Central Illinois, we #3. Then 18 months later were "surprised" with #4. We took action then to keep our family at that size.

    God had other plans though, and we later took counter action to have another one. And just like before, had a follow up baby after that. We're at 6 now, and I think that's where we're going to remain.

    I love all my children with all my heart, but my word it is a lot of work. I take pride in having a big family, and I love how each child is so incredibly different from the others (yet there are similarities that run through them as well). I couldn't imagine life without any of them. Our toddlers now are incredibly exhausting that I'm not sure how we survived the toddlerhood of the older 4. They still don't like to stay in their beds throughout the night, which can cause some sleepless nights. Now our older two are becoming teenagers which presents a whole new rule set of parenting logistics to apply (oldest just took his first Driver's Ed class).

    I take heart in hearing stories from other adults that grew up in large families, and how they say that they are really close with their siblings even though they hated each other growing up. I have hope that someday we can all come together for a giant meal and celebrate all our diverse lives together. Watching my oldest have spiritual conversations with our middles and plays with our youngest truly warms my heart.

    People have commented that they don't know how we do it. Let me say, I don't know how we do it either. We get through each day and try our best to prepare for the next.

  9. I've had somethings I've wanted to say here, but I keep forgetting what they are when I get the chance to sit and type.
    I was the oldest of 2. EAR the oldest of 3. We have 4 and will probably stop there. (LBR is a month short of 7 and EAR a month short of 41.)
    Sometimes I wonder if more would have been fun. LBR never has a chance to be a big sister. I think my kids are great and that the world could benefit from more people like them.
    I love each of their individual personalities so much, I wonder who I've missed out on meeting.

    But... the stress of having 4 when they were little. I've mentioned before that the lowest times in my marriage have been in the wakes of births, once the adrenaline and excitement are gone but there's still a screaming pooping baby.
    EAR and I went with a taking turns path to sanity (one gets sleep priority for two nights in a row then switch), which leads us to living temporally separated lives.
    The strain that recovery from C-sections has taken on EAR's body (and all 4 have been Cesarean).

    And I like them more when I have one-on-one or one-on-two time with them. With all four I feel pulled in too many directions at once.
    The metaphor I've used with them before is that their voices are like fishing lines with hooks in my brain. When I get pulled in one way, I'll come. But when I get pulled in four directions, my brain gets ripped apart.
    And I think they like me more in small numbers. I yell a lot less.

    1. The metaphor I've used with them before is that their voices are like fishing lines with hooks in my brain. When I get pulled in one way, I'll come. But when I get pulled in four directions, my brain gets ripped apart.

      This really accurately puts words to why I feel very good about stopping at two. I didn't really come into parenthood with any preconceived notion of how many kids I wanted to have (or if I even wanted to have any), but both my wife and I came to "two" independently, and especially with Newbish hitting three and a half, that feels right.

  10. LBR never has a chance to be a big sister.

    I get the sentiment here, but *someone* has to be the youngest.

    1. I asked my son if he ever wished he had a little brother or sister. He gave me a horrified look in reply. I think he's ok with being the youngest.

    2. Knowing some quite large families (as we're involved in some Catholic Homeschooling Groups), if you have enough kids, the youngest has nieces and nephews that are close enough.

          1. As my youngest aunt is only 7 years older than me, I have two kids older than my youngest cousins.
            And my eldest cousin (older than said youngest aunt) has grandkids just a few years younger than her youngest cousins.

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