Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why The Big Family?

The Question:

I've been here with you this week. Your home is crammed with 24 people and I adore them all. This Christmas has truly been magical and I have felt so blessed to be a part of this family. There are so MANY people to love, who love me and love my kids. It feels like the ultimate support system for life, and I know it will only get bigger and better with time. You were not raised with so many siblings and I want to know what inspired you to have a big family. What motivated you to keep having children? Is it what you envisioned it would be?

The Answer: The Big Family--A Lost Institution

Maybe because I grew up with just one brother (my other siblings were already grown), I always wanted a large family. I liked the way it felt in homes full of children. Once we got over the hump of 3 or 4, it actually got much easier. And today, as I experience the "law of the harvest" I am so grateful that I stayed the course. My life is brimming with loved ones.

Just a generation ago, large families were the norm. Most people I meet who are 50 or older grew up in a family of at least six. And they loved it! They eagerly talk about the happy home of their childhood--sleeping out under the stars, piling in the car to go to the movies, sharing a bedroom. They finish by saying that they only have two children of their own. I wonder why that is. What turned the tide of the big family? Was it the feminist movement that assured us that there was much more to life than diapers and mopping? Or was it the changing standard of living that made us believe that things were more valuable than people? I think it was a simple, subtle shift in thinking that more money and fewer children would produce quality instead of quantity. And little by little, we came to believe that the way we grew up--six kids in three bedrooms with an unfinished basement--wasn't acceptable. I beg to differ.

All the things we want our children to be, just seem to happen naturally in a big family. They become undemanding and even grateful. They learn early to give and take. They ride together in the car and if one of their pant legs happen to touch one of their sibling's pant legs, it's okay. In fact they learn to lean on each other in every sense. Obviously, the budget is always stretched. Even so, everyone is excited about "another new baby". Doesn't it occur to them that now there'll be less to go around . . . "less for me"? No. Because without ever having to say it, we teach them that people will always be the best part of life. And this baby is a friend forever.

I haven't begun to mention the qualities fostered in a big family--self-motivation, creativity and resourcefulness for starters. Mom can't be everywhere and if you need something urgently, you'd better figure it out. (No wonder Benjamin Franklin (one of 17) invented the wood stove, bifocals and discovered electricity. "Somebody better do it," he probably thought.) There is security and self-esteem. Even when the girl at school says your pants are too baggy, your group of friends decides you're out and the bus driver is a grouch, there's always a friend at home--usually five or six.

And about college. How are all those kids going to go to college? So far, our oldest five children have put themselves through with only minimal help from us and no government aid. They're making sure that the ones at home are keeping their grades up and working toward scholarships. We've never dealt with alcohol, drugs or premarital sex. The lessons we carefully taught our oldest children become magnified as they filter down through the family.

Feeding, clothing, driving and nurturing a large family is hard work for both Dad and me. But the greatest and most lasting lessons they've learned in our home, the ones that are the most deeply ingrained in their hearts, are the ones we didn't have to teach at all. I can't imagine how we could have. You can't just say "be selfless" and expect it to happen. They need an environment that makes it essential.

On the night of Christmas this year, all the fun came to a sad halt when 11 year old Marielle discovered that her beloved dog, Josh, was seriously injured. The family kept vigil with her until he died. I slept next to her as she cried herself to sleep and felt inadequate to see her through this awful loss. I was unprepared the next morning, for the outpouring of love and support she received from her siblings. Natalie made her favorite breakfast. Mikelle took her for a walk. Andy made her a memory book about Josh. Dad and Nick dug a grave in the frozen ground. The whole family gathered for a funeral. Marielle was enveloped in a level of comfort and support that I could never have given alone.

I know this has been a long response but it's a sad thing for me to watch the demise of the big family. We've lost something so wonderful. I can't help but wish we could find it again.


  1. I love this because it rings so true to me. It is sad that people just don't know what they are missing. I can understand why people have smaller families, especially when they only have a few siblings themselves. With my four I sometimes feel like I can barely keep everything together as it is. Things can get hectic at times. But because I grew up in a very functional large family, I know that it can be done well and that it is worth the sacrifices made. Nothing brings me greater happiness than being surrounded by my little boys, but being with my many siblings is a close second.

  2. I love how you said the greatest lessons your kids learned were from lessons you didn't teach..that just happened naturally by coming from a big family and having to share and be more selfless. My mom use to say about big families,
    "It's hard on the parents but it's really good for the children."

  3. Hello, my mom very strongly suggested I read your new blog, even though I'm definitely not a mother, but she wants it to help establish my parenting ideals. I told her I already listen to Dr. Laura, what else do I need? She responded that I also need a Dr. clever.
    But I just want to say that I love this post. The greatest thing in the world really is to have a house full of people. When my siblings come over during holidays, we sit around, talk play games, before we know it its the end of the day and honestly can't name a single thing we did. So often we try to define our days or our lives by our accomplishments, when really what its all about is relationships we build, the person we are, how we treat others (you see where this is going). That is just an unspoken lesson my big family of 7 has taught me. But a few accomplishments on the side are always nice as well ;)

  4. Beautifully written. It is amazing how many good lessons are taught simply by living in a large family. You certainly don't have to invent work so your kids get that experience, and I think there's a tenderness in the older kids when there are little ones about. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I love this post. I came from a family where there was just myself and 4 years younger, my brother. It was lonely and although we're friends now, my brother and I were not close and fought constantly as children. We loved being with my cousins when they come to visit - 7+ of them. My husband, on the other hand, was 1 of 5 biological, with 2 adopted, and multiple foster children. I have pictures of him splitting wood for their wood stove before he was in school. I can't say their family was the most functional, but most came out with a great work ethic and a love for children and family. We have 2 and hope to have at least 2 more. I could be happy with 4 more, but the thought makes my husband have heart palpitations :^)

  6. ok, I am a total mess from your post! By far the most beautiful few paragraphs I've read all week. I'm the "baby" of 3 kids, and always wanted a big family. Today as a mom of 2 sweet babes under 4yrs, I pray that we are blessed with many more children. And I promise to visit another day when I am not in total tears! Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

  7. It's so refreshing to read about topics that I constantly wonder about myself. I am the 6th of 9 children all raised by my mother(parents divorced). Anyway, as a mother of two shortly after the second one came and my husband in night school and in the bishopric I asked myself How did my mother do it? And the bigger question...why did she do that to herself? I know that sounds a bit awful but it's what I thought. Things are not as stressful now that my baby is older. I do want a large family but the thought is sometimes daunting and I want to make sure I can give them all the love and attention they need. I really appreciate being able to read your words of wisdom! Thank you for taking the time to share.


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