Monday, May 08, 2006

Why a large family?

[E & J]

This is something we wrote in answer to Chicago Parent magazine's question, "How do you cope with a large family?"

Perhaps the question ought to be: “How do you cope without a large family?” Oh, sure, the natural assumption is that if 1 kid = X work, then 5 kids ought to equal 5X work (or maybe X to the 5th work, on a bad day). But, fortunately, that’s not accurate. We do have five children, and we’re pursuing options for adoption (yes, of more children), but we do not feel as if our family is “large.” It’s just the right size for… making sure that there’s always someone to play with… sharing games… sharing chores… passing down book recommendations… passing down clothes… providing older children to entertain younger children… ensuring that an infant or toddler is always handy to cuddle or snuggle… ensuring that an older child is always handy for company and conversation… and providing an audience for siblings’ antics.

Maybe a large family is a bit more work, but not as much as one might think. Realistically, cooking for three can be as much of a hassle as cooking for seven. Seven just takes bigger pots. And when there are more mouths around the table, there’s much less incentive for one child to become a picky eater. Picky eaters might not survive. Laundry… well, yes, that’s a hurdle. If a day of laundry is skipped, it really starts to pile up. It’s not the end of the world, but it may be the end of the underwear. On the other hand, someone always has clothes that you can borrow.

Two of the greatest gifts of a large family are (1) learning to be organized and (2) learning that in order to be organized, no one can do or have everything. The military should hire mothers of large families to move troops. With so many to care for, just about anything that happens needs to have some element of planning to it. We plan menus for the week before going to the grocery store so we have all the correct ingredients on hand and we always know what is for dinner. Bedtimes and mornings each have their routine so everyone knows what to expect and what is expected. The key seems to be to leave as little as possible to chance. The more everyone knows what is to be happening at any given time, the smoother things run. That is not to say our children are scheduled every minute of their lives; in fact, just the opposite it true. We think very carefully about any outside activity before adding it to our schedule. Even if each child is allowed one outside activity, with five children that would equal a lot of driving and going places. (Especially in the dreaded month of May when every closing program, recital, ceremony, and championship is scheduled.) We try to find activities that more than one child can participate in. There is a large master calendar near our kitchen on which everyone’s activities are scheduled (parents’ too). We list all standing classes and obligations and other things are scheduled around those. The first event or activity actually written on the calendar takes priority. With a large family, one quickly learns that choices have to be made. We just can’t do everything and try to train our children how to prioritize and make choices.

It is not so much the logistical challenges a large family presents that we find difficult, but our society’s bias toward small families. Three that come to mind are (1) cars, (2) “family” memberships, and (3) lack of privacy. (1) Finding a vehicle with the correct number of seat belts leaves few options. Once the minivan is maxed-out, full sized vans are the only option. There is no such thing as an easy-to-drive, fuel-efficient car with more than 8 seat belts. And don’t even mention parking fees which are higher for vans, even when the van is one’s family vehicle. (2) We have come across several institutions which dictate family size in their family memberships. We have had to pay extra for “family” memberships, because we have more children than they find acceptable. (3) It seems that once a family has more than a few children, strangers… and even friends and family… assume that they are invited to ask about our reproductive plans. While laughing and ignoring their questions often works, some just can’t leave it alone. Someday I’ll use the response a friend of mine with six children came up with: “We’ll stop as soon as we figure out what causes it.” But, we have to say, for every person who is intrusive there is often another who will say, “How wonderful.”

Large families are wonderful. It may come with a little more work and a little less money, but the joys far outweigh any of the costs. It is a joy to see an 11-year-old sister cuddle and care for a newborn baby brother. It is a joy to listen to a 9-year-old brother read library books to a 4-year-old sister while snuggled on the couch. It is a joy looking at the pile of Christmas gifts under the tree that the brothers and sisters made for each other and watching their excitement when they are opened. It is a joy singing songs on long car rides with so many voices joining in. It is a joy having so many cheeks to kiss and hands to hold. It is a joy to have so many arms to hug during sad times and so many mouths to laugh during the good times. Is it worth the extra laundry and extra planning? Without a doubt. A large family is not something with which we have to cope; it’s something without which we couldn’t get along.
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