Welcome to part four of the What I'd Like For You To Know series. Today we'll be hearing from from Jenni of One Thing, one of the most delightful bloggers I know. She is the mom of 12 kids, ages 3 months to 21 years, and I've asked her to address some of the assumptions made about people with large familes. As always, she has written with great grace and humor. You're going to love her.
It is quite an honor and a bit of a worry to be speaking on behalf of large families everywhere. More than anything, my prayer is that what I say will be heard with discernment and a hefty helping of salt. I don’t want to give the impression that my opinions are some sort of collective consciousness shared by all those with a veritable tribe under their roof. That said, however, I hope at least some of it will resonate!
First, and perhaps most obviously, many people with larger families encounter negative attitudes almost daily. Snide comments from strangers, nosy questions about their private lives, or unsupportive extended family all combine to make the members of a big family feel more like a circus side-show than legitimate members of society. The announcement of a new pregnancy is very often not met with joy, but with condemnation (if you are on the receiving end of such an announcement, be the exception and offer a simple congratulations). I could compile quite a list of all the obnoxious things that have been said to those of us with a passel of young’uns, but I'd rather not go off on that tangent. You'll just have to take my word for it that for many people, there does not appear to be any sort of regulatory gizmo betwixt their brains and their mouths. Yet I persist in believing that it's really not that difficult to be kind, or at the very least, silent!
Along those same lines, it often seems that families with lots of children are viewed with a more critical eye than those with the standard two. If a child acts up, it is of course because they come from such a large family and obviously don’t get enough attention. If their clothing is threadbare, it is because the parents must be financially strapped. If the baby has a dirty face, it is apparent that no one cares enough to clean it. Whereas a smaller family might be given the benefit of the doubt (all children throw tantrums at times, like to wear one item of clothing until it consists of three strands, and smear food upon their faces), for the larger family it becomes an opportunity to criticize. A mother pregnant with her second child is offered sympathy as she struggles with morning sickness and fatigue, but ask a mother pregnant with her fifth if she was offered any. This makes it difficult, even in a church setting, for those parents to share any difficulties they are having. I personally struggle with painful varicose veins that are aggravated during pregnancy. However, asking for prayer has sometimes been met with the attitude that such are my “just desserts” and so why would God heal me? I suspect the same attitude crops up when rebellious children, or money woes, are the issue.
Parents of large families are not out to prove anything. We’re not vying for your admiration, we aren’t trying to win any awards, we don’t view childbearing as some sort of contest (someone asked my husband during our last pregnancy if we were trying to “beat the Duggars”), and we don’t think you’re less spiritual than we are if you have fewer than we do. We aren’t asking anyone for special treatment, but it doesn’t seem too much to ask for common courtesy. Resist the urge to count out loud as you see us go by. Don’t marvel that we do, in fact, know all of our offspring’s names (even—given a minute or two—their birthdates)! And for the love of all the little green men on Mars, don’t ask us if we know what causes that. We do. And we enjoy it, although not as often as is (oddly) assumed.
Almost as difficult to deal with, in a way, are the effusively positive attitudes. Yes, this seems like a really strange thing to say in light of the previous paragraph, but having to decline imminent canonization is not pleasant. People who squeal, gush, flatter and insist that I must be, I simply MUST BE the most patient/organized/disciplined/loving/spiritual being ever to walk the earth wear me out. I have stopped volunteering the information regarding the numbers of my offspring mostly due to these reactions. I don’t have time to field a barrage of OMG!’s from the checkout lady at Wal-Mart while my ice cream melts. Plus, I don’t think it wins me any friends in the line behind me.
Please don’t put me on a pedestal. Honestly, it’s really lonely up there. We are called to be iron sharpening iron to one another, and in order to do that we have to be able to get close to somebody. When the comments run along the lines of “You’re my hero!” and “I could NEVER do what you do! You’re a saint!” I have to wonder what, exactly, the commenters think I am doing that gives me that status. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just a woman trying to do her best with the family God has given her, and I deeply value the support of friends who don’t expect me to have all the answers. You might be surprised to learn that the average mom-to-a-gob lives her days in much the same way as you do: she gets up, sees what needs doin', and does it. One day at a time, one foot in front of the other.
On behalf of my children, I’d like to encourage people to try to focus on them as individuals. It ‘s easy to let your eyes glaze over when confronted by their sheer mass, but often it seems to surprise people when they discover that my children are actually different from one another. At some point, it seems a given that any child after three or four is simply going to be a carbon copy of one of the preceding progeny. If you know children who belong to a simply humongous family, make their day by assuming they each have singular personalities. Even saying things like “Aw! You guys look all alike!” makes them feel like they are clones, or part of the Borg. Get to know them! You might be amazed at how diverse they really are.
In the end, what I’d like for you to know is probably not that much different than what anyone else would say: when in doubt, extend grace. Grace is the Melanie Wilkes to the world’s Scarlett O’Hara: it believes the best even when it doesn’t understand, and is humble enough not to insist on explanations. I don’t know of a single situation where it wouldn’t be welcome!
You can read more of Jenni's posts at One Thing.