Why stop at two? Reflections on Having a Big Family

In honor of Mother’s Day I am reprinting this column, which appeared in the ETC about two years ago.

When Emily started kindergarten at St. Joseph School in 1996, the largest family at the school had four children. What happened to all the big Catholic families, I wondered. It was a far cry from my days there, where in my class alone there were representatives of families of seven, eight, nine, even ten.
Big families have been making a comeback, although five seems to be the new ten these days. Still, our family of five is not the biggest at St. Joseph, where offhand I can think of families with six, seven and nine kids.
When I tell strangers I have five children they say, “I couldn’t do it. Two [occasionally three] is as much as I can handle.” I am not here to make judgments on anyone else’s decisions concerning family size–only you can know what is best for your own family–but I wonder if people give themselves enough credit. There’s nothing special about me or my husband that makes us able to handle more kids than most people. Any additional noise or chaos tolerance we have has been acquired “on the job.” I tell people, “If you have three, you’re already outnumbered. After that, it just gets louder.” Going from one to two is the hardest adjustment. Once you’ve figured out how to divide your attention between two kids, adding a few more is not that hard.
Why do it, though? Why have a large family? I’ll answer that question from our family’s perspective this time, and from the Church’s perspective another time, but I have to say that I wonder the opposite–why would anyone NOT want to have lots of children? Having a baby is the most amazing, creative thing we can do in this life. When you add to your family you are a co-creator with God of an immortal soul. Nothing else you accomplish in this life will last forever but your child’s soul will exist to give glory to God for all eternity!
Even in THIS life, think of what a gift a child is to the world. The zero population growth folks like to frame human beings as nothing more than consumers of the earth’s precious, non-renewable resources. They forget that a child IS a resource, a more precious one. It’s trite but still true that the child you choose not to conceive might be the one who would have come up with solutions to global warming or the lack of a cheap alternative to oil. Family size is only one aspect of environmentalism and not the most important part.
I know some people who think that it’s not fair to the other kids in the family to keep having more. How can baby number five possibly get enough love and attention? It’s true that Lorelei does not get the focused attention from me that Emily received. She’s got something better, though–four older siblings to give her attention and love. When we are looking at books about babies, she always asks where their brothers are. When I told her that I did not have any brothers and that her father had no siblings at all, she looked at me uncomprehendingly. When you ask her to name the people she loves, she has a long list to fire off. “Aren’t you a lucky girl,” I say, “To have so many people who love you?”
And there is nothing like seeing a teenage boy who spends a lot of the time driving you crazy comforting a crying toddler or watching movies with her. I don’t think Lorelei is the only one deriving benefits from being one of five.
In a big family, kids have fewer material things and more responsibilities, yes. But is that a bad thing? We make sure our kids have everything they need. In our family, needs are pretty basic. Clothes are a need, but designer clothes are a want. Ipods and cell phones are not needs. Emily has an ipod but she earned the money to buy it herself. Her cell phone was her 16th birthday present. Our big kids have chores they have to do every day. John and I both have evening commitments outside the home and we expect them to take care of the little ones–feed them, bathe them, help William with his homework, and put them to bed–if we aren’t there. So they are learning to clean house, do laundry, cook, take care of small children. Even William and Lorelei–aged 7 and 3–can set the table if need be.
So, are we done yet? The answer is that I don’t know. We still feel like someone might be missing from our family. Each child is unique, and it’s fascinating to watch their personalities develop, and to know that you are partly responsible for the existence of this human being who will grow up and accomplish things and live after you. Honestly, it’s a wonder to me that anyone wants to stop at two.
Update:  I miscarried our sixth child in May 2008.  Our “baby” is 12 now.  I still wish we’d had just one more.
 
Why Stop at Two_Reflections on Having a Big Family

Books That Change Lives

I want to do some book blogging here from time to time.  I’ll share some of the books that have been important in my life, or that inspire me, or that I just enjoy.  And I hope that in the comments you will share some of your favorites as well.  The topic today is the nonfiction books that have had the greatest impact on my life.  I was going to make it a top five or top ten list but then I decided it would be more authentic if I just wrote about the ones that popped into my head first without setting a specific number, or even looking on my booksheves (or in the many, many boxes in the garage!).
The following are in no particular order unless you ascribe some significance to the order in which they popped into my head!

  • Surrendering to Motherhood by Iris Krasnow.  Judging from some of my recent posts, I need to read again Krasnow’s autobiographical journey from high-powered ambitious challenge-chasing career woman to mom-in-the-moment.  One quotation: “Being There [is] an emotional and spiritual shift, of succumbing to Being Where You Are When You Are, and Being There as much as possible. Its about crouching on the floor and getting delirious over the praying mantis your son just caught instead of perusing a fax or filling the dishwasher while he is yelling for your attention and you distractedly say over your shoulder: ‘Oh, honey, isn’t that a pretty bug.’ It’s about being attuned enough to notice when your kid’s eyes shine so you can make your eyes shine back.”
  • Let’s Have Healthy Children by Adelle Davis.  Davis is considered a crackpot by some, but I credit her nutrition advice with the buoyant good health of my kids, who each had maybe one ear infection, have never had strep throat, never take antibiotics.  (Seriously:  Emily, age 19, was last seen by a doctor for illness when she was two years old.)  I say Davis was ahead of her time–she had me taking folic acid years before anyone thought to fortify bread with it.  One quotation: “Research shows that diseases of almost every variety can be produced by an under-supply of various combinations of nutrients… [and] can be corrected when all nutrients are supplied, provided irreparable damage has not been done; and, still better, that these diseases can be prevented.”
  • How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor by Dr. Robert Mendelsohn.  Dr. Mendelsohn was suspicious of vaccinations.  He thought antibitotics were overused.  He didn’t think kids need to be taken to the doctor at the drop of a hat–most childhood illnesses clear up on their own.  I agree with him.  One quotation:  “The pediatrician’s wanton prescription of powerful drugs indoctrinates children from birth with the philosophy of ‘a pill for every ill’. . . . Doctors are directly responsible for hooking millions of people on prescription drugs. They are also indirectly responsible for the plight of millions more who turn to illegal drugs because they were taught at an early age that drugs can cure anything – including psychological and emotional conditions – that ails them.”
  • Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley.  I love this one as much for its philosophy of natural mothering as for the child spacing aspects.  One quotation:   “We tend to forget that these artifical aids–bottles and pacifiers–are merely substitutes for the mother.  The infant’s need to nurse or be pacified at the breast is nature’s way of bringing mother and baby together at other than feeding times.”
  • Nursing Your Baby by Karen Pryor.  We’re talking the 1970s version here, which I picked up at McKay’s while expecting baby #1.  It’s a simple, basic, practical, and yet beautiful guide to breastfeeding–just the best one I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot.  One quotation:  “Nursing a baby is an art; a domestic art, perhaps, but one that like cooking and gardening brings to a woman the release and satisfaction that only creative work can give.”
  • Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott.  My mother’s copy of this book was sitting around our house for as long as I can remember.  I read it long before I had kids of my own.  I may not follow its principles all the time, I’m sorry to say, but I try.  One quotation: “What do we say to a guest who forgets her umbrella? Do we run after her and say ‘What is the matter with you? Every time you come to visit you forget something. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Why can’t you be like your sister? When she comes to visit, she knows how to behave. You’re forty-four years old! Will you never learn? I’m not a slave to pick up after you! I bet you’d forget your head if it weren’t attached to your shoulders.’ That’s not what we say to a guest. We say ‘Here’s your umbrella, Alice,’ without adding ‘scatterbrain.’  Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do to guests.”
  • Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso.  I’ve read a lot of parenting books, new and old, and I’m sure you have too, but never one that was simpler, truer, and less gimmicky than this one.  A former school-teaching nun, now married with three kids and a popular inspirational speaker on parenting topics, Coloroso’s descriptions of three kinds of families will make you cringe if you are a Brickwall or a Jellyfish.  One quotation:  “Our children are counting on us to provide two things: consistency and structure. Children need parents who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they are going to do.” 
  • Relating.  I still have this battered paperback religion textbook from my junior year in high school.  It was the first place I learned about fair fighting rules.  My friends and I used its ten hallmarks of love vs. infatuation to evaluate our college romances.  I made my future husband do all the quizzes in it with me before we were married.  Thank you, Mr. Dan Darst, a religion teacher we thought was goofy at the time but whose lessons we carry with us today.  No links or quotations, I’m afraid–it’s here, but I don’t know where, and the title is all I can remember right now! [I wish so much that I had pulled it out and written down something that day.  I have searched and searched online for a replacement but I just don’t have enough information.]

How about you?  Have you read any of those?  What nonfiction books have you read over and over?  Would you say there are any books whose effect on you was so profound that they helped you become the person you are today?  Please share yours in the comments.

Who Gave You Life?

This originally appeared as a column in The East Tennessee Catholic in 2006.

Today is my “baby” sister’s 29th birthday.  My mother reminded me today that Anne owes her existence to her two big sisters. I remember well how much we begged and begged for a baby.  According to my mother, she decided to have another baby because she loved us so much that she wanted us to have whatever we wanted!  Luckily, we were very pleased with the gift.  We did everything for the baby except feed and change her. And I frequently said, “What if we had never had her?  It would be terrible if we never had her!”

Three sisters at my wedding

When Anne was two or three, I taught her to recite a few lines paraphrased from George MacDonald’s poem “Baby.”  I would say, “Where did you come from, Baby dear?” and she would reply, “The blue sky opened and I am here.”  Then would come, “Where did you get those eyes so blue?” “Out of the sky as I came through.

That’s about all I remembered; then yesterday I happened to come across the book the poem was in, pulled out by someone and left lying on the back stairs.  What struck me upon re-reading was the end of the poem.  After cataloguing all of baby’s sweet little parts, the poet asks:

How did they all just come to be you?
God thought about me, and so I grew.
But how did you come to us, you dear?
God thought about you, and so I am here.

Isn’t that a lovely thought? And how many people really think of babies like that these days, as a special gift, planned just for us and presented by a loving God? It seems to me that on the one hand people see babies as mistakes, accidents, inconveniences. Something like 60% of babies are unplanned, and don’t they seem to come at the worst possible times? They cost lots of money, they cause us physical problems, they interrupt our busy lives.

I think many times people don’t even consider their intended and wanted babies in terms of gifts from God.  No, then babies are something they planned, something they earned, something perhaps they even paid for, considering the widespread reliance on fertility treatments, artificial insemination, donor eggs, and surrogate mothers. If they think of a baby as a gift at all, it’s more like a gift they think they are giving themselves—there hardly seems to be room for God in the equation.

And often as kids grow we try to give them the feeling that it is we who gave them the gift, the gift of life. I hate that particular guilt-tripping phrase, “I gave you life!” Well, no, I didn’t give my kids life; God did. Life was His gift to them; they are His gift to me.

And I don’t always appreciate it either. Longfellow said that into each life some rain must fall and the Shollys have been in the midst of a rainy season for a while. Today at the dinner table we were discussing things we were grateful for and I talked about how 16-month-old Lorelei had given me a gift today. I was supposed to be working but she begged and begged to go outside.  Because of her I took the time to enjoy the Spring.  Because of her I got down on the ground, examined pine cones, smelled daffodils, tore up handfuls of onion grass, remembered what it was like to be a child in the springtime.

As I write, Lorelei sits in my lap, half-asleep, nursing. She is wearing pink striped long johns and a t-shirt which reads “Sholly Creations. Size small. 100% joy. Made in Heaven.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lorelei at about 18 months (with William, aged 5)

And tomorrow I will write something new, I promise.  So many ideas, so little time. 

Diaper Rant: The Case for Plastic Pants and Pins

Cloth diapers are trendy today, especially among the environmentally conscious.  But over 19 years ago, when my first baby came along, I was the only person I knew who was using them.  I wasn’t trying to be a “green” parent; it just really had never occurred to me to do anything else.  Disposable diapers were expensive, and using cloth was no big deal, so why not save the money?

Nowadays, though, cloth diapers are not only gaining in popularity, they are big business.  It was this article in Mothering Magazine that prompted me to write this post.  The link appeared in my Facebook news stream, entitled, “What Cloth Diapering System Did You Use?”  I know people love all these cute and fancy newfangled cloth diapers.  And I suppose that they encourage some would-be plastic users to go the cloth route, which is a good thing.

But I also worry that they discourage others, by making something simple seem complicated, and something economical expensive.  I’ve seen it before with baby items–there are inexpensive car seats that fulfill all safety standards, but parents are pushed to buy pricey ones with bells and whistles, and like as not the coordinating “travel system” that goes along with them.  I had a couple of more expensive strollers back when my “Irish twins” needed a double one, but for the most part we’ve gotten by just fine with the $15 umbrella models.  Breastfeeding is the ultimate baby freebie, but the baby product folks want you to believe that you are going to need bottles, and pumps, and special “privacy shawls,” and expensive vitamins with DHA, and who knows what all else.

I had a few of those fancy new diapers handed down or given as gifts, and I enjoyed using them.  But the “cloth diapering system” that has worked just fine for me through five babies requires Gerber plastic pants (which we still call “rubber pants” around here), trifold cloth diapers that come in packs of five or ten at Walgreens or Kmart, and good old diaper pins.

Baby #4 in his plastic pants

I’m recycling this post by sharing it on the #WorthRevisit linkup, hosted at Theology is a Verb and Reconciled to You.  It’s a great linkup with lots of (mostly) Catholic-themed posts you might have missed.  And while this post isn’t explicitly Catholic, something tells me that Catholic mothers might be interested in diapers. 🙂