Mothering in our culture is a juggling act. We balance tending to little ones, housework, big kid schedules, sports, academics, music, and Church obligations. You name it, we juggle it. And with a larger family, the juggling is both chaotic and expensive. It only takes one brief trip to the grocery store corralling my 5 young children for a complete stranger to ask me how much I spend on groceries in a given week or how am I going to pay for college. These well-meaning strangers are not trying to be rude, but rather they are poking and prodding me like a science experiment gone awry. They are not only wondering how I juggle it all, but why I want to do so in the first place.
And I don’t blame them for being confused. Every popular parenting book on the market these days is about raising a child, and what you need to give to that one child to develop him into a successful human being. We are a self-obsessed, narcissistic culture, and so it is no wonder that all the parenting books have an individual focus. You read about Tiger moms, and helicopter parents and hands-free parents. You read about sleep training, schedules, and discipline. You read about developmental milestones, academic achievement, and nutrition. But what you don’t read about, and what you really should read about, is the great gift of siblings.
We aren’t just raising a child over here. We are raising a family. We have given our children the gift of siblings, and we have prioritized that gift over other more material ones. We have thought about what our children give to one another, and how we as parents are often able to step back and allow that very natural and wonderful sibling community to develop. They should write books about what a big sister gives to a very little sister, or what two children less than 18 months apart give to one another, because those very real gifts are just as important as how many books Mom reads to her toddler every night or how many hours of baseball Dad plays in the backyard. As the mother of a large family, the culture is regularly telling me and my kids what we are missing, what we are sacrificing, because there are so many children. But we all need to look a little harder and see the very special and often intangible gifts that our children give to one another.
These gifts are very real to me at the moment because my oldest daughter, Gianna, is away for the first time at camp. On Sunday I dropped her and my goddaughter, MaryAlice’s oldest girl, off at camp. Being the parent of a first time camper has been very difficult, as I am missing my girl like crazy. And so, in an effort to keep myself distracted, I cleaned out our school room and came across this beautiful note —
“Dear Gus and Charlie, (younger brothers ages 5 and 7), Please forgive me for yelling at you. Now that I think about it it does sound like a stupid thing to yell about. I hope we can work things out. Love, Gianna”
Exchanges like this happen daily in our home (maybe not in written form!), and what real development and growth happens through them. From little brothers and sisters stealing toys, to big brothers not allowing you in their room, my children are learning to give and take and live and love in a real community that isn’t centered around them. Even in the conflicts there is deep love.
And it isn’t just me that is missing Gianna like crazy. Last night, Charlie came up and sat down with me on the sofa. All the little ones were in bed and the house was very quiet. He said to me, “Mom, I miss Gianna.” I replied, “I miss her too. I really miss her laugh, what do you miss the most about her?” Holding back tears, voice shaking, he said to me, “I don’t know, but the pictures of her are making me sad.”
And then I remembered the days when I was pregnant with Charlie and worried about how I would manage two children. Would Gianna be missing out on that extra attention and love? Were the kids too close together in age? I wish I could tell my old self that these two would be the best of friends. That they, and all the ones to come later, were a better gift than extra money in a college savings account, or a new home with a bigger backyard, or even more alone time with me.
And so, at the end of the day, when a well meaning stranger in the grocery store wonders why we have so many children, my answer is pretty simple — we value people over things.