The only time I experienced culture shock was a few years ago upon return from a convention of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. One night at the bar, some of the people there got in a friendly discussion about our families. And, specifically, the size of our families. The men and women with 10 or more were quickly identified and feted. Then, I came back to DC and went to see the movie Anchorman. It’s a great movie but at the end, the mentally retarded character played by Steve Carrell is identified as a fundamentalist Christian who ends up having 12 kids. The audience roared with delight.
That was my experience with culture shock. In my religious community, having many children is considered an extraordinary gift from God. In my cultural circles, it gets you mocked as an idiot of epic proportions. It may sound silly, but I had never felt that disconnect between my two worlds so strongly as I did that night.
So it was a treat to come across Kate Zernike’s piece in the New York Times about how large families are scorned and mocked by various elements in the culture. The story profiles a variety of different large families and packs an unbelievable amount of thoughtful detail into each description. It tackles big issues but keeps everything very readable.
As most of the media is obsessing about the California octuplets, this reporter uses that as a hook to explore the much more significant phenomenon of family size in general:
Back when the average woman had more than three children, big families were the Kennedys of Hickory Hill and Hyannis Port, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the Cosbys or “Eight is Enough” — lovable tumbles of offspring as all-American in their scrapes as in their smiles.
But as families have shrunk, and parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor. The families know the stereotypes: they’re polygamists, religious zealots, reality-show hopefuls or Quebecois in it for the per-child government bonus. And isn’t there something a little obsessive about Angelina Jolie’s quest for her own World Cup soccer team?
If you read the article, these paragraphs are clearly not meant to be taken as face value. They’re presenting a common view of large families as opposed to arguing for that view. The story goes on to mention how the British government’s environmental adviser declared it “irresponsible” to have more than two children and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s goal of including contraception in the stimulus package. The story doesn’t overplay the significance of these things but steadily paints a picture of how large families are marginalized and attacked as immoral or costly.
Check out this interesting substantiating detail:
If large families are the stuff of spectacle, it is partly because they have become rarer.
In 1976, census data show, 59 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 percent had five or more and 6 percent had seven or more.
By 2006, four decades after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to use birth control (and the last year available from census studies), 28 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 4 percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.
So many of the families who share their stories tell of unbelievably inappropriate comments or questions about sex or birth control from bosses, random strangers and friends. The article explores the idea that women who have many children can’t also be educated or professional or have ambition. The women in the article talk about having a foot in both the domestic and professional words. One mother, a college professor, notes that much of the criticism comes from educated people who shouldn’t traffic in such gross stereotypes. On the other hand, sometimes people assume you have to be super wealthy to afford a large family.
So the article introduces us to Barbara Curtis, a mother of 12 in Northern Virginia. She’s a Montessori teacher and her husband is a commercial accounts manager — neither super-rich nor poverty stricken.
Mrs. Curtis illustrates one of the many ways that families grow so large: she had two children from her first marriage, then, with her second husband, seven in 10 years. One of those children had Down syndrome, so they adopted another Down syndrome child, believing two would grow up happier together. Since then, they have twice accepted requests to adopt another child with Down syndrome.
“Children are a kind of wealth,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on.”
It’s fascinating how quickly the praise for the mother of octuplets rather quickly turned to scorn. A friend noticed that the scorn was based mostly on money. It’s not that people think marriage is a necessary prerequisite for family. And people certainly believe in-vitro fertilization is fine, even if you’re a single mum. But it is morally wrong for a single woman to have in-vitro fertilization if she already has six children — particularly if she doesn’t kill some of the embryos who are growing in her womb. The main — perhaps only — ethical problem seemed to be that the woman couldn’t support these children. It’s just interesting to note how much society views children as economic liabilities as opposed to people.
The story has some hidden ghosts. A comment about how women with less education have more children on average than women with significantly more education could speak to different priorities in life as opposed to some proof that hicks are breeders. But other ghosts are brought out a bit:
Many large families are religious, and some follow the QuiverFull movement, which takes encouragement for big families in Psalm 127: children are the gift of the Lord, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,” and “happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”
The article also addresses the efforts by some environmentalists to fight the existence of siblings. Every couple would get one child and then they’re done if some had their way. Large families contend that they have economies of scale and an economic incentive to reduce consumption and reuse resources. The article also notes that women’s fertility in the United States is barely at replacement rate. We don’t hear from any members of large families who have negative comments about them but it’s a long article that covers a lot of ground. It’s a great idea for a story and handled very well.
YouTube: Click it. Listen to the clashing worldviews.