Happy, vague Catholics with 11 kids (updated)

Jen and Larry Kilmer have 11 children. They are Catholic.

We live in a day and age in which the two halves of that equation are not automatically connected.

That’s interesting, in and of itself. However, if you are interested in reading anything about the substance of the faith that shapes this unique family’s life, the Washington Post feature story about them is not going to satisfy you.

However, please note that I am writing this real fast so that a few GetReligion readers, if they wish, can sign on and chat with Jen Kilmer at 1 p.m. EDT. Maybe you can ask her what the Kilmer family’s faith has to do with its ability to survive and even thrive.

As it is, this is about as deep as it gets in this delightful, but rather hollow, feature:

There is no secret formula to their success, says Jen (and aside from an occasional hand from in-laws, no outside child-care help either). But clearly, keeping on top of a family this size requires superhuman doses of organization and patience. Not to mention a level of personal sacrifice beyond measure.

“People are always asking, ‘How do you have time for yourself?’” says Jen. “But when you realize there’s more to life than yourself … I think time to yourself is overrated.”

Jen and Larry met in 1994 when they were both teachers and soccer coaches at area Catholic high schools. Their soccer teams played each other; they married three years later. Jen, who grew up on a small farm outside Boston with eight siblings, says she always wanted lots of kids. Larry, who was adopted and has one sibling, had no preconceived notions of family. The couple say they agreed to accept the children God sent them.

Now, one can only assume that the final sentence there is a reference to Natural Family Planning. If so, it is a very strange assumption — leaving readers with the impression that natural birth control methods do not work at all, which is not the case when couples are knowledgeable and committed to using these principles.

My reading of that passage is that the Kilmers simply “agreed to accept the children that God sent them” — period. However, it would be nice to know what these words mean to them. This hot-button subject, believe it or not, is never discussed in any detail.

Instead, the emphasis in the story — National Geographic alien culture style — is on the joyful precision that allows the five-bedroom house to escape chaos. The father is a teacher. The mother works at home. The children attend Catholic schools. I love the detail that the family cannot stay in hotels because they are considered a fire hazard, because of the awkward adult-to-child ratio.

And their faith? This is one of the only factual hints that we have:

During the school year, Jen’s days begin at 5 a.m.

She lays out the children’s uniforms, makes lunches, then attends 6:30 Mass at the Shrine at St. Jude.

After Mass, Larry and the oldest boys leave for school.

The remaining school-age children get dressed, eat breakfast, grab lunches and walk to school. The youngest stay home with Mom, who finishes up the morning routine: cleaning from breakfast, making beds and putting in a load of laundry. This fall, two of the three youngest will start preschool, adding a little wrinkle to the established morning routine.

So Jen Kilmer, at least, is a daily Mass Catholic. With the family’s children in Catholic schools — one would assume a very traditional one — readers could make certain assumptions about the faith content in the classrooms and chapels. But there is no other significant religious content in the story, in terms of the Catholic faith that sets this family apart from, well, other American Catholics. I wondered: How close to they live to their church?

At the very end of the piece there are a few nice details, but, again, they pass quickly:

She admits to crying sometimes under the weight of it all. But those “pity parties” are short-lived.

“I can only feel sorry for myself for so long because there is work to be done,” she says.

In the midst of the stress and commotion, the constant chorus of “Mom!” and the backbreaking pace, Jen remains calm and cheerful. It’s evident that part of what gives her peace as well as the confidence of knowing it will all work out is her Catholic faith.

“Somehow God provides,” she often says, “in ways you don’t even know.”

That faith guides the children as well. When he grows up, Tommy, 9, says he wants to be “a professional basketball player and a priest.”

“If I am a professional basketball player,” he says, “I’ll do that, retire and then become a priest.”

When asked if more children are in their future, Jen mentions her age and says, “Probably not, but we would love to. We would accept whatever comes.”

And that is that. It possible, do join the upcoming Post chat session.

UPDATE: OK, the transcript is up — right here. Did any of you join in?

Yes, the NFP issue did come up. Jen Kilmer’s answer adds a bit more insight into their beliefs on the subject.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Peggy R

    I just have to respond to your first point that many folks don’t make the natural connection between family-size and Catholic faith. Sadly, many Catholics, maybe under 40 or so, don’t either. My huz and I got a late start and are about 5-10+ years older than our children’s friend’s parents. We gathered with a couple of families after mass one day. A couple of these parents were shocked that I was one of 6 and my huz one of 5. These parents of our children’s friends are from small families. I think our mothers were the last generation of Catholic women to bear 5+ children. Contraception, careerism, the usual stuff…

  • michael

    If “The couple say they agreed to accept the children God gave them” is code for Natural Family Planning, then someone will have to explain to Nicole Neroulias either that Natural Family Planning isn’t “primarily aimed at preventing pregnancy until a couple is ready to have a child” or that it doesn’t work very well.

  • Julia

    The couple say they agreed to accept the children God gave them

    That doesn’t resonate with this Catholic as Natural Family Planning. It sounds like no planning at all – taking what God gives them.

    It’s what most Catholics did back in the day.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    HOW about the news media someday doing a story or two about how prejudiced our society has become against those who have more than the accepted norm of two children (one, boy, one girl)–and soon tests will make it possible to exterminate early on an unwanted girl (usually the girl is unwanted).
    My wife and I realized this when she became pregnant with our fourth child. The doctor put pressure on her to have an abortion because, he said, under the circumstances if he didn’t and something went wrong we could sue him because of Roe v. Wade.
    Then as my wife began to show a “baby bump” she began to get flack from some of her co-workers (she was a teacher at the time)– some of the flack being rude, insulting, derogatory. (yeh! pro-choice people believe in “choice”–Big Lie).
    And then they start passing laws about how you put your family in a car or wagon or van–never bothering to care that the laws make it mandatory for large families to purchase two cars to go anywhere together. When I was a kid all us kids (and our friends) just piled into the back of a seatless van or back of a truck and noone died. The nanny state strikes again.
    I could go on, but the point is clear.
    But try to find a news story bringing any points up like I listed.

  • michael

    Julia,

    Most of the people I know who have undertaken NFP are people who are trying to have children; the others who are not necessarily trying to have children are still open ‘to accepting the children God gives them.’

    I’m no expert in NFP, but I know that it is not well understood. And I know that will most certainly be misunderstood if one comes at it, like Nicole did a few threads down, with the assumption that “family planning” of whatever kind is just another name for contraception. That would reduce NFP to a trick for obeying the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit. There may be people who approach it that way (though I doubt there are many as I can’t imagine why they would bother), but those who promote and teach NFP certainly do not understand it that way.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    “[O]ne can only assume that the final sentence there is a reference to Natural Family Planning. If so, it is a very strange assumption — leaving readers with the impression that natural birth control methods do not work at all, which is not the case when couples are knowledgeable and committed to using these principles.”

    No, one _can’t_ assume that.

    Speaking as someone who is familiar with NFP, that sentence reads as suggesting that the couple were willing to become parents whenever they conceived. (Do they practice NFP at all? The article does not say, unless “they agreed to accept the children God sent them” is a code phrase.) Someone who had no idea about NFP wouldn’t have any idea that family planning of any kind would be involved at all.

    “I know that will most certainly be misunderstood if one comes at it [. . .] with the assumption that “family planning” of whatever kind is just another name for contraception.”

    NFP is a family planning method that involves adherence to a schedule recommending when to abstain from sexual activity to avoid or achieve pregnancy, something that of necessity requires the conscious decision not to conceive (or to conceive) and to ensure that as many sexual acts as desired not lead very probably to reproduction.

    How does it differ, again?

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    Deacon, I’ll take your question and extend it: why not an article on family policy? (Family policy, that is, understood, as a general social and political issue.)

    There’s too much prejudice towards people who think that they know better than others how many children they can have. That was evident throughout, from the various statements criticizing the Kilmers’ supposed fecklessness to Ms. Kilmer’s own statement in the article that “the best gift you can give a child is a sibling”. Very often this does take on exceptionally nasty overtones, everything from left-wingers’ stereotypical criticism of in-group religious women to right-wingers’ criticism of ethnic and racial mothers. (Welfare moms, anyone?)

    The general tendency these days is to tend towards having one or two children, more in environments where mothers are supported in one way or another (northern Europe, the United States) than not (southern Europe, say). The portrait painted in this article would serve as a disincentive towards large families. There’s the exceptionally rigid routine, the significant financial costs (gifts seem to play a notable role in the family’s domestic economy), and the non-trivial emotional costs.

    “She admits to crying sometimes under the weight of it all. But those “pity parties” are short-lived.

    “I can only feel sorry for myself for so long because there is work to be done,” she says.””

    Pontificating here, an ideal family policy would be one that provides as much help as necessary to as many different family types as everything, everything from providing daycare for working mothers to providing income supplements to mothers like Ms. Kilmer.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    Just a thought after reading Peggy R.’s comment…

    I recall listening to a guy from the US telling how, whenever he met new people and they found out he and his wife had 7 children, the first question he’d get was “Are you Catholic?” They weren’t, but people always seemed to leap to that question, and he was getting pretty tired of it! *L*

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RF McDonald:

    Here is what I thought I was saying….

    The average WP reader reads that passage and they think, “They have lots of kids, which means they are doing that strange Catholic natural planning stuff — which doesn’t work, obviously, because look at all the kids that they have.”

    The failure of a birth control method means more kids. That’s the general media mindset.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    tmatt, I’m pretty sure that natural family planning–or, at least, the codified NFP methods taught as a coherent philosophy–wouldn’t have come up at all. I wouldn’t know about them if I didn’t visit various pro-life websites out of idle curiosity, and I’m pretty sure my friends wouldn’t, and I’ve not seen mention of them elsewhere. You’re posing a non-question.

    “Failure means more kids. That’s the mindset.”

    Failure in this case would mean something like an inability to adequately provide for the needs of the parents and the children.

    Is this family a failure? No, certainly, not. The portrait painted by the journalist of the Kilmers’ lifestyle _is_ unattractive. Again, if we’re to go by the article, the family lives in a “cramped” house, they have to make soup to stretch out limited meat supplies, and the depend on donation of food, clothing, and labour from others to make it through difficult times. The two parents (Ms. Kilmer in the article, Mr. Kilmer in the quotes) have to work very long hours to make the system organizationally and financially viable. The article mentions how she was at one point exhausted with seven children under seven. And, again, Ms. Kilmer sometimes breaks down in tears under the stress of it all, moving on only because she has obligations to her family and counting in the solace of her faith.

    This would not be an attractive lifestyle to most of the people I’d know.

    I come from a community where large families were common (Prince Edward Island). My parents’ generation was the last to be born into that; my parents’ generation by and large opted for considerably smaller families, families that they hoped that could provide for in more comfort than they themselves enjoyed and that–maybe?–the Kilmer children themselves enjoy.

    A more complete article would examine just what sort of . What is their health care situation like? Why does Ms. Kilmer, fairly uniquely among her co-religionists in her peer group, choose to follow pro-natalist teachings? What community resources are available, to her and to others?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks,

    I just spiked a bunch of comments with people arguing back and forth about NFP issues — with no links to the issues in the news coverage.

    Some people also seem to think that I do not understand many of the doctrinal points about NFP, as opposed to the POST ARTICLE not getting NFP or something like that.

    Journalism folks. Take your doctrinal differences elsewhere, unless you are discussing inaccurate content IN NEWS COVERAGE and you choose to back your point of view with URLs to authoritative sites (few of which contain the letters wiki).

  • Peggy R

    A late-night follow up.

    My huz and I used the same/similar phrase when we sought to adopt 2 children. We did try NFP methods to conceive to no avail.

    We were strongly willing to accept the children God sent to us. That was important b/c adoption can be very consumerist and objectify the children as acquisitions not as children to form a family.

    So, I wouldn’t limit that phrase to Catholics practicing NFP. Or to Catholics. Or to family planning. What if the baby coming is Downs or physically disabled in some way? Accepting whatever comes is the very central idea to reliance upon and acceptance of God’s will for our lives.

  • John

    I’m rather puzzled by the title of this particular article: Happy, vague Catholics with 11 kids”.

    They don’t sound terribly vague to me. They sound like a relatively normal Catholic family. What are they supposedly being vague about? The article didn’t mention anything particular about NFP, Catholic theology, or other hot topics of the day. But…neither did they intend to, did they?

    If the oldest child is only 12, the general crowd hasn’t yet reached an age in which they’d be discussing politics, faith, or similar concerns. If they have 12 little ones to handle, the parents don’t have time for such worries.
    Give them about 7 years or so and see if they’ve begun having family discussions about current political or social events. I’d say there’s a good chance those will have come up.

    I’m not certain I care that much about whether NFP works or not. I’ve read articles that comment about how NFP works..but requires lots of effort that might make people think twice. Rather than worry about that, I think this article provides a wonderful testament to the virtue of being willing parents.

    God Bless them!

  • mer

    tmatt,

    I guess I’m simply confused. Do they or do they not use NFP? The Q&A didn’t really clear it up for me.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I really doubt this couple used NFP, which isn’t the same as ‘being open to however many children God gives us.’ NFP, if used correctly and carefully by women with regular cycles, is highly effective- less effective then the Pill, but more effective than condoms. It’s the most common method of birth control in Poland, I believe, which has a sub-replacement birth rate. (For the record, I don’t believe that contraception is immoral, but I do believe in giving NFP its due, and recognizing that it can be a perfectly valid and effective method of birth control for many people).

    There is, however, a widespread misconception (including among educated people) that NFP is ineffective, or that it amounts to ‘throwing up your hands and letting God sort it out’. Neither of those is true, and this would have been a good opportunity for the Washington Post to sort that confusion out. We really need to have a discussion of NFP from disinterested parties who don’t have religious, feminist, or other ideological axes to grind for or against it. Unfortunately, you will see a fair minded and knowledgeable treatment of NFP by the Washington Post, the day that hell freezes over.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    John: “They sound like a relatively normal Catholic family. What are they supposedly being vague about?”

    I’d argue that this family isn’t very normal, that the trend for Roman Catholic families (RC to one degree or another) in upper- and middle-income countries is to have not only smaller, but smaller-than-average families: Spain, Poland, and Italy are only the most extreme examples. Even in the context of the relatively high-fertility United States, the Kilmers stand out remarkably.

    Why have the Kilmers decided to follow Catholic norms on fertility so strictly? Why do the Kilmers stand out? I’d like to know more about their particular background. There’s a hint in the chat transcript that Ms. Kilmer might come from a conservative background–her mother was in a pro-life organization in Seattle, apparently–but nothing more.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Why have the Kilmers decided to follow Catholic norms on fertility so strictly?

    Because they feel like it?

    There really doesn’t need to be any further explanation than that. One may disagree with their choice, of course, but I don’t see why it’s necessary to assume they’re a product of a conservative family. Some children are raised conservative and become liberal, and some do the opposite.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    “Because they feel like it” is, well, vague. Why do they feel like that? Why did they make the decisions they made to become parents to 11?

    There does need to be an explanation. I’d like to know why they made the decisions they did, informed by their particular perception of their religious tradition for certain and by who knows what else. Wouldn’t you?

  • Mick

    Instead, the emphasis in the story — National Geographic alien culture style — is on the joyful precision that allows the five-bedroom house to escape chaos.

    Based on the fact that the author of the piece admitted in the chat that she grew up in a family that was active in the pro-life movement, I would give her more credit than that. In addition, she comes to the defense of the family numerous times in the chat. That said, it’s obvious that she tailored the article to the audience, in the sense that it mainly tackles how a family that large functions in society in the year 2011.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X