“How Many Kids Do You Want?”

When I was a child, when strangers found out how many siblings I had they invariably seemed to want to know how many kids I wanted to have when I grew up. And so they would ask me. They were shocked with the response: “As many as I can have!” or “More than my mom!” or “At least eight but not more than twenty!” For some reason I think these interested adults expected me to say “none!” or “just one!” It was like they thought I would feel so overwhelmed by so many siblings that I wouldn’t want anything like that myself, and they were always taken aback by my responses.

What they didn’t realize is that for those influenced by the Quiverfull movement, having a large family is not a lifestyle choice, it’s a mission.

As a teenager, I saw my worth in terms of the number of children I would have. The more children I had, the better I’d look, the godlier I’d be, the more effective I’d be in furthering God’s kingdom. I looked forward to the challenge of raising numerous children, of balancing everything and being the perfect wife, mother, and homemaker. I was disappointed when I turned eighteen and hadn’t had any suitors, because I knew that the sooner I started having children the more I’d be able to have.

My parents didn’t tell me to link my worth to the number of children I would have, and I’m sure they would actually have spoken out against it and called it pride and told me to find my worth in God, not in my works. I didn’t learn to attach my worth to the number of children I would have because my parents were telling me to, but rather because I was surrounded by a  community that heaped the most praise on those mothers who had large numbers of children and because the magazines and books I read offered the same message: The more children you had, the more you were to be praised. My parents never told me this explicitly, but it’s the message I ended up getting nonetheless.

But then I left my parents’ beliefs. And you know what? I still linked my worth to the number of children I would have. This wasn’t something I could just stop doing; it was something that was ingrained into my brain. Even after I became an atheist, still I linked my worth to the number of kids I would have. I’ve been doing better with this lately, but it’s a thought pattern that dies hard. Today, I want at least two children and no more than four. Four is twice the average, so I’m still not sure I’ve kicked this, and I don’t plan to have more than two unless I’m sure I’m doing it for the right reasons.

I’m not alone in this. Within the last week or so, I’ve talked with two women around my age who share my background. One hasn’t had any children yet, and told me she only wants two. “I feel like that’s really selfish,” she told me. Yes, having two kids, rather than five or eight, is viewed as selfish in the circles in which I grew up. Why else would you stop at two except for selfishness? The other has four children and knows she should be done but feels like she won’t be good enough unless she has at least five or six. She’s working on convincing herself that four is enough, but the old thought patterns still plague her.

When I look forward and see a life with only two children, I see emptiness. I see space and time that feels like it needs filling. When I realize that they would both be out of the house before I was fifty, I see decades of blank. Why? Because I still have trouble picturing what I would do with my life without ten children to care for and raise. I still have trouble picturing how I would fill all that empty time, or those empty rooms. I still feel like I would be living in a void, rejecting a “blessing” I could be receiving if only I had six, eight, or ten children. And yes, I feel selfish for wanting only a few kids.

But then I have to remind myself of two things. First, having more space and time means I will be able to invest more in the children I do have, and second, that extra space and time is ready and waiting to be filled with other things, things that aren’t necessarily selfish. I could write a book. I could work at a soup kitchen. I could reach out to my neighbors, entertain, and work to create a sense of community. I could work for a program for troubled children. I could take in foster kids. I could start a club for preteen girls in need of constructive guidance.  The possibilities are endless.

That empty space and time isn’t a void, it’s an opportunity.

Red Town, Blue Town
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
Monogamy Isn't Biblical, It's Roman
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11557037093560947882 QuicksilverQueen

    Three years ago, I said I wanted two dozen (literally) kids.Last year when I moved out, I said probably five.Now that I'm pregnant, I'm thinking two. Or one.I used to feel selfish about it too…but then it sort of dawned on me that #1 I didn't want my worth to be tied up in the fruit of my loins, and #2 it can actually be irresponsible to have a lot of kids, especially if you don't have the time/energy/financial resources to properly take care of them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15824217102632813598 Tanit-Isis

    On the other side of the fence, I grew up thinking having a large family was the height of selfishness. Having more than two children—to replace yourself and your spouse without contributing to global overpopulation—seemed the maximum justifiable. I remember realizing when I was a teenager that having three kids might be okay, if you could afford it, because after all there's people who don't have any at all, so at least some people can be justified in having more than two. I was really excited by the thought that I might be able to have three kids someday.As it turns out, two was all we could afford (to look after properly) and while the clock has not exactly expired, I don't think I want to put my body through pregnancy again at this point.

  • Anonymous

    I must be a bit unusual. I didn't want a big family and still don't. For me having 9 younger siblings that I had to take care of until I was in my 20's completely spoiled the idea of having a large family myself. It wwas so much freaking work! Growing up I thought three or four children would be idea. (I never said that out loud, mind you!) Today I would be perfectly happy with one and don't feel one bit of guilt about that. I already raised a family, thank you very much!

  • http://thebrunettesblog.wordpress.com/ thebrunettesblog

    I grew up as one of four homeschooled kids — not as immersed in Christian Patriarchy as your upbringing by a long shot, but it was definitely on the periphery of my experience and we have many things in common. I always wanted a big family, which for me meant 4-8 children, because I just thought those were best. I'm not sure I had a specific idea that a large family was linked to holiness, but I definitely thought that a large, homeschooling family was superior to any other kind.Now I'm planning on having one child, possibly two but definitely no more. It was practical considerations that made me come to this realization — I won't be ready to start having children until I'm 32 at the earliest, neither my fiance nor I make a lot of money, and I'm preparing for a possibly quite demanding career — but the more I think about it the happier I feel. I also spent a lot of my childhood playing Lieutenant Mom, and the idea of being able to give all my maternal attention to just one child, to have my child or children close in age and to enjoy the increasing freedom as they get older to work on other things… all that sounds really good to me, now.I just discovered your blog this week, and I love it! You write very well about a lot of issues my best friend and I have struggled with.

  • Clytia

    I didn't grow up in the QF movement, but it's certainly been fascinating reading about it in numerous blogs over the last few weeks. I did grow up in a slightly fundie family, the second of three kids (all girls). Size wise, we were a pretty average family. I knew a few families with more kids, two or three with lots more. And I knew several with less kids including a few only children. I'm not a big fan of kids, generally speaking, unless I'm in the mood. But sometimes I think I'd kinda like one (I'm 23). What I have to remind myself of every time I think of the possibility of children is that it could be seen as an irresponsible choice. The overpopulation in the world has reached epic proportions. At the current rate of population growth, we cannot sustain ourselves much longer on this planet. I find that scary. And much as I would like a baby, I know that it would have to be a conscious choice for me (I'm married to a woman, and we're not legally allowed to adopt just yet. We'd actually have to plan to have a child). And I feel (and my wife agrees) that to some extent, that choice would be selfish. Understandable, to be sure, having a child would be an awesome thing, but selfish nonetheless. One of my sisters shares this view (more so, I guess, she definitly does not want even one child), and the other wants no kids for different reasons.So I find it interesting to read about the point of view that NOT having lots of kids would be selfish…Btw, I love your blog, and have really enjoyed reading it!!

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa

    "When I look forward and see a life with only two children, I see emptiness. I see space and time that feels like it needs filling. When I realize that they would both be out of the house before I was fifty, I see decades of blank." I have this same exact thing. I cannot imagine not having baby after baby. I have always been caring for children or pregnant, I can't imagine having "free time" what would I do with it? WHat could be more valuable or worthwhile than having a bunch more kids? And yet, I know I can be a good parent to the kids I have now, I feel a little sense of relief that if we stop here, my kids wouldn't have an exhausted sick always pregnant or busy with a baby mom. I would be able to be involved in each child's life and have one on one time with each one. And like you said, there are myriads of other opportunities as well. I can get it intellectually, but I have no way of wrapping my mind around it emotionally.

  • Disillusioned Ex-Homeschooler

    It's weird how similar experiences can evoke opposite reactions. I was raised in a large, fundamentalist (but not full-blown Quiverfull) family, but I literally *never* wanted a big family.Maybe it was because I was exhausted helping with my younger siblings, or because every day I lived with the ramifications of how miserable, depressed, and incapacitated my mother was (we had foster kids in addition to my siblings for a number of years).When I first got married I was flat-out terrified of having children. We used multiple forms of birth control because I was so fearful of getting pregnant, and a few times (in my paranoia) I thought I might be pregnant, and waves of horror washed over me.After 6 years of marriage I felt ready to have children, and my husband and I have two kids, three years apart. It's great. I don't want any more biological children, though my husband and I have tossed the idea of adoption around. We'll see . . .

  • Anonymous

    The partriarchy movement is similar in many ways to the Irish Catholicism I grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s. There were many large families of 8 or more children in my parish and I was taught that having a lot of children was a very Godly thing. Of course the Pope had also decreed that all birth control except the rythm method was immoral.Then as a young adult I learned I could not have children, which created a lot of shame and guilt I am still not completely over. Even today childless women tend to be looked upon with suspicion by many Christians.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08345844882894801472 Alex Topfer

    My thoughts are similar to Clytia's; I see having any children as selfish, let alone more than 2. I also see it as kind of sad that someone would tie so much of their self-esteem to the number of children they have.I was raised non-religious in a family of 3, and there was never any suggestion that you must have children, so that might explain some of the difference of opinion. There is also the fact that i don't like kids. It is interesting to read everyone's thoughts on the matter, even if i find it strange.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15508887711850480059 M.E.

    What I most gleaned from this post was that it's not always what was expressly stated in the movement that is dangerous. It's also what is PRAISED that can become most damaging. I had wanted to be a preacher's wife because that was praised more than any other lifestyle choice. It was not that I really wanted it for myself – an introvert with an aversion to playing hostess, hanging out with women, and being their perfect role model.

  • http://wonderingwanderingthoughts.blogspot.com OneSmallStep

    Is having kids the same as raising them? Because I think you mentioned in earlier blog posts that you had to do a lot of the manual work in terms of your siblings, because there were so many kids. So in a way, the question of how many kids you want can also be phrased as "how much work do you want to give your eldest daughter?"If it's not you, I apologize. I've been reading a lot of ex-quiverfull blogs recently.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    OneSmallStep – Yes, this is very true! And you DID read that on this blog. It's helpful to think of it like that, though. I have to be honest, when I had my daughter several years ago I was still planning on at least five kids, and I was glad to start with a girl because "girls are more helpful around the house and with babies and stuff." Now, I'm ashamed of thinking that. I was literally looking at her a little bit as a potential future servant, rather than as a person all her own. And it does help to remember that I want to let her develop on her own, and as a person, and have her own separate life, not tie her to responsibilities. So thanks for bringing that to mind once again!M.E. – This is something I've been thinking about more and more. So much of what I picked up on growing up wasn't stuff my parents necessarily told me explicitly. It was through all the little things, through the approved books and praised magazines, through the offhand comments and the smiles or frowns. It's weird how much can be communicated that way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    My upbringing wasn't necessarily Quiverfull, but we could have been. I saw my mom agonize over not having as many children as she "could" (she actually did, though — but in that environment, three healthy kids were less important than criticizing her for having many, many miscarriages).I also went through a stage of wanting as many children as my body would allow, then adopting. I even had the crazy idea a few years ago that, if I wasn't married by thirty, I'd start adopting anyway — if Angelina Jolie can do it (and she's "not a Christian"), why can't I? Fortunately, I've since realized that Angelina Jolie has all of the money in the world and a staff of nannies, so — while she is her kids' mom, she isn't the only one who takes care of them. Much more recently, I came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to work within my own limits and personality; if I am working with kids in any context, I will want to be able to go home and have some kind of relative peace and quiet and rest. Sure, I could do that with a few (i.e., two) kids, but not half a dozen! And, honestly, I like people (in general) when I don't spend all day, every day with them; I'd rather not try to home-school and end up resenting my hypothetical kids because they're around all the time. It's frustrating, though. A friend of mine seems to be veering toward the QF mindset (it seems like her family was definitely in the Christian Patriarchy world to begin with), and my comments about this are, in her opinion, "sick" and "selfish". It is SO frustrating, because I want to support her decisions and to receive the same, you know?

  • Anonymous

    I must say I'm completely baffled by the idea that not having kids is "selfish". You either decide that you'll have no kids because that's what's right for you and your situation, or you decide to have one, five or a dozen because that's what's you want. Both choices are down to what you want for yourself, how can any of these choices be more selfish than the other?? It plain doesn't make sense to me. It isn't after all like there is a bunch of babies sitting on the clouds crying because mama is to selfish to let them be born! The first time I was confronted with the idea it was somehow "selfish" to not have kids, was when a man called me a "troll" for not haven given my husband a child yet after two years of marriage. I sincerely hope he meant that as a joke. He didn't know I was recently done with treatment for cancer, and was "forbidden" by my doctors to get pregnant before I had been at least two years in remission after treatment stop. I didn't inform him, none of his business. As for what to do with all that spare time, send it to me ;) I have only one baby, but she sure fills up my day! And when she sleeps there are chores to be done, books to read, crafts to be worked and a horse to ride.

  • http://janeyqdoe.com Janey

    Anon- Did you punch him in your mind. I work in a very conservative Catholic school and I'm sure I'm judged a fair bit because I've been married five years and don't yet have kids. I don't really care, though because it is entirely down to our personal choice and nothing to do with medical reasons. I do feel guilty in some ways, but that for not giving my father a grandchild as he is terminally ill and will never get to see any of his grandchildren. Even that, though is not enough to make me have kids when we aren't ready for them.One of my colleagues who is having trouble conceiving has had to go through a lot of nosiness and judgement over it. So much for Christian love.

  • Anonymous

    When I realize that they would both be out of the house before I was fifty, I see decades of blank. And to think, there was a time (high school) when I planned the latest age I wanted to have children based on that I wanted them to be graduated from college so I could retire by 50 or so. Of course, I always liked free time when I was doing nothing. Happily single and childless now – though I do still feel weird for not even wanting to date or anything. I just don't have the physical or emotional desire for a partner. And while kids sound great for Christmastime and for not being alone when I'm old, that just doesn't seem a good enough reason to have them. :)

  • Anonymous

    I had a very similar upbringing, and very similar longings when I was younger to have 8+ children. I went to one of my younger siblings basketball games a few years ago and my mom proudly introduced me to mothers surrounding her at this Christian School event, and introduced each one with a name + number of children they had. i.e. "This is Stephanie and she has SEVEN children! You'd just LOVE her if you had time to talk to her and this is Julie and she has NINE kids, her youngest is just 6 months and her oldest is in such-n-such grade!" etc etc.So as you pointed out, it wasn't explicitly stated that your identity rested on the number of children but IT SO OBVIOUSLY DOES! And sometimes its part of YOUR NAME! "So-n-so with X number of children!"I don't believe a lot of the quiverfull people realize that their children aren't just pleasant little hands to hold and faces to fill a beautiful family portrait, or to give the parents a better Statistic-to-go-with-the-name in an introduction, but that its a PERSON who has their own dreams, desires, and future.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous – "I don't believe a lot of the quiverfull people realize that their children aren't just pleasant little hands to hold and faces to fill a beautiful family portrait, or to give the parents a better Statistic-to-go-with-the-name in an introduction, but that its a PERSON who has their own dreams, desires, and future." This. Absolutely, THIS.

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com/ dream-wind

    There is a tendency for society as a whole to view a woman's worth largely by her ability to have children. I'm childfree, have been for some time; I've had the accusation that I'm "selfish" or "unwomanly" because I don't want kids. I've been subjected to all sorts of damned intrusive and hurtful tirades and attempts to convince me I'm wrong.So it seems we're damned if we don't have kids and damned if we have too many… gotta love it (not).

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    It seems that growing up in a large family you either want one yourself or you want one or at the most two kids. My parents were both from large families and they had 5 children. All my aunts and uncles had at least one child and most had 3. One uncle has 7 but he is the only one who has more than mum and dad. My youngest and my middle brother has two kids each and my oldest has 3. My sister has 4. I see big families as a good thing, more people to love and support you. Yes, it costs money to have a lot of kids but we never lacked anything important. I have no children yet but I hope to have 3 and more would be welcome but I will probably not aim to have more than 3. My partner's mother was one of 8. She had one child and one of her sisters had one. The rest chose to have none and my mother in law seems to feel sorry for me coming from a big family and she seems to believe that I lie when I speak so positively about my brothers and sisters. I know little of her family but it is clear that she has not experienced the same positive things as I have and has my parents did as children otherwise I assume they wouldn't have had 5 kids.

  • http://wonderingwanderingthoughts.blogspot.com OneSmallStep

    Libby Anne — that was the thing that struck me most about your post. Praising women for having/giving birth to a lot of kids is praising them for having a functional uterus, which is something they have no control over. It reduces women to their biological function, and makes their entire worth focused on pregnancy and childbirth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    OneSmallStep – Absolutely! I remember when I realized this some time after leaving. I was like, wait a minute, EVERY woman can have kids! I'm supposed to be valuable just because I have kids? Dream-Wind – Yes, you're right, it's not something that's entirely confined to CP/QF. In so many different areas, women are damned if they do, damned if they don't. I think black women have it the worst, actually. The single career minded black woman is told she needs a husband, to get married and have a family, but the working class black woman with five kids is told she's irresponsible. Also, so many women go into "mommy mode" when they have kids and are put on the "mommy track" at work – it's like when they have kids, their personhood is swallowed up in their children and they themselves cease to exist.

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com/ dream-wind

    There's two things that rose out of your comment, Libby Anne.First, your comment about "mummy mode" and women becoming entirely defined through their kids, OH, YES. I belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism (a quasi-historical re-enactment society) and I'm becoming known for my skill at costuming, embroidery and cooking. I'll often get women look at my work and say, "oh, I'd love to do things like that, but I don't have the time." Frequently I have to grit my teeth and smile politely, because I KNOW that what they really mean is, "I spend too much time doing things for my children to do things I'd like to do." Often these women will have children in georgeous hand made garb (and the kids will grow out of the clothes in a couple of years) while they are running around in an outfit made out of bedsheets.There seems to be this pressure on parents these days to have hyper achieving kids; if your kids aren't involved in three sports, playing a musical instrument and speaking a dozen languages by the time they get to high school, you've failed as a parent. And in providing all this enrichment for your kids' lives, you forget about your own.The other thing that arose from your reply is another aspect of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't." In a spectacular example of good timing, the article below appeared in one of Australia's daily newspapers this morning. It's about the working mum juggling act, and the author raises the valid point that women should return to the workforce after they have kids if possible, simply because they may not always have a supporting partner and may need to provide for themselves and their children. Which they will find very hard to do with non-current skills. The comments are even more interesting than the article.http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-working-mother-myth-20111103-1mxts.htmlChristine

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Christine – You raise a big problem women face. I want to say I'm supportive of women working or staying home as they choose (so long as it's an honest choice, not so bounded it ceases to be a choice), but your point is an important one to remember. I have a good friend who worked for three years at a fairly lower tier job before having her son, and now she's staying at home. She and her husband can live on one income, and it's an honest choice in her case, and I support that…but, she's getting zero job skills, racking up zero social security points, etc. What if her husband died, or left her (not likely in her case, but still)? Stay at home moms end up with blank resumes, even though they generally do do a heck of a lot of work. It sucks. And there's no easy solution. I mean, I don't want to say "well then, women all have to work whether they want to or not." That just doesn't seem like the answer either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07433774416466589150 Shay

    Interesting read. I had never heard of this idea until I became a Christian as an adult. I have noticed one thing among most of the moms of many at church or church functions – I never seem to know how hard it is. If I mention anything about parenting or heaven forbid something is difficult I get the same comments. "Try having 4 in 5 years" or "After the first 4-5 you get into a new groove" and basically belittling me as a mother because I 'only' have 2 children. I was also told by a mom of many she knows what it's like to have a special needs child because she has teenagers and toddlers and that's crazy…really having a teen is similar to an ICU stay. Let us build up mothers – how many children they have – because it's a hard often thankless job. Why make it harder on another mom with a negative comment. I'd had dreams of a big family – never based in any religious ideal – I love kids and it seemed fun. Life turned out different and that's okay.

  • Anonymous

    My little story is on the other end of the spectrum. Our kids are ages 30 and 26. My husband and I were married at barely age 21 and I chose to work in my career before having our kids. I grew up in the 50's and 60's with a mom that worked full time outside the home. As a kid, I absolutely hated coming home from school to a dark empty home and in the winter it was cold and dreary. My mom was involved in some of her own activities so basically I felt as though I raised myself, and stayed out of her way because she was so busy. I knew before I ever married I was going to stay at home one day, with my own children. It wasn't any sort of a spiritual decision, or something I was told to do. So, with that view, after college I spent over 6 years working in my career. Then there came a time I was ready to be at home with our first baby. So often in the time of mothering little ones I was thankful for the time I had spent away in college and then working in my career. Before children, we thought 4 would be a nice number but due to circumstances in our lives, we had 2. Size of family is such an individual family choice. Beverly

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04848458622058432379 Arachne

    Wow, this is exactly how I feel! I came from a family of 14 kids and my parents were friends with quite a few other big families around us. We also got strangers constantly asking how many I wanted to have one day. I would always come up with a big number. Ten, Maybe Eight… And then I had two kids and started to come out of an area of depression after my second. I no longer think I can handle that kind of a big family. But I still feel reluctant and ashamed to admit to the other moms in the group from church that I'm not planning on having more. Not to mention these moms are constantly talking about getting pregnant again and having a houseful of kids. I feel like I would be considered a pariah.

  • Anonymous

    So, something surprises me about quiverful families…Sarah, Rebekah, Rachael,Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary. These were all "barren" women. Sarah one son, Issac. Rebekah had one pregnancy, twins Esau and Jacob. Rachael, two sons, Joseph and Benjamin born many years apart. Hannah had one son, Samuel. Elizabeth had John. Mary had Jesus. I've decided that having many children is a blessing for a father and mother. Having one or two children is a blessing to the world. Perhaps because more love, wisdom, delight is poured into one or two children which nurtures them into a life of exemplary service to their communities. When I consider how much of Himself Jesus shares with me, I wonder how I could have done the same for each of my children had I had more than the two I had. My daughter was an only child for five and a half years, my son will be an only child for six before he turns 18. When my daughter was an only, my husband and I established such a strong, yet flexible foundation with her. Now that my son is an only, we are watching and delighting in his emergence as his own "man".

  • Anonymous

    Wow, did I ever bungle that post above. Hit the post button too soon by mistake.What I really want to say is this. What kind or relationship do you want with your children? If you want to spend a lot of time with them, really Living, then perhaps fewer children, well-spaced, is the best choice.When I consider the time investment, the patience, the communion and fellowship given to me by God, I knew I had to choose fewer children in order to give them a reflection of the relationship I have with God. You are not a pariah. You are a woman who considers the well- being of her children in light of knowing how much you wish to give them. We all have physical and emotional limits. Don't feel you must have more children if your limits will be exceeded by them. Love your two children. Love your husband. Love yourself as well. Best to you!

  • Anonymous

    nice post dear blogger

  • Anonymous

    I really want Quadruplets or Quints ever since i saw the show Quints by Surprise! The Jones family is amazing what they do and they have been through so much!