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.