Airplanes and me; Or, what a BIG family means

The other day I was talking to a friend about how much I would love to live on one of the coasts someday. I expressed some concern about the idea, though, because it would mean living so far away from all of our family, possibly even requiring numerous days of driving to come for a visit. “Why wouldn’t you just fly?” my friend asked, confused. And I just looked at her. “Oh.” See, growing up in a family with a dozen or more kids meant that flying was never an option, ever. But with only two kids, I suddenly realized, flying would be an option. I could hardly wrap my mind around that.

And this made me think about all the things that growing up in such a large family affected.

First of course is travel. We took many family vacations, always driving across the country in our huge fifteen passenger van. Some of our vacations required as many as three straight days of driving, but, well, that was life.

Any time we went to a museum or historical site, which we frequently did on our family vacations, we bought a family membership, the kind that lasts for a year, even though we almost certainly would not be coming back within a year, if ever. Why? Well, the family membership was always cheaper than paying regular admission with that many children.

When I left for college, I could count the number of times I’d been to an actual sit-down restaurant on one hand. We occasionally stopped at MacDonalds in the middle of those day-long drives while on vacation, but even a stop at MacDonalds could cost my family upwards of $50, so even that was rare (usually we just packed lots of food).

When I got to college, I really hated eating on campus because it meant ordering food, and when I looked at a menu I would just freeze up. I know that sounds weird, but something as simple as selecting an item from a menu and ordering it was totally foreign and a very difficult experience for me. I preferred eating at the buffets on campus, because then I didn’t have to order off of a menu.

Being in such a large family also limited the number of activities we were able to do growing up. I was never involved in sports. My sisters and I did take a dance class once, and we were involved in several co-ops. We also each took music lessons each year, but as our number grew that got to be more and more of a stretch. I actually got my license while in high school intentionally so that I could drive my siblings to their music lessons. But just think about that for a moment: if you have eight kids taking music lessons (i.e. everyone but the preschoolers), that’s four straight hours for each person to get a half hour lesson. Similarly, can you imagine going to eight different children’s games? It’s no wonder we didn’t do sports! The sheer number of us meant that the number of activities and classes we were able to be involved of necessity had to be carefully limited and controlled.

With each season change, my mother got out new clothes for each of us and put away the new ones. We all wore hand-me-downs, even me, so this process didn’t generally involve buying clothes. It was very labor intensive, though, to sort through all that and get everything straight, and sometimes it took mom as much as a full week. It’s no wonder, when you’re talking about going through clothing for a dozen children!

Laundry was a huge task, and one of the most complicated things about it was sorting out whose clothes were whose, especially when you had a run of siblings with the same gender all near the same size. We eventually started putting dots of different colored puffy paint on the toes of socks to keep them all straight. Sometimes laundry piled up into huge mountains in the living room (remember how many people we’re talking here!) and we would have laundry folding parties, where mom would put on a movie and we would all be assigned certain piles to fold.

Food was always bought in huge bulk. I remember once a guest commented on the large size of the ketchup container on the table, and my dad just looked at him silently, and then went to the fridge and got out the two-gallon tub of ketchup we used to refill that “large” container. Everyone started laughing, and dad started pulling out other containers: the gallon containers of Parmesan cheese and mayonnaise, the twenty-five pound bag of flour, etc. We bought eggs in boxes of nine dozen, and butter in ten-pound containers. We never drank milk, because we would have gone through so many gallons a week that it was cost prohibitive.

Cooking was also conducted in bulk. You would never use one container of macaroni and cheese, after all! The question was always, should I use five boxes, or six? How much is enough without having too many leftovers? Making muffins for breakfast meant making at least three dozen, and even then people would be asking for more once they were gone. Pie for desert meant that you could expect to have no leftovers if you made two pies, or a few slices left if you made three. A salad with supper meant a whole bag of lettuce, or else two heads of lettuce. Frying up chicken meant using a whole five pound bag for one meal, just for our family.

This whole bulk thing created a bit of a problem for me when I was a newlywed. No longer eating at campus buffets, I found myself falling into the pattern I’d know growing up – buying and cooking in bulk. Buying flour in less than twenty-five pound bags seemed wasteful, and the pots in the pot set we’d been given for our wedding all seemed too small. The largest one of the lot was probably a fifth the size of the pots I was used to using as a child (the pot that we used regularly loomed over the burner meant to heat it). It took seeing food I’d bought in bulk go bad because it wasn’t used quickly enough a few times and seeing leftovers go bad in the fridge because I’d made four times what we could eat to help me get over the habits I’d grown up with and start actually cooking for, you know, two. 

I could go on but I really should bring this post to a close. It’s just that until my friend helpfully pointed out that we could just fly to visit relatives if we lived across the country I hadn’t really taken the time to think about all the things growing up in a mega sized family meant. And in contrast, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it looks like to raise a family with just, you know, two children.

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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.

  • AnotherOne

    It’s fun, that’s what it is. I had similar experiences when I first left home, first got married, and first had kids. My current aha! realization is how much fun it is to take a family vacation now that the kids are a little older. It’s fabulous not having to lug babies/toddlers to things they’re not interested in, or to expect much older children to tag along cheerfully to outings meant for very young children. It makes things like camping possible and fun (the amount of work involved camping with a huge family is just exhausting, and backpacking and other backwoods activities that can easily be done with a family of four just wouldn’t work when you continuously have baby after baby). Also, you can take your kids overseas, something only the most fabulously wealthy large family could do. I *love* my family of four. (Of course, I’m one who left a big family swearing I’d never have any kids, so I’m coming at it from a slightly different direction).

  • machintelligence

    I really understand your situation. The almost unconscious assumption that everyone has is that whatever they grew up with is normal and just like everyone else. If your contacts with the rest of the world are limited (and being home schooled is pretty limiting), this is true in spades. I grew up in a moderately large family with 5 children during the 1950′s. We heard about Disneyland, but visiting there was out of the question since we lived in the Midwest. Vacations were spent visiting my mother’s relatives on a farm on South Dakota. This was actually a great experience for a city boy. We traveled by car, of course, and never stopped anywhere along the way. I used to think Iowa was the biggest state in the union, because it took all day to drive across it.
    My two children have been to both Disneyland and Disney World, plus England, Scotland and France on family trips. Being a bit more affluent, and having only two children certainly helps. As they grew older, they traveled on their own: my son spent a summer in Japan during high school and my daughter volunteered at an orphanage in Peru and traveled in South America for a summer in college. I think the exposure to other cultures was great for them.
    We might have overdone the after school activities, though, with sports, dance lessons, music lessons, scouting etc. They didn’t spend as much time hanging out with friends as I did while growing up, but I don’t know if they missed it. Just because you can fill up your kids time with lots of stuff, doesn’t mean you necessarily should. I don’t mean to imply that we forced our kids to attend these activities, because they were free to drop them if they lost interest.
    They are both in their 20′s now , and I think they turned out to be fine adults

  • Mattie Chatham

    Oh my. I am laughing so hard at this–I had the exact same problems! Learning to order food out and not feel guilty for spending more than $7 on my meal was huge, and I’m still buying bulk food and repackaging it into smaller portions and storing it in the freezer. I’m definitely not a hoarder, but I’m still fighting the “if I don’t have 5 meals worth of food in the freezer, we’re going to be in trouble” mentality. I’ve finally gotten the hang of cooking for two, but it took nearly 10 months of trial and error to stop making 10+ portions of everything I made. It’s really a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you don’t want to be eating the same meal’s leftovers for lunch and dinner for the next 4 or 5 days…

  • Caravelle

    Hah. My family “only” had four children, and in France you have a “large family” card that allows you to get things like public transportation or access to parks or museums and stuff half-price and that kicks in at three children. I imagine that would help somewhat, though it probably wouldn’t do much to make eight children affordable.

    That said even I noticed a distinct drop in the quality of the hotels we went to on holiday at some point, and when I commented on this to my parents I learned it wasn’t nostalgia goggles – it’s just that one day they started having to get two hotel rooms instead of one, and that’s a huge step up in costs.
    (now they’re in the opposite process – our old van is getting too old so they were thinking of buying a new car, and to us children’s general horror they seriously considered buying one that doesn’t fit six – because now they can, what with everyone in the family driving and hardly ever being home at the same time anyway.)

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      It’s the same in Spain, 3 or more kids is considered a “numerous family” and you get some advantages for it like Caravelle said.

    • ArachneS

      Haha about the hotels… whenever it was necessary for my parents to get a hotel… they just got one room and snuck most of us in the back door. We were warned to be quiet.. anyone too loud would be sleeping in the van!

  • Lola

    I’m laughing about the year pass thing for museums and stuff, because my comparatively small family of 4 kids always did that for the exact same reason as yours, it was just cheaper. We also didn’t fly much as a whole family until we got old enough to deal with going through security ourselves, and it was a maybe once a year thing after that. We had to buy in bulk, not to the same degree, but I can comfortably cook for over 12 if need be (we had a decently large extended family). The big difference is activities. All four of us played some sort of instrument, 2 of us did highly time intensive sports, 3 of us were involved in every club known to man. It’s a pain to shuttle 4 kids back and forth, but it’s easier than a dozen or so.

  • Fina

    I grew up in a family of only five (then seven after my mother died and my father married again, but that was only for two years before i moved out).

    However, i DID live together with 9 other people after i moved out from my fathers house, and we always had two-three more during dinner. So when i started to learn cooking (never did that at home, at best we helped a bit) i grew accustomed to cooking for that many people.
    Which then had a similar result when i moved from there – i was simply accustomed to cooking in bulk, instead of just for myself. It took a while to get the amount of ingredients right.
    And i still don’t see much of a point of cooking just for myself, it just seems like a waste to put much effort into it.

  • smrnda

    I’ve always found it strange when people seem surprised when people move away from their parents after they are adults. I come from a family where almost everyone was born in the US, and right now I have relatives in maybe 8 countries. I don’t live within 200 miles of a single relative. Then again, growing up I thought it was normal to have ‘relatives’ that you didn’t even know and had no contact with and it surprised me when people actually knew their cousins.

    With families, after a certain size it’s the world can’t really accommodate you, and there’s few things you can do ‘as a family’ where having kids that are too small doesn’t cause problems or when you can’t find an activity that everybody can do. Just the logistics of having that many people in one house seem overwhelming to me – everything has to be done in bulk. I really liked cooking for myself when I was young and I developed tastes different from the rest of my family. I’d imagine you can’t do much to accommodate individual preferences once you’re cooking for more than 10.

    • Ken

      Me, too. I occasionally have to excuse myself to leave the “grown-up” conversations about too many kids and their attendant costs. I’m one of three children of divorce, and we all went our own way because we just weren’t buying the big, happy family story. The end result is we all waited to get married (no rush to provide grandchildren we weren’t ready for), and actually lived and traveled and got satisfying jobs before starting families of our own. Many times I want to just scream “you had choices” to the whining baby factories, but I’m too polite. Plus I don’t want to hear the condescending replies about all I’m “missing.” I also don’t retort with the divorce numbers among relatives and friends who come from a horde of siblings and never quite separate to cleave to their significant other.

  • Christine

    My parents always got family admission to museums and the like. For years they’d buy a one-year membership to one of the local attractions (for the longest time it was the zoo, then it was the large museum, once it was the pioneer village, etc). But I don’t remember the terms on those being any different than a regular family admission. i.e. there was always a limit on the number of kids (normally 4 or 5). The only place around here (Ontario) that I can think of good savings with a large family is camping in provincial parks, where the 6 people/site limit is waived if you’re all one family.

    I like to cook things for the two of us in batches that will serve 10 people. Dinner for two, lunch for two the next day, and a couple of similar portions in the deep freeze. (My husband actually gets annoyed with me if I cook every day, because I shouldn’t need to work that hard).

    • Elise

      What kind of food did you guys grow up with? It’s just that the last time I went to Sam’s, very little of anything was fresh and healthy.

      • Christine

        Elise, I’m not sure if you meant to reply to my comment, or to the post, but just in case: neither my husband nor I came from large families. Family admission was cheaper even for a family of 4, his family was short enough on money that they didn’t go to many attractions, when they did it was once-off and they’d pay whatever was cheapest for one visit, generally the “family” rate for admission once.

        I ate a lot of meat – probably 5 or 6 times a week, he ate a lot of beans. Veggies came from the garden or regular grocery store in my case, garden, grocery store, or CSA share in his. They ate more veggies than we did, because his mom had most of her nurse’s training, so was very good about following the food guide (within reason – i.e. not as many excess calories as it pushes).

  • Saraquill

    With all this talk of bulk sizes and the logistics and cost of traveling, I’m amazed that your parents still said that large quantities of children are affordable.

  • Rilian

    This reminded me of something my mom said. When she was a kid, her mom would make tater tots sometimes as a treat and they’d each get like 3.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot JW

    Your short story on flying remind me of growing up. We would fly to Wisconsin, when I was a kid, and everytime I found that we sat on the wing of the plane. I loved the window but when sitting on the wing it obscures ‘sightseeing’ so it annoying me but what could I do?

    Since then when I have take flight I made it a point to be in front of the wing or behind the wing. I love sight seeing out that window and then I love to use the camera take pictures and video of landings and take off”s.