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.