The Joy of the Big, Messy Family

The Joy of the Big, Messy Family March 2, 2021

Having a fifth child makes no sense. We already have two boys and two girls. Their bedrooms are easily sectioned. Our minivan is too small for yet another car seat and, if we’re being honest, the car won’t easily sell (you just can’t scrub five years worth of mashed Larabars out of carpet). When my husband Seth and I started dating, we talked about our future family. And today, it’s exactly how we wanted it.

Even. Symmetrical.

Which is why my existential crisis is so strange. I look at my four kids, and by golly, I like them. It makes me want more. Watching each personality emerge is like unwrapping a surprise present that I’m basically guaranteed to love, no matter what’s inside. And I say this with an intimate understanding of the frenzy that comes with parenting young children.

I was thrilled at the idea that my fourth pregnancy would be my last; but, after a year or so, when the fourth baby started pushing away as I tried to nurse, I tearfully told my husband that this just couldn’t be the end. I just wasn’t ready to be done nursing a baby, and I don’t even like nursing. I confessed that I just couldn’t be done with any of it.

At the playground, I chatted with another mother of four who was similarly torn over whether to go for a fifth. When I told her we decided to take the plunge, she asked me “Why?” I didn’t have a ready answer. Just that I like my kids and so, well, why not? My nonchalance, however, belied deeper reasons behind our decision.

I was an only child, and my parents passed away when I was in my teens. Until my daughter was born eight years later, it felt like something had been missing within my soul. In corresponding with Meghan McCain — the political commentator and daughter of the late Sen. John McCain — she expressed similar feelings, which she shared publicly on social media right after the birth of her first child, a daughter: “This is the first time since my Dad passed that the part of my heart that broke off and left with him no longer feels missing.”

When we had our second, I wondered how I could possibly love our baby boy as much as I already loved his older sister. But, to my surprise, the heart grows and grows.

Large families are becoming a rarity in American life. During my own childhood, siblings were something of a foreign curiosity. I remember watching television shows and noting the portrayals of sibling fights. They seemed unrealistic, over-the-top. Today I laugh because my life consists largely of policing various household brawls. And yet, even the obvious unpleasantries of constant squabbling give me a strange degree of comfort. As a child I saw the vibrancy of a full family as an exotic drama, but now I’m playing a leading role in our own homegrown production.

Even before COVID-19 accelerated the trend, the United States had the lowest number of births in more than three decades. Not since 1986 (the year of my own birth) has the U.S. had so few babies born. Like most Western nations (and a handful of Eastern ones) we’re inching toward a so-called demographic winter: the scenario in which the elderly live longer but there are fewer young people around to make it all balance out.

But in my reporting, I discovered a strong-willed cohort of mothers bucking the trends. They’re buying up minivans, bunkbeds and double-wide (sometimes triple-wide) strollers. Like me, many of these parents are religious. From Jews to Catholics, and from evangelicals to Latter-day Saints, they seem to take Genesis seriously: “Be fruitful, and multiply.” But there’s also another group: only children, usually from divorced households. Also like me, they took drastically different roads than the ones they witnessed as children, deciding that a house filled to the brim is better than one echoing in silence.

Media personality and bestselling writer Jennifer Fulwiler is the mother of six. Fulwiler is Catholic, but she converted to the faith, beginning her journey to motherhood while solidly in the atheist camp. Some Catholic families are large, in part, because the faith eschews almost all mainstream forms of birth control. But Fulwiler says that, for her, other factors played a role in her family choices.

She told me that becoming religious and finding herself suddenly associating with accomplished matriarchs in large families helped her envision that she might choose a similar path. Fulwiler and her husband were also both only children. And they never planned on a large brood when they wed; Fulwiler herself grew up saying she never wanted kids at all.

Looking back, she says, the hardest part about having six children in the span of eight years wasn’t juggling diapers or dealing with morning sickness; instead, it was telling others that she was pregnant. “I was pregnancy-shamed, and it made me feel unconfident. It got in my head,” she told me. “I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I am irresponsible. Maybe I am neglecting my children.’”

This was a theme that came up repeatedly in my conversations with mothers and fathers of large families; at the first two announcements, friends and relatives were happy. The third was met with more hesitation, and then by the fourth, they were being asked if and when they would be “done.”

The most striking exception to this phenomenon came when I spoke with Latter-day Saint mother Lia Collings, then due with her seventh. Certainly no community is immune to the downward fertility trends in America, but a large-scale Pew Research study released in 2015 found that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had the highest completed fertility rate of any faith group studied (3.4 babies per mother, or twice that of the average woman in the U.S. today).

When we spoke, Collings, a writer and community activist, was weeks away from her due date. She lives in Orem, Utah (dubbed “Family City, USA”), with her husband Justin, a constitutional law professor at Brigham Young University. Unlike almost every other parent I spoke with, the Collings’ announcement was met uniformly with celebration.

“What a gift to the world!” she was repeatedly told by family and friends alike, many of whom also had large families.

I asked Collings why they decided on a seventh. She described for me a recent scene in her home: some children were playing together; another was practicing the harp; yet another napped languidly nearby in the living room. Perhaps the moment stood out because of its contrast with the normal chaos of family life. But, for me, it called to a different scene — one from the Coen Brothers film, “Raising Arizona.”

Nicholas Cage’s character dreams of “a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.” He concludes: “I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.”

But beyond Utah, almost everyone I spoke with recounted feeling a heightened sense of joy when surrounded by their sizable broods. Take Fulwiler (the mom who said she was “pregnancy-shamed”). Her youngest is now 7 years old and Fulwiler tells me that the naysayers actually come to visit her house because of the “fun” and active vibe. “It’s hard not to call people out on it now that we’re on the other side,” she said. Sure the early years were “very, very, very hard,” but today the Fulwilers are filled with nothing but appreciation for the choices they made. “I didn’t know life could be so amazingly wonderful having a big family.”

Research on whether children make us happier is mixed. The prevailing thought is that the added stress of raising children takes a toll. And sociologists like Nicholas H. Wolfinger find that diminished levels of happiness persist even after children are grown. Curiously, however, the same findings don’t hold when it comes to women with larger-than-average families.

While Wolfinger’s analysis finds that women ages 50 to 70 who had one or two children were less likely than their childless peers to say they were “very happy,” when it came to women with three or more kids, there was “no appreciable differences in happiness” between them and their childless peers. Trying to explain the findings, he hypothesized that women who really like children may simply be happier if they choose to have more of them.

But there could also be another explanation: More children really do bring us more joy that helps make the stress bearable.

Jane Brosseau, another only-child while growing up, is now the mother of 10. She recently moved to Washington state from Fairfax, Virginia and similarly echoed the desire to give her children a different childhood than the one she had; though, like Fulwiler, she says her choice wasn’t meant as an outright rejection of her childhood, which she described as happy with a great deal of travel and attention.

Brosseau outlined her “why” for choosing a different path succinctly: “We didn’t put a number on it. We never felt like we were done.”

Brosseau admits that she did feel “done” after eight children. But as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in “Jurassic Park,” “Life finds a way.” The family welcomed two more children back-to-back in quick succession.

She told me about the birth of her eighth child in July 2016. Three months later, “we were pregnant.” With that announcement they had the “craziest comments you can imagine. That was the hardest one to announce.” When her ninth was born she had a 2-year-old, a 1-year-old and an infant all at the time of the new baby’s birth.

The early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns showed Brosseau the highs and lows of life super-sized. “The first month or two of COVID, I would walk out (of the grocery store) with a full cart and people gave me the nastiest looks,” Brosseau explained. “I wanted to say, ‘I have 10 kids, this is only four days of groceries.’ We had a few days where we only had one roll of toilet paper between 12 people.”

But being a distinct social unit also has benefits. Together the family spent a fair amount of time talking about Brosseau’s experience as an only child, and her husband’s family with only one other sibling. The kids, she said, “were blown away” imagining quarantine life without siblings.

Stress during quarantine went to a whole other level for Rachel Campos-Duffy and her husband, Sean Duffy, with the open-heart surgery of their ninth child last March, a daughter, Valentina, born with Down syndrome several months earlier. Their daughter’s diagnosis in-utero forced the Duffys to radically reevaluate their priorities; Sean stepped down from his Wisconsin congressional seat and Rachel momentarily stepped back from her role as a Fox News contributor.

Like Brosseau, the Duffy family didn’t set out to have a large family; quite the opposite, in fact. She told me, “I never thought I’d have nine kids. I never planned it. I never wanted it. I was just open to whatever happened.” Because both Rachel and Sean are Catholic and from larger families (Rachel is the third of four and Sean the 10th of 11), they didn’t experience quite as much resistance, but she did feel that her father was worried about how Rachel’s childbirth choices might impact her career.

“He worries, and he’s right, that every time I’m about to take a professional leap I have a baby. It has impacted my career. You can’t have a Barbara Walters level career if you have nine kids.” But Rachel did feel that having such a large family made her a better pundit and more relatable.

And the babies proved to be a blessing. “I have given up big jobs for sure, but every time I have had a child, Sean or I somehow make more money,” Rachel said laughing. “In Spanish we say that every child comes with a loaf of bread under their arms. In our case that has definitely been true. Each child has brought some unexpected amazing opportunity, bonus or raise. And God never failed to deliver (pun intended).”

Thinkers like Jonathan Last — and more recently Ross Douthat — have pointed to the potential impact of what they call “car seat economics” — laws that require ever-larger and more expensive car seats for longer periods of time. “Obviously car seats aren’t as big a deal as the cost of college or childcare or the cultural expectations around high-intensive parenting,” Douthat observes.

But they do seem to be of a piece with a culture oriented toward smaller families. And this may explain some of soft pregnancy shaming. One father of five, Mark Oppenheimer, a writer and host of the popular Tablet podcast “Unorthodox,” explained to me, “Everyone feels judged by everyone else’s choices.” Oppenheimer compared it to driving on the highway, “Everyone slower than you is a moron and everyone faster is a jerk.”

Oppenheimer posits that those from smaller families also feel a sense of judgment from those with larger broods. The phrase “I can barely manage with two” is one Oppenheimer hears frequently, to which he responds, “It’s not that hard if you’re willing to do a worse job and lower your standards.” But Oppenheimer made clear that we make choices that are right for our own family.

Many parents with whom I spoke saw their childbearing choices as a direct embrace or a direct rejection of the family size they had growing up. All, however, expressed a similar sentiment to fellow big family parent Jim Gaffigan, who said of his family’s decision to have five children in Manhattan: “Well, why not? … What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair?” He concluded that the case against more children always seemed, well, superficial.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, told me that as family size shrinks in America, he can appreciate the passion among the minority who choose the opposite route. Wilcox himself is a father of nine and explained how his kids push him into the community with all of their various activities, exposing him to different parts of the world through the lens of their talents and interests. “In a world that is increasingly atomized, kids make us more social animals,” he remarked.

Wilcox also highlighted an unexpected benefit of growing up in a large family: a lower chance of divorce. A study, released by scholars at Ohio State University, explained that “when you compare children from large families to those with only one child, there is a meaningful gap in the probability of divorce.” Adding siblings, the thinking goes, gives children a more dynamic home life that helps with navigating relationships later in life.

As I watch my kids’ interactions, those sibling fights I was once so curious about, I can see how the back-and-forths, the negotiations, the reconciliations can prepare children for adulthood. When I grew up, I almost never had to face uncomfortable disagreements. And, at the beginning of my marriage, I needed coaching from a couples therapist even when my husband, the middle child of two sisters, was far more equipped to handle our early conflicts.

A few months ago, I decided to bring my kids to our local bakery to get a treat. My kids ordered a few chocolate danishes to split and I got a fruit tart, and we all migrated toward outdoor benches to eat our desserts.

As we sat there, I told them about the last time I had such a fruit tart: back when I lived in Belgium my junior year of high school. I used to save my allowance and splurge once a week at the fanciest bakery in town and buy the same tart every single time. It was exciting to find the tart at our local kosher bakery, and after I told my kids the story, they all asked to have a taste. My incredibly perceptive eldest daughter asked me, “Isn’t it annoying to have to share this special treat with your four kids instead of having it all to yourself?”

I told her the truth: The second half of that year in Belgium, I was drowning a lot of sorrows in those fruit tarts. My mother passed away midyear, and I had no relationship with my estranged father, grandparents or extended family. I had no siblings. I was alone. And sitting there eating that tart, it would have been my greatest wish to know that someday I’d have four kids and together we would sit, and I could share with them. Now that we’ve learned our fifth is on its way, we may need to start buying more than one tart.

Bethany Mandel is a homeschooling mother of four and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine.


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