A friend of mine recently confided that she and her husband are trying to have another baby. Not a second baby. Or a third. Or even a fourth or fifth. If they’re successful (which they will be, as my friend dubs herself “Fertile Myrtle”), this new bundle of joy will be their sixth child.
Yes, my friend and her husband started in their early twenties. No, she doesn’t work outside the home—obviously. No, they are not obscenely wealthy. No, the wife doesn’t have a nanny or even a regular babysitter. And for your final question, yes—they both believe in birth control.
According to the United States Census Bureau, since 1977 Americans have consistently said they believe smaller families—defined as those consisting of three children or fewer—are “ideal.” In 1970, 20.9 percent of U.S. households consisted of five or more people; today this figure has dropped to 9.8 percent. So what separates my friend and her husband from the majority of parents in America?
Good question. While the choice to have a large family is a personal one and the reasons for doing so are varied, it is nonetheless a fascinating subject. After all, those of us with children know all too well the sacrifices involved in motherhood: the pains and challenges of pregnancy, the sleep deprivation, the inability to control our lives the way we used to, the effect children have on marriage, the loss of freedom, the overwhelming responsibility of caring for children without a single day off, the sheer physical labor involved in the early years, the incessant whining, the conflict between children and careers, etc. Who would want to make these sacrifices over and over again? Not most Americans, obviously. But some do.
Since my friend and I have clearly chosen different life paths—I have two children and a husband with a dearth of available sperm—it was inevitable for the subject to come up. She also knows I tend to speak about subjects most people wouldn’t dare, so she was prepared for my probing. Mind you, I didn’t respond to her news by telling her the first thing that came to my mind—which was, “What the hell are you thinking?” After all, that would be rude. But this is what I wanted to say, not because I think it’s a bad idea for her to have another child but because I just don’t get it. I understand she and her husband love children, and I realize mothering comes naturally to her; but I don’t get the willingness to add to her already crowded plate and to go through the early years over and over again.
After all, I love children too. I became a teacher and later, an at-home mother, for this very reason. But I have my limits. My friend, apparently, hasn’t reached hers. In fact what I’ve learned from being friends with this extraordinarily patient woman is that people’s limits for what they can handle differ. True, my limits fall squarely into the camp of most women in America; but the fact remains that a certain (albeit waning) segment of the American population have limits that are superhuman. These women get just as frustrated with motherhood—or at least my friend does (I can’t speak for Michelle Duggar of TLC’s 17 Kids and Counting)—but somehow they draw upon reserves the rest of us don’t have.
What makes today’s large families different from those of the past is that the choice is made freely, purposefully, willingly. For years, large families were the result of religious constraints and lack of quality birth control. Consequently, many women felt obligated to keep having children—even when they weren’t cut out for the job. This is no longer the case. Today’s children who are raised in large families have mothers who have mastered the art of mothering (and are clearly not part of the 70 percent of mothers who work outside the home in some capacity). These women want, and are capable of, more sacrifice than the rest of us—and they’re churning out great kids in the process.
I don’t get it. I don’t want it. But I definitely admire it.