I spoke with a mother of five children who is expecting her sixth child. She shared that she is amazed at how many people feel free to disparage her family size. She feels reluctant to tell others she’s expecting again—even members of her own family.
Our society is quite inflexible about its tolerance. It is the pervasive, pre-eminent new moral virtue. Whatever others want to do is their choice, indeed their right, and is to be accepted, even celebrated. For all its vaunted openness, the tolerance movement is riddled with ironies.
Irony #1. Tolerance is for all, except some. Not everyone deserves to think his or her own way. Tolerance is reserved for those who think the “right” way, as defined by the reigning secular rules. The largest group of non-acceptables are people of traditional values, especially those of the Christian faith, in particular the Catholic faith.
Irony #2. Tolerance re-defines itself. It moves with the latest cultural winds. One “moral” edict that nowadays must be accepted is sexual freedom, except as you hear firsthand, the sexual freedom to have babies in marriage.
One of G.K. Chesterton’s keenest social observations is, “When people stop believing in God, the danger is not that they believe in nothing, the danger is that they’ll believe in anything.” In God’s absence, or at least his lower profile, society decides to define what constitutes a sin. Three new ones have rapidly emerged: smoking, spanking, and having more than 1.78 children.
Irony #3. Sacrifice is called selfishness. Mothers and fathers who accept children as God-gifts, who daily sacrifice for their larger than standard family and who live with less creature comforts get accused of being selfish and wanting children to meet some underlying psychological needs. As if embracing children is a form of greed. Tell that to these parents’ checkbooks.
Irony #4. Plenty is no longer enough. No society in human history has enjoyed our level of resources and abundance. Yet a standard objection against “too many” children is material: How can you take care of them? What does this question mean? Is it asking about food, shelter, education, cars, bathrooms, or enough bedrooms? One child per is the modern limit.
The typical family home of a generation or two ago was around 1,000 square feet—one bathroom, two or more kids per bedroom, no air conditioning, one phone, and a single car garage. Parents who successfully raised families in such “deprived” conditions now wonder how their grown children can maintain a favorable family lifestyle in a house twice or more times as large, with multiples of everything.
During my wife’s and my adoption screening for our fourth child, the social worker asked us, “Do you have sufficient bedrooms?” I was tempted to answer, “Well they do have walls, beds, and carpet, no TV’s though,” until my wife Randi shot me a “Don’t go there” look. At the time, we had three bedrooms, which seemed quite sufficient to me. As a fallback, Randi and I could move to the couch. Well, maybe I could.
When my oldest daughter, Hannah, entered college, the school’s president talked with families about Freshmen adjustment to having a roommate. At which Hannah exclaimed, “Wow. Only one?” She had entered dormitory heaven.
Irony #5. Big families are OK for me, not you. Too-many-kids comments regularly come from those who had larger families themselves. This includes grandparents and others of their generation who routinely had four-plus children. Nevertheless, they now question why their offspring would want more offspring. Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of family they got from their parents.
Irony #6. People of faith also question. It is understandable that the non-religious would look askance at parents who challenge the child-bearing norm numerically. Their perspective is slanted by popular outlook. One would expect people of faith to better understand the God-ordained value of children. Sadly, many observe family life through a lens more secular than faith-lit.
Irony #7. Don’t critique others—except mothers. Those who religiously shun talking politics or religion feel unrestrained license to opine about the most personal of someone’s life decisions. The remarks are predictably similar, thought clever, but in fact are tiresome: “Are they all yours?”; “Don’t you have a TV?”; “So this is it, right?” (Usually follows child number two, almost always after number three); “You’ve got your boy and girl (the “complete” family), so are you finished?”
Sometimes the intrusions come with an edge: “Do you know what’s causing this?”; “Is your husband going to get fixed?”; “I hope you’re not thinking of more?”; “How can you give each the attention it needs?” (The pronoun itself is instructive); “What about college?” (The financial lurks beneath many comments.)
There is risk to verbally cornering veteran mothers. After all, these are women uncowed by years of living in close proximity to multiple little human beings. A rude remark or two can be swatted away as effortlessly as a seven-year-old’s tattle.
“Is this all your family?” “Of course not, our oldest is at home with the triplets.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?” “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Why?”
“Do you know what causes this?” “No, please tell me.”
“Is your husband going to get fixed?” “I don’t think he’s broken”
Are you going to have more? “Well, not right this minute.”
“Don’t you think you have too many children?” “Which one should I give back?”
Sometimes the concerns are for mom: I just worry about you; Be careful you don’t over-load yourself; How’s your stress level?; Can you manage it all?; Are you doing okay?
Even when well-meaning, these still imply, however unintentionally, that mother doesn’t quite understand what she’s doing to herself. Isn’t she sacrificing more of herself for more children? Well, yes, she is. That is exactly her intent.
To answer sour with sweet, turn to Proverbs: “A soft answer turns away wrath.” We’ve always been grateful for more kids; We want whoever God gives us; Mother Teresa said, “Too many children? That’s like saying there are too many flowers.”; Love multiplies—it doesn’t divide.
Sometimes a good response is no response—a smile, a shrug, a lost look. Lost looks are good at silently saying, “I don’t understand your point.”
In the end, what wins over nay-sayers most is the children themselves. Parents of plenty typically invest themselves heavily in their families. In time others will see your children are not emotionally and materially short-changed. Rather, they are maturing into individuals now admired by those who once didn’t understand you.