Two Different Reactions

As my husband and I were leaving church with our six children yesterday, we met two older ladies who had completely opposite reactions to our family.  The first lady said, “You have a beautiful family.  But I have to ask you, how do you do it?”

I gave my stock answer that I give to anyone who comments on the size of our family: “Oh, it’s a lot of fun.”

But she did not respond the way I expected.  “It’s a lot of WORK, buddy!” she stated emphatically, with a nod towards my husband.

The second lady we saw responded to the sight of our family quite differently.  “You remind me so much of our family,” she told us nostalgically.  “We had seven sons.  Now we have 12 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.”  We congratulated her, and she advised us, “Enjoy your children while they’re young.  They grow up incredibly fast.”

I am willing to bet that the first lady that we talked to did not have seven children.  In fact, my guess is that she has no more than two or three at the most.  Yet she was quick to point out the amount of work that a large family entails.  In fact, her reaction implied that our children were burdens, while the second lady saw them as precious treasures that leave all too soon. 

I don’t think their reactions are all too surprising.  When we think of having a number of children, the thoughts that first come to mind are the diaper changes, the piles of dishes, and the loads of laundry that all those children will require; the fights that will need to be broken up; the shoes that will need to be tied, the temper tantrums that will need to calmed.  We realize all too easily that the work will be multiplied with each additional child, but what we too often forget is that the love and joy are multiplied, too.  We forget that a few extra socks in the wash don’t require a whole extra load of laundry, but the person who wears them brings a whole new perspective and personality to our family.  We forget that the little toddler can have his shoes tied by an older sibling, and that the sight of the older child learning responsibility and gentleness as he cares for the toddler will absolutely melt our hearts.  

Yes, with a large family, there are more diapers to change, more dishes to wash, more laundry to fold, but there are also more people to do all these things together, singing, talking, laughing and praying while we do them.

The lady who had seven sons knew this.  But the other lady did not.  Some things you have to see firsthand to believe or take on trust.  Unfortunately, the world around us doesn’t seem very willing to take the joys of a family on trust.  But ask the mothers who have had a lot of children, and they will tell you. 

They wouldn’t do it over again any differently.

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  • bambushka

    My sister-in-law who is the mother of nine on earth with three more in heaven, was asked by her youngest, “Mom when we all leave home, who will do all the work?”

  • Bruce Roeder

    Agnes, I think your bias is showing.

    Your comment, “I am willing to bet that the first lady that we talked to did not have seven children. In fact, my guess is that she has no more than two or three at the most.” These are not very charitable things to say even if they are true. And apparently you do not know if they are true or not.

    Whether this woman has a big family or a small family is entirely beside your point, which is valid by the way, that children should be seen as the blessings they are instead of by the burdens they entail.

    It is certainly a fact that many Catholic families are small because the husband and wife reject the teachings of the Church regarding contraception. We should pray for their conversion. Some Catholic families, and it might be a small percentage, are small for other reasons. We should pray for them as well and not assume they dissent from Church teachings.

    But in Christ, we ought not to assume the worst about our neighbor when we do not know the facts. We must be witnesses to the gospel and shine a light of truth into the lives of those we meet.

    Thanks you for the article and bringing up a good topic. Let’s all encourage those with large families because our culture does not. And, even though it is a lot of fun, it is a great deal of work as well.

  • gk

    Normally the reaction is not nuetral. Most people have a heartfelt or gut reaction to large families.

    But, we cannot blame either type of reaction. I mean, a lot of the time, trying to think of something to say. It is just a conversation.

  • Claire

    I agree with Bruce. There’s nothing offensive about the comment that a large family is a lot of work. The same woman also commented that the author has a beautiful family. Maybe her question about “how do you do it?” was an expression of admiration, or wistfulness that she didn’t feel that she would have been up to the challenge or had never had the opportunity to find out. I only have one child, and I find my new lifestyle to be a lot of work. It is very challenging to juggle my fulltime job (long story; not my choice, but at least praise God my husband and I are able to care for our baby without using daycare), motherhood, housework, and still have time for myself and for my marriage. At the same time, my baby is the biggest blessing of my life. Burden, no. A lot of work, yes. It could be argued that anything worthwhile (marriage, family, etc) is a lot of work. That’s not necessarily a negative statement.
    On a different note, I really like the author’s response to comments about the size of her family. “It’s a lot of fun” keeps the focus where it should be.

  • apenny

    Mr. Roeder,
    Do you think it’s uncharitable to guess whether someone has a lot of children? I was not judging the first woman for not having a lot of children; I was just guessing she did not because a mother with a lot of children would relate immediately to my saying a large family is a lot of fun.

    Of course, her remark in itself was innocuous, and I did not find it offensive, nor did I have any intention of judging her; nevertheless, the contrast between her immediate reaction and the immediate reaction of the second woman was what struck me, and the one reaction is much more typical of our culture today, which emphasizes the challenges, and not the rewards, of a houseful of children.

    Mrs. Penny

  • Sparki777

    Dear Mrs. Penny:

    You might say that you were not judging the first woman for not having a lot of children, but that’s how I took it.

    I am one of those women who has “only three children”. It’s not by design. I did not meet and marry the right guy until a few months before my 30th birthday. And believe me, he was worth waiting for. Then we suffered five years of infertility before we finally conceived a child. And then we had two more, close together, but the last delivery — when I was 39 — was really traumatic and my body suffered tremendously — I was even put on bedrest for two weeks following. Now I’m nearly 44 and my body just doesn’t seem to want to work that way any more. I should have been pregnant several times since my youngest was born, but I’m not.

    When I hear mothers of many — whom I admire so much — say things like, “She has no more than two or three…” or “That woman must only have two or three children…” the word “only” is a huge judgement right there. SOME of us can’t help it. SOME of us wanted more. SOME of us tried to have more and couldn’t. SOME of us were widowed. SOME of us had ovarian cancer or some other disease that robbed of us our reproductive organs. SOME of us found parenting the way we wanted to parent so much work, we spaced our children out more than you did. SOME of us have spouses who were not supportive of having more children. SOME of us didn’t find a good Catholic man until late in life.

    My best friend from high school has 11 beautiful children. But she married at 18 and had her first at 19. She had her last at the age of 40, and she may or may not have another, I don’t know. At this point, though, both of us had our youngest ones at about the same age, but I missed all the earlier babies because I didn’t have a partner and then couldn’t get pregnant for years.

    If you saw both of us at church, I know how it would be. You’d be smiling at my best friend and sharing your lovely “moms of many” experiences. You’d be setting up play dates and homeschooling co-ops and clothing exchanges. And what will I get? “She only has three…she doesn’t get it.”

    Oh, I get it.

    I get it and sometimes writhe with jealousy and wonder why I wasn’t worthy of that blessing.

    I also get that having six kids, or 11 or five or nine or however many IS a lot of work. I could make a case that moms of many who sugar-coat it and say only, “It’s a lot of fun,” are being deceptive. When people ask my friend how she manages with ll children, she says, “We all work together…and it’s wonderful!” That’s something we women who “only have two or three” can believe.

  • SolaGratia

    I believe that the essential point here is valid no matter how many children you have – or how much fun you are or are not having – in fact, like all of God’s gifts, it’s about attitude & perspective.

    I have 5 children who all have varying allergies and most of them have some mild form of neurological impairment. I have health issues myself that I believe are the main source of their problems and which make it even harder for me to get thru my day.

    We are homeschooling – originally by choice but now certainly by necessity. It is very stressful because the children are not able to do their work & chores without fairly constant oversight. I have to guard against falling into a complaining, negative mindset. (I usually fail) My DH, whose faith is not very deep, is constantly worrying that we will have another child – he has been not too subtle that if I wanted to contracept, he would consent in a heartbeat.

    But at night when I snuggle next to my sweet-smelling toddler to fall asleep, I am always reminded that they are worth every gray hair & I would not trade my “cross” with anyone. And before I fall asleep, I try to always pray, “Thank You, God, for the gifts of this day – especially those that I failed to recognize or failed to appreciate.”

  • lionsden

    Dear Tasktakers,

    I respect your perception of what this author said, but Woh Nelly! I read this article, and all of the comments, yet I for one do not know how in the world some of these “takes” took. I perceived Mrs. Penny’s article to have been attempting to highlight the joys of child-rearing in a society which, by and large, considers children “burdensome.” She employed an example to anchor what otherwise is an abstract observation and slam – take this moralizing, biased Pharisee to task! Granted, maybe she didn’t articulate as clearly as she could have in ensuring sensitive readers that she wasn’t looking down on the “less” blessed, but come on people, neither were some of your interpretations on the actual words she did use clear-cut. It seems to me that some of her critics blamed her for that which they committed in “interpreting” her expression. Is it not possible that those two ladies’ non-verbal expressions revealed the correct take which Mrs. Penny intuited? Maybe not, but I have read all three of this author’s books and I have not noticed this, or any other objectionable tone, arise in any of them. I have found them to be well written, inspiring, insightful, and most of all charitable.

    I’m afraid that if I say anymore then, God forbid, I may employ a semi-equivocal word which might very well be interpreted by someone as an uncharitable dig at their unfortunate circumstance in life.

    And in the future Bruce, unless you’re personally acquainted with a person, the respectful address is not a first-name basis.

  • Claire

    I guess you must be personally acquainted with Bruce, since you feel comfortable addressing him by his first name.

  • Claire

    Maybe some of us have overreacted, but there is a lot of truth in what Sparki said about how the large families tend to gravitate toward each other and dismiss the smaller families. It’s sad that people from different circumstances can’t interact with each other more and support each other more.

  • Piper

    I am either a mother of a large or small family but it doesn’t really matter to my point here which is: It is important to not make assumptions based on the size of families. Yes, a large Church-going family most likely practices NFP and are faithful Catholics while it can only be one’s guess with a smaller family if one does not know them personally. Jesus will judge us one day based on the state of our souls, what is inside of us, how faithfully and carefully we lived out the faith in all areas of our lives. Please don’t be overly sensitive whether yours is a large or small family. There are so many other areas of our faith we can put this energy toward. Let’s edify each other! God bless!

  • Bruce Roeder

    Dear Mrs. Penny, Mr. lionsden and my other brothers and sisters in Christ,

    I apologize for my callous remarks.

    I actually DID find the author’s point valid and I sincerely DID appreciate her bringing up a good topic for a Catholic forum. I truly DID want all of us to pray for those couples whose marital embrace is not open to life. I really DID want us all to publicly express encouragement to those with large families.

    But our fertility is a very intimate and emotional subject and, again, I am sorry and deeply saddened that my remarks, pointing out an apparent bias in the piece that I felt worthy of correcting, were taken as toxic.

    I should have known better.

    May our comments bring light and not heat into our midst.

  • MichelleGA

    I really like your books, Mrs. Penny. They read like notes from a good friend who understands the current situation and can offer support and inspiration.

    As a mother to many children, I understand the point of your article well. Sadly, children are not seen as blessings from our good and generous Lord in our society.

    Normally when I am asked, “How do you do it?”, my answer is, “With God’s grace” or “With help from Jesus”. I have never thought to answer with, “It’s a lot of fun”! Sometimes my husband will say something similar to that, however. Today was an extra-difficult day, and if I had been asked, “How do you do it?”, I would have answered, “With a glass of wine, Pal, so please pour me one”! 😉 Oh, I am so grateful for the quiet of this evening!

  • lebowskice

    Mary and Joseph had one kid, Elizabeth and Zecheriah had one kid. -do you get an award for more children??? Ask small families about the number of miscarriages they had before you judge them.

  • Narwen

    BTW, while having a large family now is a pretty certain indicator of a ‘pro-child’ attitude, people who had large families in days gone by do not necessarily share that perspective. I’ve heard elderly women in my family tell younger ones, “You’re lucky. Back in my day, we didn’t have a choice about having so many d-d kids !”

  • Narwen

    Also, I’ve heard elderly relatives tell grown children, ” I wish I’d never had you !” It seems some parents would do it over differently….

  • Claire

    Bruce, your remarks weren’t toxic. You were raising a point, and you did so politely.

  • janemartin

    From an old mother of young children, don’t be too hard on all the families that have “only two or three children at the most” for you know not their circumstances.

    Not that I condone rude reactions, but I will tell you that one of the reasons mothers of smaller families get boggle eyed at large families is that they generally have no idea how they work. What works for two or three children will simply not work for six.

    I had the priviledge of getting to know a family with nine children when their youngest was born critically ill and their mother was away for weeks and months at time in hospital with the baby. For almost two years, I spent one day a week helping to care for the littlest siblings (which I could do because I had only two of my own). I was amazed at how independent the younger children were and how little supervision they needed with things like finding and putting on their own socks and shoes, brushing their teeth, serving themself breakfast cereal and milk (and cleaning up their dishes!), putting on pajamas with little supervision and helping with small chores. The older children knocked my socks off with their competence at preparing meals, doing laundry, attending to smaller children etc. It became clear to me that my expectations for my two young children (ages 3 and 5) were far short of what they could accomplish. Where as I had been doing all the work, I expected very minimal, if any, real work from my kids. Worse yet, they were getting trained to think that Mom did everything and that they did not have to contribute much to keep our family going. This mentality quickly fosters selfishness, whining and complaining.

    Boggle eyed parents of smaller families may be trying to imagine how they could possibly keep up all the shoe tying, teeth brushing, bottom wiping, laundry, meal preparation, dish washing, housecleaning not to mention all the driving to ballet, soccer, flag football, piano lessons etc. for a large family, and how much whining and complaining they would have to endure with, say twice the children, thus the reaction.

    Being boggle eyed is not reason to be rude and I got to experience some of this rudeness when I took my two young children and my friend’s four youngest on outings. FYI, I quickly realized that her four younger children were less work than my two children. I was often asked “if they were all mine” and my reply was always ” I wish” which elicited eye rolls and gasps. I actually quite enjoyed it. Like the author, I also received beaming smiles and friendly comments too.

    Children from large families are usually heads and shoulders above other children in contributing to the family and hence are not nearly as selfish and whiney. While I was helping a family in need, I was the one getting lots of OJT on how to raise children who contribute to the families needs, are generally independent, are happy and therefore quite enjoyable to be with.

    Don’t let the rude comments get you down (I know you don’t) Just remember that people compelled to be rude at the sight of your brood are probably dealing with selfish, whiney children who are not being trained to contribute to the family work load. Perhaps they need some OJT, too.

    Peace and Blessing on all families, large and small!

  • SuzyMom

    “Iron sharpenteth iron.” It is so hard without seeing someone what they may really intend with their words. It is easy to misinterpret. First names, titles, and a mixture of the two are many times dependent on what region of the states you are from, and the use of one or the other does not necessarily imply condescension or lack of respect. We can go by what Agnes Penny perceived because we were not there, but then she and we can learn from these posts with different perspectives. My heart goes out to those who desire more children and are unable. I’ve picked up thoughtful points from all writers here (MichelleGA made me laugh out loud).

  • SuzyMom

    Sharpeneth…sorry (:
    I have trouble with the reality of it as well as the spelling.