The Corner

Culture

Big Families in the New York Times

A baby smiles during a baptism for babies led by Pope Francis in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, January 12, 2020. (Vatican Media/Handout via Reuters)

The Parenting section of the New York Times has just published an interesting article featuring parents who are raising families of more than four children. Something that was commonplace even a few decades ago now deserves commentary and analysis in the pages of the nation’s most-read newspaper.

But the feature — written by Laura Vanderkam, a working mother of five children under the age of twelve, who welcomed her newest baby at the end of 2019 — does a good job of exploring what it’s like to raise several children at a time when fertility rates are continuing to drop and the average woman in the U.S. is now having fewer than two children over the course of her lifetime.

Under these conditions, it makes sense that fewer and fewer people understand why couples would choose to have so many children that they need to purchase a car like the Ford Transit, which, as Vanderkam puts it, is “more commonly employed as an airport shuttle.”

Perhaps surprisingly, a 2018 Gallup poll found that 41 percent of adults in the U.S. think that it’s ideal to have at least three children, a figure that rose from 33 percent in 2011. But even so, the same poll found that half of Americans say it’s best to have only one or two children. And 41 percent doesn’t look like much when you consider that, back in the 1960s, nearly three-quarters of respondents told Gallup that three or more children is ideal.

I can attest firsthand to the fact that large families are counter-cultural and, as a result, often misunderstood or derided. I grew up in a conservative Catholic community in the Washington, D.C., area, the same community that author and Washington Examiner writer Tim Carney talks about in Vanderkam’s piece when he explains raising six children with his wife.

Though from a small family myself, nearly all of my best childhood friends had more than three siblings — and some had as many as eight or nine. When our parents took us to an amusement park together, people assumed we were some kind of field trip or daycare center rather than three families spending a weekend together.

That isn’t to say that the culture is always hostile to large families. For the most part, aside from the occasional snide column insisting that having children harms the environment, it’s much more common that people simply don’t understand the choice to have more than a couple of children, especially considering that raising children takes so much money and so much work.

The Times piece shows skeptics how these parents make it work. “People who are raising two kids think this seems immensely hard, and so they imagine that six is three times harder than raising two kids,” Carney told Vanderkam. “[But] the marginal increase in difficulty is smaller with each one.”

At the same time, while parents of large families have to make trade-offs, they learn to relax about the sorts of things that many parents of just two children take too seriously. “Many ‘requirements‘ of modern parenting aren’t requirements at all,” Vanderkam writes. “One poll done for the Today show in 2013 found that while mothers of three children experienced more stress than mothers of one or two, mothers of four or more experienced less.”

Kristin Reilly, a working mother of seven kids, put it even more succinctly: “Once you eventually get past two or more kids, you have to accept that not everything is going to be perfect.”

In other words, parents of many children learn something we all could benefit from internalizing: Trade-offs are inherent to life, and whether we have eight children or none at all, we’ll be better off if we know that joy doesn’t come from a life that’s picture perfect.

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