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The Great Divide

babiesBecause I’m known for blogging about the mishaps and joys inherent in raising a large family, it may surprise some of you to know that I have no siblings myself. I am an only child. I know, right? We onlies are a rare breed to begin with, but onlies who go on to have a slew of kids?  Probably even rarer.  (Pretty sure it might just be me, and Joe and Jen Fulwiler.  At least I’m in good company!)

People occasionally ask me if the reason I’ve had so many children is because I was dreadfully lonely growing up and am therefore attempting to compensate in some weird Freudian way. But the answer to that is no. The honest and far less interesting truth is that I was not lonely as a child, not even close.  I didn’t mind not having siblings, I never pined for a brother or sister, and quite frankly, I just didn’t think about it much.  When you’re a kid, your reality is your reality.  And I think I gained a lot by learning how to keep myself occupied and spend time with me, myself and I.  I had a lot of great friends.  And my parents and I were very close–they gave me a great childhood and an excellent foundation in the faith, and now I get to see them showering love upon my own kids.  They were great parents and might just be even greater grandparents.  The end.

So I’m really very familiar with small families, even though I’m raising a huge one.  And this probably explains my fascination with the strange tension between women when it comes to family size.  I remember attending a bridal shower of a friend back when we only had three kids, where I met a woman who had just one grown child herself.  When it came out that I had three, this poor woman fell all over herself explaining why she had “only” had one (infertility struggles as I recall), and how they had decided to just really appreciate what God had given them.  By the time she finished I sensed that I should maybe go talk to someone else.  I’d obviously tapped into something deeper by admitting I had three children, and it was uncomfortable.  I was frustrated not only by the defensiveness and slight edge in her tone (should I have lied and pretended I didn’t have three kids?), but also by the implication that I would have been sitting there thinking she was somehow less of a mother or a Christian for having one child.  For goodness’ sake, I’m an only child!  And a happy one at that!  And at the time of the bridal shower I was in the midst of what would be eighteen long months of not conceiving after a devastating miscarriage.  I was wondering if I’d ever be pregnant again.

I felt as if this woman had erected an unnecessary divide between us.  It made me kind of sad that we’d been getting along swimmingly, but once she found out about my three kids the conversation screeched to a halt.  Of course in hindsight I can see she was just feeling insecure (and possibly sad), and in hindsight I also know that it was to be the first of many conversations like it over the years.  People (generally women) find out I have enough kids for a mid-sized sports team and all of a sudden it’s impossible to have a natural, normal conversation.  Instead they will list reasons they don’t have more than one or two children, occasionally they’ll ask incredulous questions about whether or not my poor, neglected children have to share bedrooms, and sometimes they’ll say things that make me feel awkward even though I’m sure they are intending to be nice.  Like, “Oh you’re UH-MA-ZING!” in that Oprah’s-giving-something-away voice.  To which I never have any clue what to say.  I don’t accept compliments well.  I yell at my kids sometimes.  I’m just a regular mom. I really wish these people knew that I’m really not sitting around speculating about who has small or big families and why.  Some of my most favorite people have no children.

And it’s commonly believed that Catholics are supposed to have lots of kids, but the truth is that married Catholics are called to be open to life–which is not the same thing.  At all.  Because openness to life as defined by the historic Christian position on marriage is not technically about numbers, but about the proper end of sexuality in marriage as designed by God and reflected in natural law.  So while I’m happy to tell people things like don’t take hormonal birth control because it’s an abortifacient and because the Church has always believed it to be a grave evil and because it’s not good for you, I would never tell someone they should have ten children.  (Unless you’re my friend and I think you’re awesome.  Then I might tell you that.)  People (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) are way too focused on numbers and charts and spacing as it is, and in my humble opinion would do well to spend less time computing and more time cultivating generous hearts and minds that are in line with the Church.  And want to know something else?  Having a bunch of kids does not automatically make those kids holier, less selfish, or more well-adjusted than their sibling-less counterparts.  I have eight kids but I worry regularly about their hearts, their futures, and their attitudes, and there are times when they are just as selfish as the next person.  And I know plenty of kids without lots of brothers and sisters who are positively charming.  Like me!  (Kidding.)

The family is certainly the crucible for faith formation and the building of virtue, and I do see some really beautiful things unique to big families that seem to happen organically, but they can also happen in families of any size.  And there are some things unique to fewer children that can’t as easily happen with my vanload of children. Basically I think everyone (myself included) would do well to relax, and realize that the world is not typically focused on what you are doing.  Most of us are far too busy with our own problems and challenges to notice anybody else.

I would really encourage women with fewer kids to resist the urge to feel insecure around big families (we’re just regular people, I promise!), and I would encourage moms like me to resist even the slightest impulse to question someone because they may have a smaller family.  For one thing it’s highly uncharitable, but for another, you simply don’t know.  Maybe they tried to have more and couldn’t.  Maybe they struggle with health issues, be they emotional, physical or mental.  Maybe they have regrets about not having more kids.  Maybe it just shouldn’t matter to you.

So.  My name is Brianna.  I am an only child.  I have me a crazy bunch of kids, but if you don’t?  No problem.  I was an “only” and I turned out just fine, and I’m sure as heck hoping my own kids do too.  And you’re probably hoping the very same thing, so there’s no reason for either of us to feel insecure. And at this point it seems like maybe we should hug it out and sing Kumbaya, but as you can probably imagine I’m really pretty hugged-out–so I’d much prefer instead to meet you and your kiddos with me and mine at IKEA for free breakfast Monday or fifty-cent food court hotdogs.  I can’t guarantee there won’t be crying, shouting, arguing or even pooping, but hey, if nothing else it’ll be an interesting peek into the life of a mom to eight kids, who likes to shop and feed them on the cheap at IKEA.

I even have room in my huge van if you want a ride. Join me?

This article originally appeared on Ignitum.com and is used with permission.

Brianna Heldt is a mother to eight, recent convert to the Catholic faith, and writer who blogs at Just Showing Up. In addition to her three biological daughters, she and her husband are also parents to four adopted children from Ethiopia, including two daughters with Down syndrome. When Brianna is not busy blogging or homeschooling, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading good books, thrifting, and advocating for orhpaned children with medical needs. She lives with her husband and kids in Denver.

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  • Allison Grace

    Wonderful article! My husband is an Only and I have just one brother. We converted 9 years ago and now have 7 kids.

  • Mary C Donahue

    Good article

  • T

    Thank you for this article! We’re Catholic and have been judged many times for having one child. Very few people know that it took us three years to have him and we’ve had several miscarriages since then. They just assume that we are not ‘open to life’ and are using birth control. I’m an only child also, so I’m sure (hoping) that our son will grow up happy and well adjusted. Hopefully we’ll be blessed with more children in the future.

  • Ellen

    Thank you for this article. As I sat around a “new moms” meeting for a homeschool group, I heard them all say how they had 6, 7, 5 kids. I introduced myself, two kids, and one lady gave me the stink eye. Just two kids! Yes. I joke that we’re “underachievers” but the reality is that those two came to us after years of infertility and years of adoption process. If God would have given us more, of course we would have more! I don’t explain to people that our kids were adopted (they can usually figure it out) but rather carry on wondering why some feel like because we’re Catholic we must have a large family, and since we don’t we must be doing something “wrong”. Don’t be judgmental; you don’t know. 🙂

  • Patti Maguire Armstrong

    Thanks for your entertaining article. I have 10 and find the shocked reaction from people rather humorous. Often, people will start to talk about how busy they are, stop and look at me, and then take it back, saying something such as compared to me, they must not really be busy. I always laugh and tell them that I was busy when I had only one, so everyone gets to be busy no matter how many they have.