Last night I met a lovely woman about the same age as me at a dinner function. Sitting across from each other, we entered into general conversation about family life. I noticed her beautiful clear complexion against her pretty orange top as she spoke joyfully about parenting. Like me, she had boys, but unlike me, she had seven of them!
“Seven?!” I asked, incredulously.
She nodded, unfazed.
“How old are they?” I asked.
“Twelve to twenty-four.”
The woman’s father, who was sitting next to her, piped in, “And all their names begin with Br.”
This prompted me to guess what they were: “Brian, Brendon, Bradley, Brock...?” which was as far as I got. “Did you give birth to them all, or are some adopted?” I couldn’t help inquiring.
The woman smiled. “They’re all our natural children. We kept trying for a girl.” Then she told me that the odds of having a girl actually decrease with each subsequent male child, but since they weren’t fanatic about the gender, they never investigated medical means to improve their chances.
I learned that the family built a cottage together and that the boys often help their retired grandfather with renovations and handy work, bonding with him while learning useful skills. The kids all get along well (apart from the occasional scuffle) and they watch each others’ backs. They also include one another in their social activities. The family contributes time to volunteer programs, such as “Out of the Cold,” including cooking Christmas dinner for a men’s shelter.
I’m writing about this because I can’t stop thinking about it. I am in awe. How is it humanly possible to raise seven sons (who all sounded like really good kids) and remain not only unscathed, but buoyant? If this were me, I’m sure I’d look haggard and old and terribly anxious. I’d always be worried about somebody. There is a saying that goes: “A mother can only be as happy as her most unhappy child.” With such a large brood, there’s apt to be at least one child who is struggling or suffering, in some way, at any one time.
I love being a parent. I’ve loved every stage of our sons’ development and I’ve revelled in watching their personalities develop while guiding them through their childhood. But life is busy and full of challenges along the way. Parenting our two boys (not to mention driving them all over the city) takes the two of us, and I can hardly imagine what it would be like managing seven. I have friends with four children and their lives seem a complicated maze of navigating school work, sports and music programs, social worlds and all-consuming domestic chores.
I didn’t have a chance to ask my dining companion how she does it. Do they have a car that fits nine people? Does she have extra help in the home? How does she have time to do volunteer work? Does she have two ovens, two fridges, five bathrooms? Who does the laundry? How many bedrooms do they have? What was it like to have several tots in diapers simultaneously?
In the past, large families were the norm rather than an anomaly. Especially if you were Catholic or living in the country, running a farm. As soon as the kids were old enough, they’d work the fields, milk the cows, and perform household chores. The older siblings would help raise the younger ones and the family worked like a community rather than a small unit. Twelve children or more was not a rarity.
According to Statistics Canada, the birth rate per average Canadian woman was 1.6 children in 2007 (we need 2.1 to replace ourselves). In 1959 the birth rate reached its peak at 3.94 children per family. Since then, there has been a steady decline. This is partly because women are waiting until later in life to start a family, using birth control, achieving higher levels of education, and having growing concerns about bringing children into a world plagued by terrorism, global warming, and general instability.
Nonetheless, some people still choose to have many children. The more, the merrier. Many of the larger families today comprise two blended sets of children. Think “Brady Bunch.” However, a blended home doesn’t usually consist of more than five or six children at any one time.
My father has a distant relative who had nineteen children. All natural births. I never met this family, but when I was young, I’d hear the occasional passing comment about them. The parents had emigrated from Hungary to Vermont after the Second World War. They lived in the country, but were well off and could afford a comfortable lifestyle because of royalties inherited from Franz Lehar, the famous Hungarian composer. In my mind, the concept of eighteen brothers and sisters was surreal. The setting, the plot, and the characters in the story were suggestive of an expanded fictional version of “The Sound of Music.”
Contemporary life does not seem conducive to producing huge families. Just the cost of raising children makes it practically prohibitive for most of us. Yet there is evidently a way to make it work. One must have courage, financial capability, and a whole lot of love to pass around. I’m still in awe of the lady I met last night who has seven boys, and, to be honest, a wee bit jealous—I love the idea of a big boisterous household...in theory!