On the desk in my husband’s office sits a black-and-white photo of his grandparents’ massive brood from sometime in the 1930s. One of their nine children is missing, dead of an infectious disease that medical science has long since vanquished.
Today, the photo seems like a relic. Increased confidence that children will survive, along with better birth control and more women working, has led to much smaller families. The average number of babies born per American female now stands at about 2.1, barely above replacement level. Most people feel that smaller families mean more parental time and more resources for each child, and, on a broader scale, less damage to the environment.
But Mother’s Day seems like an appropriate time to recognize that big families have benefits too.
As the mother of seven children — and as a physician and researcher — large families have always interested me. I can speak from experience when I say that children growing up with several siblings learn that many viewpoints must be accommodated, and they become skilled in the arts of working as a team and forming strategic alliances. These skills are a big advantage in today’s workforce.
I know a Los Angeles mother of nine who does childcare to supplement her family’s income (which tells you how much she loves children). She tells about the time her 3-year-old was hospitalized with a very serious illness. Each child in the family had specific responsibilities, and this little boy’s daily chore had been to keep the stairs free of clutter. When visiting her son, the mom casually remarked that without his daily ministrations, the stairs were becoming almost impassable. That conversation made a huge difference in his attitude. He was determined from that point to get better, in part so that he could resume his important role in the family.
Large families use fewer resources per child. Heat and electricity don’t go up considerably whether there is one child or 10 in the home. Clothing is reused. Loads of washing are seldom done for just a few items. And though it’s true that more children ultimately leave a bigger environmental footprint, they also go on to pay more taxes and support our stressed Social Security system. In Europe, where family size has dropped alarmingly, government officials are wringing their hands about how the social safety net can be maintained as baby boomers retire, placing greater demands on the system with fewer people paying into it.
Large families are also fun. Many parents of big families will tell you that their homes are a magnet for other people’s children. A classmate from my long-ago high school days, who lives on Long Island, had six children, while another classmate living nearby was the mother of only two. The kids from the small family could often be found in the six-child household because that was where the action was. One of the two then proceeded to have four children of her own, attempting to reproduce the camaraderie she’d experienced as a visiting adolescent.
Parents of one or two children sometimes worry that their children will grow up thinking they’re at the center of the universe. It is difficult to be overly self-centered when sharing resources with several siblings.
Adult children in healthy large families become a valuable support system for one another, whether it be in sharing the care of aging parents or in helping one another in times of stress. Mary Ann Bitter, a Texas mother of 13, recalls a frightening time when one of her adult daughters developed breast cancer. Every one of her daughter’s siblings pitched in, with one coming from Britain. (Her daughter is now cancer-free.)
My own seven children are now grown, and because it’s Mother’s Day, I feel entitled to brag that two of them have doctorates and all have postgraduate degrees. It wasn’t always easy: I still recall the days when four hours’ sleep seemed a luxury. Yet nothing, not even my medical career, has been as important as my role as mother.
America has always found strength in diversity. People choose to have one or two children for good reasons. But it’s important to remember that people have large families for good reasons too. The next time you see parents pushing a double stroller, with a couple of preschoolers hanging on to the sides, don’t judge them negatively. Just give them all a big smile and tell them what a wonderful family they make.
Katherine Schlaerth is an associate professor emeritus at the USC School of Medicine and a practicing physician. Her book, “Raising a Large Family,” came out in 1991.