And Baby Makes How Many?
“No,” Mrs. Gunnip replied, “I picked some up at the food court.”
But it was harder to find a retort for the man in line at the supermarket, who said within earshot of her youngest children, “You must have a great sex life.”
Now her family, like other larger families, as they call themselves, is facing endless news coverage of the octuplets born in California and a new round of scorn, slack jaws and stupid jokes.
Back when the average woman had more than three children, big families were the Kennedys of Hickory Hill and Hyannis Port, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the Cosbys or “Eight is Enough” — lovable tumbles of offspring as all-American in their scrapes as in their smiles.
But as families have shrunk, and parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor. The families know the stereotypes: they’re polygamists, religious zealots, reality-show hopefuls or Québécois in it for the per-child government bonus. And isn’t there something a little obsessive about Angelina Jolie’s quest for her own World Cup soccer team?
“Look at the three shows on TLC that have bigger families,” said Meagan Francis, the 31-year-old author of “Table for Eight,” which stems from her experience raising four children (she is expecting her fifth next month). “One is about religious fundamentalists, one has sextuplets, the other is a family of little people,” she said, referring to, respectively, the Duggars of “17 Kids and Counting,” “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” and “Little People, Big World,” about two dwarfs raising four children, three of average stature, on a pumpkin farm in Oregon.
“You get the feeling,” Ms. Francis added, “that anybody who has more than three kids is either doing it for bizarre reasons or there’s a medical anomaly.”
In the last several days, the British government’s environmental adviser declared it “irresponsible” to have more than two children. And Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, asserted that including contraception in the stimulus package could reduce government spending. Ms. Pelosi, herself the mother of five, was arguing against unwanted pregnancies, not families who choose to have big broods. But no matter — larger families see the attacks piling up.
On Internet forums and blogs, like lotsofkids.com and largerfamilies.com, the mothers defend themselves against the accusations that they can’t possibly give each child enough love or that they are hogging the earth’s scarce resources. They resist, and resent, efforts to lump them with the Duggars, the Jon and Kates and the octuplets.
Many mothers, in fact, shared the revulsion and the ethical questions about the in vitro fertilization that led to the birth of the eight babies by the unwed and unemployed California mother. Yet they also say that the reaction to her turned harsh only when it was revealed that she had six additional children. Octuplets were amazing; 14 is gross.
Referring to a news show correspondent who seemed “disgusted” by the story, one mother on lotsofkids.com wrote, “I wanted to bounce her judgmental little head off a wall.”
Ms. Francis, the founder of largerfamilies.com, said, “I can’t imagine having 14 children, but I do think it’s possible to raise 14 and do a great job.”
She continued: “People feel like they have some say or some ownership over your kids or the way kids are being raised. It’s this symbol of who you are and your values.”
If large families are the stuff of spectacle, it is partly because they have become rarer.
In 1976, census data show, 59 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 percent had five or more and 6 percent had seven or more.
By 2006, four decades after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to use birth control (and the last year available from census studies), 28 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 4 percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.
“Three is still O.K.,” said Michelle Lehmann, the founder of lotsofkids.com and a mother of eight children who lives outside Chicago. “When you have four, people start raising eyebrows. When you go to five, people are like, ‘No way.’ ”
Beyond 10? “They think you are lying,” said Mrs. Gunnip, who also writes two blogs for so-called mega-families, those with eight or more children.
Leslie Leyland Fields, a mother of six in Kodiak, Alaska, recalled her boss’s response when she announced she was pregnant with her fifth child and resigning as a professor at a state college: “This is what, your 9th or 10th?”
Ms. Fields, who had four children and then two unexpected but welcome pregnancies in her 40s, said, “Inevitably, people would come up to me in a patronizing way, sidle me away and whisper, ‘Let me tell you how this happens.’ ”
In a 2006 article, “The Case for Kids,” in Christianity Today, Ms. Fields lamented new social norms that assume that multiple children burden the goals of educated, professional women: “The smart, ambitious, fully realized 21st-century woman chooses career. The ambitionless woman has children.”
In an interview, Ms. Fields added: “Choosing to have a large domestic life is often seen as negating the professional and the public. I think it’s very healthy and wonderful to have a foot in both worlds.”
With more children, she had to change jobs, but her career, she said, has become more fulfilling: she teaches graduate students instead of undergraduates now, requiring less time in the classroom, which has allowed her to write three more books.
“The criticism feels elitist,” she said. “It’s coming from educated people, which makes me think, You have no excuse for thinking in such stereotypes.”
The article in Christianity Today unleashed a flood of hate mail. One reader wrote in all capital letters: “Did it ever occur to you that if you really want to serve God you should have less children so you’d have more time to serve God?” (“You can’t enter into debate with people who have that kind of rage,” Ms. Fields said.)
With anecdotes of a boomlet in larger families in places like the Upper East Side of Manhattan and select pockets of suburbia, large families are presumed to be either really rich, having children as status symbols, or really poor, living off the dole and completely devoid of culture.
The hayseed assumption prompts a howl from Barbara Curtis, mother of 12, ages 8 to 39, in Loudoun County, Va. “They expect me to come crawling in from Appalachia or something,” she said. In fact, she is a Montessori teacher, and her husband is a commercial accounts manager for an auto company. One son is entering a graduate program in opera, and another was in New York last week auditioning for a theater touring company. Her sixth son was the only National Merit Scholar finalist in his high school class, she said.
Mrs. Curtis illustrates one of the many ways that families grow so large: she had two children from her first marriage, then, with her second husband, seven in 10 years. One of those children had Down syndrome, so they adopted another Down syndrome child, believing two would grow up happier together. Since then, they have twice accepted requests to adopt another child with Down syndrome.
“Children are a kind of wealth,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on.”
Still, for many mega-families, existence is hard. Their homes are usually cramped; college often means community college. Parents work long hours on top of the demands of raising so many children. And while the census does not break out income statistics for larger families, women without a high school diploma have about one more child on average than women with graduate or professional degrees.
Mrs. Gunnip is a homemaker in upstate New York, and her husband works as a supervisor in a county sewer department. She says they could qualify for public assistance but choose not to apply, believing others need it more. “I can’t say how we do it, and on paper it looks like we don’t do it, but there’s always a way,” she said. “My kids never go hungry. They do activities they want to do, we go on vacation. We don’t go to Disney, but we go camping.”
Many large families are religious, and some follow the QuiverFull movement, which takes encouragement for big families in Psalm 127: children are the gift of the Lord, “as arrows are in the hand of a mighty man,” and “happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”
Those beliefs can run headlong into environmental concerns. At 6.8 billion people, the world population has more than tripled in the last century, and demographers expect it to exceed 9 billion by midcentury.
“Every single person has multiple impacts on multiple environmental resources,” said Alan Weisman, the author of “The World Without Us,” which advocates a one-child policy to return the world to early 20th century population levels. “It’s a no-brainer that the more people there are, the more stress there is on an ecosystem that doesn’t get any bigger.”
Parents of large families counter that they have an economy of scale: a light bulb lights a room whether there are 4 people or 14. Their children learn not to take long showers, to share space, to appreciate hand-me-down toys, clothes and books.
“Large families are some of the greenest families,” Mrs. Gunnip said. “They don’t tend to have a lot of money, so they make sure things go as far as they can.”
And besides, they say, the birth rate in the United States is barely at the level needed to replace the population. Total fertility rate, which predicts the number of children an average woman will have in her lifetime, reached 2.1, considered replacement level, in 2006, but it was the first time it had been that high since 1971. A small percentage of large families, they say, is not enough to tip the balance.
As for whether their children suffer a poverty of time and attention, parents of large families say they make better parents. For while spending time with each child individually is possible, hovering is not.
“You have to let go of a lot of the ideas of the kind of parent you wanted to be,” Ms. Francis said. “That’s not a bad thing. If you hold on to the idea that you can control everything, well, you can’t. They become their own people. With big families, it gets beaten out of you.”
As for the other pointed questions about large families, defenders have developed standard comebacks, lists of which circulate on the Internet.
How can you afford so many? “Lifestyles are expensive, not kids.”
Don’t you know what causes that? “Oh, yes, I now wash my husband’s underwear separately.”