Last week I took my five oldest kids to the roller skating rink.

Their school was holding a fundraiser for my eldest daughter’s choir, and what kid doesn’t love to skate, so we loaded up and headed out.

It was my six-year-old’s first time skating at the rink, actually.  Back in our homeschooling days, we had the chance to attend homeschool skate sessions and lessons in the mornings—but back in our homeschooling days, I didn’t really have the bandwidth to haul my eight children around to various events because, well, I had eight children.  So the six-year-old is new to all things skating.

And I’m pregnant as can be right now, so I told my daughter that if she came along she’d essentially be on her own—I’d hardly be able to bend over to lace up her skates, much less assist her on the rink.  Plus I’m pretty much the world’s least athletic person so, you know, me on wheels wouldn’t be all that safe for the poor defenseless baby I’m carrying around in my womb either.  She insisted on coming, though, assuring me that she wanted to give it a shot, and I figured at the very least she’d get her hot dog and soda and we’d call it good.

Initially, she clung to the wall and propelled herself forward on the carpeted area outside of the rink itself.  She’s cautious but also a quick learner and a risk taker—she’s my kid that was doing crazy jumps into the pool during swimming lessons, when her terrified classmates didn’t want to put their heads under.  So before long she tired of being outside of the action and wanted to head out on the rink, which admittedly scared me, because there were some pretty big kids zipping around.

It was at this point that one of my other, older daughters happened along, who took note of the situation, grabbed her sibling’s hand without hesitation, and led her out onto the skating floor.

The next time I checked in, my little girl was being helped around by one of my other children.  And then another.  And another.

I guess I needn’t have worried about my daughter being alone.

Raising a large family is hard.  It necessitates no small number of sacrifices, decisions, prayers, and worries.  I regularly hear things like “I don’t know how you do it” and “Better you than me”, and I hear them so often that I don’t even really think about it anymore.  I usually just smile and say that yes it’s a little bit crazy but it’s also a lot of fun, or simply that yes, we are quite blessed.  And then among fellow large families, there’s a tendency to focus on how difficult it all is, because these are people with whom you feel free to be painfully honest about how much such-and-such drives you crazy.  

But it’s good, too, to spend time reflecting on the many positive aspects of having a gaggle of kids—things like sibling relationships, limitless opportunities for growing in empathy and compassion, and the natural way that good communication skills are developed and honed.  My daughters with Down syndrome, for example, have an army of buddies who love them.  Fiercely.  And at my house, there’s always a quorum for a game of soccer out in the field or driveway, and opportunities to participate in a rousing match of launching-shoes-at-each-other-off-of-large-sticks, an activity I found my children had invented this past weekend.  They don’t get along all of the time, but they accept one another, without condition.

So, in an increasingly digital age so often marked by loneliness and isolation, I take heart that even on the hardest of days, when multiple kids have the stomach flu or when I am sitting through a series of IEP meetings, my children have one another.  We are a noisy, funny, conspicuous bunch, but we are a family.  We have ups and downs and in-betweens, but we do them together.  LIfe is messy around here precisely because it’s so full, not unlike the sticky cups of orange juice my daughter likes to pour for herself and her younger sister at lunchtime.  (She insists on using a funnel, which is completely unnecessary and inevitably leads to further disaster, but she will not be convinced otherwise.)  

When there is so very much life being lived, there is going to be excess and overflow and chaos, and even occasional suffering.  

But still, it is ridiculously sweet.

When we left the roller skating rink to go home, my daughter was positively beaming.  The moment she hit the door, she raced as fast as her aching legs could carry her to tell her dad all about her adventures, and about how by the end of the night she was skating all by herself.  Then her older siblings gathered around (in spite of my stern directives to go get ready for bed), and gushed about how brave and good and impressive she was.  More beaming.

It’s funny because on that very same night a very wise friend, farther along in her parenting journey than I, said that she doesn’t think it is God’s intention for mothers (or fathers) to be all things to their children all of the time.  She mused that real life is lived not so much in lofty ideals, but in that daily grind in the trenches, where we are all just kind of muddling about and doing our best.  

And as I reflected more upon my friend’s words later, I realized that I had been feeling a little bit guilty that I had not taught my daughter to skate sooner, that I hadn’t gotten her to the homeschool skating lessons when I’d had the chance, and that I wasn’t one of the moms out on the floor with my kid.  I’d felt badly that I was throwing her to the wolves, and like maybe she was at a disadvantage because here she is in this big huge family, with a pregnant mother not agile enough to assist her around the rink without risking life and limb and baby.  

But my friend was right.  Mothers are NOT intended to do or be everything, and I have to wonder if my little girl’s heart would have been quite so full had she not had all those brothers and sisters rallying around her all night long.  I hadn’t asked or required them too, just casually mentioned that maybe they could see every once in awhile if she needed some help.  And of course they did, because they love their sister.  Meanwhile I was cheering her on and monitoring things from the sidelines, accompanying her but in a different, more hands-off (read: safer) role.

Which is how large families like mine work, I guess.  We’re all in this thing together, everyone has a part to play, and when one of us falls down, there are always a bunch of people running over to help him or her up.  Sure it’s messy and imperfect, but you have a lot of fun, and in the end you learn to skate.