Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
My youngest is nearing one year old, and my oldest is 15. Which means that everything from baby food and diaper rash cream, to driver’s permits and annotated copies of Beowulf are, quite literally, cluttering up my home.
It means I drive close to 10 teenage runners to cross-country meets every week, with a stroller in the back of my van. It means I sit in the bleachers at volleyball games with an active baby and rambunctious 3-year-old climbing all over the place. It means that when I’m tired — and yes, sometimes I do get tired — it’s because I’m staying up late to spend time chatting and laughing with, and occasionally counseling, my teens, getting up throughout the night to nurse my baby, and waking early with the entire school-age crew to see them off in the mornings.
Did I mention that sometimes I’m tired? Thank goodness for hands-on husbands and for quiet days at home that afford leisure, rest and rejuvenation!
Truth be told, I’m learning a lot about life and love and motherhood, having a family that is now so very “wide.” I’m learning what battles to pick, what matters the most, and the profound impact that a new little life can have on even the surliest of teen days. But perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve discovered through continuing to have babies after my other children have entered the teen years is the cultural expectation that a mother shouldn’t or won’t continue having babies, once the other children have entered the teen years.
Now I’m not saying that anyone is hostile toward me or my family — quite the opposite, actually. Because who doesn’t love a chubby little baby boy? At 10 months old my son is a fan favorite among both my teenagers and their friends. The runners exclaim with glee when they get to sit nearest the baby in his car seat, and spend the entire drive attempting to get him to smile at them. (Enter more gleeful exclamations every time he does. Which is often.)
So it’s not that anyone disapproves of my wide family, but moreso simply that we are an anomaly, sometimes even among Catholic families.
To be honest, I think the many benefits of the wide-family phenomenon are some of the best-kept secrets to a robust family life. No, it’s not easy. Yes, doing the big-kid stuff would be simpler were the infant (and all of his gear and crying and pooping) not inevitably along for the ride. Yes, doing the baby-kid stuff would be simpler were the teens not needing frequent counsel, or shuttling to sports practice or youth group or friends’ homes. Yes, there’s a lot to keep track of and manage. Yes, our family outings and vacations must be planned carefully so as to accommodate infants, toddlers, tweens, teens, and even children with special needs.
And, yes, it is worth it. Totally and 100% worth it. As in, I highly recommend it.
There is surely a reason, after all, that God designed married sexuality to include a general openness to children — and not just for a short season, but over the trajectory of the child-bearing years of a marriage. But the culture has had such an effect on our expectations of family life that we now look at wide families as a curse at worst, at the very least impossible to execute well, or at best a difficult challenge to be overcome — when in reality, they ought to merely be tangible evidence of the continuation of married love.
Far from being a phenomenon to be intentionally avoided, a wide family provides countless opportunities for learning patience, for pouring out love and for gaining perspective. It has the potential to cement bonds and deepen ties — something especially important in a family that includes adopted children, like mine does. It serves as a common mission, and a living testament to God’s goodness and provision. Our older children witness firsthand how we respond to setbacks and loss, and to triumphs and joy.
Parenting now, over 15 years in, is harder in some ways than it used to be, but it’s far more beautiful, too. So I would encourage fellow married women not to rule out a continued openness to children solely on account of age, either of her own or that of her oldest child’s. The gifts, the joys and the consolations of having both teens and infants at the dinner table simply cannot be overstated.
So as modern women continue to wage war against their biology, Catholics must not shy away from asking the hard questions. We must for example ask, honestly, what God wants not only from but for us. We must return, again and again, to the teachings of our Church. We must refrain from attempting to fit ourselves into the world’s mold which, while promising self-fulfillment and liberation, ultimately enslaves.
How to do this, practically?
For me personally, I find it wildly beneficial to read (and re-read!) the papal encyclicals, writings, and addresses that so eloquently cast God’s vision for authentic womanhood. Casti Connubii is a perennial favorite. As far as more recent works go, I loved Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility, and then of course Pope St. John Paul II’s subsequent papal addresses and encyclicals, which incidentally played no small role in my conversion to Catholicism in the first place.
(Keep in mind that I’m not talking here about the ins and outs of what people generally refer to as Natural Family Planning, or NFP — in my view, such things are merely tools to achieve an end, not an end unto themselves. What I am talking about, though, is the pursuit of truth in terms of who God has called me to be, as a woman. I am talking about my attempts at embracing my vocation to marriage and motherhood. I am talking about the way I orient my thinking and my heart. I am talking about the long game of motherhood, of being a wife. )
When I focus on such things, as opposed to what the world expects of me, all of a sudden my life makes so much more sense. There is a context, you could say. I find I’m less prone to discontent, and more likely to order my days in such a way that my home is a peaceful place to be, and my family is happy. I stop resenting the mundane details of running a household, things like laundry and meal preparation, and I find dignity and fulfillment in them instead. Domesticity becomes something powerful, life-giving and nourishing. Something capable of, dare I say, affecting cultural change.
There is something freeing about accepting one’s God-given station in life, or at least making the decision to work toward that acceptance, which no doubt takes a lifetime. Raising my children alongside my husband, babies and teens and everything in between, has been and will continue to be a gift marked by both joys and sorrows along the way.
But the one thing for certain is that a wide family never, ever ceases to be a gift.