Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I’m an only child. My husband is an only child. My dad is an only child. I grew up around small families: I can’t recall a single friend who had more than two siblings living at home, and none of my close friends ever had a baby in the house during the time I knew them. So the fact that I now have five children ages seven and under sometimes makes me feel like I’m living in a bizarre dream world. If you had told me ten years ago that this is where my life would be in 2012, after I regained consciousness I would have tried to imagine what the average day would look like. And I would have been mostly wrong. In some ways big family life is harder than I would have guessed; in other ways it’s easier. Overall, it’s simply…not what I would have imagined.
I was thinking about this the other day (as I loaded the dishwasher for the second time that morning), and narrowed it down to the top seven things that have been most surprising to me about what it’s actually like to have a big family:
1. The chaos increases gradually
When I first got to know some big families, one of the aspects of their lives that seemed most impossible to me was mealtime. When I was pregnant with our second child I thought of a local family who had five kids, and just about started hyperventilating when I imagined myself trying to cook a dinner for seven people. Now I do it all the time, and it’s really not that big of a deal. Yes, it would have been utterly overwhelming back when I was used to cooking for three, but the additional servings came about gradually, with each child eating only a little more with each passing week. It’s like that in many other areas of life as well: The work has increased, but it’s increased slowly. I once came across a great blog post in which a mother of twelve gave her answer to the frequent question, “How do you do it with all those kids?” Her answer: “One at a time.”
2. Every day is a playdate
With my first child, I was his 24/7 entertainment director. Since I was the only other person in the house with him during the day, I was enlisted into service when it was time to build with blocks, blow bubbles or draw pictures. It was great to enjoy those moments with him, but as we started having more children I worried that I would quickly get stretched too thin—there simply weren’t enough hours in the day for me to do that with multiple children! What I see now is that it’s just a totally different dynamic with a bunch of kids in the house: They’re all so busy playing together, there aren’t even very many opportunities for me to join in when I want to. I still make effort to get regular quality time with each child, but I’m no longer the kids’ only source for daytime entertainment.
3. People want to hang out at your house
I would have guessed that having a large family crammed into a relatively small house would mean that the neighbors would give our home a wide berth. After all, we barely have room for ourselves, let alone guests! To my great surprise, I have found that just the opposite is true. The more kids we have, the more people seem to be attracted to our house. When we hang out in the front yard, the sight of five children running around acts like a tractor beam for the other kids in the neighborhood. I suppose it’s the same mechanism that works with parties: Everyone loves a crowded event, and our house is like a party with a great turnout.
4. You get economies of scale
The cost of having children is not directly proportional to the number of children you have. Kids can share clothes and toys; you get good bang-for-the-buck by buying groceries in bulk; and many places now offer sibling discounts for lessons and activities. Also, you’re highly motivated to find deals and save money. In some areas our household budget has actually decreased from what we spent back when we only had one child, simply because we’re much more serious about frugality now.
5. It’s easier to let your kids find their own paths in life
I think most parents at least occasionally feel the temptation to steer their kids’ lives in a specific direction, regardless of whether it’s a fit for who they are or where God’s calling them (a prime example of this being the fact that so many parents discourage their children from pursuing religious vocations). I still fight the urge to get attached to visions of how each of my kids’ lives will unfold, but I will say that it’s gotten easier as our family grows. Part of it might be practical, in the sense that a larger number of kids means greater odds that at least one of them will be drawn in a direction that really resonated with me. But the biggest factor is simply that each child’s uniqueness in relation to his or her siblings is a new reminder that God has a special plan for each one of us.
6. You can still take vacations
Ten years ago, one of the things that would have frightened me about the prospect of having a big family would have been the difficulty of taking vacations. One of my favorite childhood memories is of a trip my parents and I took to the Cayman Islands when I was ten. We weren’t rich, but we saved up for it, and with only three people we were able to keep costs relatively low. Needless to say, my family of seven isn’t going to the Caymans any time soon, but I’ve found that there are plenty of neat vacation opportunities that are more big-family-friendly. Going back to point #2, even a trip to a nearby rented lakehouse can be tons of fun when you have a bunch of people. I know big families that have a blast on low-cost trips like camping or even just following local hiking trails. Maybe exotic vacations involving air travel are hard to come by, but there are still plenty of fun experience to be had—and lots of people to share them with.
7. You get used to the noise. (Sort of.)
I was raised in an environment that was like a library, but not so loud. When the cat let out an occasional meow, it was like a grating alert siren compared to the silence that had preceded it. Given this background, nothing could have been less familiar to me than the chaos that comes with a house full of young children. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I visited some friends who had two children and the noise just about gave me a migraine. The whole car ride back I said over and over again that I could never deal with that. Fast forward eight years, and now I live in an environment that occasionally mimics what you’d see if someone gave espresso to the howler monkeys at the zoo. You’d think I would have snapped by this point, but I am shocked to report that I’m mostly used to it. Per #1, the noise increases gradually as the family grows, so it’s not like you wake up one day and suddenly feel like you’re part of some scientific experiment involving the endurance of the human eardrum. I still have moments where I scream over the screaming that I cannot take this racket anymore, but for the most part I’ve learned to take it in stride—and it helps that those little noisemakers also happen to be my favorite people in the world.
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Needless to say, happy families come in all sizes. I had a great childhood as an only child, and my kids are (hopefully) having great childhoods here in our crowded house. But perhaps because of my own background, or because of the modern cultural climate, I am always surprised that this works. I keep expecting for it all to fall apart, and for everyone to be miserable because we have too many kids. Yet that’s never happened; and, in fact, I continue to be surprised by the number of hidden blessings that come with life in a big family.