Talking Back Softly to an Angry World

The Octuplet mom has prompted a slew of discussions online, over the airways and in print about the “proper size” of a family. Leaving aside the facts of Nadya Suleman, whom most would argue is a unique case, with multiple moral quandaries involved, the generic commentary about large families has been largely negative.

In The New York Times, of the 72 comments on a story about large families now being under attack, more than two-thirds of the reader-generated responses supported that thesis. Then the chair of Great Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission said that “abortion and contraception must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming.” He urged politicians to stop being afraid to call couples who have more than two children “irresponsible.”

The “Yeahs!” and “It’s about time!” statements that followed the article bore witness to an unpleasant attitude that has gained some credence: Modern society should have little tolerance for a family of more than two children, regardless of how the family came into being.

The gist of the commentary went as follows: Big families are apparently unfair to all the children after the first two. Money and love would be insufficient to meet the kids’ basic needs in families of so many. How is it, then, that society survived up until now if so many children were unwanted and unloved and uncared for because of the physical and emotional limits of parents?

It has been 50 years since the pill really became readily available and considered socially progressive, and suddenly any family that is not preplanned from conception through college is irresponsible. Any child after the first two is perceived as being underserved. Four or more and the plurality will not receive the care, enrichment, education and love necessary to adjust socially to society.

Yet families, big families in particular, require cooperation and sublimation of the self for the whole as a matter of daily functioning. Everyone gets times to shine and be the star, and everyone has times when they must cheer and work for everyone else. Coping with sharing and living with others would seem to be the objective of civilization, not the antithesis.

Next came the claims that the costs to society rendered by these irresponsible adults were too great. Big family cars, homes and energy needs are in excess of the rest of society’s and thus reveal a fundamental unwillingness to care about the world. Yet the same homes and cars would not be begrudged to a smaller family.

Then the argument shifted to long-term care. If one parent or both died, the state would be left holding the bag for the remaining parent and the brood. Aside from the rarity of such a tragedy, the hand-wringing seemed more designed to scold. All orphans are wards of the state if they have no family, not just those of large families. Yet only those born into larger families would be considered a burden on society.

Then the attacks turned green. Overpopulation meant that families that had more than the proscribed two created “an unbearable burden on the environment.” Indeed, one woman went so far as to declare that these people should have thought ahead, and if they still wanted a big family after the first two, they should have adopted.

The complaints against the woman washing Jesus’ feet came from similar-minded people. She could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. Jesus understood what she was giving, even as he understood those who scorned her had no love of him, her or the poor they wanted served instead. These large families interviewed had harmed no one, yet their existence was viewed as a threat to the whole planet. Christ calls us to be stewards of each other, and that trumps being a steward of the Earth, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, the criticisms of not simply large families, but any families that were “above the norm” in these discussions and forums, policies and articles, revealed the world’s hardness of heart that we as Catholics are called to try to soften.

The objective of our lives is not to live on the earth as though phantoms, which leave no impression and create no measurable effect on the world around us. The objective is to leave an indelible mark on people’s souls that lead them toward God and loving others better. God’s plan includes families of all sizes — and he has given each of us hearts bigger than we recognize, if only we will accept them.

Sherry Antonetti is a freelance writer

and a full-time mother to nine children.