‘Everything Is a Blessing’: The Secrets of Large Families
Large families prove the exception to the demographic rule in U.S.
CHEVY CHASE, Md. — When Tom and Ceci Royals celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, their eight offspring hosted a party to mark the occasion.
All the Royals children were present, including Father Drew Royals, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and Mary and Margaret Royals, devoted sisters who both have Down syndrome and live with their parents in Chevy Chase.
Ask Ceci and Tom to explain their decision to have as many children God planned for them, and their delighted reminiscence of past events and conversations leads to an unexpected answer.
“It was one at a time,” Ceci told the Register, when she recalled the couple’s “openness” to life and the conversations and events that spanned the births of Father Drew, now 40, to their youngest, John Paul, age 25.
“We had three, and then thought, ‘We would be happy to do four.’”
“Once we got into the swing of special needs and therapy, we realized we could be open to another child,” Ceci added, recalling the challenge posed by Drew’s early health problems and their two daughters’ struggle with intellectual disabilities.
Her husband, who serves as assistant headmaster at The Heights, an independent preparatory school for boys in grades three to 12 in Potomac, laughed as he described their childbearing path as “an adventure from the start.” He remembered asking a priest during confession, “How am I going to do this?”
Yet, as they looked back on the toughest moments of the past four decades, the Royalses now believe that the number of children in their busy household mattered less than the way the two of them faced their circumstances, starting with a strong Catholic faith.
Early on, they sought to create a happy, ordered family life punctuated by daily Mass and the Rosary and the joyful celebration of saints’ feast days. Their children attended Catholic schools. And as parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda and members of the personal prelature of Opus Dei, they have been active in the local Catholic community and received ongoing formational support. Ceci also served as president of the National Institute of Womanhood, a civil society organization, from 1991 until 2008, focusing on issues of concern to women and the family.
That pattern of life made it possible for the couple to weather difficult times, and their example has inspired their children to do the same.
“God wants you to know that time is precious, and it is not to be squandered,” Ceci told Drew when he was a child and had to make sense of his serious health challenges.
“Drew told me, ‘Mom, it is a blessing.’ And that has been our experience: Everything is a blessing.”
Thus far, four of the Royals children have married — Ellen, Ann, Tom and James, who have all started sizable families of their own — and the 20th grandchild is on the way.
Witness to the World
Their story offers a window on an increasingly rare occurrence: Catholic couples who opt to have a large family, with their offspring following a similar path.
A demographic profile of American families released by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that the average Catholic family had 2.3 children, though researchers did not distinguish between self-identified Catholics and those who actively practice their faith by attending weekly Mass.
Overall, the U.S. is facing record population decline, with many U.S. women delaying childbirth and having fewer children when they begin their families, often raising them on their own.
The latest data have already fueled concerns about the future of the American family and led to dark predictions that many more U.S. citizens will face a lonely future, without the company of children or grandchildren.
The rising costs associated with rearing children, like saving for their college education, two-career families, a desire for more freedom and leisure time, and climate-change fears are among the reasons cited in the study for the decline in family size overall in U.S. society. But Catholic couples who have larger families than the current norm see things very differently.
And, like Ceci and Tom Royals, their personal stories and rules for life buck cultural trends that have resulted in a general shift toward smaller family sizes.
Kathleen Driver, a home-schooling mother of 9 in Oregon, came from a large family and was eager to replicate that experience when she married her husband, Mike, a physician.
“Some fear that as you have more children, you won’t be able meet their needs,” Kathleen told the Register.
“But in a large family, the love between the children and the parents multiplies.” Likewise, she believes that “God’s love never diminishes, and with every child, there’s more love to go around.”
Mike Driver wasn’t Catholic when he met his future wife, but he could “see all the love and advantages” of a large brood. Before long, he also made a commitment to stop prescribing contraceptives and was ultimately forced to close his family practice and become an emergency-room physician in Clarkston, Washington, near the Idaho-Washington border.
Today, Mike and Kathleen have seven boys and two girls, ranging in age from 11 to 29. One son is a neurosurgeon and another is a nuclear engineer on a submarine. A daughter has started her own family, while beginning nursing school, and one child has Down syndrome.
They live on a couple of acres in an Oregon town. They are near “an amazing community of Catholic home-schoolers” that inspired and supported the couple’s decision to transmit the Catholic faith to their offspring and educate them at home, explained Kathleen.
Mike also found that his decision to take up emergency medicine was a “blessing in disguise,” as his more limited and flexible weekly schedule freed up time he could devote to coaching his kids’ sports teams and helping with coursework.
Along the way, he has focused on building Christian virtues in his children, who help out with chores on their large property. Older siblings handle responsibilities like laundry duty and baby-sitting and provide an example for the younger children.
Their son Mark, 23, who will soon marry a classmate from Gonzaga University, said he understood early on “there are nine of us and two parents who couldn’t be doing everything. We needed to pitch in.”
Over the years, Kathleen has tried to spend more “one-on-one time,” with each of her children. But the couple also describe their style of parenting as “laid-back.” The demands of a large family simply don’t allow time for “micromanagement,” they said.
One exception to this rule is that Mike works hard to figure out how each child can get his or her college tuition covered, from tapping into interest-free loans to securing scholarships.
No doubt, parents with a large family learn to stretch a dollar and instill that practice in their children.
“The whole family makes the household income work,” Cathy Collins, a home-schooling mother of eight in Ojai, California, told the Register.
“The children begin to realize they can’t have everything, while Mom and Dad will sacrifice to give them the things that are most important. That is a good lesson in an era of consumerism.”
Meanwhile, Collins tries to run a tight ship, watching the household budget and staying organized, while assigning chores that will make her children more competent adults.
With each child’s arrival, their family “community” has made fresh adjustments. As this happens, Cathy sees God leading them down the path of spiritual growth.
The Collinses live near Thomas Aquinas College, with its Great Books program. Cathy’s husband, Sean, has taught at the college for more than two decades, and some of their children have studied there.
“If you can find a place where people share your values, that is a good place to settle,” said Cathy, noting the large number of home-schoolers that have sprung up near the college, providing friends and extracurricular opportunities, like church choir and outreach to the needy.
Parents like Cathy and Sean Collins see the importance of nurturing a “community” of persons that love and care for each other and have fun together.
“My interest in having a larger family was partly out of admiration” for their ability to “build a community where everyone helped each other,” Sean told the Register.
“I am struck that people who aren’t from a large family think it must be a big burden for the parents. They don’t understand that the children help each other a lot. I hoped that would happen with our family, and, for us, it turned out to be true.”
With great satisfaction, he described his family’s decision to help complete an addition on their home, with five of the children doing specific jobs, like preparing mortar or laying tiles.
Following the example of his own father, Sean tries to consult with each of his children before taking disciplinary action, in order to understand their point of view. He also believes that Catholic fathers should serve as mentors to their children and provide an example of faithful discipleship. One of the Collins sons is now in priestly formation.
But when he steps back and surveys the powerful cultural and economic currents roiling many U.S. families, Sean worries that many parents are under siege as they navigate a sea of troubles.
Speaking to the Register in the wake of two mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, he reflected on the fact that the shooters often “don’t have the experience of a stable family.”
“I am less concerned about whether people have large families than that people have good families, with good mothers and fathers,” he said.
The Collins’ oldest child, Liam, 28, a married software engineer based in Wichita, Kansas, echoed his parents’ views of family life. On the one hand, he worries about the declining number of his peers who want to have children or feel confident about their ability to handle the responsibility.
“It is the worst possible sign” of a society’s declining sense of hope in the future, said Liam of this attitude. “At the very root is a desire to no longer bear fruit and see another like your wife or yourself” come into the world, he said.
He doesn’t know why so many young Americans feel so unsure about starting families. But Liam’s own experience as the oldest of five boys and three girls has made him eager to begin his family.
“For me, there was a complementarity between the different ages in the family,” he told the Register. “I changed diapers while my mom was making dinner and helped my little sisters with school. The relationships within the family were good for the little kids.”
“But, in less obvious ways, they were also good for the older kids. My little brother, Joe, looked up to me, and it was encouraging to be admired,” he said.
Now, as he and his wife prepare for their first child, Liam feels “confident” about taking responsibility for a new human life entering the world.
Twenty-eight years in the Collins family, he said, was “a good training run” for the adventure to come.
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.
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