Our extended family and relatives have no more than two children; we have three at the moment. I would have never imagined that because of our choice to have more children than average we would encounter so many sideways looks, so much disapproval, and so little sympathy not only from acquaintances and neighbors, but even more so from our closest relatives.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to judge anyone and it is not meant to address every possible situation such as health or personal issues in the family. Each household makes their own choice about how many kids to have, if any, and that choice has to be respected. This article only describes my opinion and observations based on my personal experience.
For a long time I could not understand the reason for such resentment. We don’t rely on tax-funded welfare or on parental financial support and we only get very minimal babysitting help from our family. As long as we are self-sufficient, why would anyone dislike our family size choices? Recently I’ve realized what the reason may be. Our extended families from both sides come from the Soviet intelligentsia who customarily had only one or two children. In America, just like in the former Soviet Union, I see a similar tendency: the more “educated” people are the fewer children they are expected to have, even though both my husband and I have college education yet with regards to the number of children we think otherwise. It’s not customary in our extended family and social circle to have more than two children, so we don’t receive much sympathy and understanding. In addition, we are told that having more children requires a house, that it’s detrimental to our career, and that it puts a heavy burden on us.
There is surely a lot of truth in this. Things do become more difficult when you have more children. In general, it’s infinitely easier to have one or two widely-spaced children rather than three or more who are closely spaced (provided that the children are healthy in both cases of comparison). With more children, expenses inevitably add up even if you live frugally. Even if your children share rooms and even if you subscribe to the “more is merrier” mentality like we do, you end up feeling the need for a larger living space. Even if the older children help with the chores or with watching the younger ones, which definitely makes parents’ life a little easier, you still have a lot on your shoulders. No matter how friendly, unobtrusive, and quiet you try to be, your neighbors may start disliking you, mainly because our society has so much stigma around big families or because some people have personal issues or traumas related to children and parenthood. I can describe how much joy and fun multiple children bring, but to be entirely truthful I must also mention that there are many times when things become unpleasant, overwhelming, and outright stressful. I can repeat the mantra that “the diaper stage is temporary” and tell myself that it will be easier in the future, but the difficulties of raising a child, let alone multiple children, still remain very real in the present and are not to be dismissed. Life with children, no matter how many, is hard and requires a strong will, patience, and sacrifice. The more children you have, the longer that sleep-deprived diaper-changing period of your life continues and the harder your life gets.
Our values and principles make it even harder to have multiple kids. We unschool, which means that we spend all the time with our children. Even though it fosters family bonding and helps both parents and children to be in tune with each other’s needs, we don’t get the same lengthy daily break as do other families who send their kids off to school. We are very particular about healthy food choices and it puts an additional responsibility on us. It’s easy to toss a coke and a pizza to the kids, but it’s much harder to always be mindful of what they eat and to cook their food from scratch most of the time. Regardless, we are willing to take on the extra challenge because these are the values we strongly believe in.
So why are we doing it? Why not have only one or two kids and stop at that? We would have had more money left over, fewer dependents to worry about, easier vacations, and more time for ourselves. Beautiful, isn’t it?
Do we do it because we hope that our children will support us in the old age? Of course, it will be beautiful if they become rich enough to give us some spare cash. I would be all for it, but I don’t want to count on it because, after all, they will need to support their own families first. That’s why it’s important for parents to save for their own retirement as a priority rather than to spend the much needed money on children’s colleges, and that’s exactly what we do.
Do we do it because we want to enjoy having lots of grandchildren in our old age? Yes, that’s certainly part of the reason. My grandmother only has two grandchildren: my sister and me. Every time I visit her in a nursing home, I think with a deep sadness how unfortunate it is that we are not able to visit her more often and that, had she had more children and therefore more grandchildren, chances are that she would have had a lot more visitors and she would have been much less lonely. Having grandchildren is not on your mind when you are in your twenties, thirties, or forties, but we should all make an effort to think ahead: what will we want when we get older? Of all the people I know who belong to my parents’ generation, everyone wants grandchildren. So the more children we have, the greater are the chances that we will have more grandchildren. Why is having more grandchildren important? Wouldn’t one or two be enough? Not really, considering that not all of them may live near you and be able or willing to see you. The more grandchildren you have, the greater are the chances that you will always have at least some of them visiting you and bringing you joy.
The Real Reason
However, none of these things are the ultimate reason why we want to have more children. The real reason is simple, obvious, and entirely selfless. It’s something that I decided long before I even started to have kids: we want to create a big family not for our own sake, but for the sake of our children. Both my husband and I come from small families, and we’ve always wished we had more siblings, more cousins, more aunts and uncles. We want our children to have what we didn’t have, and this is the ultimate reason why we decided to create a bigger family with closely-spaced kids.
No social service or volunteering will teach your child compassion and responsibility the same way as caring for a sibling will. No school will provide the same emotional and educational experiences as learning together with older siblings will provide. No toys will replace playing with siblings (my oldest daughter doesn’t play with her dolls anymore because her baby sister gladly pretends to be a doll for my oldest to play with her). No amount of friends beats having close relationship with brothers and sisters. Friends are strangers no matter how good they are; brothers and sisters share your entire life with you. Friends may abandon you, but your brothers and sisters will always remain close. Having siblings means that you will never be alone, that you will always have someone with whom to share support, friendship, and memories.
One can argue that having more siblings deprives a child of parental attention, living space, and material goods. There is a common stereotype that children in big families are somehow neglected. While this may be the case with some families (regardless of family size), responsible and loving parents, including us, give plenty of time and attention to all and each one of their children no matter their quantity. But even if children with multiple siblings get somewhat less of certain material goods such as expensive toys, even if they have to share rooms or beds, so what? They learn to share and become less selfish and spoiled. Any imaginable inconveniences that come from having multiple siblings are nothing but temporary; in return, they get a life-long gift of having their brothers and sisters as their best and closest friends forever.
It’s true that in some families siblings are not close. But with small families the problem gets even worse, because if you are not in a good relationship with your only sibling, you have no other brothers or sisters to turn to. With bigger families, there is a better chance that at least some siblings will remain close.
How Parents Can Foster Sibling Closeness
If you have multiple kids, you probably want them to be friends with each other. Although it’s not completely under our control, we as parents can help by developing the correct approach. Here is what we try to do in our family:
Raise the children together. Homeschooling helps us a lot, because our children are not separated from each other during the school hours and spend full day together. They eat, sleep, learn, play, fight with each other, learn to resolve issues with each other, help each other, comfort each other – they go through all this together. But even if you don’t homeschool, you can still do your best to keep your children together during evening family time, weekends, school breaks, family vacations. Many parents I know keep children separated even outside the school hours: one kid goes to a summer camp, the other stays with grandparents, or mom takes one kid on a trip and the other stays with the dad, and so on. We don’t do that. We have family meals together and when we go on playdates, weekend trips or vacations, we almost never separate the children and do our best go together as one family. Is it more expensive to go on vacation with multiple kids? Yes. So we would rather wait and save up money to go together than unfairly take some kids on vacation and leave the others.
Be fair and avoid playing favorites. Unequal treatment of children by parents is a sure way to cause sibling rivalry. It’s a recipe for disaster in the family. It’s easy to be fair when your children are small – you just give a candy to each one, right? But the temptation to play favorites becomes more subtle as children get older. One child is more successful and talented and the other child struggles, so you are tempted to assume that the successful child does not need your care and attention as much as the struggling child does. I am not saying that parents should not help their needy child. I am saying that while helping one child, parents should always be mindful and responsive to other children’s concerns and be open and willing to discuss issues, provide help in a transparent manner, and find a way to express fairness and affection to all children equally.
Our vision is to build a family that’s bigger than average, and for that we are gladly willing to go through any difficulties, sacrifices, and social disapproval. The cultural stigma around big families is unjust and is plain wrong. If anything, the society should actually thank the parents who are caring, involved, and financially self-sufficient for having multiple children and for bringing into the world future workers and potential innovators who may solve some existing problems and make the world better. The social disapproval we are facing is sad, but it’s not demoralizing to us because we know that having multiple children is the right and selfless decision made not only for the public good, but mainly because we want our children to never be lonely and to always have each other’s support, friendship, and love, and the more siblings they have the more love they would get.