Large American Families

Something that occurred this weekend is a great starting point for me to switch gears a bit. I'm tired of talking politics. Suffice it to say our country is in trouble...we know that. Not much else to say at this point. So on that note...

On Saturday my friend, who's a mother of five -- I believe I've mentioned her before for those of you who follow my blog -- went out for ice cream with the whole family. All seven of them. They were enjoying their ice cream in the back of their Suburban when an Asian family notices them. What does this family do? They start taking pictures of my friend and her family eating ice cream in their car! My friend said she felt what it must be like to be Brangelina. She also said, "Apparently a large family is a real spectacle." Indeed. Particularly to a culture -- assuming they were Chinese; perhaps they were of another descent -- whose laws require families to have only one child.

Large families are indeed an anomaly. Interestingly enough, my second book began as a project about the demise of large families in America (but evolved into a larger study about how and why childrearing is more difficult for the modern generation). It is a subject of huge interest to me, not just because I live vicariously through my friend's life but because of the reasons behind the decline in large families -- which has been holding steady since 1977. Since that time just over half of Americans – between 50 percent and 56 percent – have said smaller families are "ideal." Indeed, large families are so rare today that Americans are mesmerized by this lifestyle, as evident not just by reality television but in what happened to my friend this weekend.

It is no coincidence that the decline in large families corresponds with the decline in religion. Americans are much less religious than they used to be. An offshoot of this, I believe, is the rejection of the idea of devoting one's entire life to parenting. Because there's no question that the more children a couple has, the less independent lives -- the less time to oneself, the less time for friendships, the less time for marriage, the less time for careers --they will have. Moreover, as their last child heads off to college, the oldest will most likely be having his or her first child. It's a never-ending cycle of mothering for Mom -- which, for some women, works.

But it's not for most of us. While many people blame the cost of living for why families are smaller today -- as they do when explaining why most mothers are in the workforce -- this is not the underlying reason. The underlying reason why families are smaller (and why mothers of babies and young children return to work full-time) is that once people get a taste of how much easier life can be, they choose this route.

The decline in large families sure makes a great study of human nature. I have all the respect in the world for people who choose such a life, but I admit I cannot imagine the kind of selflessness that's required. (Same goes with homeschooling.) This week is a new beginning for me: My last child starts first grade and the house will once again be mine for seven hours a day. For the first time in 10 years, I will have silence, alone time, and a return to some sense of order. I will miss my children, of course; and these years at home with them have been priceless.

But the truth is, I can't wait to have my life back (so to speak). For me, two kids is perfect.

2 Responses to “Large American Families”:

  1. shevrae says:

    I think you've hit on it exactly - "the rejection of the idea of devoting one's entire life to parenting" and "But the truth is, I can't wait to have my life back (so to speak)."

    For me (a young homeschooling Mom with baby #4 on the way), raising my children is simply the most important thing I will ever do. I have an education in biochemisty, I spent some time working on a treatment for HIV, and I have several hobbies that I enjoy, but none of these compares to the importance of raising my children. Not even close.

    That makes my decisions easy, even if staying committed to them is sometimes hard.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Every time my family goes to downtown Washington, D.C., (with only 5 of my girls and our son) we are stared at and/or have pictures taken by/with Asian tourists...

    I always say that no matter how many children you have, it is hard, and that having a large family is not for everyone. Whatever number you choose should be right for you and your husband. Whereas I sometimes don't understand why women underestimate their abilities to handle more children, I don't think any less of those who choose differently than I. A life like the Duggars is not for me, either!

    The one thing I do encourage all couples -- no matter how many children they have -- to consider is adopting/fostering/mentoring older children. There are so many kids who need homes or guidance. Our family's situation hasn't allowed us to do this yet, but I look forward to the day when I can try to pay back a little for all the blessings I have received.

    Colette Moran