Big Families: Desired or Undesirable?

May 9, 2009

12 min read


A frank discussion with a mother of 11 on the pros and cons of large families.

Living in the exotic Old City of Jerusalem, and needing to make ends meet by renting out our guest room, I have hosted many young, accomplished American women travelers as my boarders. Over herb tea in my kitchen, some have wanted to talk about Eastern religions, some about Israeli politics, and some about feminist issues.

One young woman confided in me her shock and dismay at discovering that most religious families have half a dozen children, and some a full dozen! To her, this was a flagrant violation of her most cherished ideal of zero population growth.

"How can anyone who cares about the future of the planet go about brazenly overpopulating it like this?" she asked me with a combination of disbelief and pique. "I can understand such disregard for the problems of overpopulation in uneducated women living in third world countries, women who have never heard of birth control. But in the religious community here, I've been meeting educated, modern women who make a positive ideal out of large families. Why are so many apparently intelligent women filling up their already cramped apartments and emptying their already depleted pocketbooks in an energetic effort to produce large families?"

Having married a month short of my 39th birthday, I felt blessed to have two children – one born when I was 41, another when I was 46. I certainly was not qualified to expound on the merits or demerits of large families. So I arranged for my vexed boarder to meet with one of my teachers from a Jerusalem women's college, an articulate mother of 11 children. Their encounter took place across my kitchen table.

Q: Given the dire state of overpopulation in the world, isn't it socially irresponsible to give birth to eleven children?

A: It's very easy to attribute all the things that are wrong with the world to external causes. But what's really wrong with the world is violence, avarice, and callousness. All of the problems in the world could be solved if there were good people. It's a qualitative, not a quantitative, issue. The problem isn't that there are too many people. The problem is that there are not enough good, caring people.

If you see the world in purely physical terms, then the more people, the less each one gets.

If you see the world in purely physical terms, then of course, the larger the population, the less resources are available to each person; each one gets a smaller sliver of the pie. But if you see the world in spiritual terms – that the planet is here to provide a setting for souls to learn and grow, and that each soul who comes into this world has a mission and shines a light – then the more people, the more light.

The issue really is: Do more children bring more light or more darkness? The answer is: It depends on how they are raised and what they are raised towards.

Certainly, the amount of spiritual light in the world is increased by the presence of more good people. Conversely, producing just two children whose basic self-definition is as materialists and consumers, using a disproportionate amount of the world's resources for their physical satisfaction, may deplete the world more than it benefits the world.

Q: If this is indeed the goal of your community, then we should find numerous examples of adults who are significantly helping the world. Is this in fact true?

A: I can tell you about my own family. Of my children who have reached adulthood – all are in the helping professions. Two of my daughters and one of my sons are teachers. My second daughter directs a special education facility. Another daughter stays at home to raise her children, but volunteers a tremendous amount of time and energy finding good foster homes for children in emergency situations.

My second son is still studying, but devotes a lot of time to outreach programs, reaching out to his fellow Jews in order to improve the spiritual quality of their lives, usually without remuneration. My next son is finishing his term of service in the Israeli army, and also gives classes in the evening to youth. By the way, my family is in no way exceptional.

Q: It cannot be that in a family of over ten children that each child gets the attention from the parents – in terms of time and energy – that a child from a smaller family gets. Given that, aren't you depriving your children of the attention they need to develop optimally? And aren't you also depriving them of the enrichments which, let's face it, only money can buy?

A: When you talk about time and energy – as with any other resource, you have to ask how much is required to achieve your goal. If your goal is to heat a house for 24 hours, and you can heat that house with fifty gallons of oil, you wouldn't need to worry about supplying that house with a hundred gallons of oil per day.

One way to gauge if parents are giving enough attention is to look at those children as adults.

One way to gauge if parents are giving their children enough time and attention to produce well-adjusted, secure, reasonably happy, and altruistic adults, is to look at those children when they reach adulthood. If the children are well-adjusted, secure, happy, and altruistic, then whatever amount of time and attention the parents gave them was apparently enough.

Is it accurate to say that children who grow up in small families are happier? More secure? More altruistic? I certainly doubt it.

I have friends with one or two children who tell me that it's a major problem in their neighborhood of a very few children to find a friend for their child to play with every afternoon. And if the friend rejects their child, as can often happen with children, their child's whole self-image crumbles. In large families, where there's always a playmate a couple years older or younger, the problem of making friends does not assume such importance.

The same is true about enrichments which cost money, such as lots of educational toys, computer programs, art lessons, etc. I could argue that these are replacements for having a set of live-in playmates. A brother or sister is a constant source of stimulation, which needs no batteries, never performs an illegal operation (well, not the computer kind, anyway), and teaches a lot about interpersonal relationships.

If you would interview the children of large families, and ask them, "Would you rather have more toys, or another brother or sister? Would you rather have your parents or your siblings sit down and play dominoes with you?" the answers might surprise you.

Q: But doesn't a lot of the security in large families come from the older children raising the younger children? Is this fair to the older children, especially the first daughter, who often has to shoulder much of the responsibility for her younger siblings?

A: There's a metaphysical rule in Judaism that, in terms of material things, the more you give, the less you have, while, in terms of spirituality, the more you give, the more you are. It may be accurate that the older children share the burden of raising their younger siblings, but this often gives them a stronger sense of self-confidence, achievement, and the ability to deal with life.

Older children who help raise younger siblings are more confident and better able to deal with life.

If you actually spent time with a large family, I think you would be impressed at how much joy there is. Of course, every family has their share of squabbles. But, in general, I see a lot of security, sharing, mutual inter-dependence, and laughter in my family and other large families I know.

Q: What about the women themselves? From the time you gave birth to your first child, at age 19, and for the next thirty years, you've had to work incredibly hard at keeping house, raising children, holding down a part-time job, not to mention fulfilling your other obligations. Didn't you ever feel like having a little time for yourself?

A: Certainly the main part of my life has been spent raising my family. If you're comparing me to career women or mothers of small families, the crucial question is: "Is a particular woman's occupation satisfying to her, and does it develop her or leave her time for self-development?"

I can't imagine an occupation which is anywhere nearly as satisfying as building people. Could building bridges, designing clothes, constructing advertising campaigns... could any of these be as personally satisfying as building human beings? Now of course, I could have been a social worker or a psychologist, who also are involved with people, but there my commitment would have been short-term. Isn't a long-term commitment to particular people more satisfying than a revolving door-clientele?

Let's say I had chosen to become a psychologist instead of a mother of a large family. The question remains: Would there be time for other interests? The answer is also the same: It would be difficult, but if I wanted to fit into my schedule an exercise routine, a hobby, or an occasional outing with a friend, I could. No one with a career pursues her own interests all day every day. And neither do I.

Q: You must admit to some level of physical exhaustion. Waking up in the middle of the night to nurse a baby for years, or even decades, on end must take its toll.

A: Exhaustion is a real issue. And the fact is, again, that many other careers demand a tremendous expenditure of energy and time. One doesn't stop brain surgery in the middle to play a round of tennis (hopefully, that is).

This is an issue that has to be dealt with through prioritization. Of course, taking care of oneself is as important as taking care of someone else. No matter what comes up in the afternoons, I give myself a nap from 2 o'clock to 3:30. Everyone in the family knows that mother is resting during that time, and no one dares disturb me. This is a matter of discipline.

A mother of a large family will work herself into exhaustion if she doesn't learn how to prioritize.

Many women fail in this discipline. They feel the need for a nap, but then the phone rings, and they can't resist answering it. Or the baby falls asleep, and instead of jumping into bed that minute, and getting a solid two hours' nap, they decide to "just" do the dishes and "just" fold the laundry, and before they know it, their two hours have disappeared.

Women also have to learn not to sacrifice their rest on the altar of their self-image. In the above example, the mother might feel less of a homemaker if her husband comes home to a sink full of dirty dishes, or the laundry remains unfolded. But, so what? That's what I mean by "prioritization."

Q: Do you have household help?

A: I always had household help, because I work out of the house during the morning hours. I'm a teacher – this is for me a secondary career which I engage in for my own fulfillment. Most of what I earn goes to pay for household help. I don't believe that the mother has to be the one who washes the dishes and folds the laundry.

Q: But you do believe that the mother has to be the one to raise the children. By working outside the home, aren't you hiring someone else to raise your children?

A: In Israel, children go to government preschools from the age of three. It's true that I did leave my toddlers in the morning hours with hired help. But I carefully chose someone whose career was to take care of children, and I paid her a third or more of what I made. In fact, the woman who worked for us for twenty years was regarded like a member of our family. She was an older, childless woman, who treated my children like the grandchildren she never had. I paid her a significant portion of my earnings, far more than the going rate, because I considered top-quality childcare a priority. I considered my children an investment worthy of her.

Q: In almost all countries where people have large families, the government ends up giving large doles to support the children. I understand that the Israeli government gives quite generous child allowances. Isn't this an unfair drain on the taxpayers?

A: The child allowances here are not what most people would consider "quite generous." They amount to around $100 per child, so no family actually lives off the government grant. I would like to point out something about the government's intent. The Israeli government realizes that its greatest resource is people. Israel is not Texas nor Montana. We do not have oil, mineable ore, or miles of rolling fields of grain from sea to shining sea. If Israel is going to succeed, we need highly motivated, able people. Nobody can provide the state with this manpower without having them.

Q: In all honesty, during the years when you were producing children at a rate of one every two years, didn't you feel like a baby machine?

A: I certainly did sometimes feel like I was involved in a cycle of meaningful work that wasn't always spontaneous or exciting, but I would say that this is true in every career. A doctor seeing her fourth earache of the day does not feel the same excitement and inspiration as when performing her first heart surgery. A professor marking the 37th freshman paper on Hamlet may also find it tedious.

I think that the concept of careers outside the home has been overly glamorized. Every career has its monotonous components. And every career has its peak moments of inspiration and creativity. Motherhood is second to none in the frequency of such moments. In all honesty, how could producing a book or a computer program be anywhere nearly as gratifying as producing a human being?

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