Parents of Large Families: Ours is a Public Ministry

family-silhouette-featured-w740x493I went to the dentist last week and when it was my turn to have my teeth cleaned, the energetic 23-year-old hygienist made small talk as she prepped the room for x-rays.

“Your husband was just in here and he told me you guys have six kids?” the young woman said.

“Yes, we do,” I answered.

I braced myself for a potential battery of inappropriate questions or statements or both. Anytime I go anywhere these days, someone somewhere has an opinion about my family size. I’ve learned responding to these opinionated strangers is an art form and almost always requires a prayer.

I sent up a silent, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and waited for the woman to continue.

“Whew,” she said. “Better you than me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’m the oldest of six kids and I’m never having that many,” she answered.

I giggled because yeah, I know. Six kids can be a lot.

“No, seriously, I mean it,” she said again. “I’m never having six children.”

I asked her why and she explained she was responsible for raising her five younger siblings. Her mother worked full time and while her mother was bringing home the Benjamins, this young woman was pressed into caring for many children. She talked for a few minutes and then I said,

“It sounds like you didn’t feel free to do the things you wanted to do.”

“Exactly. I didn’t feel free,” she said. “I had to take care of my brothers and sisters, whether I wanted to or not. I hated it.”

“That would be hard; I don’t like feeling like my freedom is inhibited. But, you are free now. You are all grown up and on your own. You have a full time job and a place to live. How do you spend your free time now? What is it you always wanted to do when you were younger that you can actually do now?” I said.

She was placing sterile instruments on a small, stainless steel table and her back was to me. She turned to face me before she responded.

“Ummm, nothing, really. I don’t go out to bars because it’s impossible to meet nice guys. After work, I like to go home, exercise, and relax. I don’t do any of the crazy things young people do, really.”

I told her maybe all those years taking care of others taught her how to be responsible. “It’s obvious you are a hard worker with your priorities in check. Maybe your mother did you a favor? She taught you to put other people ahead of yourself. When you do get married and have kids, you are going to be ahead of the game because you know what sacrifice feels like. That’s a real gift,” I said.

This time it was her turn to giggle.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said.

I wish I could tell you this was the first time I’ve had a conversation like this, but it’s not. I also wish I could tell you I always handle the large family naysayers with grace and aplomb, but that would be a lie. Sometimes the things people say about my six kids are rude. I’ve heard it all and so has anyone with more than 1.2 small people living in their home:

“Are you crazy?” (“Certifiable, thanks for asking.”)

“With that many kids, you must have a lot of patience!” (“Nope, but I’m learning.”)

“You must really like kids-a lot.” (“Some days I like them. Other days? It’s debatable.”)

“I could never have that many! The two I’ve got keep me so busy. I would lose my mind with more!” (“I lost my mind a long time ago.”)

“How do you do it? I just can’t imagine.” (“One day at a time. I do it one day at a time.”)

“Don’t you know what causes that?” (“Of course! Have you seen my husband?”)

“Are you finished yet or do you want more?” (“I’m not sure; I’ll keep you posted.”)

There are lots of different reasons to explain people’s reactions to my family—the anti-life attitudes permeating society, simple curiosity, and the overwhelmed newbie parents who compare their search for survival to our veteran insanity, to name a few. Whatever the reason, commentary from bystanders about the size of my family is the norm, not the rarity. Sometimes it’s annoying and intrusive and unsettling.

Mostly? I see it as my ministry.

Right now, I’m not able to work at a soup kitchen or visit the imprisoned. I would love to write a book or counsel unwed women at a pregnancy clinic. My days are spent chasing after toddlers and home educating and asking a small army of children to clean up their mess for the 987th time. Unfortunately, my vocation as a mom to the masses precludes me from other types of charitable work in which I’m interested.

This doesn’t mean Christ hasn’t given me a public ministry, however.

When we began our family, John and I didn’t realize that negative comments from family, friends, and strangers were part and parcel of our decision to be open to life. While I may not have chosen or even recognized this particular aspect of large family life before, the fact is, other people share their uninvited opinions about the size of my family.

The last time I checked, Jesus fielded insulting remarks, too. He even told us before He died, “They have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

I suppose, in a small way, the constant commentary from others could be seen as a type of anti-life persecution. I’m trying to follow the narrow path and my decision to do so avails me to criticism from others. Instead of acting like a victim because people say insensitive things about my large family, I can embrace my small cross and choose to be a witness of Christ’s love.

I want to be a witness.

The occasions where people stop me and ask questions, but especially the occasions where people make rude remarks, are opportunities to engage people about the value of life.

The comments are my opportunity to show people that positive family life is possible.

The comments are my opportunity to communicate to others that all these kids haven’t killed me, but that they have, in fact, made me a better person.

The comments are my opportunity to demonstrate what a happy mom looks like.

The comments are my opportunity to defy the cultural notion that personal sacrifice should be avoided and abhorred.

The comments are my opportunity to demonstrate the love that exists in our family, a love that is reflection of Christ’s love for us.

The comments are my opportunity to demonstrate that we’re not perfect and we don’t have it all figured out, but we’re trying and failing and trying some more.

The comments are my opportunity to laugh about large family foibles.

Yes, people make annoying statements at times, but I wouldn’t trade places with the naysayers for anything in the world.

A couple weeks ago, I was unloading all the kids from our fifteen-passenger van so we could make a trip into the grocery store, when a man stopped me. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and he had tattoos all up and down his arms. Again, I braced myself for a barrage.

“How many kids you got?” he said.

“Six,” I answered.

“Yeah, man. Good for you. That’s so cool. I’ve got five,” he said and gave me a fist bump.

We stood in the parking lot and chatted for a few minutes about life with many kids. We talked about the different kinds of people we encounter and the things they say to us. Right before we parted ways, he turned to me and said, “You know, people want we what we have. We have all these awesome people around us, people who are going to take care of us when we’re old. We’re living the sweet life.”

Indeed.

Life with six kids is sweet and in public, it’s my job to make sure people know it.


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About the Author

Colleen Duggan is a popular writer for Catholic media and her work has appeared in both Catholic Digest and RTJ’s Creative Catechist magazine. For almost two years, she was a bi-monthly blogger for CatholicDigest.com and her articles have also appeared online at CatholicMom, Faith and Family Live, RTJ’s Creative Catechist, GeniusMom, and the K4J Family Blog.

Colleen holds a Master in Education from the University of Notre Dame and has spent the last 12 years teaching religious education classes, running Bible studies, and giving talks on Catholic spirituality at the parish level.

Despite any professional and educational accomplishments, Colleen believes her most important job is as a wife and mom to 6 kids. Check out her website (link below) where she pontificates about potty training and the art of messy housekeeping.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I’m Mama to six kiddos, and it’s so very easy to forget that the stares, comments, and questions are opportunities to share the light and love of Christ again and again. I appreciate the thoughtful reminder.

    1. Amanda, It took a long time and a whack on the head from the Holy Spirit to see the stares, comments, and questions as an opportunity instead of an insult. God’s patience with me is abundant. Bless your beautiful family!

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