Knowing what response was expected of her and not liking to contradict adults, my 9-year-old lowered her head and quietly said, "Actually, I like having babies because they're cute."
"Oh!" the woman sputtered, surprised at her answer. "Well... that's good, I suppose. You certainly have enough of them!"
I have 5 children, and that makes us an object of interest to pretty much everyone. Some of the comments we get are positive, but under many of them there's an underlying assumption.
People are thinking that our kids are somehow not getting their needs met.
That because we have 5 children, we must not have time for each of them.
It's part of a larger double standard for big families. If you don't have a large family you probably have no idea what I'm talking about, but if you have a bunch of kids I don't even have to tell you what I mean.
If you have two kids and one has yogurt smeared on her face and throws a tantrum in the produce aisle, she's just being a kid. Yet if the yogurt-covered tantrum has four or five siblings standing by, strangers will be much harsher judges. "Aha!" they will say knowingly, "Those people have too many children to handle!"
If a mother works full-time outside the house and has two kids, no one bats an eye. But if a mother like me stays home with her 5 kids, strangers assume they're all starved for love and attention — despite the fact that I spend all day, every day with them.
There's something about big families that makes many people unwilling to assume the best, and all too ready to assume the worst.
How about another story?
Nobody expected our fifth baby to have trouble when he was born 3 weeks early, but he spent weeks struggling in the NICU to breathe on his own. Once he mastered that, eating and gaining weight was another challenge. He started working with a physical therapist from Early Intervention at 6 months, and required an outpatient surgery at 9 months.
He continues to make progress, but is usually several months behind in hitting his milestones. When other kids his age were crawling from point A to point B (and some overachieving babies were even walking,) he was lying on his back and using his feet to push himself around.
"Is he still getting physical therapy?" a casual acquaintance asked, watching him scoot across the floor.
"Yes. He's coming along slowly. Verrrrrrry slowly," I laughed.
"Well, you do have 5 kids, so it's not like you have a lot of time to work with him."
I was a little shocked and didn't really know what to say. Why was this person I hardly knew suggesting that I didn't have time to love my son and nurture his development?
Obviously life is busy in a family of 7, but is it so different in a family of 3 or 4? I'm not sure that people with one or two children feel like they're rolling in leisure time, either.
Many parents I know have to juggle working part-time, or even full-time, with the needs of their kids. I don't know how they do that. But they can and do raise happy, well-adjusted children.
So I don't see why it's so hard to imagine that the parents of 5 (or 10 or 15, for that matter) can't do the same. We all have demands on our time.
I know people who grew up in small families feeling that their parents were too busy for them, and others who grew up feeling very loved in their big family. What I'm getting at is, you can't tell what kind of family someone has just by doing a head count.
But if I could go back in time, this is what I would've said to her:
I think I know where you're coming from. After all, when we all pile out of our van at the grocery store it reminds you of a clown car.
To you, my family looks like a nameless, faceless horde of children in the parking lot.
But don't assume it looks like that to me.
I know and love each of my children. I pray for them by name. Seeing every one of them achieve their full potential is the most important thing I'll ever do in this lifetime.
I see each one of them so individually that, to be honest, I'm sometimes a little taken aback when I look at a picture of our family all in a group and realize: That is a lot of people!
I don't see a big mass of kids when I look at our family in real life. I just don't.
I may not have time to do elaborate crafts at home or be president of the PTA, but my kids don't care about those things, anyway. What matters to them is that I enjoy being with them, that I care to know all about them, and that I love them.
And love, unlike a pie, doesn't mean that the more people at the table, the smaller the slice.
I'm not a perfect mom, but I wouldn't be that if I'd stopped at one or two children, either. I'm just a good mom. And I'm enough for my kids.
Every single one of them.