The Perils of Large Families pt. 1
Just because something is good doesn't mean it is without danger. Generally speaking, the potential for something to be bad is on par with its potential for good. Take, for example, marriage; just as it can be a source of incredible joy and productivity, it can also be the genesis of much pain and destruction.
This is why wise pastors like J.C. Ryle cautioned:
'In no relation is so much earthly happiness to be found if it is entered upon discreetly, advisedly, and in the fear of God. In none is so much misery seen to follow if it is taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, wantonly, and without thought.'
Ryle wrote this in the late 1800s, long before the derision of marriage and family became a feature of our culture. He, like myself, was in favor of marriage. However, he knew that there are many who enter into that most powerful of relationships 'unadvisedly, lightly, wantonly, and without thought.' In doing so, they put themselves, their potential children, and even society at risk. Good things, when misused or misapplied, can and do cause great damage.
This brings me to the issue at hand: the perils of large families. Large families are perilous just as they are glorious. A peril is a danger, risk, or hazard. Many, in their desire to champion family, may bristle at, if not outright deny, that large families are perilous in any way. This is an overreaction to what is obvious. Scripture makes it clear that pain is attached to bearing children. In Genesis 3, God tells Eve:
'I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain, you shall bring forth children.'
This is a pain most women throughout history have been willing to bear for the gift of a child. However, childbirth can be perilous, and many women have given their lives in pursuit of the blessing of children. Modern advancements in medicine and technology have driven down the maternal and infant mortality rates. Thankfully, this particular peril isn’t what it used to be, but there are other perils connected to having a large family.
In this article, I want to briefly list a few potential difficulties or hazards that are common among large families. The goal here isn’t to discourage having lots of children. Children are a blessing. God has seen fit to bless Emily and me with nine children. We have three girls and four boys with us, one daughter in heaven, and another baby due this Spring. Each, in their own way, is a unique blessing. And each stage of their growth brings with it glory and pleasure. The cooing of infants, the first steps of a toddler, and a teenager driving off to work on their own for the first time—we love it all and wouldn’t trade anything for it. So, please read all that follows with that in mind.
1. Scale of Living
You don’t need that much to start a family. The amount of food, space, and practical necessities is much lower than some would have you think. You can fit two or three kids into a two-bedroom apartment. We’ve used trundle and bunk beds to make that work. You can even squeeze three car seats into the back of an old Toyota Corolla. We’ve done that as well. When traveling, it’s not hard to make a double queen hotel room work for a small family. But this all starts to change as your family grows larger.
You will need larger and often more vehicles. We have a 15-passenger van and need three vehicles. That’s a lot of upkeep, and large vehicles cost a lot.
You will need dependable and often multiple appliances. Our washer is always washing. Our dryer is always drying. We have two fridges and three deep freezers. We’ve had to replace dishwashers multiple times. You can get by with one of each but it ain’t easy.
Your schedule gets increasingly complex. Sometimes piano, gymnastics, wrestling, and doctor appointments all fall on the same day. It all can feel overwhelming at times.
You will need more space for your children as they grow in number and size. Most houses these days have 3 to 4 bedrooms. We are making a five-bedroom house work. However, they are small bedrooms and the common space is pretty snug. I’ve started saving and planning for a bump-out to give us more space, especially with the new baby coming. It’s going to cost me well over 6 figures.
I can go on and on.
The point I want to make is simply that the scale you live at with a large family requires a lot of discipline and resources. If you're going to have a productive womb, you need to have a productive household. You’ll need to be good at making money, budgeting, scheduling, and time management. Those are all things that you can grow into. Large families rarely happen overnight. But time flies, and if you don’t take it seriously, you’ll soon have more responsibility than you have ability.
I wanted to note this first because it provides context for the next few perils I want to review.
2. The Loss of Boundaries
This takes some explaining. It’s true that you can pack a lot of people into a small space. We once had all seven kids in a two-bedroom apartment with a large, livable attic. Emily and I had a room, the baby slept in a little basket in our room, the two girls had a room, and the four boys were in the attic space. It was rough, but a necessary temporary step to get the house we now have.
Please note, we always kept the boys and girls in separate rooms and made sure we had our own room. We did this to maintain proper boundaries as it relates to modesty. When kids are very small, it’s not that weird or inappropriate for siblings to see each other naked or in their underwear. That, however, changes rapidly. It’s not wise or appropriate for brothers and sisters to get undressed in front of each other. There are boundaries that must be maintained.
Similarly, it is fine, even good, for children to know and, to a limited degree, see that their parents are sexually attracted to each other. It isn’t good for them to see or easily hear their parents being sexually intimate. That is weird and inappropriate.
There is a strange sexualizing of life that can happen in large families that don’t establish boundaries. As a side note, overemphasizing boundaries can draw unnecessary attention to things. You just want to have the most natural boundaries you can.
Also related to this category is the boundary or distinction between child and adult. It is good for older siblings to help with younger siblings. Families work together to get things done. It’s good for kids to learn how to look after and manage each other. It is, however, dangerous to allow or pressure older siblings into being a second mom or dad to the younger. It can lead to various forms of abuse and often results in grown children resenting their parents for a lack of childhood.
If a family is growing large and doesn’t properly prepare and adjust for the scale of large family living, they will find it very hard to maintain these boundaries practically.
3. Physical and Mental Strain
I broke my jaw, my wrist, and several of my fingers and toes as a teen. I was able to quickly bounce back from all those injuries back then. That’s not the case these days, and worse yet, I can often feel my old injuries. That brings me to the next peril.
There is a real physical and psychological strain that both parents experience from having lots of children. This is especially true for the mother. Now, it’s true that everyone 'spends' their physicality on something. A lot of tradesmen have bent fingers, arthritis, and/or weathered features. They 'spend' their bodies providing for their families. But, God willing, they aren't sidelined from working in their 30s or earlier 40s. That would be catastrophic for their family. Hence, it's of the greatest importance for a husband and father to maintain a baseline of fitness.
The physical transformations of pregnancy and the work of labor are hard on a mother’s joints, vascular system, and all too often, her back. This physical deterioration to a mother's body can really accumulate from repeated births, especially if they are close. I know more than a few mothers of large families who have severe back problems that often prevent them from caring for children and managing the home. Much like the hardworking tradesman, the mother also must be able to maintain a baseline of fitness to do her work. It gets harder to recover from pregnancy as you age. It’s even harder to get back in shape when you are older and have all the responsibilities that come with the scale of large family living. I know many moms who look a decade older than they actually are from difficult pregnancies combined with little to no recovery time.
I believe many individuals within my theological tribe (i.e., reformed patriarchal homeschooling pro-family) underestimate the potential impact of a large family on a mother’s mental health. It’s common for women to struggle with postpartum depression. That can wear on someone if it happens over and over again. Also, the 24/7 demands of a large family are intense. Sleep deprivation is a real problem. It wears a person down both physically and mentally. I’ve seen some mothers act quite erratically. I know more than a few who started to self-harm. In many cases, they just needed more sleep and a little bit of time alone to clear their mind.
4. Not Enough Time
Children need individualized attention. Much of family life is spent together. It’s communal. It’s meals and discussions around the dinner table. It’s movie night with everyone squeezed onto a sectional. It’s everyone looking at the animals together at the zoo. You can have a lot of fun and create deep connections through shared experiences. But, there's still no getting around children needing individualized attention. This is hard in a large family.
One of my sons started acting out a lot when I was away (he was 9 at the time). He was being so difficult that my wife had to call me while I was at a men’s conference. During the call, he told me that he no longer believed in God. I was initially shocked. I made some apologetics points on the call, but then I had an epiphany: a child's view of God the Father is usually a reflection of their own father. I had been doing tradeshow after tradeshow and conference after conference. I was a distant father. I’m sure God the Father felt distant too. My solution was simple: spend one-on-one time with him. That fixed much of it in a matter of weeks. These days he is my most aggressive son when it comes to defending the Christian worldview. Just know that these sorts of problems don’t always turn around quickly, especially if they are longstanding and compounded.
The work of parenting is the shepherding of souls. That takes time. You have to get to know them so you can zero in on their particular needs. Discipline of a church requires follow-through. It’s easy to forget to follow through when you are spread thin between all the various needs of your children.
That’s it for now…
I’m going to end here. I went longer and this became more winding than I intended. There is much more that could be said about the perils of the large family. They are real and they should be acknowledged. Perils can be avoided if you know where to look for them. I’ll post a follow-up in the coming days that lists some ways you can navigate around and overcome these hazards as you grow your family.