Monday, August 19, 2013

Three of Seven

Growing up, if I happened to be out in public without siblings in tow (which was rare) and someone asked me how many brothers and sisters I had, my response tended to be met with pity.

I remember vividly showing up for a sewing camp at age 11 (just in case you forgot or didn’t know, that statement should remind you that I was homeschooled) and politely explaining to the elderly lady teaching it that I was one of seven children. Her jaw literally dropped, and after a moment she managed (in proper southern fashion) “lands’ sakes! Why would anyone want that many?”

(Roughly 1997)
(2001, a few hours after my parents' minion roster was completed)
There are dark sides to big families, and I would be the last person to deny that-- there can be endless feelings of invisibility, desperate competition with siblings to try to win some sense of significance and individuality, fights that quickly turn to all-out brawls as siblings choose sides. Take the potential for drama and irritation in your average family and multiply it by six extra kids. Add in the fact that in my case all of us were around each other 24/7 due to homeschooling (and for the first 10 years of my life we all lived in a house that was just a little bigger than a spacious apartment), and the reality is that my childhood relationships with my siblings were not often positive.

And so for a time I thought that perhaps the disbelief I encountered was well-founded, that trying to make so many little humans peacefully coexist was an impossible and unwise pursuit. Maybe I really was a victim. Maybe there'd been some vast mistake. As a teenager, I learned to sheepishly nod my head in uneasy agreement with criticism of families with more than two or three kids. When I got older though, I started to question it more, to revisit the criticisms I’d so often heard first from acquaintances and later from the broader context of culture.

I understand that usually the grown-ups who offered pity meant well, assuming I couldn’t be properly cared for, could not grow into a whole adult, in such a crowded environment. But although this wasn’t intended, the comments about how there were too many of us also easily imply that my four younger siblings shouldn’t have been born. That is a statement I reject with my whole being-- first and most importantly because the world would be incomplete without Mercy’s compassion, Spencer’s swagger, Lucy’s creativity, and Jasper’s hope, and second because I wouldn’t even be fully myself if I had not had the privilege of being their big sister.

See, the thing is that to a large extent they were always right-- being in a big family is usually a harder environment to grow up in. For this reason and others, having a packed house isn’t a calling everyone has (and I do definitely think it has to be a calling for it to work at all). Certainly it’s not universally beneficial for all children. Trying to navigate the emotional complexities of that many people that close to you is a task any mature adult would find daunting, and as a kid it’s outright impossible sometimes.

But the reality is that I would not have traded it for anything. That environment gave my character a chance to be refined in a way I never could have found elsewhere. The years of carrying family responsibilities shaped my understanding of what it is to be selfless (as did observing how much my father sacrificed to make such a big family work). Even the endless sibling squabbles taught me more about forgiveness than I ever would have understood had I not had to share a bed every night with the sisters I’d been fighting with all day.

It may be that big families are one of those experiences that makes or breaks you-- in ways, my heart has experienced both. I think that the parenting method used has a massive impact on how well big families function, and so do external factors like the social and spiritual climate you’re in. I can’t speak into the complexities of other big family situations or experiences, and I can’t say what would have happened had I not encountered God the way I did as a teenager and had everything about the way I interact with people change. But at least in my case, I can say without reservation that it was worth it.

So when I run across extremely negative statements about big families, I think about the souls this world would have missed out on had my parents not been brave enough to bet against the odds... because as far as I’m concerned, the pay off has been more glorious and messy and beautiful than anyone could possibly have foreseen.


Linda B said...

I can't imagine my life without any of you! Each one of you is a true blessing.

Sarah Gray said...

This is one of the most beautiful testimonies about a family that I have ever read. I cannot imagine the insensitivity of a person who would chastise or criticize a child (OR a mother) for being in or producing a large family! I grew up an only child and was always envious of girls who had numerous siblings. Of course there are challenges for large families but there are also challenges in small one also. If one of your siblings should ever question your love have them read tis blog. You have a WINNER in this one!!! LOVED IT!!

Annette M. Heidmann said...

Beautifully said, Mary - and true to the experience of all the larger-than-average families I have had the privilege to know.

NarnianWarHorse said...

Well said. Beautiful post!

*hugs* You are fabulous - & the 2 others of your siblings I've had the joy of knowing are too. :)

"To say that there are too many children is like saying there are too many flowers."
--Mother Theresa;

Eclectic Elegance said...

*hugs* :3 I like all your siblings, also. :D They were amazing to hang out with this summer.