I have 11 children.
I don’t usually tell people that right away. It has a way of stopping conversations. It is, however, true.
To save you some time, here now are the top five questions I’ve been asked over the years — pretty much always in the same order: Is it a merged family? (No, it was just us.) Does your wife work? (Like crazy, but not in the way you mean it.) How could you afford it? (Not easily.) Are you Catholic/Mormon? (That’s a conversation for another day.) Why did you do it? (That’s a conversation for today.)
I admit that for most of my life I’ve been mildly defensive about the size of my family, due to the often remarkable things people seem compelled to say to the dad of 11.
When confronted with an actual father of an actual large family, many have felt the sudden need to confess. I’ve been button-holed at parties by the vaguest of acquaintances who have poured out their souls to me, defending almost angrily their decisions not to have more kids.
At the same time they make it clear that after all these years they still wonder if they did the right thing. They agonize over whether they really could have afforded it, whether they really needed the new car. They mourn for children they have never known.
Others, though, are clearly irritated. They wonder how I could do such a thing to my wife, or point out my obvious indifference to the calamity of global overpopulation. Either way, I have sometimes had some of my deepest feelings reviled by near strangers, who, if you will forgive me, don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I’ve learned to just smile.
But not everyone is so emotional. Many people have fond recollections of living near a big family. “They were always so well organized,” is a standard comment.
Then there are those who consider my wife and I likely candidates for sainthood. “How can you do it?” they ask with complete sincerity. “I just don’t have your courage.” Another favorite: “You must make a lot of money” — a comment at which I do my best not to laugh.
We are neither rich nor saintly. When the kids were home, our efforts at organization were often overwhelmed by the enormity of unchanneled energy we faced on a daily basis.
But there were compensations. Sure, the kids sometimes got into it with each other. Sure, stuff got broken. Sure, the teenagers became allergic to the younger ones, who just wanted to be included in what the big kids were up to. Sure, there were tears — some of them shed by Mom and Dad.
But the bonds of love were vibrant and palpable. Big brothers who watched out for the littler ones on the bus. Tears dried over skinned knees when Mom and Dad were unavailable. The I-love-you pictures of stick figures with giant eyes and hair, and impossibly large suns in the sky.
After-the-fact crayoned remembrances of “what you liked best about our vacation” tucked away in time-capsule steamer trunks to be rediscovered in the attic a decade or two later. The hand-made Christmas junk wrapped and received with love. Coupons for future room cleaning. The first time your son or daughter passionately accomplishes a task that displays actual competency.
And the photo albums — the happy, magic chains to childhood that never, ever grow old.
Through the years I’ve been asked dozens of times — why did we do it? It’s a fair question in our modern age. Along the way the financial pressures have been enormous. We don’t have nearly as many toys as our friends. I’ve never been on a cruise, or gone to Hawaii. Our 401(k) could be healthier. We both could have accomplished more in society’s eyes. But the Declaration of Independence reminds us that our inalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We decided fairly early in life what kind of happiness we would pursue, and we pursued it. Sure, everything comes with a price. You pick your happiness, we picked ours, and we all live with the consequences — good and bad. As for us, we wouldn’t have traded our choices for the world.