A large family is a circus like almost no other. Bear with me as I discuss the large-family scene, because whether you have zero children or double digits, I believe you can enjoy these stories and find useful points for your marriage, whatever the stage.
My wife, Teresa, and I have been married since 1988, long enough that the math is becoming difficult, so I simply quote the year-of-joining now. Along the way we have added 6 beings to what was initially a duet in life. We are consequently immediately associated with the likes of the Waltons, the Partridge Family, and the Brady Bunch. And if you recognize these long-gone shows, you are dating yourself.
Now be aware that I know of families with 9, 11, and even 13 kids. Think about that for a moment. Thirteen children spaced at 2 years apart is roughly a quarter century span (recall my math is slipping these days – I know that I’m close!). If the first comes when mama and papa are 25, and the last comes at 50, then the youngest does not fly the nest until retirement, which is to say one does not retire until the last has left the house.
The whole mentality of parenting a large family is a little bit different. And by the way, I am not quite sure what qualifies as “large” these days when it comes to the count of one’s brood. Surely more than 3, but perhaps more than 4? A single child cannot a large family make. While two are more than twice the work, it seems not large. As a practical matter, let us say that “large” in the context of family refers to an efficiency of scale – considerable hand-me-downs, cooking meals in excessively large pots, and shouting out a head count for any kind of travel whether it is merely to the grocery or all the way to Grandma’s. That is just a sampling of the mentality.
Parents of a large family have to face every challenge as an opportunity. Truly, we have friends with 13 children. As these children began to grow (which is something that children tend to do), they became of college age. As each transitioned into adulthood, my friends appreciated that college would not necessarily appeal to all equally. But valuing learning, and a sense of adventure, and of having diverse experiences, my friends wanted each young man or woman to try college for at least one year. Where they live, there is a 4-year branch campus for the University of Wisconsin that is not far from their home. Yet it is too far to commute for courses. So, my friends purchased a small house convenient to the campus: the parents would make the mortgage payments, and whichever kids were students at the time and sharing the house would have to pay for utilities. That was the deal. By the time all will have passed through college, the mortgage will be paid, and my friends will sell the house. Much cheaper than dorms and likely to produce a profit on the sale. Brilliant.
For our own little clan, we have 5 guys and 1 gal (with the gal being fourth). The intervals between birth dates are 14 months, 18 months, 19 months, 23 months, and then about 5 years. Yes, the gaps kept getting wider, which is telling of itself. There was a period when we had 3 consecutive years of high school graduations. At one point I was the proud owner of 7 cars! (I requested a fleet discount for the auto insurance, but apparently that doesn’t exist. Clearly it should.)
Yes, a large family is dynamic, monstrously busy, and expensive. But then all marriages and family situations are that way too. While there can be distinctives in some of the challenges with managing a large fam as compared to a smaller one, most of the parenting and marriage patterns are quite similar. I will mention two in particular: one for parenting and one for marriage.
Any time there are siblings, the issue of fairness eventually rears its head. This can be tough, because it is difficult for children, whether young or teen or perhaps even college-aged, to appreciate the ever-changing tableau of the family situation, specifically finances. In our case we chose to homeschool in the early ages for almost all our children. That meant that for some time, we were a single-income family (namely, me!). Then we started shifting kids over to public school. Finally, Teresa started working again, and the youngest never actually experienced homeschooling. As a two-income family, were we suddenly flush with funds? By no means! We had teenagers, some nearing college, and a whole raft of new expenses – recall my fleet of vehicles. Currently, we are nearly empty-nested, with our last child having just started high school. Each year has seen a different set of demands on funds and resources, with children at different phases in the journey from infant to adult. What does “fair” even mean under such changing circumstances? Communication was key. We had to treat our adolescent and young adult children as … well, as adults. Together and separately, we had to communicate and demonstrate support for each individual and their aspirations even if the numbers (time and money) did not always equal out in a given year, whatever that means in perception space. We had to explain and convince that over a span of years, things end up “fair” in an average and situation-appropriate sense. The love was and is always equal, but each year represented a different deal from the deck, so perceptions needed not just careful but also caring management.
The preceding dealt with a parenting challenge that, while not limited to the large-fam experience, had to be handled at different times on multiple fronts. On the marriage side, we have encountered a challenge of a different character. A good friend once mentioned to my wife the very wise insight that what one perceives as a strength in a spouse can also become a most annoying trait. In our family I generally serve in the capacity of coordinator and organizer. For example, I handle the family finances. I am generally the one putting things on the wall calendar. (Yes, we still use that – I like the big-picture visual it provides.) And I am usually red-flagging all the to-do’s of the day and even the week. Now, Teresa (bless her heart) certainly appreciates my being organized, and how that skill has been crucial in many aspects of running our large family. On the other hand, she quite frankly gets tired of hearing me discuss the schedule all the time. And it is hard for me to avoid falling into that rut. First, I have gifting in that area, so it comes naturally. Second, things really are busy, especially in an aggregate of happenings, and each of the separate bits are important to different members of the family. I hate seeing things fall through the proverbial cracks. Again, not a challenge limited to a large fam; in the large-fam setting, this particular trait of mine is frequently operating on steroids, so is one of those things that my wife and I have had to navigate. I believe this is a specific example of a more general issue that every marriage has to face.
Ultimately, the New Testament stresses a great many so-called “one anothers” – you can find several lists of these with a quick seach of the web. There are about 3 dozen unique “one another” statements (actually, there are more than 3 dozen statements, but several appear multiple times), such as comfort one another, or pray for one another. Notably absent is “change one another”. Instead, the majority fall in the category of affirming. Certainly, some can be confronting, such as admonish one another. Others are more general in nature, such as teach one another. Key that is true for families of any size is that the “one anothers are about finding ways to lovingly navigate life so as to maintain, strengthen, and grow relationships in the ever challenging, dynamic, and gorgeous venture known as “the family”.