Q&A: What is the biggest challenge of having a large family?

From the Depews:
What is the biggest challenge you face with large family? I can imagine the logistics are daunting - finding cars big enough to fit everyone, figuring out how to get everyone where they need to be and when, cooking, cleaning, finding the time to get it all done, while still having a little time for yourself, too.

This is a hard one for me to answer. There's lots of challenges with having a large family, but which is the biggest?

I thought about writing about the loneliness I feel sometimes as a mother of a large family. I have a few close friends who also have their hands full, but otherwise, I usually feel I'm headed down a path with very few mentors to guide me. I know personally only a few women who have more children than I do. I sometimes wish I had a list of a dozen mothers who had done this before that I could call with my questions. But I've also discovered that I can learn from lots of amazing women who have all sorts of family dynamics, from single to childless to married with lots of children.

Then I thought about the logistics, but I don't think it's a big issue; a lot of the work of a family has to be done whether you have one child or a dozen -- a meal has to be made every night, for instance, and it really doesn't take much longer to cook larger portions. Grocery shopping has to be done and while we buy more fruit, for instance, we probably don't buy it more often than a smaller family. Many of our summer activities don't take much more time either. Sure, it might take a bit longer for everyone to find their swimming suits and pool toys and the sunscreen takes longer to lather on more bodies, but once we get to the pool, everyone's entertained. And it takes no more time to take seven kids to the movies or the museum than it does to take one.

The constant messes everywhere and the way the housework multiplies can be a big challenge, but part of that in our house is a function of having our children so close together and so young. As they get older, I fully anticipate that getting the dishes done and cleaning the house will get easier, and that those many hands really will make light work.

In the meantime, though, another challenge I could address is the struggle of teaching a lot of kids how to be responsible and how to work. There's just not enough of me to go around during our work periods sometimes and it is tough to take the individual time to train the younger children while simultaneously waging a battle with a certain older child who thinks that because he hates to work, he shouldn't have to. But even there, I find it can be done, not perfectly, but it's happening. I'm learning to be more creative and find new solutions to various problems. While that is an issue that is occupying a large bit of my emotional energy this summer, it probably isn't the biggest challenge.

A lot of people assume that the biggest challenge in a large family is finding individual time for each child, but I haven't found that to be very difficult at all. I'm home, available, and sensitive to the needs of each child, and my husband is also very involved. All of my children are loved and cherished. We are constantly telling each one why we love her or what a great kid he is. I thank my children for what they do for our family and I apologize when I make mistakes. I praise them each for the good things they do and I express my confidence in them. We pray for each of our children by name daily and try hard to be in tune to their needs. And frankly, my children get a lot of attention and love from each other. Harmony lights up when her sisters gather around her to talk to her and tickle her. Eliza loves tagging after the twins as they explore outside. Michael's reading improved tenfold the last half of first grade because an older brother took time to encourage and listen to him read every night. Lillian came over to me at the pool yesterday and asked me to take one of the twins down the waterslide, "so I can have an excuse to play with Harmony." My children are blessed to be loved by many siblings as well as their parents.

I've read criticisms of large families that divide up the hours in the day by the number of children and then say, "See, there's only x amount of minutes available in that family per child. That's not enough time." That kind of thinking is just plain wrong. Children are not an assembly line or a formula. You don't divide up your day and say, "Okay, child #4, it's now your turn for 'quality time!' " Being together, working, playing, or relaxing, nourishing relationships both individually and collectively, happens in all the hours in a day, whether you are focused on it or not. Most of the moments I cherish with my children happen while we are pursuing other goals; while we're outside pulling weeds and one comes over to show me their full bucket and grins as I exclaim over the size of those weeds and their intact roots, for instance, or when I find that one time this week when my son cleaned his zone without complaining and I praise him to the skies. I love listening to Lillian read the scriptures in the morning while I gather three little girls on my lap and whisper to them how lucky I am to have three special girls. Michael is a grouch in the mornings and lately, he hasn't wanted to come out. So my husband goes in, pulls him out upside-down by his feet and swings him around. He laughs and says, "Do it again, Daddy!" Lillian and Joey both love to go on walks with me in the evenings, and I love having them one of them all to myself for those forty minutes or so, hearing their thoughts and enjoying their individuality. Sometimes we've had really amazing conversations and other times we don't find much to talk about at all. The joys of mothering come in moments, and there are lots of unspectacular ones that add up to nourished children, children who feel securely loved by all of their family, not just their mom or dad.

Some of the other challenges I considered and discarded are carving out time for yourself, handling exhaustion and lack of sleep, dealing with difficult children, or developing the patience and unselfishness needed in a large family. But even these are not the hardest for me.

So what's left? What's harder than all of these? I might change my mind later, but I think the hardest thing for me right now is coming to peace with the fact that nothing will ever be done as well as I want it to be. It's probably a problem felt universally by mothers, but I feel it keenly. I have a good friend who has six children. Every so often, we call each other and cry out, "I'm drowning!" It's easy to get buried by the household tasks alone. I've been mopping my floors once a week for the last month, but if you walked in at any given moment, you'd probably think they hadn't been mopped in months. The piles of laundry that multiply on their own. The kitchen -- sometime I'd like to do a photo essay on how messy that room gets and how quickly. I feel like I could spend all day just cleaning the kitchen and still not have it up to my standards. On top of the cleaning, there's the hundreds of little things that have to be done to maintain the household. The lightbulbs to be switched, the repairman to be called, the bill that needs to be clarified. Then there's the important nurturing tasks of raising children. Reading to them, helping with homework, helping them to be responsible with chores, plus mundane things like making sure their fingernails are clipped and that there are enough socks in the house without holes in them. Realizing that almost every pair of pants one son owns has holes in the knees but that as it's January, it's neither warm enough for him to go to school in shorts nor the right time of year for school uniform pants to be on sale. The little frustrating things can add up to big feelings of failure if we allow them to. My friend Michelle, a mother of nine, wrote a great post on her blog about this very issue, entitled, "Good Enough," about how important it is to come to terms with not having the perfect, clean house you dream about.

Beyond the household, homemaking tasks are the many pursuits that have to be put aside for the time being. It's so easy for women, and it's almost become a cliche, to compare our weaknesses to one another's strengths. Even if you're good at something, there's always someone who is better. I have a long list of hobbies I really want to be good at, if only I had the time to pursue them, along with a list of friends who are much, much better at those things than me. There's blogging (Kacy), photography (Chalice, Toni), writing (Katie), exercise (Kelli), Photoshop (pretty much everyone who posts on the digiscrapping galleries I don't have time to frequent anymore), scrapbooking (Angie), and even birthing babies (Rachel). Then there's the intangible qualities I want to develop. My friend Rachel has a serenity, patience, and dedication to her children that I admire and seek to emulate. I admire Kelly for the way she makes everyone feel important and special. Meradith is really good at enjoying her marriage. Allison deals with tough challenges with grace and humor.

While it's good to admire and appreciate other's gifts and talents, it is wrong to discount our own and become discouraged. Part of my struggle with life is being content with my place at this point in time. Knowing intellectually and feeling deeply that the work I'm doing with my family is important helps me to be patient with myself and all the things I don't have time for right now. The closer I come to my Heavenly Father, the more I feel my own worth and the blessing of where I am and what I'm doing with my life. I know it sounds trite, but "bloom where you are planted," is a true principle -- that little spot of earth is the place you've been given. Thrive in it. If you can learn from other people things that help you, do so, but don't compare and get down on yourself. Be your own kind of person and be thankful for your own gifts.

So for me, my hardest challenge is constantly wanting to do and be more, but having to be content with less. Finding peace with "good enough," putting my priorities in proper order, and learning to be grateful for what I've been given while still striving towards perfection. And above all, reminding myself constantly that the unseen, simple work of nurturing that takes up the majority of my efforts is worth all that I can give it.

Anyone have any thoughts or ideas to add? What's the biggest challenge you face, whatever the size of your family?


Major Hulahan said…
My biggest challenge is worry. Worry that they aren't getting enough, that someones needs are being overlooked, that they need more vegetables, that I will miss a vaccination, that when they are adults they won't have happy memories of me... only of me nagging and teaching and frowning.
As far as the lonliness, that's why I peek into blogs like yours- homes full of kids and moms who aren't complaining. Thanks for all that you share. Your writing is truly amazing!
amywilson said…
Hi Christina,
I have been following your blog for so long and can only hope to become such an inspriational mother as you have become to your children. I have six boys and often times seem to live in such a different world than you. I am such an oddity where I live, people actually know me as the mother of the six boys. It is in Mass. which gives a bit of a clue. A conservative in a liberal state will never mix :) Anyways I wonder how you get your children to appreciate each other? I live in a community where material things and activities are so overvalued however I find myself feeling so overwhelemd just to help my boys to fit in. I have no daughters in our family so I often feel like it is harder to help them to respect and cherish each other. Any help would be greatly appreciated, and thank you for helping me through more tough times than you know!

amy wilson
Amber said…
Letting things go and saying it's clean enough is hard for me too. I found flylady.net to be quite helpful and inspirational in cleaning and making routines. One of her sayings that I love is that work not done right or perfectly still blesses your home. We just have to keep doing a little bit at a time. It worked really well til I got morning sickness!! That's life with a bunch of little kids and 2 on the way!! I'm excited to get back to my routines and eventually I'll teach the kids to do them too, that should help!!
Kim said…
I love your blog and have been following it for quite awhile, but have never posted before. I only have 5 children, but I think I understand so many of your day to day challenges. Thanks for letting me glipse into your life and know that I'm not alone!
What a great posting. I love that you are able to use your experiences to help bless the lives of so many going through similar challenges. I wish I had known you when my kids were small. Now my biggest challeng is how to convince my daughters they can only marry boys from Arizona and after their marriage they have to live close to me. What a blessing for you to have so many children. You will recognize the blessing of it even more when they start moving away. That is so hard!! I keep wishing I had five more still at home!

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