Eight Isn't Enough

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with only one child? Stretched beyond your limits with two? Frazzled out completely with three? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have, say, five children? Six? Seven, eight, nine?

I remember feeling somewhat superior, smug actually, that I grew up in a family with one more kid than the Bradys. However, when those eight pesky Bradford children showed up, I felt vexed: one more child in their Eight is Enough clan than in my own. I was angry, annoyed, and ready to boycott ABC TV programming altogether.

But my own mother says she never gave family size much thought. "Back in the fifties, women were still adhering to the unwritten social expectation: get married and have children before you're twenty-five or you'll end up an old maid," she explains. "There wasn't a woman who wanted to end up like that." So societal norms and a heavy prescription of Catholicism predetermined the number of Ramirez offspring.

I couldn't have imagined having any more brothers or sisters, though I wouldn't have minded it terribly, but I wondered if my mother has ever regretted having seven. No, no regrets (whew), but "it was tough on us all, financially, when you were little." Now she's lovin' life, kicking back, and reaping the rewards of having an abundant crew. "You all check and see how we're doing. We're never lonely. If one of you is busy, I know there are six more to call on me."

So why is it that in recent times, the likelihood of a family with six or more children is so minute? Only twenty-eight percent of Americans expect to have three or more children, down from thirty-eight percent in 1977. Unquestionably there are many ideas about what is and isn't a "good" family size, and why. The preference for smaller families in the nineties could be a "sign of the economic times," or it could be even simpler: the fewer children you have, the more you can spend per child.

The American Public Health Association conducted a study on family size in the late 1960s. The study compared the Small family, who had two children, to the Moore family, who had six. Both families earned the same income; however, the Moore family had a greater net income than the Smalls because their income tax was smaller, but the "extra" money was used to take care of twice as many family members. Both families lived in three bedroom homes and paid the same rent. The Small children were able to have their own bedrooms, the Moore kids had to sleep three in a room. The Smalls could buy more food and clothes, have one car, and they were able to go to regular doctor and dental check-ups. The Moores couldn't afford a car and were able to use their medical allowance for illnesses only. Bottom line of the finding: that a large family is far more likely to be caught in the trap of increasing costs than a smaller family and a smaller family is in a much better position to adjust its expenses and income in relation to a changing economy.

So does it really boil down to purely economics?

THE HARGISES

For Katy and Joe Hargis and family, finances play an indirect role. They've been married for twelve years and have the quintessential "large family" by today's standards: five children. However, two of them are still warm, comfortable, and quiet in their mommy's belly during my first visit with them. Matthew and Jacob, eight (twins); and Jenny, four, await the arrival of the second set of Hargis twins. Coincidentally, both Katy and Joe come from families with five children; he's the second oldest in his and Katy is the oldest in hers. Twins run in Katy's family.

I enjoyed a beautiful, sunny drive to Northfield for my meeting with the Hargis crew. Joe works at Carleton College and Katy works part-time at a children's clothing store. They lived in South Minneapolis until two years ago; Joe commuted every day--for nine years--to Carleton, and Katy was working full-time. Because Joe wouldn't get home until 7:30 p.m., it began to wane on the family. So, when he got a promotion, they decided to move to Northfield, and that's when it became financially feasible for Katy to stay home with the kids.

Joe and Jenny--she perched on her dad's hip, shyly looking at me, nuzzling into his shoulder--welcomed me at the door. They led me to the living room where the seven of us sat together. The kids were initially observant and interested. I asked them if they thought it was going to be fun having a family of five kids. "Not really. We won't get as much attention and the babies get everything," said Matthew. Katy assured him that it will be fun. "I want a sister," Jenny whispered. "Matthew is a ponderer. You never quite know what he's thinking all the time, [but] I think he really thinks about having five," says Joe. Katy says Jacob's interested in the pregnancy part; he always wants to feel the babies' elbows and arms, and Jenny is just thrilled.

They both admit that it was a little intense at first when Katy had Matthew and Jacob. They waited four years between the boys and Jenny (they hoped to have a girl). "I think that was part of it too [having another child, anticipating a girl], but if Matt and Jacob would have been a boy and a girl, maybe we wouldn't have had more. We liked the idea of three. Three was nice," reflects Katy.

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