Eight Isn't Enough
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?
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.
The latest pregnancy "just kind of happened." So they prepared themselves for four. "We thought, 'Okay, four is nice,' and then we were quite shocked when it was four and five," says Katy. I asked if they would have any more. Katy and Joe said unequevically, "No, this is it."
"How do you know?" Jacob asked.
"Oh, we know," Katy said with aplomb. "Five kids--that's my max." But she concedes that it's different now that she's quit working full-time. "I'm a lot calmer about the whole thing [having five children]," and Joe says they're in much better shape this time around, " . . . emotionally and financially. We're anxious. We're waiting for it to happen. We're all prepared mentally to make it work."
A family friend interrupts our visit to take the kids outside to play, and I take the opportunity to ask about sibling rivalry. "They have their share of issues but they actually do pretty well together. Matt and Jake are best friends. But they have their moments," Joe confesses. "I say 'best friends, best enemies'; they know how to push each other's buttons," adds Katy. She also thinks Matt and Jake's differences help them to be friends. She even sees Matthew taking on the "older" role (he was born thirty minutes before Jacob) and Jacob takes Matthew's lead. Jenny is just getting to the age where they can all play together. "There's more togetherness than fighting. We try to teach them but we realize that they need to be--are--friends," says Joe.
There are four bedrooms in the house: the boys share one room with bunk beds, and Jenny has her own room, but will share with the twins; Katy and Joe have their room; and they have a fourth bedroom in the basement that they like to use as an apartment. Joe's mother will use it when she comes to visit and help out for a month after the twins arrive.
Katy's immediate concern about having five children is whether or not the kids will be able to participate in extracurricular activities. "I think we aren't going to be able to afford to keep that level with five kids. Those aren't necessarily rational [fears], we'll probably find the money and we'll do it, but it's those extra things for your kids. You can do great with two, but with five, the money gets a little tight." She added that for a lot of people, the extras, such as sending kids to language camps, or to private schools, is why they choose not to have more than one or two kids. With five kids, unless you're very wealthy, you have to make choices.
Joe says that he's worked really hard to put himself in the position he's in; he's making a good salary, so he's not too concerned about taking on a second job or having Katy going back to work full-time. "I'm more concerned about that than Joe. I do the bills. Joe's a little more, 'Oh, we'll be fine,' and I'm saying, 'Oh, okay. I do the bills.'" For starters, Katy's going to try nursing the babies, and she'll continue to hunt for bargains on used clothing and other items from garage sales. "We did cloth diapers for three years; we're not doing cloth diapers again. I did my penance. I did my environmental thing."
"It's not the economics that concerns me the most, in many ways it's kind of what Matt touched on: kids need a lot of attention," admits Joe. His biggest concern is how he's going to make more time for two more kids. "I will; it'll happen, but it's a little intimidating."
"Didn't you say that one of your concerns was about having babies at your age?" Katy asks.
"Yeah, I'm forty-one so I've got to muster up energy now. But having said that, I have no doubt we'll do it; it'll be fun."
Katy says Joe is really good about giving her time to herself. She still has a lot of friends in the Cities so she likes to do little "getaways" to visit them. "I need to be able to do my thing. That's the other concern. I have to, for myself, in order to be sane, find the time, even with five kids, to be able to get away. And I need it even more than Joe; he can go to work [but I'm home all day]."
Spending time alone with Joe is a "little lower on the food chain," for Katy. "First I want to get away, then Joe and I have to find time for the two of us to get away." Nonetheless, they have a set time to reconnect: their anniversary. No matter what, they always go away, even if it's for one night. "We know to plan that into our life. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot." Joe says it'll be more challenging now to get away because instead of handing over three kids to watch over, it'll be five. "But we'll parcel them. I would very rarely have somebody take all five."
Reactions and attitudes about the Hargises' increasing family size have been varied, and believe it or not, strangers are the ones who comment on it the most. "[They say] things like, 'Better you than me.' At first I didn't mind it, I kind of took it and laughed, but then I got to thinking about it," says Katy. "These were strangers saying this to me. What do you say? What are we supposed to do? We were handed these twins. When people are making those kinds of remarks, I don't think they're looking at the fact that I've only had three pregnancies, but I have five kids," she says.
Joe agrees that Katy has heard a lot more remarks than he has: "I've only had one incident with one woman who went on and on about 'Who has five kids these days,' and that makes you feel kind of bad." But his colleagues have been very supportive, his boss in particular. He's told Joe to take as much time off as he needs around the babies' birth. "It really helps ease my mind, too. So, when I start to lose it I can call up Joe and say, 'Come home for an hour,'" Katy says with relief.
Katy hasn't forgotten the days when she was working outside the home. She misses the money, but even more, she says she misses "the 'women factor'--the camaraderie. That's why I work, eight hours a week. It gets me out of the house; it gets me seeing different faces. It's not the money, really, it's just the communication with other people." She believes she'd be working part-time at American Express if they were still living in Minneapolis. There, they had a wonderful day-care provider, "So I'd still be working . . . maybe four days a week."
But she does appreciate being around when the kids come home from school. "It was an incredible hassle bundling up the boys--at eight weeks old--to drop them off at day care. So, now, it's really nice. Joe takes care of the morning, gets the boys up, dressed, fed, and out the door. I take care of the 'pick-up' part; I will do the afternoon thing."
There are times she wonders if the boys appreciate that she's at home. "I'm 'just home.' Every once in awhile it kind of hits me. They loved day care; it was like a home. Now I'm just a replacement for Bonnie [the day care provider]." Jenny and the babies will have a whole different perspective on their mother. "They'll never--knock on wood--really know me going to work. And the boys, until they were six, were in day care." Katy has a group of friends she can go to the park with "and complain about it [staying at home]. You can say, 'My kids are just too much for me, they're driving me crazy,' and you know you're not the only one going through that. [It's] a nice support network. I think there are a lot more stay-at-home mothers here [in Northfield, than in the city]. It helps!" The kids come back into the room and Katy introduces me to " . . . one of our single friends. He gets his family fix when he comes over. You want to see what it's like, 'Okay, here you go.' He has seen family dinners in action."
"He gets to leave though," Joe laughs.
The friend comments on how nice the house looks. "It's never this clean." His playful comment makes everyone laugh, even the kids. "I'm just kidding."
"When it's all said and done," says Joe, "no matter how much you have, no matter how much you make, family is what matters. Your relationships with your kids."
Sam and Anne Hargis were born on August 24, 1998.
Financial affairs were a nonissue for Gail Mraz when it came to affording a large household. Clinic Coordinator at the Dorothy Day Center and a traditional midwife/registered nurse, Gail is also a mother of nine: Melissa; Gina; Greta; Jill; Paul; Jessica; Nick; Jake; and Dolly, ranging from forty to twenty-two years old.
She has been pregnant eleven times, but miscarried twice. Between ages twenty-two and thirty, Gail had six children, and then between ages thirty-four and thirty-nine she had three more.
Growing up, Gail says that she and her two brothers were very good friends. Also, "my father was very loving; we just grew up in that atmosphere. I learned how to live life from my grandmother, and I saw how things work and how happy we were. I decided that was how I was going to do it, too. After my first one was born, I just thought 'I love taking care of children,' having them around me." She decided early on that if she was going have children she was going to do it the best way she could because "I didn't want to have any regrets. No matter how everybody turned out, I wanted to feel that I had done the best I could with them."
She looked a little perplexed when I told her a lot of people don't have many children because of the lack of cash. "That just never entered my mind," she says. "I thought that we'd find a way to provide for them."
Like my own mother, Gail began having children during the era when women stayed home and had kids. She joined the Catholic Church when she was twenty-two and always looked to God for guidance. She didn't work outside of the home, and cared for the children while her husband went through college. After about seventeen years at home, she went back to college to finish up her nursing degree. Most recently she got her bachelor's degree in women's studies and multicultural studies.
There is warmness, calmness, in Gail's disposition; she radiates tranquility and speaks softly. The charming South Minneapolis home she shares with her second husband is just as serene as she is; it is adorned with many family photos and her affinity for Latin culture is sprinkled throughout the house.
When the children were little, Gail says they did a lot of artwork and made quilts for the beds. "They tell me now that they can laugh at the poverty parts of growing up, where they'd all be sitting around the table, drawing, and the baby would be in the middle [of it]. There were difficult times." Some of those troublesome periods came during winter, especially when it was below zero. "It was very difficult having several little children inside and maybe trying to give the older kids a ride to school. I'd have to bundle them all up, to take them along." But no matter when and how arduous things got, her philosophy was, "the harder things get the more I dig in."
She can recall only one time the entire family went out to dinner, but they always ate supper together. It was the cooking for eleven people every night, the pots and pots of food, providing food at all costs, that she remembers the most. She would get up early in the morning and go to the farmers market to buy mounds of tomatoes to make containers of homemade spaghetti sauce, which she'd freeze (they ate a lot of pasta), and she baked many cookies and bars. She breastfed all her children and actually helped form La Leche League in Minnesota (the first meeting was in 1963 in her home). It became an important dedication and a mode for her to socialize and communicate with other women and families.
Gail acknowledges there were times when her children may have envied other kids. Her daughter Jessie had a girlfriend whose father was wealthy, and this girlfriend got new wallpaper in her bedroom. "First of all, the friend had her own bedroom, and there were twin beds in her bedroom so she when she a friend stay over, she'd have her own bed. Anyway, she got some kind of shiny wallpaper and Jessie came home and told me about it and I could tell in her voice [she felt] 'Why can't I have new wallpaper' or lots of other things." Now, when they look back at that time, they get a kick out of it and laugh.
Although she wished she would have been able to send her children to private schools, Gail and her husband (at the time) exposed the children to "a lot of books because he was teaching at the University of Minnesota and I read a lot, too." So the children were introduced to books, art, languages, and traveling whenever trips were possible.
It didn't appear to Gail that a battle of wills was an overwhelming cause for concern, but she says, "Certainly there were--are--minor irritations. But it doesn't seem like a lot of family feuding. They did a lot of things together in clusters and groups. All of them seemed to be good friends. They played together well. They were good for each other. They're still good for each other now. They stand up for each other, and blood is thicker than water. The blood between the kids is amazing. If one of them gets in a jam, they're all right there."
She feels that raising children was and is a spiritual as well as a physical and emotional passage: "I can sit back and watch my kids' lives unfold. I think my kids are at peace, too, [concerning the outcome of the family]. They're all doing very well; I'm happy with their lives. There have been hard times but I'm grateful. My life is extremely happy now. I'm at peace. I feel blessed."
Not quite what you'd expect to see, size wise, in today's familial "economic market" is the Milless family. They put the kibosh on the notion of monetary concern. Thirty-seven-year-old Mary Jane Milless is the mother of nine children: Melissa, sixteen; Melinda, fourteen; Mitchell, twelve; Marcus, ten, Matthew, eight; Monica, six; Martin, three; Margaret Mary, two; and Marie, eight months--the "M & M's," as Mary Jane lovingly refers to her family (her husband's name is Mike).
I wasn't sure if I had the right address when I arrived at the Milless's Coon Rapids home. But once I saw Monica, Martin, and Margaret Mary--in her pink footie pajamas--running to the door to make out who the stranger in their driveway was, I knew I had the right place.
It was instinctual for Mary Jane to have a large family; she was raised in one herself (number nine out of ten). Her father's strong belief in family and the desire for having one herself was instilled at an early age. "We were my dad's life. People were the most important thing; life is the most valuable asset you can have and give. I believe if my parents didn't have the attitude they had, I wouldn't be here. Though they didn't have the means [financially], they felt they would take whatever God gave them." Mary Jane's will was strong to become pregnant immediately after getting married, which of course, she did, "so I've either been pregnant or nursing most of my married life." That would be her entire seventeen years of marriage.
From day one, Mike Milless was quite aware of his wife's longing to have a large family. However, neither of them was prepared to have nine children. Naturally, she says she's gone through moments of thinking, "Oh, I'm pregnant again?" But she has told God that "in a world that rejects life I will take all the babies you want to give me."
The modest split-level home has five bedrooms and three bathrooms, two people per room with the exception of three in the master bedroom (Mary Jane, Mike, and baby Marie). Mary Jane was very polite, attentive, and passionate about the subject at hand, and between offering me coffee and a sandwich, she nursed the baby. I was expecting a lot of commotion during my visit, but the only sight of kids in close range--other than the baby--was when Martin peered through the dining room sliding glass doors, from the outside deck, contorting his face inquisitively against the glass. Mike was on the road, working, and the others were either not at home or outside playing with friends.
A "typical day," if there really is such a thing, consists of packing lunches for the kids, getting them up and fed, getting a load of laundry in, and trying to get the beds made before she goes to church. "Laundry is kind of my central thing." Then she straightens up the house, thinks about what she's going to make for dinner, and bakes cookies for an after-school snack.
They spend about $350 every two weeks on groceries, and shop at an outlet store for bread (bread and milk are the two items they go through constantly). They buy their fruit and produce at Eisenberg's because she can always get a great deal there, she always breastfeeds, and doesn't spend much on formula (she'll keep a can around, just in case). Also, people are very generous with hand-me-downs and "garage-saling" is done often. "The statistics on raising a large family, financially, aren't necessarily true. I don't think they take bargain shopping into account."
One thing she would like to do is send Melissa and Melinda to St. Agnes, the best private Catholic school in the Twin Cities, according to Mary Jane. Because funds are tight, and the drive to and from the school- would be an hour and a half, she needed to confer with Mike. He decided that it wasn't viable. Because "I believe in being submissive," Mary Jane did not press the matter.
But what may be more strenuous than the money squeeze is the time crunch. Having dinner together doesn't happen as often as they'd like because the kids are involved in many activities outside the home: "There have been times when we'd have a schedule that would choke a horse," says Mary Jane. "It's either somebody's birthday, somebody's wedding, shower, first communion, baptism, there's always a festive mode." But when it is possible for them to spend time together, they go camping; the whole family enjoys doing that together.
Mary Jane admits there's a lot of work involved in raising her family and sometimes she can "totally go crazy because I'm human. I still like to have things perfect. Kids will not allow you to have things perfect; they'll quickly show you things aren't." But she declares, "there's never a dull moment, so you don't have to search far for entertainment."
With all the effort of bringing up nine children, naturally, there is some tension. How does she deal with the stress? "I call them my 'I can't have anything' fits, when I feel there's nothing sacred in this whole house. But my truest sense of 'how do I deal with everything' is going to Mass."
You would think there'd have to be moments when the children wish for "only childhood." "They really don't say they don't like it [family size]. I'm sure there are times they may escape it." Melissa will go to a friend's house where there is less activity, "but I don't know if she'd trade places with her friends who come from a smaller family," asserts Mary Jane.
What is most gratifying for Mary Jane is noticing the bonds forming and securing between the kids, watching them huddle together, whispering, not wanting anyone to hear their private sibling conversations. Even though there is obviously always going to be some fighting, "there's the love side, too." Her children are learning to take over some of the household roles, so they grow in different ways. "It teaches them to be less selfish, to learn to take care of their siblings."
When I asked her if she was going to have any more children, she surprised me: "Definitely! When I say I'm totally open, we're totally open. We'll take whatever God gives us. Mike's worked his way up through the ranks. It seems that each time I had a baby, he'd get a promotion or something would happen to show us that we'll be taken care of. Yes, my husband is the provider, but ultimately God is the provider of this family. We've been shown over and over again how God provides. I am totally devoted to my family, there is nothing else, but I really don't want anything else either. That [the family] is my goal; that's what I want in life."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.