The New York Times
February 8, 2009
And Baby Makes How Many?
By KATE ZERNIKE
THE comment from the photographer at Sears was typical. “Are these all yours?” she asked, surveying Kim Gunnip’s 12 children.
“No,” Mrs. Gunnip replied, “I picked some up at the food court.”
But it was harder to find a retort for the man in line at the supermarket, who said within earshot of her youngest children, “You must have a great sex life.”
Now her family, like other larger families, as they call themselves, is facing endless news coverage of the octuplets born in California and a new round of scorn, slack jaws and stupid jokes.
Back when the average woman had more than three children, big families were the Kennedys of Hickory Hill and Hyannis Port, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” the Cosbys or “Eight is Enough” — lovable tumbles of offspring as all-American in their scrapes as in their smiles.
But as families have shrunk, and parents helicopter over broods tinier yet more precious, a vanload of children has taken on more of a freak show factor. The families know the stereotypes: they’re polygamists, religious zealots, reality-show hopefuls or Québécois in it for the per-child government bonus. And isn’t there something a little obsessive about Angelina Jolie’s quest for her own World Cup soccer team?
“Look at the three shows on TLC that have bigger families,” said Meagan Francis, the 31-year-old author of “Table for Eight,” which stems from her experience raising four children (she is expecting her fifth next month). “One is about religious fundamentalists, one has sextuplets, the other is a family of little people,” she said, referring to, respectively, the Duggars of “17 Kids and Counting,” “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” and “Little People, Big World,” about two dwarfs raising four children, three of average stature, on a pumpkin farm in Oregon.
“You get the feeling,” Ms. Francis added, “that anybody who has more than three kids is either doing it for bizarre reasons or there’s a medical anomaly.”
* * *
If large families are the stuff of spectacle, it is partly because they have become rarer.
In 1976, census data show, 59 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 percent had five or more and 6 percent had seven or more.
By 2006, four decades after the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to use birth control (and the last year available from census studies), 28 percent of women ages 40 to 44 had three or more children, 4 percent had five or more and just 0.5 percent had seven or more.
“Three is still O.K.,” said Michelle Lehmann, the founder of lotsofkids.com and a mother of eight children who lives outside Chicago. “When you have four, people start raising eyebrows. When you go to five, people are like, ‘No way.’ ”
Beyond 10? “They think you are lying,” said Mrs. Gunnip, who also writes two blogs for so-called mega-families, those with eight or more children.
* * *
In a 2006 article, “The Case for Kids,” in Christianity Today, Ms. Fields lamented new social norms that assume that multiple children burden the goals of educated, professional women: “The smart, ambitious, fully realized 21st-century woman chooses career. The ambitionless woman has children.”
* * *
The article in Christianity Today unleashed a flood of hate mail. One reader wrote in all capital letters: “Did it ever occur to you that if you really want to serve God you should have less children so you’d have more time to serve God?” (“You can’t enter into debate with people who have that kind of rage,” Ms. Fields said.)
* * *
Mrs. Curtis illustrates one of the many ways that families grow so large: she had two children from her first marriage, then, with her second husband, seven in 10 years. One of those children had Down syndrome, so they adopted another Down syndrome child, believing two would grow up happier together. Since then, they have twice accepted requests to adopt another child with Down syndrome.
“Children are a kind of wealth,” Mrs. Curtis said. “Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on.”
* * *
As for the other pointed questions about large families, defenders have developed standard comebacks, lists of which circulate on the Internet.
How can you afford so many? “Lifestyles are expensive, not kids.”
Don’t you know what causes that? “Oh, yes, I now wash my husband’s underwear separately.”
Do you get any time for yourselves? “Obviously, or we wouldn’t have six kids.”
For the full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/fashion/08bigfam.html?em