Judging Family Size

September 25, 2013

Many Hands

Growing up the eldest of nine, I was privy to plenty of comments about our family size. My mother, or course, bore the brunt of it: Are all these yours? Are you done yet? Don’t you know how this happens? As a child, I thought these were odd things to say, given how normal it all seemed to me. As an adult, I marvel at how well my mother handled it; I don’t know that I could be so self-possessed and polite.

A big family stood out back then almost as much as it does now, but I’ve learned — as someone who was childless until I hit my 40s — that both ends of the family-size spectrum garner comments from the peanut gallery.

If you’re married for more than a couple of years and have no children, perfect strangers want to know if and when you intend to bring one into the world. Once you have a child, everyone wants to know when you’re going to give him or her a sibling. After that sibling comes along — especially if it’s the opposite sex — your family is now considered complete; if it’s discovered that number three is on the way, the previous excitement about your baby news is pretty much gone (unless, perhaps, you’re clearly trying one more time to get that desired boy or girl). I remember my acupuncturist once telling me that his wife was pregnant with number three. I congratulated him on the great news, but he gave me a strange look and said, “Really? Everyone else I’ve told thinks we’re crazy.”

I’m not sure where this two-kid ideal came from. My best guess is that people recognize that the majority of adults want children, but kids require sacrifice and investment — so once you acquire a boy and a girl, you’ve hit it about right. Anything outside of that golden mean, though, and something’s either wrong with you or you’re solely to blame for global warming.

We all hold beliefs that affect our views about bringing children into the world, but it’s the tendency to voice these opinions and beliefs out loud to complete strangers that baffles me. I don’t know what’s behind anyone’s family size but my own. Some people have trouble conceiving, while others are fertile as the plains of Lebanon. (Are there fertile plains in Lebanon?) Some believe children are the greatest blessing in life; others believe they’ll be happier without kids. Some start families early; others start late. Some consider it responsible to limit their family size, while others avoid contraception for health, spiritual, or religious reasons. Regardless, in a society that claims tolerance as its chief virtue, it’s very strange that family size doesn’t warrant more open minds and closed mouths.

Growing up, having two kids seemed a little boring to me — conventional, commonplace. Now I have two children — which, of course, isn’t boring in the least — and though I never get comments about my family size per se, I have friends and family who struggle to remain polite when the same comments are hurled at them again and again about the number of kids they do or don’t have.

Whether your nest is empty or you’ve got an entire basketball team, I hope you’ll hold your head high. There are many things that matter in this life, but the size of your family is not one of them.

Have you ever experienced prejudice about your family size? Got any great responses to share? (This is definitely a topic that can warrant strong opinions, so let’s keep the conversation respectful.)

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1 mommatoethiopiantwinboys September 25, 2013 at 9:56 am

Yes, even having twin boys of the same gender, people automatically think we have two so we are done. It has been slightly annoying. Now we are expecting baby #3 and most people seem to understand since we don’t have a girl yet. However, we have already been talking about #4 as well and wonder how people will respond to that. Especially if #3 is a girl, I am sure most people will be baffled as to why we want a #4. I personally think it is none of their business because my husband and I believe we have all the resources to give our children: financial, time-wise, emotionally, physically etc. and that is all that matters.


2 Karen September 25, 2013 at 10:25 am

Having had boy/girl twins as our first children our most frequent comments were that we were done in one shot. We went on to have two more daughters and our family of six is considered large by most people we meet. I was one of four growing up so it doesn’t seem large to me, and we expect to keep gifting our children with siblings as the years go on.
It helps immensely to be friends with other families with several children. I belong to a homeschool co-op where the average number of children is four, and one of my closest friends is pregnant with number six. At times we swap comment stories and share responses, laughing at the absurdity of it.


3 Therese Hazzard September 25, 2013 at 11:14 am

Sadly, I have received such negative comments. The one incident that I’ll always remember is being in Sam’s Club (buying diapers) with my 5 in tow. They were all under 6—the twins were just about 1. The woman passing out the food samples said to me in a gnarly voice, “Wow, I feel sorry for you with all ‘them’ (sic) kids.” To which I replied, “My children are a gift from God and I don’t need or want your sympathy.” It still brings sadness to me when I remember that incident. Today, I have 5 healthy, happy teenagers who bring me a lot of joy (and drive me crazy at times), and it’s only occasionally when I wish for the days when they loved a good field trip to the store with me!


4 Lynn September 25, 2013 at 11:47 am

This was beautifully written! I have received obtrusive comments regarding family size, child spacing, etc. We got pregnant shortly after getting married and many “well meaning” friends and co-workers told us how we were ruining our lives and probably our marriage as well by having a child so soon. I have pretty thick skin but I couldn’t believe anyone (especially friends) would say something like that. Now of course the same people often ask when we’re having another one and advise we should have one soon because apparently there is also something wrong with you if you space children out too far (our son is currently 2.5). I can never think of good replies but I do have to hold back a chuckle sometimes when I’m getting this kind of “advice.”


5 Kari September 25, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Your line “in a society that claims tolerance as its chief virtue, it’s very strange that family size doesn’t warrant more open minds and closed mouths” — I have wondered this SO many times!! Why are choices regarding family size & spacing considered open game to criticize? Kids are no longer considered an asset, and our culture is so fixed on “me” that having more than 2 is perceived as crazy.

I have 12 siblings and we got comments all the time, but my parents just laughed it off, making jokes about having enough for our own baseball team or that they couldn’t help it, they just really like each other.

I do have to mention, though, that I find myself having judgmental thoughts about couples who are able to have children and choose not to. I just don’t get it because I love my kiddos so much and they’re worth every sacrifice. I have to catch myself and remember that I am judging their family size too, and I don’t know the full story of what they’re dealing with and why they chose not to have children.

BTW, have you ever seen Jim Gaffigan’s stand up about having 4 kids? It is hilarious and hits on some of the things you mention here! You can find it on YouTube.


6 Zoe Saint-Paul September 25, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I haven’t seen it, Kari — will have to check it out!

I guess the topic of family size evokes strong opinions because children themselves evoke strong feelings — if they’re the greatest thing that ever happened to you, it’s hard to imagine why people would choose to refuse that gift. If you think children are more of a nuisance, or that you’re simply meant to do something else with your life — then having a bunch of kids seems like a burden. I think it can be hard to empathize with others whose values are really different.

I try to hold back my judgements about this out of principle — if I want people not to judge large families, it has to work the other way around, too. And as I’ve come to see, decisions or circumstances about family size can look very straight-forward on the outside, but often times it’s much more complex.


7 kredite berechnen ich February 16, 2017 at 10:34 am

Nickws when Downer referred to Paul Keating, always as ‘Mr Keating’, you could really feel how deeply he despised him. It’s the contempt that the aristocracy feel for those who’ve tried to rise above their station.


8 Therese de Fairfax September 25, 2013 at 8:27 pm

There was a family on one of the talk shows this morning. They were having their home organized by a professional organizer. The couple has 12 boys..ha!
It was wonderful, though, when the organizer talked about how kind, sweet, and loving this family was and that he did not expect this and felt that HE was the lucky one to get to spend time with them.

How refreshing!!


9 Therese September 26, 2013 at 8:12 am

Great article, Zoe! I was just thinking about this the other day, for some reason, remembering my Mom’s stories about how many comments she got when she was pregnant for the second time with her third child (#2 was adopted). She said that strangers used to approach her and shout at her for being irresponsible! That didn’t stop her from having two more though. After all five were born, I remember when a kid a year older than me stopped me in-between swim laps and asked , with tangible scorn, “is your mom pregnant AGAIN?” She wasn’t… but it was so odd that I remember it to this day and now suspect that it was fueled by an overheard adult comment.

Two seemed boring to me too and I felt a sort of unexpressed sadness for small families. No more! Though I had hoped for a large family, circumstances made me very grateful to even have these two. For me, the difference between expectations and reality is a reminder to focus on gratitude in various life situations.


10 EML @ Barefoot and Sometimes Pregnant September 26, 2013 at 9:30 am

This is great! I have five kids and get lots of comments asking if they are all our, etc. I am finally starting to just ignore them or smile and move on. However, I must say I am more bothered by people who make rude comments to those couples that don’t have kids or only have one. Since I have known a few people with fertility problems and while they wanted kids they have trouble conceiving. I think people need to be reminded “if they don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.”


11 Dawn October 8, 2013 at 12:06 am

I have 6 children and in general when people recover from their initial shock when they find out, they immediately want to know if we’re “done”. Why this is any of their business baffles me. I don’t judge them for however many children they are choosing to have as I see it as a complex and private issue, and wish that others would grant me the same respect!


12 em November 25, 2013 at 6:16 pm

please know that not everyne thinks those of you with large families are strange. Some of us are wishing we were in your shoes. I have always wanted and dreamed of having a large family. Unfortunately an error made by my doctor means i am now unable to conceive naturally. My husband and I suffered through 5 years of ivf before being blessed with our daughter (we looked into adoption but australia’s protcol makes adoption extremelly hard to access). emotionally it took a lot out of us. financially as well, after spending over $50,000 to bring our daughter earthside we are not in a financial position to afford more ivf or the large fees required to adopt in australia. When I see large families I see my dream for our future and know it will not happen. I am happy for you all with your big, noisy, busy, happy families and when I see these big families out and about I wish I had my own little tribe too and I wish my daughter could have the joy of growing up in a big family.


13 Henry May 3, 2016 at 3:30 pm

My wife always wanted four sons [no daughters]
We had our first son, a little prince who everyone adored and thought was the cutest thing in the world. We had him when we were 24, so people thought we were a bit young, but other than that he was perfect.
4 years later we had our daughter. They were nicely spaced, we had one kid of each gender, no one had a problem with it. They did however have lots of problems on how we were raising our daughter, since we put her in beauty pageants and competitive dance at a young age.
When my son was 6 and my daughter was 2 my wife gave birth to our 2nd son.
Everyone lost their minds. My wife is one of five, so her parents were alright with it but not happy. My parents hated the idea and suggested abortions. All our friends though we were crazy. Strangers would ask why we wanted another, right in front our our 4 year old son who could fully understand what they were saying to us.
Then we decided to have one more, but ended up with twin boys.
So we had a 9 year old, a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and two 8month olds.
People thought this was the craziest thing on earth and to this day most our family and friends don’t respect our decisions. But that doesn’t matter, my kids have great lives–more stamps on their passports by age 10 than most people have in their lives, we didn’t have any mistakes, people just think we’re ruining the economy. Someone once accused me raising education taxes single handedly because of all my kids. Sorry sir, I send my kids to private school that I pay for myself.


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