Big Families Face Big Questions

The recent outrage over Nadya Suleman's octuplets has created yet another round of difficulties for large families in this country, who are constantly faced with questions from strangers regarding their ethical, religious, and personal beliefs.

The public's weird obsession with large families is easy to see: the Discovery Health channel alone carries such programs as 17 Kids And Counting, The Bailey Multiples, Six For The Road, and Super Quads, all centered around the wacky and wild ways of large families. And, of course, there's the ever-controversial Jon and Kate Plus 8 on TLC. For some reason, television viewers are fascinated with multiples, and the struggles of raising many children at once. Perhaps on some level, it's an exaggerated version of what many American parents are already going through: the budgeting, the stress, the time management issues, and even the rewards, all blown up to an extreme degree.

Yet for large families, the culture's obsession with, and in many cases, anger towards, large families has provided a great deal of difficulty, as Kate Zernike explores in The New York Times. With public scrutiny on the rise due to Nadya Suleman's octuplets, large families are facing more questions than ever, with everything from their ethical choices to religious beliefs to impact on the social and ecological systems being attacked. But as Zernike finds, many mothers are fighting back against the stereotypes.

"They expect me to come crawling in from Appalachia or something," says Barbara Curtis, who has 12 children. Curtis, a Montessori teacher, had two children with her first husband, seven children with her second husband over a decade, and then adopted 3 children with Down Syndrome(The Curtis' also have a son with Down Syndrome). Her family may not be traditional, but, she notes, "Children are a kind of wealth," Mrs. Curtis said. "Just not the kind of wealth our society tends to focus on."

And as Meagan Francis, mother of four, notes, the shows about large families on television tend to feed into the stereotypes: "One is about religious fundamentalists, one has sextuplets, the other is a family of little people," Francis says, "You get the feeling that anybody who has more than three kids is either doing it for bizarre reasons or there's a medical anomaly."

Leslie Leyland Fields, who has six children, agrees: "The smart, ambitious, fully realized 21st-century woman chooses career. The ambitionless woman has children," Ms. Fields says of the stereotypes, "The criticism feels elitist. It's coming from educated people, which makes me think, You have no excuse for thinking in such stereotypes."

But is it elitist to criticize people for producing large families, in terms of the impact they have on social and ecological systems? Author Alan Weisman says no: "Every single person has multiple impacts on multiple environmental resources. It's a no-brainer that the more people there are, the more stress there is on an ecosystem that doesn't get any bigger."

So what say you, commenters? If larger families can provide love, resources, and basic needs to their children, is it anyone's business how many children they have? Or, as Weisman argues, do people need to consider the ecosystem when bringing children into the world?

Perhaps the best thing we can do is stop viewing large families like traveling freak shows: for every "hey! they have 987 kids!" show that appears on television, the stereotypes, unanswered questions, and creepy voyeuristic factor of watching a family based simply on their numbers and not necessarily on their needs will continue for many years to come.

In An Era Of Shrinking Broods, Larger Families Can Feel Attacked [NYTimes]