The American Prejudice Against Big Families

Athena, 3; Etani, 8 months; Hesperus, 5

Athena, 3; Etani, 8 months; Hesperus, 5

I understand why people raise their eyebrows at us for being pregnant with our fourth baby.

The vast majority of Americans still only have two children but there is a small subset of the population creating such large families that one Women’s Health writer suggests the craze for more children stems from an addiction to being pregnant. She argues that women become pregnant because they like being treated like rock stars and being in the limelight and she dubs women like me with more than two children “bumpaholics.”

(I don’t know about you but my experience being pregnant in America has not involved red carpet treatment strewn with rose petals and last time I checked having stretch marks, morning sickness, leg cramps, hemorrhoids, insomnia, and a myriad of other pregnancy side effects did not equate to achieving celebrity status, but a rant against the arguments in this unsubstantiated article—which was written by a writer I respect and consider a friend—is off the topic of today’s post).


Etani 3; Hesperus, 7; Athena 5

Etani 3; Hesperus, 6; Athena 5

Though I think the argument that some women are addicted to pregnancy is specious at best, I understand why people feel judgmental about big families. I am very concerned about the environment and fear global warming with an anxiety that manifests itself in the pit of my stomach every day:

My kids: Why can’t we drive Mommy? We don’t want to walk/take the bus/bike today.

Me: Because we homo sapiens are going to pollute ourselves out of existence like the cyanobacteria! The polar ice caps are melting and polar bears are drowning and WE ARE NOT DRIVING NO MATTER WHAT!

A recent study by researchers at Oregon State University suggests that the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to have fewer children (or no children at all).

I worry about overpopulation.

I worry because I want my children to feel special and loved and cared for, and I want to be the best parent I can be for each of them, and my time feels pretty divided already (especially when everyone’s talking at once at dinner), and I wonder what will happen when I have to turn my attention to caring for a newborn.

I worry because, like so many others, our finances are not nearly as robust (read: we’re broke and money is a big concern) in this down economy as they should be to have a big family and I read things in magazines like “you should have six months of savings no matter what.” We don’t have six days of savings.

My son Etani, who just turned six, asks for another hug at bedtime. He smells warm and salty when I kiss that soft place on his neck a hundred times. “Goodnight Pineapple,” he whispers patting my stomach. “I love you.”

There are lots of legitimate arguments against having even one child. Our new baby isn’t here yet but already I know that our lives will be much richer and more meaningful when he or she is in it.

Etani, 6; Athena, 8; Hesperus, 10

Etani, 6; Athena, 8; Hesperus, 10

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on Thursday, October 29th, 2009 at 5:51 am and is filed under American prejudices, On wanting four children, big families, overpopulation, pregnancy, telling people you are pregnant.
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19 thoughts on “The American Prejudice Against Big Families”

  1. Such a personal decision, and one that deserves dialogue (though not, maybe, a label like “bumpaholic”–please!). Mothers who are thoughtful and dedicated are more equipped to make this decision and to mother well. So kudos to Ms. Margulis for thinking carefully and sharing her thoughts.

  2. My mother had four children in the late sixties and early seventies. She was constantly judged in an era when smaller families were in vogue and people were downright fanatical about zero-population growth. I, for one, am glad she made her own decision! It’s interesting, though, to reflect upon the fact that the push for smaller families–which has its merits–is not a new imperative.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing that with all of us, being a Mom you are always torn betweeen what is right, what you feel, and what needs to be and your son patting your belly and saying “goodnight Pineapple” puts it all right where it needs to be – in perspective.

  4. This was thoughtful and moving. Your kids are beautiful (especially in the leaf photo) and the new one will be lucky to land in your family.

  5. I always thought that four would be a nice number of kids to have. I don’t consider that to be a very big family, although I have just two, and am definitely not having any more. I will honestly admit that I don’t understand the urge to have really large families (7 or 8+ kids) and I don’t understand how the kids can get much one-on-one attention. But I figure I don’t really have to understand it. It’s not my family. And I realize that I may also have a certain paradigm of parenting that not everyone subscribes to. What I’m saying is that, yeah, I think I’m a little judgmental about very large families, but I keep it to myself and don’t assume that my way is the only “right” way.

  6. I loved this blog. I’m consistently stunned by americans’ need to wag their fingers at each others’ choices. I would have loved to have a third or fourth child, but was too old.

    I have two, but I understand that those who have single children endure a certain amount of this kind of judgement in reverse.

    Thanks for sharing, Jennifer!

  7. Now that I’m a grownup, I love having five other siblings! They are such cool people–and so different than me–and yet we have this deep bond.

  8. Thanks for all these thoughtful comments. I think couples who choose to have only one child often feel judged as well. I know Jennifer Niesslein (the EIC of Brain, Child) has written about this in the past. I’m glad, too, that your mom decided to go against the norm, Kimberly, which is not an easy thing to do. My mom was told not to breast feed by everyone in the medical establishment because “formula was healthier.” She’s a scientist and she knew that calves drink cow’s milk and sheep drink sheep’s milk and that human babies should drink human milk. It sounds so logical and obvious now but it was really outside the box back then. Then you read Dicken’s novels from the 19th century where the characters contend that 8 children is not enough. I often wonder how much of our parenting choices are informed by the cultural trends at any given time…

  9. I have seven. I have several friends who have six and seven children. One dear friend has ten. We love our large families, are all very close and live a very family-oriented lifestyle. Sometimes it’s not about numbers but about what you do with what you have and about saying no to consumerism. In many parts of the world, large families use only a fraction of the resources a family of four (the typical two parents plus two children) in other countries do.

  10. Thank you for this post. Interesting! Now in my 50s, I am an only child and am the mother of an only child. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood brimming with very large families — the norm back then in the Midwest. It wasn’t unusual for me to play with kids who were one of 7 or 8 children in a family. I was constantly judged for being an only, and other moms would ask me why my parents didn’t have more kids! (As if there was anything I could do about it …)

    Even today, when new friends discover that I am an only child, they react with surprise, because I tend to be very generous. Many people still cling to the outdated notion that all only children are “spoiled and selfish, etc.” People are also surprised when I tell them I was basically happy, had lots of friends and support, loads of creative time, and was rarely lonely. My friends became family to me in many ways. (I loved hanging out with the bigger families, who welcomed me.) My son’s experience as an only child has been much the same.

    My family and I live in Catholic neighborhood again today, and while families in our hood are a bit smaller, we have many friends (young and middle-aged) who have no fewer than four kids. We’ve never noticed any bias against them — and we’ve always loved having all the kids around! Because we have a small family, ours has always been the hang-out house. We love it.

    My hope is that all people will stop judging others on the size of their families. We all have our reasons — some of the medical or physical — for the choices we make. There are many ways to be a family!

  11. Cindy, I think there is also the reverse judgment that you are mentioning here — as if it’s a bad thing to have just one child and there is something “wrong.” I don’t understand why people are so judgmental in general about how big or small our families decide to be.

    And Cynthia, I totally agree with you about how it’s the lifestyle choices we make not the number of children we have. My family lived in Niger where many many people have 8 or more children and it is a country where a tiny fraction of resources is used. People take showers with half a bucket of water (and get clean), recycle absolutely everything (except the plastic imported from China which is polluting the landscape), and generate almost NO greenhouse gasses.

  12. I agree about polluting ourselves out of existence–though technically, the cyanobacteria are still around. When Earth was young and oxygen scanty, the archaebacteria that excreted oxygen did kill most of themselves off, by excreting until the atmosphere was poisonous to them! That kicked off oxygen-breathers like us animals, but the oxygen-shy bacteria still found niches to survive in. Doubt that strategy will work for us, though.

  13. Jennifer, you know I’m right there with you. Having written a lot about raising big families I’m amazed sometimes at the hate mail (and hate comments) I get about my family of five. I think we’ve become so accustomed to a certain parenting style (one that’s very big on expensive experiences and lots of activity) that it really seems impossible to do a good job raising more than, say, two kids. But you absolutely can do a good job of it…you just have to subscribe to a slower parenting pace.

    Also, I do understand the environmental concerns, but the fact is that in the United States we’re hovering right around replacement fertility rates. That’s not likely to change even if a handful of families have 7 or 10 or 12 kids, and in the meanwhile, we as a society have a long way to go toward changing our lifestyles before we start pointing fingers at people with lots of kids.

  14. I really enjoyed pregnancy and had to laugh at your comment that it was like being a rock star. I was pregnant in France, and overnight, when people noticed, they treated me differently. I had three children by 1975, and folks back home in America criticized this choice. France was encouraging births with “allocations familles nombreuses”, an allocation, ie. monthly check after birth of a third child, so the French saw me a hero for producing more than two. Very different behavioral pattern, to say the least.

  15. Interesting post.

    I am not sure if it is possible to rationalize it all. But one can always take a lighter attitude – some people want a lot of children, some want only one or two and some do not want any children at all. It should even out at the end.


  16. Meagan’s comments made me realize that I wanted to do a shout out to her Web site about larger families. Some of the writers over there have loads of kids (my midwife, who has 11 children, never tells people the exact number. She usually just says, “I’ve got a bundle,” or something like that). For readers interested in learning more from the p.o.v. of moms with lots of children (Meagan Francis, who wrote TABLE FOR EIGHT: RAISING A LARGER FAMILY IN A SMALLER FAMILY WORLD) included, check out:

  17. Your business. Period. I am tired of people judging women for having too many or too few children. The fact is, you can’t get it “right,” so please yourself and do what will make your family the happiest.

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