My children made me try a chocolate-covered gummy bear the other day. Now a chocolate gummy bear is not a local, sustainable or home-grown food, and frankly, I don’t like gummy bears (the only good use I ever had for them was in college, where nothing would keep posters on cinder-block walls without damaging the walls like a gummy bear melted on with a lighter), and I’m not that big a chocolate person. But the kids kept telling me that this was better than either the low-quality chocolate used to cover them or gummy bears. I tried one, and they were right – it was better, an official addition to the category of things I think of as “greater than the sum of their parts.” In this case, that’a pretty low bar, since we are combining crappy chocolate with something that’s barely a food – but “things that make something more than the sum of their origins” is a meaningful and important category, and here I must give the chocolate-covered gummy bear very mild props.
Many better foods than the chocolate gummy bear fall into that category – things where a list of the ingredients does not convey the true yumminess of the outcome. Consider tomatoes, basil and balsamic vinegar – all great things, of course, but together a perfect synthesis. Red wine and dark chocolate. Lime juice, chiles, sugar and fish sauce for the ubiquitous hot/sour/salty/sweet of southeast asian food. One could go on and on about the perfection of certain combinations.
Food is not the only place where you see optimization when you make perfect combinations The agricultural Three Sisters are an example of a classic agricultural polyculture that creates something greater than the sum of its parts. Stocking animals together on pasture can produce a pasture health, habitat for animals and good animal husbandry greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone has seen a painting or a piece of music much greater than the sum of its brushstrokes or musical notes, a piece of writing made up of ordinary words that achieves transcendence. In fact, the creation of something that is greater than the aggregate content, that has that artistry and flow that makes it great is one of life’s worthy achievements, and occurs in most areas, and is a worthy endeavor of a lifetime.
Parenting a large family is a similar art – the exercise of making something more than the sum of individual members. Every family is like this in some measure, but a large family HAS TO BE greater than the sum of its parts. I think a lot of people look at the energy and resources they put into their 1, 2 or 3 children and think that I must do 9 times what someone does for one child. But while more children does mean more laundry, more dishes, more melodrama over who got more hot chocolate in their cup and more diapers, it does not mean 10xs as much work for me or Eric. That would not be accomplishable – in fact the mere thought makes me want to crawl under the covers and not come out. Instead, what it means is a mandated artfulness. Not always, we have our graceless moments just as much as the next people, but there is a smoothness to life that makes it a lot less hard than you probably think it is. It also makes it more fascinating, more fun, more engaging – that is, the worthy practice of one’s attention and thought, a job worth building a life around.
In fact, the addition last month of our foursome’s younger brother, C., who is 2, gave us more than a tenth child and a 7th son, it gave us a nice test of the ways that things can flow in a larger family. It wasn’t without its challenges, but was easier than you’d think. And we’re just thrilled that all five kids are together now and will eventually be adopted together. The fact is, our family of nine did not feel overwhelming, so it was really possible to say yes to another child and another toddler with relative ease. That wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for the magic of optimization.
Now some things are harder with more kids. Five of my kids are little (5, 5, 3, 3 and 2) and they require more hands to hold in a parking lot, help with hairwashing, extra time for potty training and someone to spot them when they climb on the monkey bars. There is 10 times as much laundry as one child would need (if theirs was a conserving household like ours), and 10 times as many dishes. And when they are all bickering, the noise is exponentially increased – I’m guessing about 10,000 times what a single child might make at peak decibalage ;-).
But a lot of things are actually simpler in a large family. Bathing three young kids in the same tub does not take three times as long (although at least twice as much water ends up on the floor, and there is at least six times as much giggling). Making a chicken pot pie or a pot of lentil-kale soup for 12 takes only minutes longer than making one for four or six. Four little people read a story very comfortably together (one on each knee, one snuggled at each side). While you do need a baby doll and a couple of stuffed animals for each child, as well as a few basketballs, you only need one copy of The Jungle Book, one toy kitchen, one set of blocks and one Monopoly set whether you have one child or a dozen. Or no Monopoly sets, if I had my druthers ;-).
The logic of large families is different too – some things that take up a lot of time in small ones simply aren’t part of the equation. Consider the practice many families have of making a separate meal for each picky child, and another for adults – that simply cannot happen in a large family. Even young children understand that if nobody ever had to eat less-favored foods, there would be nothing to eat. Kids learn quickly that while we never force them to eat anything they don’t like, picky eating is not rewarded by special meals. Similarly, when a friend of mine laments it takes an hour to get her daughters out of the house in the morning because they spend so much time picking and choosing their clothes (these daughters and 5 and 8, not 13 and 17 which might have a different solution) and asked why we were at an event before her, I noted “Because I offer my daughters a choice of two outfits. They pick, they wear that one, no backsies.” Fussiness about trivial things is not rewarded (although everyone is entitled to their quirks, which we try to respect.)
Some things are easier in a large family. We drive to few play-dates – it is easier to host people here and there are always combinations of children who are friends for playtime. There are lots of merry hands to take on some of the bigger jobs – of course Mom and Dad can and do read stories, braid hair, make sandwiches, help with homework, carry groceries, scrape plates, bake cookies, explain a law of physics, make holiday decorations, collect eggs, try to show how to do a cartwheel,lead dance parties, discuss the facts of life, pitch a ball, catch a baby goat or make a snack, but there are always other people not only able, but often anxious to do these things. Two of my boys are thrilled to do their little sisters’ hair – it is a treat for them, and they come up with some remarkable combinations of barrettes and hair ornaments – many quite fetching, occasionally very funny. Simon and D. both like it better when Simon helps her with her homework than when an adult does (both are 13, but he’s 7 months older and 2 grades ahead). Even five year olds K. and R. appreciate having the opportunity to do something meaningful like lay out the silverware, help their two year old sibling play ball or learn to spread peanut butter and jam on a slice of bread. A new reader really thrives on having a small child who can’t read yet hang on to her every word of _Goodnight Moon_. A teenager may not want much to do with parents, but the adoration of a younger sister or brother can provide happiness and it can be a real pleasure for them to play a board game with that adoring sibling.
Some things that are a source of stress in smaller families seem easier in ours. Screen time is not much of a battle here – perhaps because we have one computer, no cable, limited internet speeds, no cell reception where we live and one tv that only plays video. Everyone takes it for granted that they must take turns and that it will be time for someone else (most likely Mommy and Daddy, who both work on the computer) to take over soon, so screen battles are pretty few and far between. We do one birthday party with some seasonal variation (ie, you play with squirt guns and the creek in July, in December we have balloon fights indoors and eat roasted vegetables, but it is essentially the same party, just done a lot of times every year) but no one seems to get tired of it. Thus, I never research birthday party locations – who needs a bounce house when you’ve got goats? With a dozen birthdays unevenly scattered, my kids don’t mind sharing their parties with a near-birthday sibling, ’cause, well, we throw really good parties and a lot of them, even if you are sharing. And we rarely worry about providing “activities” for visiting children – racing around with the goats, splashing in the creek, grinding corn for cornbread and making fun of your brothers seems to cover most activities.
There truly is something about taking up two full rows at the front of our synagogue for our child’s bar mitzvah, the cheering at concerts and games from a huge family who are there to support and love you, the anticipated future multiplication of spouses and grandkids, the warmth of knowing that 50 or 60 years from now, my children will have each other when I’m long gone to share memories like “Wasn’t Mom annoying when she used to…” All the nachas is greater.
Is it perfect? Nope, when the first small child squawks at 4:55am, when D. needs homework help while two un-napped preschoolers are melting down and I still have to make dinner, when the laundry pile reaches the sky and it seems like I am never, ever, ever going to be alone without someone climbing on me, when everyone is sick or everyone is tired and me too, well, I wonder what the heck I was thinking in having all these children. But I never get the sense that those moments happen to me all that much more than other parents. More, sure, but not that much more.
When I return from something to have five little people screaming “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” like I’m a rock star, or when my 13 year old, almost-looking-grownup teenage son cradles his sleepy baby brother on his shoulder, or when three toddlers march around the room singing “Wain, wain go today!”, or even when my teens and preteens have burping contests and my 13 year old burps her Dad under the table, I wonder what other people do for entertainment (ok, I really do think there could be less entertainment from burping, but you get my point).
Not everyone should have a large family, because well, some people don’t want one. Family size is a personal decision, mostly. But sometimes it isn’t so much a decision at all as an event that is taken out of your hands – the little pink lines on the stick, the grandchildren whose parents can’t care for them, the neighbor teen in trouble with nowhere to sleep, the child you adopted or fostered suddenly has a baby sibling…. And sometimes it is a choice to say “Hey, I can stretch my comfort zone. ‘Cause maybe it isn’t as hard as it looks, and out there are a whole heck of a lot of children who would love to be part of your big family.” And for a few of us crazy ones, the art of making a family greater than the sum of its parts is its own kind of reward.