Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Countdown to 30: Living as a family, or running a group home?

{I'm doing a series of answering peoples' questions about me and my life as I count down to my 30th birthday. If you have something you'd like to ask me--anything!--please leave a comment or send me an email. It's not everyday I open myself up to answering any and all random questions, so ask away!}

Today's question comes from a blog reader who emailed me. I think it's a great question, and I know it's something a lot of people wonder about (but usually are too afraid to ask!) So, buckle up and away we go...

Large families are awesome. I don't have one but always liked the idea of lots of kids and the joys that would come with it. When though does a large family border on group home? It can't purely be a number thing so would it relate to the time or relationships children have or don't have with the parental figures or maybe something else? Also what are your thoughts on the good or bad that would come with crossing that border?

I'll start by saying that yes, I think large families are awesome too!  And the idea of a large family mimicking a group home is somewhat indicative of our modern times.  Historically speaking, "family planning"-- to the degree that it is practiced today, because people have always used some form of contraception--is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Directly related to the advent of hormonal birth control.  SO, fifty years ago, people wouldn't necessarily be thinking that way about large families, because they were more common and accepted.  But, society has changed. 

As for me personally, I subscribe to the historic Christian belief that children are part of a loving God's design to enrich our marriages and push us toward selflessness and thus further towards holiness (aka, teaching us what life and love are all about)!  I believe that the Catholic openness to life is, in general, part of being man and wife and part of God's purpose in instituting marriage.  Therefore, I think that children are a good thing.  A healthy thing.  A designed-by-God thing.  Having a large family, for many of us, is thus not an arbitrary decision, but a core part of living out our vocation as a married man or woman.  The goal is not to have a slew of kids so our quiver can be full or because we simply can; instead, we accept that God has bound procreation to our sexuality and that children are gifts to our marriage and signs of our love.

I would say that our own family is pretty darn close. We do lots of laughing, working, and playing together. Everyone pitches in, because we're a family, and we each have a role to play and some ownership in being a Heldt. There is a bit of discipline and structure too, because that is also part of living together (and growing as a person!) We learn side by side to be peaceable and loving and gracious and kind. We have to learn to share and sacrifice and look to the common good.  Some days are harder than others...for all of us.

The thing is, large families are not just full of children, they are also full of relationships.  My children, all five of 'em, have such unique bonds with us and with one another.  Sometimes there is friction, just like in any relationship.  Mostly it is beautiful.  Such a sweet slice of life.  Something we wouldn't see on this scale had we birthed our 1.2 children and called it quits.

And, want to know a little large-family-mom secret?  I have found that with each additional child, I savor the moments, the milestones, the cuteness, the itty-bitty toes and chubby fingers and years days spent nursing so.much.more.  No, I have no clue how that works out, but it just does.  Maybe it's because while you cuddle your sweet newborn, you're simultaneously watching your five year old daughter reading Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.  It's her second time through.  That day.  And it hits you in a very deep place that life is forever moving forward, always marching on towards the future.  So, yes, you clutch your swaddled newborn a little tighter and relish her every coo and tell yourself that the sleepless nights are totally worth it.  Because they really, really are.  And all too soon, they'll be gone.

Adoption of course brings an interesting dynamic to this discussion, because it has the potential to defy natural child spacing and no natural law arguments are at play.  And, we're talking about children who've come from trauma.  The hard places.  In February of 2006, for example, we brought Yosef and Biniam home--twin boys just eight months younger than our biological daughter, Anna, who had just turned two.  Yes, that is three children ages two and under.  :) 

But a group home?  Not so much.

Then Kaitlyn was born.  Four kids ages three and under.  Group home, or family?

Then came Mary Lu.

Again, I'm thinking not so much of a group home.  :)

And we are of course currently in the process to adopt two little girls from Ethiopia.  Bringing us to seven children. 

So how does one know how many adoptions is "too many"?

How long before your home ceases to be a home, and begins to more closely resemble the orphanage your children originally came from?

Honestly, I don't know.  I know we're not there.  Because I know we operate like a family--a sometimes crazy, semi-chaotic family, but a family just the same.  Lots of cuddling, good conversation, and laughter.  My kids care about each other.  They're best friends.  And they all feel a connection to us.  If any one of our children were gone, there would be a HUGE, gaping hole in our family.  Felt by every single one of us.

I once assumed that we'd be "serial adopters".  I truly thought we'd be that family that continued adopting, again and again.  But, it has not worked out that way.  Instead, since that time, God has blessed us with two additional, dear biological children.  And more recently, united us with two precious little girls in need of a family, each of whom has an extra chromosome and who is going to maybe need a little extra help.  All of that to say that the adoption of these girls is most likely going to be our final international adoption.  And I feel complete and utter peace about that.  (I do hope that one day, when our children are grown, God might open the door for us to become foster parents.)

Because while I once felt compelled to fix the orphan crisis myself, I now simply ask God to use our family how He sees fit, to meet the greatest needs that we can realistically meet.  And I recognize that we can't meet each and every need.  Nor should we try. 

Ultimately there is freedom in how people choose to run their families.  Some families, whether large or small, may just seem less intimate (or more group home-ish) than others.  And I think that's okay.  It is also surely God's will for some families to, for example, adopt many high-needs children who may require therapeutic parenting, lots of structure, and lots of energy.  Life will not be easy, but I bet that family will be growing in virtue and driven to a very real, very right dependence on God. 

And I'm sure there are some small families that more closely resemble a bootcamp or an institution, while some large families are as close as can be.  (How do you even define "close", anyway?  Pretty subjective.  Not to mention, a high-structure, therapeutic home is anything but cold or devoid of love.  These parents in the trenches are some of the best you'll find, anywhere.  Period.)  It seems to be more about family culture and family dynamics than the actual size of the family.  And families can and will have different dynamics.  Yes I do know adults who resent that their parents adopted, relocated to a developing country, or gave birth to a child with medical needs.  But I also know that most people find something to resent about their dear, poor parents who were doing the best that they could.  And life, as much as we'd like to pretend it is, is not all neat and orderly and designed to revolve around us.  (I also know many adults who admire the unconventional path their parents chose, some of whom even caught the vision themselves.  I hope this for my own children, but who can know?)

Something I think about a lot, especially when I'm tempted to romanticize the days when I had just one baby napping in the other room (bwahahahaha!), is that our house-of-five-children is filled with life.  You cannot spend more than about one minute here without, um, discovering that.  I hereby apologize to anyone who has come over for an evening, only to be accosted at the front door by children eager to host them, or who have been begged to read a story aloud, or who have had to listen to endless descriptions of t-ball practice, Aztec sacrifices, or Pixar movie plots.  (Doubly sorry about the Aztecs, but let's face it, we homeschool).

Lots of  life within our walls.  I propose that life is a good thing and, afterall, Jesus came to give us life to the full.  That life definitely doesn't have to look like life in an institution.  It can be robust and dynamic and really, really beautiful.

If nothing else, please do understand that large families are really just...families.  Whether they are high-structure, high-nurture, or a mixture of both.  And we desperately need grace because we are constantly being judged and scrutinized based on the number of children we have.

Is my almost-two-year-old screaming and crying in Target?  That mom has way too many kids to handle.

Is the same almost-two-year-old one of our children screeching like a pterodactyl being too loud in the library or in a restaurant?  Look at all those kids just running wild.

Is there a skill that one of our children hasn't mastered yet?  Well, when you have so many, you just can't give individualized attention to any of them.

Nevermind the mom-to-two in Target whose four year old is throwing a huge fit.  Or the parents of one screaming-and-throwing-food toddler at Chili's.  Or the couple with two children, spaced five perfect years apart, whose youngest is a late walker/talker/reader/underwater-basket-weaver.  Could it be that life with kids, whether it's one or twelve, is just plain unpredictable?  Could it be that that is part of why God gives us children in the first place?  To teach us the virtues of patience and long-suffering and charity, not just toward our children but also toward others?

Quite frankly, it can be exhausting being judged primarily on the basis of how many kids we have.  I have met people who cannot get past this fact (no matter how much I try to downplay it), and who it is, as a result, impossible to build a relationship with.  "I don't know HOW you do it, I'm so maxed out with two!"  And despite my very-best-clever-conversational-attempts to steer the conversation elsewhere, it just keeps coming back to that.  "But wow, five kids, oh man, you must be supermom/crazy/an alien."  Finally I just smile and repeat that it doesn't matter how many children you have, motherhood is hard...and eventually the conversation dies a sad, especially-awkward-for-an-introvert-like-me death.


While I don't have an easy (or short!  ack!  sorry!) answer as to when things move from loving, tight-knit family to institutionalized group home, I've hopefully clarified a little bit about how I see families in general.  And ours is probably a lot like yours.  Happiness and sadness, laughter and tears, lots of messes and the occasional mommy-meltdown.  That's just life, and it's a crazy ride, and choosing to embrace it is a daily, moment-by-moment, only-by-God's-grace choice for me.  May I learn to rejoice more and more in my vocation as a wife, and mother-to-many!

Thank you for asking!


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