John and Dawn McCormick have witnessed the raised eyebrows and heard the comments.
Are they all yours? God bless you.
And even the occasional rude reproach: Are you done yet?
“People do judge us,” says Dawn, 42, whose narrow Haddonfield, N.J., house is brimful with eight children, the youngest being 7-week-old Casey.
Now, large families like the McCormicks are under more scrutiny than ever because of attention focused on Nadya Suleman, the California single mother who gave birth to octuplets in January and has six other youngsters at home.
The sight of enough children to field a Little League team or two has captured society’s curiosity and, in some corners, aroused its scorn.
Blogs are ablaze with outrage – directed not just at Suleman (who has had death threats), but at all supersized households.
“I think it’s one of the last acceptable prejudices,” says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a family counselor and father of nine who founded the organization This World: The Values Network.
“We always seem to gauge the sophistication of a family, and even of a culture, by the degree to which it controls its fertility.”
Large families – definitions vary, but the fifth child seems to be the tipping point – have always existed, of course. These days, however, they are uncommon, so rare that the U.S. Census no longer tracks families with six or more children.
In 2007, about 2.1 million American families had four or more children younger than 18 – only 2.7 percent of all families, according to the most recent census data.
At the turn of the century, kids provided extra hands to work farms; large numbers also assured that at least some would survive to adulthood. Industrialization and advances in health care have contributed to the shrinking of the American family, whose size has dropped 26 percent since 1965.
These days families average just fewer than two children. Those with five, six, eight, 12 or more stand out as unusual, even bizarre.
The Suleman story has not helped that impression.
“We have this cultural belief that two or three kids is the right number,” says Lorin Arnold, interim dean of the College of Communications at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., who studies large families.
“Anyone who is outside that norm feels the need to justify their family size.”
Society looks most critically on those furthest from what’s typical, says Arnold, herself a mother of six. If a family is Catholic, she says, “that’s a good excuse for why you would have so many children.”
For others, religion is not the driver. Large families just feel right – something couples experienced themselves as children, or never experienced and therefore always wanted.
In an age when many parents want to provide every advantage to their children and hover endlessly, large families often talk about a team spirit that gets them through the days.
“You laugh a lot,” says Bernadette Jablonoski, 46, of Cherry Hill, N.J., who has eight children, ages 8 to 21, including 10-year-old twins who are the result of fertility treatments.
“We always thought, this is what God sent us, and he must think we can handle it,” she says.
Eventually, she learned tricks. Each child has his or her own color of towel so Mom knows who left theirs on the bathroom floor.
Four Jablonoskis are in college.
“Our oldest said, ‘Where’s my college fund?’ ” Jablonoski says. “I said, ‘You don’t have a college fund.’ In this house, we get you through high school, and college is on you.”
On a recent school holiday, Dawn McCormick, a compact woman with a serene smile but a firm hand who once dreamed of a career in law, turned down a persistent lunch request for grilled cheese and offered turkey or ham sandwiches. The older children made their own meal while Mom helped the younger ones.
“We’re more old school,” she said. “You help out.”
For all the joys – no shortage of hugs and laughter, playmates and bustle – the McCormicks allow they have made trade-offs.
John McCormick, 43, a financial adviser, gave up practicing law at a Philadelphia firm so he could have more flexible and regular hours. His house – three bedrooms and 1 1/2baths – is snug, and truthfully, they can’t afford bigger digs now.
The family rule is that each child can play only one sport a season. Other extracurriculars, such as music lessons, are not pursued.
The children don’t always get the latest gadget like their friends. Clothes are handed down; toys, too.
Still, the children have a Wii, and a dad who volunteers to coach each of them.
“It’s really a choice,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “we try to teach them a lot of people have less.”
Griffin, the oldest at 11, says having that many siblings has pluses and minuses.
“It’s good they all look up to me,” he says. “It’s bad sometimes when they’re annoying.”
The McCormicks knew they wanted a big family but never planned on a set number.
“They just came. We got a little momentum,” says John McCormick, who thinks “eight is great but eight is enough.”
“I can’t imagine ever being done,” adds Dawn McCormick, as she cradles Casey and accepts kisses from Mikey, 2, who settles on her knee.
“I love children. I love everything about it. … Someone is always going to need you.”
Research on how children fare in mega households is divided. Numerous scholars have made the argument that parents have a fixed amount of resources, whether financial or emotional, Rowan’s Arnold explains.
They think that “every time you add a child to the family, there’s a reduction in those resources,” she says.
Other academics, however, argue that finances might be limited but emotional connections are not, and that time spent as a group or with siblings offers benefits.
Kate and Ray Vandegrift of Jenkintown, Pa., have 11 children, with the 12th due in August.
“We had them,” says Kate, 43. “We didn’t think, ‘Could we afford you or not?’ ”
She says that “organization is the key.” She makes dinner when her older ones are at school and focuses on homework when they come home.
Arnold takes the middle road. Parents of many children often struggle with resources, but so do those with only one child, she says.
For instance, those parents can feel compelled to arrange numerous extracurriculars or time with friends so the only child is well-adjusted socially.
Large families, however, often do not voice complaints, Arnold says, beyond pragmatic concerns over laundry (too much) and finding a big enough car (Chevy Suburbans are popular).
Partly, her research found, that’s a reaction to societal attitudes.
“When you have eight children and say, ‘The kids are driving me nuts,’ people think maybe you shouldn’t have had eight,” Arnold says.
But large families often seem to focus on the benefits not the burdens.
Kate Vandegrift says she cannot “imagine the house empty.”
What will she do when the children are all grown?
Her husband has his sights on travel. Not her.
“I tell him we can’t,” she says. “We’ll have grandchildren. My house will still be full.”
Click here to comment on this story »