“Mom and dad were right”: big family benefits all grown up
I left a comment on someone’s super sweet Instagram post last week (hi, Nell!) of a shot of her kiddos headed down the block to her sister’s house in search of cousins to play with. She asked her followers what their own experiences were like with the adult sibling dynamic, and whether they were in close physical proximity. I think I was one of the few – maybe the only – responders to have the great fortune of having both many siblings and many siblings who live close by. It forced me to stop and reflect on the blessing these people are in my life, and also the unique nature of this intentional community we’ve created for ourselves and our families.
I am the oldest of 7 kids. I grew up as the lead duck in a string of ducklings trailing across grocery store parking lots and filling most of an entire pew in Mass on Sundays. We were definitely not a typical sight in the small, conservative town I spent most of my formative years in, and we were for sure, even at then “only” 5 in number, a typical sight in the Bay Area suburb we moved from the summer before my 11th birthday. I got pretty used to the gaping stares, the bobbing, open-mouthed silent counting and eye movement of strangers, and, yes, the occasional insane comment to my mom in the checkout line.
Now that I have my own multiplying string of ducklings, it has become second nature to ignore the interest we occasionally arouse in public. I also think living in a place like Denver, where people are pretty individualistic and open minded (for better and for worse), the shock factor is a little harder to come by. Whatever the case, I’m more than equipped to handle probing questions at Trader Joe’s and incredulous smiles at the playground; I’ve been training for it my whole life.
If you’d have asked 17 year old Jenny (who was less than thrilled that her mom was pregnant with baby number 7 at the time) her thoughts on being the eldest in a large family, she – I – would probably have snorted and quite possibly rolled her eyes. Deep down I didn’t mind it … much. But now, 17 years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Far from being resentful of the more than occasional babysitting shift thrust upon me, or the relative lack of disposable income, I would be able to put my hands firmly on the shoulders of my teenage self and tell her, in all honesty, “these are the best people you will ever know. They will be there for you for the rest of your life, in a way that nobody else can come close to. You think giving up a Saturday night here or there is a pain? Wait until the little girl you’re babysitting right now is a college sophomore spending her Christmas break sleeping in your basement so that when your water breaks you can head straight to the hospital. Wait until the annoying sister shadowing you in the high school cafeteria becomes the best friend you call almost every morning, who picks your kids up from carpool in a pinch even though her minivan is also maxed out. Wait till the little brother whose diapers you really don’t feel like changing becomes one of the best men you’ve ever known, and proposes to a woman so wonderful that you ask the two of them to be your yet-unborn child’s godparents.”
The truth is, everything our parents told us: that we were each other’s first and best friends, that high school would end one day but sisterhood and brotherhood were forever, that we’d always be able to count on one another…it all came true. In spades. When I look across the bustling, loud 9:30 Mass at our parish I can see my sister and her husband sitting with their 4 little blonde children spread out across an entire row, my brother and his fiance bookending them and perhaps holding an errant toddler. Or a few rows further back I spot another sister and her husband with their two darling daughters, flanked on one end by the sister who lives with them and the nice guy she’s dating. (And heck, the only reason I’m not sitting with them is because in some fantastic stroke of divine providence, my in laws moved to Colorado 3 years ago and grandma and grandpa come to Mass with us every.single.Sunday. Hashtag freaking blessed.)
Although our personalities are as wildly differing as our heights, this vertically-blessed lineup includes a half dozen of my closest friends on earth. And truly, that’s a huge motivator when I’m knee deep in exhaustive little kid parenting, wondering if we are, in fact, maybe a little crazy for doing what we’re doing with our own family.
But then I imagine my 3 boys out for beers and a baseball game, 20 years from now. I imagine them dressed in tuxes for their sister’s wedding. I try to envision whether we’ll have another member of team testosterone join the crew come December, or if Evie will at last have a sister to confide in, fight with, and sneak out of the house with. (On second thought, perhaps I should be hoping for another boy?)
Most of all I envision the relationship the 4 – soon to be 5 – of them will one day have. A group hologram to replace the group text that I enjoy with my siblings, frequent nights out to split appetizers and catch the latest Star Wars flick, regular kid-swapping weekends to spell each other from the rigors of parenting, and always, always, a shoulder to lean on, a friend to confide in, and a fellow traveler on the journey to heaven to reach out to in times of darkness and of joy.
My little sister was instrumental in drawing me, her 3-years-older and sooooo much wiser, world-weary college veteran of a big sister out to a tiny, stinky coal town in Eastern Ohio, where I threw my life away (so I thought) and started over. Turns out that dramatic cross-country leap was the most vertical maneuver I’d make in life, still to date.
4 more siblings have since trailed after, beating a dusty path along Interstate 70 eastbound, throwing in the towel on culture and air quality for 4 years of intensive Catholicism 101; a seventh and final sibling is headed there next fall. Which means, in addition to sharing blood and parents and memories of eating cold Spaghetti-O’s straight from the can, we also share a common faith.
This is perhaps the greatest gift of all (narrowly edging out the free babysitting); that we love Jesus together, that we strive for heaven together, and that we can lock arms in a darkening culture with a diminishing moral compass and, like so many hobbits journeying towards Mordor, reassure one another “I got your back. We can do this. Together.”
And that’s no small thing in a world that loves the darkness.
I pray this for my own children: that long after I am gone, the bonds of blood and brotherhood that bind them together will only strengthen with time, shoring them up in moments of great sorrow and great joy, and that I can await them confidently (fingers-crossed) in the life after this one, knowing they’re helping each other along the way when I’m no longer there to guide them.
I have no words. This was beautiful. As one of six, I know the feeling.
Oldest of 8- also from. Bay Area suburb! Pleasanton. Where you from!? We were the only ones in town. Maybe there was a Mormon family almost as big w like six kids.
Born in Marin, lived in San Francisco, San Rafael, and Petaluma 🙂 (But I’ve been a Coloradan now going on 22 years)
Oh this is just lovely! I’m the second oldest of 6 girls and after my husband, my sisters remain some of my bestest friends in the world. It’s super rare to have a day that I’m not in contact with at least one of them, if not all of them. We’re all married now and all but one have kids (she’s been married less than 3 months, we’ll give her a little time) and I love seeing our kids grow up together too. Big families are the best.
Beautiful! Making my husband read this as part of my argument for us to have more kids!
As a mom of 8, ranging from 14-32, I so agree with you. I’ve seen my kids grow up to be each other’s best friend and supports. I’ve been reading a lot about the Benedict Option, and it occurred to me that the easiest way to form a Ben Op community is to have lots of children and raise them to love and enjoy each other.
Loved and needed this. I’m an only child and my husband has one sibling, nine years older. This is what we’re hoping to build for our family, even though it isn’t what we know. I’ll definitely be coming back to read this again.
Thanks for this. My only sibling is my little brother, but my fiancé is one of 5. Having a “large Catholic family”, or a larger-than-normal family is still a slightly intimidating thought for me (I’ve only ever seen the large-family drama dynamics of my mom’s 5 siblings). Thank you for sharing an example of how beautiful a larger family can be.
Our family spread out a bit geographically over the years…I have a dream of buying a big care home someday so that all of my siblings can live together in old age and maybe getting one or two of our nieces or granddaughters to be our caregiver. There is nothing quite like being together as family (and I agree that when we are older, we appreciate our connection to each other so much more than we could have imagined). It would be something special to share the end of life as much as we shared the beginning: under one roof!
At your age, these thoughts aren’t there yet…you are more into babysitting coop…lucky you! : )
Jenny! This is beautiful! I sobbed from beginning to end because it resounded so profoundly with me. I also am the oldest of 7 and we all live with 10 minutes of each other! They are my best of friends. I feel so lucky and blessed and couldn’t love my parents more for the gift! I always tell people the greatest gift my parents ever gave me besides my faith was my siblings! Thank you for this post.
This is so great. Lovely lovely lovely. As a mom from a small original family, now beginning to raise a probably larger Catholic family, this encourages me to keep going. Thank you.
Val - Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids
Love this! I couldn’t agree more. I have just two sisters but our unfaltering support and love for each other is comparable to none other. And I can’t wait to see how my four children continue to grow as siblings and friends.
Pregnant lady getting weepy over here! I grew up with two brothers, neither of whom live near, neither of whom believe in God anymore. But my husband is part of a crew of five vibrantly faithful sibs, four of whom have large or growing families, and the fifth is a missionary. We’re expecting our fourth girl in February and I pray that they will be friends forever! Everything you just described about your family is what I want for my daughters. Come Lord Jesus!
This is so beautiful. I’m #3 of 7, and am so sad that some are beginning to move and settle far away as we get older, because I want this close-ness so much. We’re still many years away from all raising kids (youngest sister is 9), but I so hope some of us can live close! Siblings can be the worst when we’re little and can’t see the big picture, but the best as we get older and realize how great it is. Thanks for sharing this.
Thank you for writing this. I just had my 4th baby 6 weeks ago (my oldest child is 4 1/2 years old) and I have been feeling completely overwhelmed and entrenched in the day to day drudgery and battles of parenting all tiny people. This is what I needed to read right now. It gives me the bigger picture and reminds me that giving my children siblings is the best gift I can give them. Thank you!!!
What a great article, I am the eldest of 11 and what you have written is so true, our parents had 42 grandchildren, all are great friends and now there are 8 great grandies and I would say that is the beginning! What a legacy our parents left. Most of us live near each other, we love being with each other and support each other. Fun times, sad times, all times are together times. We are joined together by our strong faith and commitment to our family.Unfortunately the world does not see the value of big families we are treated as aliens! However they do get glimpses they see our love and care for others, they see the support we are to each other when a family member is sick or dies. They saw the way we were able to care for our elderly parents for many years. How blessed are we, thanks Mum and Dad!
Cindy Millen Roberts
Thanks for a wonderful essay.
Our five kids stay in close touch and text one another daily. It was a joyous family life.
Tonight I was looking for posts on siblings. I am one of 9 ranging in age from 63 to 80 and all of us are still on the right side of the sod. Today, my sister had a mini stroke , which threw a scare into all of us. I see a lot of heart ache in our future, but we have all lived good lives and the end must come. We have a couple dozen kids between us left to carry on and more that a smattering of grandkids. But today’s events gave me a taste of what it is going to be like to say good bye to these 8 best friends in my life.