My standard response has been, "I figure we'll just keep going until we get an ugly one."
I suppose I'll have to stop saying that sooner or later, because eventually one WILL be the last one . . . but it works for now. So far, no one has been willing to tell me which of these guys should have been the last:
Of course, the actual answer is "I don't know, you'd have to ask God." But, for me, that wasn't always the answer I had in my head. Getting there was a journey.
In my To Moms of Only Little Kids post, I mentioned a dad who gave me an important insight. Well, meeting that family also had a lot to do with how I feel about this question . . .
Back when the husband and I were the fiance and I, we did the responsible thing and discussed how many kids we wanted to have. I'm from a two-kid family, his family has three. But WE wanted a BIG family, so we decided upon the biggest number of kids I could imagine: four kids.
Also from the "responsible parenting" file, we planned to wait to have any kids at all until the husband had finished graduate school and had a job. Well, it didn't quite work out as we had planned. So when, just after grad school, we went back to Boston for his ten year college reunion, we brought two kids along with us.
It was a life-changing trip for me, but not for any reason I could have foreseen.
The husband had been back in contact with his college mentor who still lived outside Boston. He has a big house and a bunch of kids and he invited us to stay with them for the weekend. Free room and board? Perfect. We accepted.
I'm sure Jim had mentioned the number of kids they have, but maybe I thought he was joking, or my brain just couldn't compute it, but I was surprised when it was . . . eleven. They have eleven kids. (Plus one in heaven.)
And meeting them was an experience I'll never forget. This suburban-So Cal Sunday Catholic had never seen anything like it. When we arrived there were no grownups home. But one boy was riding a lawn mower over the vast lawn, two girls were shucking corn on the porch (shucking. corn. on. porch.), two other boys came out to the car to help us bring in our luggage (without anyone telling them to), some grade school aged girls came and took less than two-year-old Jack off to the trampoline.
I was dumbstruck. These children aged three to twenty-one were helpful and polite and nice to each other and not weird (as I imagined kids from a family that big probably would be, sorry!). I spent the whole weekend just in awe of everything. Especially things like that they only had one TV so they all sat in one room (some people on the floor) and flipped between the O'Reilly Factor, a Red Sox game, and the Summer Olympics. And all these friendly and good-looking kids and teenagers (plus a couple extras) were hanging out with their family members on a weekend night, on purpose, and without grumbling.
Their life was so different than anything I'd ever seen. There was a chaos and a joyfulness and a rawness and a fullness to this home that I had never experienced in any of the one and two and maybe three kid homes of my friends. And it's not like I caught them at some perfect moment in time either. This family was nothing if not real. Their second youngest has down syndrome and celiac and had gotten into some "regular" cake, so her sisters were taking turns trying to midwife her through a bathroom visit; they forgot to pick someone up at baseball practice right up until a neighbor pulled into the driveway with him; the dad looked wistfully at my son and told me that their first child had been about his age when he died in a household accident.
But their lives were linked together in a way that was both deep and effortless. I didn't know how they had what they had, but I knew I wanted it for my family.
I'm not even sure I connected all the dots at that point, that I understood that their joy came from authentic Catholic living and openness to life. I was in the midst of my, "we're sure to figure out how this whole NFP thing works sooner or later" stage. I didn't know yet about the contentment that comes with being open to God's plan for my family, no matter if that was going to be the two kids I already had and that's it, or the many more than that that I've ended up with (so far).
That trip convinced me in theory about the beauty of big families. But what they had was SO far away from my life experience that I needed more convincing as to the how-to practical side.
We spent two years on the Southside of Chicago where EVERYONE is Catholic, but even people who aren't particularly religious have four or five kids, so that helped. Southside Irish moms are whatever the word is for the opposite of helicopter parents. (I considered submarine and kite as opposites, but I think I'm going to go with "fighter jet parents" because fighter jets exist to protect people, but they don't have time for a lot of fussing along the way.) Kids ride their bikes around and get themselves places and generally have a lot more freedom than I remembered kids having in San Diego where I grew up. That sort of parenting makes having more than two children possible from a purely scheduling standpoint.
Then we moved to Los Angeles and I was sure we'd be the only people in town with even the three kids we had, let alone if we had more . . . but boy, was I ever wrong.
Fortunately (providentially) the first family we met out there was that of our realtor, who has seven kids. He introduced us to an amazing community of great Catholics with families of all sizes. I started attending a weekly Moms' Rosary group full of young women who didn't know how many kids they were going to have.
It was like I had spent years thinking that the reason no one really understood me was because all anyone spoke was gibberish and no one could understand each other, then one day I went to France and realized that I had just been in Spain trying to speak French this whole time.
ALL of these women spoke French (as it were). They ALL understood me. I was suddenly comfortable with that sense I had had that I shouldn't be thinking in terms of exactly how many kids I was willing to have. Or how we were going to be able to successfully cap our family once we could get the hang of NFP (which we did, eventually, by the way, just in time to quit doing it). I committed to seeing the world and my family in a more open and trusting way.
The most important thing I ever did as a young Catholic mom was to get out and find like-minded friends. I could not have lived this vocation without them. I'm not saying I dumped all my "regular" mom friends, but I will say that as our priorities became more different we drifted further apart. The friendships I have made with moms who share my deepest goals for my children have been much more meaningful and really, really educational and affirming.
And, hey, there's also the blogosphere. We've all got each other! It's such a blessing to be able to open my feed reader and see other families struggling and rejoicing in the same ways we do.
As my children grow, I still pray that our family will have that same rapport that I found in that noisy, happy home outside Boston when my children are into their teens and beyond. I pray that our home will be the place my children want to be. I am hopeful that it will be, because having all these children has given us many more excuses for parties and general liturgical-year-festiveness. We're pretty fun.
So, that's how I broke up with the notion of knowing how many children I would have . . . through trust and prayer and a deepening relationship with God, but mostly through the example of faithful Catholic families. I owe a big thank you to the McNamaras, Lasotas, (other) Tierneys, Talbots, Boleses, Grimms, and Lessards (among others I'm sure I'm forgetting) for being a beautiful witness of love and an inspiration to those around you!