Back a few years when we lived in Chicago, and I only had three kids, something horrifying happened to me. The kids and I were in line at the cutting table at the fabric store (which takes a long, long time) behind a young black man with a big pouffy afro. Jack was three and a half at the time and quite chatty. The man turned back towards us and Jack announced, loudly, "You have crazy hair." I was mortified. But before I could even apologize or chastise Jack, the man had asked him, "Do you like it?" Jack looked closely at him and considered, while I squirmed, then he said, "Yeah, I like it." The man said, "Thanks, I teach at a school. The kids there like it." Jack said, "My hair's yellow. I think the kids at my school probably like it." The man agreed, and that was it. He got his fabric cut and so did I and I never saw him again. But I learned a lesson from him that has been very useful to me as a mother of many, which is: Assume the best of people's comments, ask follow up questions and you just might find that they meant well all along.
Once a week or so in my Facebook feed, a friend will post something about how some person at some place said something to them about how many kids they have and how offended they were. And I recently read a lovely and impassioned defense of mothers of many against people at the grocery store and what they say and what they probably really mean.
I have been there, for sure. I have stewed and thought of witty retorts in the car on the way home and vented to the husband (this was before I was on Facebook, so HE got to hear about it). But now I'm thinking that if my feelings were hurt by an offhanded comment in the grocery store, it was probably because of my own insecurities rather than other people's actual prejudices against my family.
Now, before I bother to get offended, I ask myself, how sure are you that they really meant to insult you? Did you assume the best? Did you ask follow up questions?
I get comments all the time, of course. Just about every time we go shopping. Especially since I often have all six kids (10 and under) with me. We are a spectacle. There's no denying it. And yes, I've heard "Are they all yours?" (As if perhaps I swing by a local daycare to pick up some extra kids to bring with me to Target) and "You sure have your hands full," more times than I can count. And even that most inappropriate of all, "You're done right?" more than a few times. But perhaps we're the only family of our size that that particular lady has ever seen at Target, and maybe she's just trying to make conversation.
So, instead of getting defensive, I assume the best and ask a follow up question. I'll say, "Yes, they're all mine. They're pretty cute through, right?" Or "Yes I do, but better full than empty, right?" Or, "Goodness, I hope not. We figure we'll just keep going until we get an ugly one. So do YOU think we're done?"
And sometimes, that's it. But MOST of the time, I'd say 80-90% of the time, they'll then tell me how they are one of five or their mom was one of eleven or how they always wished they'd had more themselves. Then they almost always say something complimentary, even if it's "Well, I could never do that, but good for you." But more often it's how the kids are friendly or well-dressed or well-behaved.
Which brings me to the second aspect of this . . . THIS is my apostolate. The apostolate of being a big family at Target and Costco and Trader Joe's. EVERY TIME before we go inside I remind my kids that how we behave inside that store is probably going to determine how this particular group of people view big families. If my kids are sweet and helpful then all those people will think that big families are sweet and helpful. But if I look like I just rolled out of bed and my children are unwashed and screechy, then any negative stereotypes about big families that they might have had are now confirmed. (I don't count Frankie. I figure if everyone else is good, but he's throwing groceries at me, we're probably still okay.) And if someone was just trying to make contact with what SHE considered a creative and funny comment and I get defensive or sanctimonious, well I've just lost an opportunity to make a friend, or at least have a conversation.
I am here to tell you that I take my kids out in public. All of them. Often. And I can't think of a single time when someone was genuinely unkind to us (except this time, and that was just me and the baby!), unthinking sometimes, but not unkind. I think that allowing people to see the beauty of my lifestyle is MY responsibility. And I think even unthinking people deserve for me to give them the benefit of the doubt, just like the guy with the afro did for me.
P.S. Jack and the husband want everyone to know that Jack is wearing a Cubs hat because that's his little league team this year, not because we are Cubs fans. We are White Sox fans, and we are just crazy enough to take off our shirts and charge the Kansas City Royals' third base coach, if necessary.