“Is that your fourth baby?” asked a woman after church on Sunday. Now, I must admit that I enjoy showing off the baby a little, and since there aren’t many babies in our small parish, there’s usually someone who makes a bit of fuss over him. But the emphasis here was on fourth, as in, “Is that your fourth trip to the dessert bar?”

Apparently, having four kids in as many years makes a certain kind of statement. It certainly attracts odd responses. The most common is, to me, the most ridiculous: “You’re so brave!” Brave? Can you imagine? What they’re really saying of course is that you’re crazy, but they figure brave sounds better. Crazy is closer to the truth, however.

Many people, including total strangers, want to know if you’re “done” or if “that’s it.” My response, perfected over time, is, “So far.” It never ceases to amaze me that in this age of Choice it doesn’t seem to occur to some people that one might actually choose to have as many children as they feel they can manage.

Which brings me back to crazy.

I’m currently experiencing a little-documented syndrome that I call Post-Partum Mental Retardation. It starts with minor episodes: I stumble to the kitchen table to sneak a cup of coffee before the family wakes. But as I am about to sip that breakfast of champions, I notice it is in fact a carton of mil. Which means the cup of coffee is chilling in the fridge.

It deteriorates to the point that some mornings I awaken at 4:00 a.m., in my rocking chair, babe in arms. So far, so good. I cannot for the life of me remember when or how I got there, or whether the baby has been fed. Not too serious. The baby stirs, so I feed him and he drifts back to sleep. I’m now halfway through a Simon and Simon rerun and can’t decide whether or not to go back to bed. (As it turns out, two of the kids have climbed in during my rocking chair sojourn, so there’s no room for me anyway.)

In this precarious mental state, I venture into the world feeling at times like I must defend out decision to have a larger than average family. (Does it strike you as ridiculous to be calling a family with four kids large?) Of course, she shouldn’t be too concerned about what other people think. And on one level, I couldn’t care less whether so-and-so approves. Being somewhat counter-cultural, however, seems to impose a degree of responsibility.

It’s like wearing your school uniform or a clergyman wearing his collar. If you are observed yelling or you don’t tip the waiter or commit some other unpardonable sin, your actions are not only your own but are associated with whatever group you are identified with. Whether one is identified as a pro-lifer, as a Catholic or as a kook, there is a sense of not letting the team down. Having a large family associates us in peoples’ minds with certain groups or ideologies.

So if the kids behave as though they’ve been raised by wolves (which has been known to happen), it is embarrassing for me personally, but also because I fear others are thinking, “That’s what you get for having all those kids. No discipline.”

As a result, we are usually careful to ensure the children are always clean and well dressed, especially when we are out in public. (Naturally, bathing and dressing the kids are not just for show, but even the everyday lapses take on more significance when you are under a microscope.)

For myself, too, I feel it is important to project a good image as a mother at home with small kids. I really hate getting caught by the meter reader with frumpy clothes and no makeup. But I must confess, the odds are better than ever that anyone who shows up unannounced will find someone a lot closer to Roseanne Arnold than to June Cleaver.

In her television show Roseanne quips, “I figure if at the end of the day, the kids are still alive – hey, I’ve done my job!”

I’m afraid we’ve had quite a few of those days lately. But to all the mothers who have it together: I’ll try not to let down the side!