“Are they all yours?” “She’s pregnant again?” “You know how that happens, right?” “How do you do it? You must make a tonne of money!” “You must be a saint!” “I could never do what you do!” These are just some of the negative and confused comments heard by parents of “large” families.
Sometimes, the comments can be worse when all the children happen to be of a single sex. Joe and Rachel Di Fonzo are raising seven boys, ages nine to 21, in Toronto, while Dan and Mariette Ulrich are raising seven girls, ages two to 18, in rural Saskatchewan. Some people assume that these couples have been, or should have been, motivated only by the quest for an opposite-sex child. “No,” replies Rachel Di Fonzo, “we just wanted a baby!”
Whereas their critics suggest that parents of larger families are selfish, ignorant or unruly in their fecundity, in fact, these families have grown through the conscious generosity of the parents. Sometimes the parents of families deliberately kept small reveal that their criticism can emerge from fear, because their own children seem out of control and indeed, their contraceptive mentality reflects a lack of self-control. In light of this, openness to life on the part of the larger families becomes a witness to hope. The parents of six families interviewed by The Interim said that, by welcoming the number of children of which they are truly capable, they are giving glory to God, offering their children the gift of siblings and raising young people who are very capable citizens.
Some of the couples went into marriage hoping for large families, others started with the intention to very much limit their family size or to avoid parenthood altogether. Nancy Bartz recalls not trusting God sufficiently at the beginning of her marriage to Harry. She says: “Most born-again Christians make it known that they read their Bibles and take it literally, with one exception – being fruitful. They have taken on the world’s attitude that using birth control is ‘wise.’ In the end, it robs people of their spiritual growth.” The Bartzes, Pentecostals living in Goderich, Ont., are now the parents of 10 children between seven and 26.
Likewise, when her husband Randy underwent back surgery, money was tight and her prayer life was weak, Theresa Nault in Legal, Alta. despaired. Having given birth to three children, she scheduled a tubal ligation, but did not follow through and the couple grew in their Catholic faith. Today, the Naults are the parents of six biological children and four pre-adoptive foster children, between four and 20. “With each new pregnancy, I was less self-consciousness and the closer I was to God, the less concerned I was about the opinion of others.” She adds: “Ironically, now that I am in my 40s, I am respected and I am commended frequently for my wonderful family.”
When Dean and Angela Miller of Aurora, Ont. were the parents of two children, they thought they could give them all that life has to offer. Then, she says, they realized that “the nicest thing we can do for these children (is to give them) more brothers and sisters, because when you look back at the things that bring you happiness in life, the time that you spend with your family” is paramount. “It really became apparent to us that if we want to live out the fullness of our marriage as we had made the commitment to the church to be open to life, then we thought we really have to be open in our hearts first and then physically, we became open to the idea.” The Millers now have eight children between ages two and 17 and cherish the sibling relationships they have seen develop.
The parents reported personal blessings and character development as their families grew and expressed generosity. Bartz typifies the maturation process many of the parents described. “Soon into our childrearing, I realized that raising children brought out the worst and the best in me. I had to deal with some real spiritual issues and grow up quickly.”
Asked what she might advise single people or young couples starting out, Miller said, “Don’t be afraid to do it.” Joe Di Fonzo would recommend that “first of all they be open to it, to not be afraid of that; there’s just so many people paranoid or frightened that they would have more than two kids.”
Parents told The Interim how they have tackled commonly perceived obstacles. They prioritize faith, pray and study Scripture together and attend to the care of their children’s souls. “I cannot begin to describe the fruits of raising a large family, they are far too numerous. I thank God each and every day for all of my children and at times, I am overcome with humility that He would choose us to assume this role,” said Nault.
“I have come to realize over the years that our large family has served to be a true witness to the world,” Bartz said, “Our walk of faith was realizing that children are expensive and time-consuming and we’d have to receive miracles of both money and time.” She says they have been blessed with both as needed. “I could write a thick book just listing the miracles that have happened to our family.”
Larger families do need to manage their time in ways they might not have had to learn had their families stayed small and they are flexible with some expectations. Geoff and Lisa Gleason of Aurora, Ont. have learned to consider their family of seven children as a whole, rather than individual children as units. Dan Ulrich has learned to say “no” to some outside requests and demands. “On a practical note, I’d say, ‘Routine is everything.’ I have lists everywhere and for everything,” said Nancy Bartz.
Skeptics, says Joe Di Fonzo, expect that the work, problems and costs of larger families are “exponentially greater” than for small families, but experience does not bear this out. “Those kids are receiving affection and reinforcement from all members of the family, not just the parents,” he assures parents who fear the loss of one-on-one attention.
Larger families also manage their resources carefully. “Large families simply have to adjust how we spend out money … Learn how to shop differently,” says Theresa Nault, adding that “although we are not rich and at times it can be tight,” their children play sports, dress well and eat well. From her experience, she recommends that couples not postpone being open to another child based on their current thinking that they cannot afford it.
Mariette Ulrich wants to debunk the misconception that larger families are “prohibitively expensive.” She waxes philosophical: “Whether you have children or not, life is only as expensive as your needs plus your wants. Frequently on the news, they will announce: ‘The latest stats show that it costs X dollars to raise a child to age 18!’ at which point, we are all supposed to gasp and thank heaven we went for that vasectomy. Not once has a news anchor ever come on TV and said, ‘Statistics show that it costs X dollars for a self-centred person to buy himself luxuries for 18 years.’”
All of the interviewed couples seek and receive support from some combination of church, family and like-minded friends. Many have gladly accepted the services of volunteer cooks, babysitters, cleaners and teachers. The Gleasons, whose oldest child is 13, welcomed their seventh child in October. But members of Bethel Canadian Reformed Church ensured that, for the first several weeks, no cooking was necessary in the home.
Furthermore, most of the parents interviewed have either been mentored by large families, including their families of origin, or join other large families for significant activities. Geoff Gleason recalled that, because of the intervention of another large family, he and his wife learned to offer more structure and discipline appropriate to their children’s development stages: “God was really gracious and He brought some families into our life at a really critical time.”
Contrary to the expectation that they might be too much to handle, the children of these larger families are collectively more manageable than many with more material goods. Miller noticed that her children “have learned how to share, how to work with other people, that they’re not the centre of the universe and they are pleasant to be around.” The families reported that teachers and employers tend to privately appreciate the diligence and respect these children display.
Of each child born, Miller says, “We are just delighted to see the promise that each one of them brings, whatever talents, whatever gifts God has bestowed upon them, are not only blessings to us, our family, but to the world.” Further, all of the children in all the families are being trained in the faith and pro-life, pro-family values. Thus, when well-meaning friends or relatives ask the Ulrichs, “How many children are you planning to have, anyway?” they answer: “All of them.”