I only have one sibling, a brother, four-and-a-half years younger than me. The world of massive families and children born less than two years apart was so foreign to me that I didn’t even know it existed (this was before the days of the Duggars’ show). I don’t remember knowing anyone from a family with more than three children.
And yet, here I am, with children aged 5, 3 and 2, and expecting our fourth, God willing, around Thanksgiving. How did that happen? It all started when I began to become observant, shortly after college. Well, the having babies part didn’t start just then, but that’s when the idea of having a large family took root.
Many of the families I was close to on my journey to becoming Orthodox had at least five kids. Some had eight or 12. I was completely enamored with the idea of having a large family. There was so much that appealed to me, like how the older ones helped with the younger ones, how sharing was not just a value to be taught, but a reality of life with many other siblings, how there were built-in playmates, and always some action in the house.
Of course, in my idealistic fervor, I neglected to notice the drawbacks, like the sheer amount of physical and mental energy (and finances) it takes to raise many children, that siblings may not get along or may not want to help with the younger kids, or resent having to work harder for their parents’ attention. Nope, I just saw the rosy, beautiful paradigm of what I imagined to be “Orthodox Life.”
My husband and I were both on the same page with having a bunch of kids. Until I became pregnant with my third, that is, and almost completely fell apart. The strain of having a not-quite-3-year-old, an 11-month-old, and being pregnant with no family in town was just too much for me. To say I was irritable would be a massive understatement. I was a monster. My parenting suffered, my marriage suffered, I suffered.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought. “I should be happy about this. Being pregnant is a blessing, and I love my kids, and this is what I’m supposed to be doing, right? RIGHT?!?!” I felt so guilty for being overwhelmed. I had friends and neighbors who had difficulty getting pregnant, and so I felt like there must be something wrong with me for not appreciating the obvious blessing.
But it sure didn’t feel like a blessing. It felt like a burden. And feeling guilty on top of feeling overwhelmed was, to put it mildly, extremely unpleasant. So I talked to a friend and mentor, who also happened to be a Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). She told me that it’s totally normal for a couple to start out with every intention of having a kid every two years, but that it’s perfectly fine if we realized that it’s not for us to keep up that pace. If having children is causing such stress and mental anguish, then, by all means, wait! It’ll be better for everyone involved.
So after we had our third child, a daughter, we decided (after talking to our Rabbi first about our options) that I would go on birth control. And it was such a freeing feeling. Oh my gosh, I was practically skipping around the house. Except I was too tired to move that quickly, but whatever, you get the picture.
In the end, we only ended up waiting 18 months before starting to try again, which, I understand, is still not that long of a break. But it was enough time for me to be able to not be totally stressed out and overwhelmed by this pregnancy. I have not been a monster (well, not more than usual, at least).
Has it been easier this time? Yes and no. There was a day when I was taking all my kids to the Pikesville library when I saw myself as I might look to others: visibly pregnant, schlepping my 2-year-old on my hip, and holding both boys’ hands in my free hand, constant vigilance in my eyes while I navigate across the parking lot. As we arrived inside the library, exhausted just from the trip from the car to the front door, I tiredly but forcefully whispered to my boys (OK, maybe it was more like hissing), “Walk! Please walk! Look where you’re going!” I don’t look like a young, sprightly mother, but a fatigued and harried woman who has her hands full.
Those are the moments when I feel like a negative stereotype, for sure. But the vast majority of the time (especially now that I’m at a point in my pregnancy where I actually have some degree of energy), I’m so content with our choice to have a large(ish) family, and I am so in love with my kids, and very, very grateful for the opportunity to be overwhelmed. I know it’s something that I can absolutely not take for granted.
As for the getting easier part, I’ve learned more tricks, how to be more efficient, and how to ask for help. I’ve learned how to modify my expectations for what I can accomplish in a day, week, or month. My older two can do more for themselves, though they still require a ton of physical help. But I know that soon enough, they will be bigger, doing things on their own, and I will be facing different parenting challenges.
My family may not turn out exactly how I imagined it back when I was a naive, single young woman, but I’m satisfied knowing that however our family ends up, it will be what’s best for us.