I’ve never been able to resist reading stories about very large families. So it’s no wonder I ended up with twelve children of my own.
And yet, I can never really find my brood in those large family stories. First of all, those families are always Christian or Mormon—though the moms always swear religion had nothing to do with their prodigious birthing.
I am Jewish. Orthodox. And in my case, religion had everything to do with my decision to bear lots of children.
Replacing The Six Million
It was as simple as this: our rabbi didn’t let us use birth control. He said that after the Holocaust, we had a duty to replace the 6 million souls who were systematically gassed and incinerated as part of the Final Solution.
The rabbi’s version of the final solution was my womb, churning out baby after baby, as quickly as possible.
Today we know other rabbis would have allowed me to use birth control. My husband and I just didn’t know better. We were newly religious Jews from nonreligious backgrounds returning to our roots. Our parents weren’t orthodox and all this stuff was new to us. We were doing the best we could and were told that in listening to our rabbi on matters of birth control, and well, everything else, we’d be blessed.
And blessed we were, with a lot of little mouths to feed.
Completely Selfish Reasons
Still, I didn’t always listen. The rabbi told me to stop breastfeeding at two months, knowing that nursing could postpone the postpartum return to full fertility. I chose to ignore this dictum, nursing my babies for as long as I could, for completely selfish reasons.
I loved nursing. Loved the closeness, the incidental cuddling, the need that only I could assuage, the feeling that I had a superpower. I pretended the rabbi’s directive regarding nursing didn’t have the sheer heaviness of the one forbidding us—me and the other women in our community—birth control. My womb was his, my breasts, however, belonged to me. I would nurse them as long as I wished. My fingers closed my ears to hearing other possibilities. It was too important.
The nursing was glorious once past the sore nipple stage, but the pregnancies were difficult, taking a permanent toll on my health, on our savings and lifestyle. It didn’t matter: while I did not with a whole heart submit to having this many children, I loved each child fiercely from the moment of birth and onward. I love them with a fierceness that surprises me even now.
One More Digit?
People think you take a large family in stride, somehow. That at a certain point, it’s just one more digit added to a number. Eleven? Twelve? What’s the difference?
But no. That’s not true. You don’t become inured to your own children just because you have a lot of them. It’s probably some sort of miracle but you love them; each one of them. You love your children as individuals and not as one very large BLUR, as you might imagine the large family dynamic in your mind.
Here is a truism: mommies love their babies.
They just do.
So. Many. Cows.
I should explain to you that the freakishly large families you read about aren’t anything like my family. Those moms will tell you how many pounds of ground beef they go through in a month and your mouth will gape, imagining the amount, the cost, a tower of little white Styrofoam rectangles filled with plastic-wrap-covered coils of chopped cow. Ten cows, twenty-five. So many cows. Because so many children.
That’s not us. Because here is the truth: the budget of a family with 12 children is not likely to include beef, chopped or otherwise.
That’s okay. We found a different way to eat. We ate lots of rice until we discovered that one of our children was allergic to rice. And if I made rice, it made her feel bad, because she couldn’t eat it. So we made a decision to stop eating rice.
That too, was fine. It’s all about adaptation. You do what you need to do to keep them clean and fed.
I’m not saying it was easy. It was difficult and all kinds of boring. Variety, for example, isn’t in the cards when you’re that large a family. You eat the same things, day after day, praying to find new permutations of the same old, same old.
Thank God for soup. Soup is always there, a lifesaver. It fills you up, fills the multitudes under your one roof and you can make a lot of it out of virtually nothing at all. My husband might ask, “What’s for lunch?” and I’d answer, “Creatio ex nihilo.”
In other words, soup.
I’m sure that most busy bustling families rely on packaged this or frozen that to ensure their families thrive. I, on the other hand, made everything from scratch, but there’s pride in that, you know? I’m good in the kitchen. I managed.
I’d pop two pounds of popcorn every week for the kids’ Sabbath treat. The kids would gather around, delighted eyes wide, to mimic me as I’d shake the pot with vigor during the popping, like some sort of aproned belly-dancer. I’d pour pot after pot of popcorn into a large blue plastic dishpan and salt and stir like crazy. I’d transfer the cooled, popped kernels to a giant garbage bag, pleased to see tangible evidence of my labor in the kitchen.
That’s what a real large family looks like. Not those pristine families who’ve got their perfect budgets all mapped out for the month. Families are messy. Families sacrifice to make things work. Families are kids chattering together happily while eating loads of salty popcorn out of a garbage bag with greasy smiling lips.
We didn’t like leaving the kids. But my husband and I took a vacation together once. My mom treated us to a weekend in the Catskills while she watched the kids. We worried, but had a wonderful time. The kids, on the other hand, never got much vacation. Bus fare for 12 kids and two parents? Exorbitant. And then where were you going to go?
They Were Robbed
It made me sad. I felt like they were being robbed of experiences they well deserved. But there was nothing I could do about it.
I wanted them to have so much. Music, for instance. My mom and I had season tickets to the symphony when I was growing up. We went every week.
My kids never saw a live concert of classical music.
It’s an agony to think of this. It’s my failing. I blame myself for the cultural deprivation of my children. But I can’t change what was/is. I did the best I could. They heard music on the radio. I gave them books to read. Books were important. Books meant my children could stretch their imaginations and read about the things they could not experience.
It’s what I want to ask those moms of those large magazine families: “Did you budget for the symphony along with ground beef? How did you give them culture?”
Hanging Little Socks
Having all those children and raising them was hard, you see, no matter how cheery and capable I sound here in this essay. Imagine you are me, hanging all that laundry because you can’t afford to use a drier. Hanging all those little socks, one by one. Scrubbing out the stains they’ve made, because you can’t afford the spray pretreatment stuff. So you go to work in the sink with a nail brush and a bar of soap and attack those clothes with all the strength that’s in you. For years and years and years.
You do your best to keep them neat and clean. To keep your house neat and clean so no one should say you’re dirty, God forbid. It’s the least you can do for them, and you never really feel you’re doing enough, no matter how much you do.
That is how it was in my home, how it was for me, all those many years. Not like those magazine families, but the real deal. Hard work. Difficulties. Accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment all the same.
How We Know Them
My large family, I will remind you, is not the one in those magazines. With them there’s always a photo. Because it’s what the reader wants most: to pore over a photo of an humongous family. It’s how we know them. We want to see if they’re normal. We want to see how they’re not.
Here in this essay there’s no such photo.
That’s because some of my children object to having a photo of our freakishly large family prominently displayed on the internet. They don’t wish to be objectified, thought about by strangers, judged for character by appearance, thought of as a curiosity.
You can understand it. But it disappoints you. Of course it does.
But this is within my power: I can grant them the right to their privacy if I so choose.
So here’s the question you’re dying to ask me: am I sorry I had 12 children? Never.
I Love Them
Because each and every one of my children is exquisite, filled to the brim with unique gifts and abilities. I love them as much as you love your own 1.2 children. I love my 12 even if the jury’s still out on how they feel about me, for bringing them up so hardscrabble.
Some of them may even think they hate me on occasion. But my husband always says they’ll come around. And I’ve seen it happen, with my own kids, other peoples’ kids. This is not something specific to large families. Kids may hate you at some point. But in the end they’ll come around and love you once more like they did when they were little. It just takes time.
Time and patience.
We never could be those freakishly large yet picture-perfect families you see on the ‘net. And I can’t offer you a picture to drool over. But I’m telling you my large family is beautiful.
And you’ll just have to use your mind’s eye to see us.
Varda Meyers Epstein is the mother of 12 children and a parenting expert and writer at Kars For Kids, a Guidestar gold medal charity. When not cooking for her teens, Varda maintains the Kars4Kids educational blog for parents. Find her on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter.