Monday, August 10, 2015

On Comments on Family Size

In the last few months, and especially the last few days, I've found myself thinking about the types of comments that I hear when I'm out and about with the kids.

Over the years the types of comments and conversations I've had have changed.  I think that a number of factors probably contribute to the things people are bold enough to say.

I do think that geography plays a large roll in that people in the region that we live in now don't seem quite as emboldened (so many less polite terms went through my head before I settled on that one) to voice their opinions about how many kids they see as they did when we lived on either coast.

The second factor that I think comes into play is Maggie's autism.  As she gets older her language and little bird like chirps make it more apparent that she has some differences and in a way that gives us a degree of invisibility (in the most visible way you can imagine) in that most people don't want to be rude and so when they see something that could be termed a disability they immediately look away.

Many people may not feel that it's rude to comment on a family's size or question whether they have a TV or if they "know what causes that" but most people do still, for the most part, feel uncomfortable directing comments or questions towards a group with a member who appears to have any type of difference in ability.

I know that it still happens, and on occasion we've experienced it, but in a way as numb as society has become to the inappropriateness of questions that relate to matters of sexual reproduction, we're also (generally) rather oversensitive to all things related to differences in abilities.

I do know that that likely shades my experience.

Still, I have a fair amount of conversations about our family when we're out about in town.  Maggie is often at her calmest in the stroller and the triple stroller  inspires conversations.

I use the stroller to get around town and that means lots of trips to Mae's OT with it loaded with kids, where it inevitably leads to conversations with doctors who stop us to look it over and say that it's great.  Other parents stop me and ask me where we got it, and it inspires plenty of "I wish we had those in my day" comments with wistful smiles from elderly people we encounter.

The stroller in undoubtedly conversation starting gold.  And those conversations are almost always friendly and positive.

Then there are the non-stroller related comments.  The most common is :

"You certainly have your hands full!"

Or some variation of that phrase, followed closely by:

"Are they all yours?"
"Are you a daycare provider?"
"Better you than me."

There are some others I hear now and then, like the woman who had to let me know that I can't have any more children because there's no more room for them in the stroller, and occasionally we get dramatic sighs, accompanied by glares and shaking heads, but for the most part the reactions (and there is nearly almost always a reaction or ten when I'm out with the super stroller) are happy.

Over the years I've read (and written) posts about comments larger than average sized families get.  I've heard people lament some of the comments above and others argue that some (like "you have your hands full") are perfectly fine.

Since I've been walking around with the stroller though, I've realized that the appropriateness of comments often has a great deal to do with the tone that it's delivered in.

The vast majority of the time when I hear "You've got your hands full!" it's said in a friendly way with a smile.  And when I hear that I smile and agree.  It's true, my hands are full, in the best possible way.

Other times "You've got your hands full!" is delivered in a tone one might use to tell someone they've stepped in dog droppings, with a look of disgust and a shake of the head.  I try to respond in the same way, with a smile and a "Yes, I do!" but I've found that the exact same comment suddenly feels wildly inappropriate.

Inquiries that ask if they're all mine or if I'm babysitting tend to fall in the same category.  Most people are truly just curious and that comes across in their tone.  I'll happily field those comments.

Of course there are always the "You know what causes that?" line of questioning that some people feel is appropriate that just isn't.  I have noticed since moving here that the occurrence of those has gone down basically to zero for us, but I remember how annoyed I was when someone I'd never spoken with inquired in the checkout line whether my husband would be "getting snipped" when we were pregnant with out third or if it was another girl we would "keep trying for a boy."

They don't bother me as much as they used to though (as much as open vitriol directed at my children can not both me at least).

Maybe it's the realization that nearly everyone receives judgments and cruel comments of some sort, whether it's people making assumptions about smaller families or those without children (which have the potential to be far, far more crushing.  Please don't do this.  We never know who struggles under the cross of infertility and I cannot imagine how those sorts of comments sting...) or those directed at those with families that are larger than what's considered normal these days.

Maybe it's because the last few years have toughened me up (most days) in a general way, so that it's easier to sort through the kind and encouraging words and those that aren't so, and push the later aside, and take the former for the breath of kindness that it can be on those days when kind words are most needed.

Most of all I think it helps to remember that the comments that are of a less than kind nature are seldom about us at all.  They usually have everything to do with the person saying them, who is either trying to be funny or, more rarely, cruel, in which case they are most in need of kindness and prayers.
Who knows, maybe some of our joy and gentleness, if we can manage it, will touch their hearts at a later time.  And if nothing else it gives us someone to pray for, because anyone that says mean things about a child, in front of that child, most definitely needs our prayers.


  1. Oh gosh... I just started down the path of getting these comments with the announcement of my 3rd pregnancy. It really is mind blowing. I try not to let them get to me but when they come from someone I love, it's hard not to.

    1. I think that was when the comments felt the most intense to me (after we announced our third). We actually heard far less with our fourth and fifth announcements than with our third.

  2. There's only one proper response in seeing a large family (If you indeed need to say anything):" You have a beautiful family."

  3. My sister and brother-in-law tried for years to become pregnant, but just couldn't. Not a DAY went by when one of them didn't hear, "Don't you want to start a family?" "What are you waiting for?" "When are you going to try for a baby?" "Better hurry up, you don't want to be an old mom/dad!" "When are you going to give your parents a grand baby?" "It must be nice being able to (go on vacation/sleep in/eat out/keep the house clean/have nice things/be in such good shape) since you don't have children." "It's easy to have a baby! You know what causes it!" "You know what the Church says about birth control." "What are you using to avoid becoming pregnant?" "Doesn't your husband/wife want a child?" "Your younger sister already has two! You need to catch up!" "Of course, you can't really understand since you don't have kids." (At baby showers) "Your turn next?"

    Every day.

    1. That is a heavy cross indeed. Prayers for them and for all who struggle with infertility.

    2. Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry to hear that!

  4. I never get comments on family size. Never. Maybe that's because my kids are spread out much further in ages, or because almost never take all 4 of them out of on errands (ie. to the store or bank or anyplace like that). I think I've gotten "you have your hands full" a few times, but nothing else.

    1. It probably does have a lot to do with having everybody together most of the time. And the fact that Maggie by behavior looks developmentally closer to Patch so it's like having two toddlers and an infant.

  5. I really love this post. I could not agree more that the commentary is actually a reflection on the commentator rather than my family. It took me a long time to figure that out. Some people are cruel, but the majority seem to be curious or making conversation. I feel as the years have gone by and the size of our family has increased, I have more to worry about than other people's opinions of our lifestyle :-) It used to really bother me, but rarely does now, with the exception of hurtful things directed at my kids in front of them (i.e. "my condolences" "ugh, I would be in the nut house!" etc.) We live in the pacific northwest and also get a lot of negative comments about our carbon footprint, and the always popular "Catholic or Mormon?"

    It is a bit different for us now that we've added 5 & 6 who are identical twins. The twin questions are actually even more out there than the comments about family size, something I was not expecting. It seems everywhere we go someone wants to know if we had "help" conceiving them. I usually just smile and say, "from my husband."

    I think it is a reflection of our culture's tendency to lack manners and tact. A lot of people don't pause and think for a moment before they blurt out whatever pops into their head, regardless of the subject matter.

  6. We have one boy, and a girl on the way. With a late term miscarriage and an early miscarriage before, and a very complicated and high risk pregnancy, it seems as though EVERYONE has an opinion on our fertility right now. We are going to have the "perfect" family, with a boy and a girl, so we must be done. We have high risk pregnancies, so we must be done. We have a child with autism, so we must be done (the daughter is obviously an accident, right?). When we say we don't know yet, and because of our losses our family will always be incomplete, we get a lot of looks. I can't imagine what it will be like if we are blessed with another pregnancy.

  7. I think you've seen this one but here it is anyway! So many of the comments are in the song!

  8. I just don't even get it. How is 3 kids a big family?! How is 4? Big for me starts when you can't fit into a minivan anymore and even then who cares? When did the "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all" mindset go away? But I agree, I am sure a majority of the "hands full" comments are meant from a good place. But really, good gracious, the judgement is so rampant for no good reason. It's sad.

  9. I find that most people are on the happy/wistful side when they comment on my family's size. (I've hit double digits with 11 kids.) I don't think I have heard many rude remarks, but I think I coud just be oblivious. (I'm trying to keep track my kids - they are a handful!) I get a lot of "God bless you"'s - maybe they know I need the blessings? The older people who mention it usually start talking about their own family growing up, or maybe some ancestor who had a large famly - they are very nostalgic and kind. The only weird comment I got lately was the "Are they all from the same father?" remark, but it was a from an older woman who was concerned about her family (and we had a lovely chat about things).
    So I guess I assume the best when people make comments and don't waste my time worrying if they don't mean well. I need to save my energies for keeping up with my toddlers!

  10. There's a guy at my parish who uses a limo for his 10 kids! Original yes?

  11. I remember getting comments every time I left the house with my foster daughter and youngest - even when it was just the two and my oldest was at school. I would think, "but there's only two of them!"

  12. We get the opposite end of the spectrum with questions directed at when we are having more kids, or a "how many do you have now?" with an expectant smile that only falls when we say "still two." You are right, though - it reveals more about them, but I have to learn to also roll with it and not let it send me into a tailspin wondering if we are following God's will. PS - You have a beautiful family! :)

    1. Yes I don't like the reverse comments on small families either. It's not a contest and some people would have liked more children (some have one or none) and comments that question this make a hard situation worse.


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