Relating to parents with fewer (than 9) children

I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and as always, my friends were more than generous with their suggestions. Someone asked me two very good and related questions:

– How do you respectfully communicate with parents who are sometimes and/or all the times overwhelmed with a single child or two, when you have many (ie; not pulling the “you have it easy” card and edifying and respecting them as parents)?

– Likewise, how should those with a singleton respectfully communicate with you and your family?

I found these questions interesting because my problem is usually the opposite: people with smaller families are afraid to complain to me about their problems because they assume that I have it worst, or they apologize for feeling overwhelmed. In other words, they project their own feelings of inadequacy unto me. My challenge is not to communicate respectfully with them but to convince them that I understand.

How should people communicate with me? Respectfully is always appreciated. But if I’m allowed a second request, it would be to stop calling me (A) a Saint/Hero, or (B) Crazy. It makes me really uncomfortable to be called a saint because I’m not. I have character flaws the size of Texas, and I have been born into so much privilege I would be insufferable had I not allowed the size of my family to humble me a little. Being called crazy is just insulting. It’s probably better to err on the side of making me really uncomfortable by calling me a saint than insulting me by calling me insane. But I’m at a point where I avoid telling strangers how many children I have because intelligent conversation tends to die there. And that’s not cool because my family is my life’s work and I am immensely proud of it. Ask me anything and I’ll talk your ear off (just like I’m doing right now). Don’t just stand there with your mouth agape calling me a Saint or a Nut.

I think it’s important for everyone to know that I’ve been overwhelmed since 1996. I was struggling with two children, and with three children, and with four children… you get the idea. Nature abhors a vacuum and when given 24h, each one of us fills them to the brim. We used to wash clothes and dishes by hand and we thought that inventing the washing machine and the dishwasher would free us up. But instead of enjoying the extra time, we replaced homemaking chores with work chores. When a promotion gives us more disposable income we incur more expenses. We fill our houses with stuff and when we get a bigger house, we get more stuff. If we can’t get a bigger house, we rent a condo for our stuff (Dymon anyone?) Whether we fill the void with activities, worries or things, we take our 24h and 3 lbs of brain and use them to the max.

People feel like they have their hands full with one child because they do. It’s not my place to tell them how their hands should be full or to pass judgment on the wisdom or advisability of filling their 24h the way they do. When it comes to time in a day or in a year, we’re all dealt the same hand. Time is the great equalizer.

The truth is, I love people, and I love diversity. I love how in the words of Don Henry sung by Miranda Lambert:

Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning
It takes all kinds of kinds.”

Listen, I have 9 children spread over 18 years. I’ve been pregnant 11 times in the last 22 years. I have been entirely focused on my family at the exclusion of everything else. If everyone was like me, the world would not be a better place. We would be missing a lot of art, a lot of excellence, a lot of invention, a lot of service and a lot of philanthropy.

Walk with me for a minute. I am a talented musician. Music comes easily to me. But I gave up honing my skills 22 years ago when I had my first child. I didn’t play any music for 12 years until I picked it up again 2 years ago. Now I dabble, I play a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it poorly. The basics still comes easy to me but I hit a wall as soon as hard work comes in the picture. Jason Isbell is almost 40. He spent the first 37 years of his life playing the guitar and getting his head and heart smashed in creative ways. He had nothing else to worry about than his own foibles before he got sober, married Amanda Shires, and had a daughter. How many hours of writing, noodling, and living went into writing Last of My Kind or Speed Trap Town? I drove 5h to upstate New-York last Summer to see Jason Isbell in concert. I have 9 children and I can tell you: outside of the four walls of my house, I never touched anyone’s life to the point where they would buy a ticket, book an Airbnb and drive 5h to watch me do my thing. Don’t try to tell me my writing is touching lives: I tried crowdfunding this blog two years ago and 7 readers committed to paying a total of $63 a month, two of them were related to me. Of the 500-ish people who read my blog, only 7 thought it was worth paying for. That did my head in for a while, that’s why I stopped writing for two years. I’m a fragile little thing that way. Jason Isbell is touching lives, including mine. The world needs him to spend a fair amount of time navel-gazing his way into thoughtful lyrics, practicing his guitar and touring the United States.

My point is not that you should be Jason Isbell or make a ton of money blogging if you have only one child. My point is that everyone leaves their fingerprint on the world and every fingerprint is different. I’m volunteering at my children’s school for the first time in 18 years! Who do you think raised funds for activities, helped with field trips, decorated the school and organized the movie nights my children have enjoyed since my oldest started school in 2000? People with two kids and a job, that’s who.

One of my parents’ dearest friends is helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada, accompanying them to the grocery store, acting as a cultural translator, teaching them how to access the services they need, finding volunteers to fix bicycles for their children, and businesses to donate food and clothing. How many children of her own does she have? None. Do you think people like me are doing what she’s doing? No, they’re not.

Sometimes getting up in the morning is heroic. Some of my friends do not volunteer. They do not run successful businesses. Some of them have grown up in dysfunctional families, some of them have suffered abuse, some of them have overcome physical and/or mental health challenges. And every day they get up and they do their level best to give their children a kind of love they have never received. I watch in awe as some of my friends create happy families out of thin air, having never been in one. They are studying and learning through trial and error the fundamentals of loving, of being patient, of being self-sacrificing, all things that I learned from my parents like my first language. Some people work way harder at normal life than I do. Raising one child is as hard for them as raising 9 is for me because I received so much from life.

And some people are just selfish. Some people are jerks. Some people roll their eyes and tell me “I don’t know how you can have 9, I only have two and it’s too much” *in front of their children*. Some people are just clueless. Last week I was volunteering at our school’s book sale during the parent-teacher meetings and the children had written lists of book suggestions to help their parents in their shopping. One mother picked up her grade 5 daughter’s list and seeing with horror that it had been written in script rather than cursives, called home to tear a strip off the kid for writing like a baby. Told her she was personally insulted by it. Asked her why she would embarrass her that way. Said she was going to buy her the books but since she had written like a grade 1 kid, wasn’t going to reward that. Her sister would get books but not her. Told her never to insult her like that again. Repeated everything twice to drive it in. I felt so bad I wanted to drive to her house, find her daughter and give her a hug. I’m sure this mom loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. I’m sure this mom thinks her brand of tough love is how you raise competent, well-rounded adults. I’m sure this woman doesn’t have 9 children and probably shouldn’t have 9 children. It’s ok not to have too many children when your parenting toolbox includes shaming and belittling.

When people tell me they are overwhelmed with 1 or 2 or 3 children, I simply say “I was overwhelmed with 3 too!” Which is 100% the honest-to-goodness truth. I remind them what is difficult about their lives. Your children are all under 4. Or you have 3 active boys. Or your husband works two jobs. Or you suffer from anxiety and depression. Or you had fertility struggles. Or you live with your aging parents. Or you are a single parent. Don’t look at me and feel bad. Look at where you are. If you feel like you can stretch a little more, stretch a little more. If you can’t, don’t injure yourself. Accept the pace. Try to finish a little ahead of where you started, try to leave the world a little better than how you found it. If everyone reaches just a little farther, we’ll come out ahead in the end.

How do I respectfully communicate with people who only have one child? I just assume that their lives are as full as mine, just with different things. I don’t need to know everyone’s story to assume they have one.