Life with a supersized family

The average US family has 1.87 children, but families with eight or more kids haven't disappeared.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The first thing you see when you go to the home of Jim and Laura Winters of Orono, Maine, is kids - lots of them. They peek over banisters, waddle around in diapers, appear to sprout from behind counters - and to grow out of couches.

Preschooler Zimra, who always seems to be hungry, is slurping lemon yogurt. Mr. Winters is fixing a toilet that is leaching water onto the downstairs walls. Mrs. Winters is nursing the baby; Nadia is petting Wild and Woolly, her new guinea pigs; and Andre, who's 11, is playing the trumpet so well it would make Louis Armstrong swing.

When there are nine children in a household - ages 4 months to 14 years - mornings are hectic. And the rest of the day may not be much calmer.

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"Every day we vacuum..., every day the two kitchen floors get washed, every day the bathrooms get cleaned, every day we do three loads of laundry, every day we bake bread, every day we make soup," says Mrs. Winters, who doesn't appear fazed by such a schedule. "If everybody can get up and do it by 8 o'clock in the morning, then it's good."

Welcome to life in a large family. In addition to nine kids, the Winterses have four dogs, a talking parrot, and a smattering of other animals. To top it off, they run a day-care center for 14 children in a building next to their house, and have three other children living with them part time. They also home-school their kids.

For most, family size has diminished

Once, large families were the norm. Now they're an anomaly. As recently as 1967, according to a Gallup poll, 31 percent of people said that four children was the ideal number for a family. Compare that to only 9 percent who say the same in 2001.

According to Census 2000, out of the 76 million family groups in America, only 6 percent (2.79 million) had four or more children, down from 17 percent in 1970. Families with more than six children have so diminished that the census doesn't bother to track them anymore.

Factors that contributed to the demise of the large family have been well documented. The biggest was a move away from an agrarian economy. In 1800, the average number of children in a family was seven. By 1900, that had dropped to 3.5.

Among other influences were the family-planning movement and the availability of reliable birth control, as well as women moving into the workplace in great numbers.

Since fewer children per family has become traditional, large families say they often experience subtle stigmatization.

"There's that perception that people bring more children into their lives than they can deal with or bring proper attention to," says Nick Stinnett, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Alabama.

Some people, he says, think, "Maybe you would have less financial problems if you would not have had so many children."

Mrs. Winters has two answers to these doubters. Her short, snappy retort is: "Jim's sister doesn't have children, and my aunt doesn't, so we're making up for them."

But, more seriously, she adds, "We can afford it. And we're raising responsible kids, kids who will not be a drain on society or go on welfare. My kids have high goals. They will be well-received in any community."

All large families face forced smiles and sideways whispers from a public that, they feel, doesn't understand their situation.

Paula Dunham and her husband, who live in Sartell, Minn., have nine children (eight biological and one adopted) and are adopting two more.

She says stereotypes run rampant about large families: You are either Catholic or Mormon, you are poor, you want to save the world, you don't know how to prevent pregnancy.

"It's really funny," Mrs. Dunham says. "You either get really negative comments like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you have that many kids,' or 'Wow! How do you do it?' They put you up on a pedestal: 'You must be so organized. You must have so much patience.' "

But peel away the traditional stereotypes, and many moms of large families settle on one answer why these family groups are such a small part of America. "I think that people give up too early," says Dunham. "Parents - and parenting - have softened over the years.... They don't want to spend their lives taking care of children, because they take time and energy and money. It's physically exhausting."

She should know. At one point, Dunham had four boys under the age of 4 and was raising them alone while her husband was in the military.

This kind of dedication to family has shifted, says Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Ill.

William Mattox, former vice president of the Family Research Council and father of four, attributes the smaller family to parents feeling: "I want to experience the joy of parenting, [but] I don't necessarily want more responsibility than I can handle."

More and more people, he says, devote their lives to their own personal pleasure or enjoyment.

"People don't want to sacrifice," says Mrs. Winters. "People's lives are a free fall of 'How fast can we get out the door and keep our career; the kid's 6 weeks old, put him in day care, have him there 10 hours a day; my career is so important.'

"I think on a really deep level I want my kids to understand what it is to give, what it is to sacrifice," she says. "It is hard to be in a big family; you don't get everything you want, your needs are not always met as fast as you'd like them to be met."

Debbie Maier, the mother of nine children (all biological) in Rochester, Mich., agrees.

"Like I told [my kids]," says Mrs. Maier, "whether I win the [lottery] or not, they would not have everything that their little hearts desired, because there are times when you deserve things, and there are times you have to work for things."

The lack of discipline among other parents baffles her. The need to discipline is one thing all families share, but large ones must have it down to a science.

At the Maier house, if two kids fight with one another, they are put in a room together. "Certain combinations don't get along from day to day," Maier says. "But [usually] they get along very well. If they don't get along, those two can go in a bedroom and play together for the day. They stay there until they get along with each other."

Getting along is something the Winters family doesn't have to worry about.

"I don't know why [they don't fight]," says Mr. Winters, who doesn't believe in spanking. "We expect a lot. We expect them to be good."

They are good. At a recent family outing to the Olive Garden restaurant, the kids were a picture of contentment. No yelling or fighting, not a single cross word was heard.

For the kids, Mrs. Winters ordered four macaroni and cheese dishes, two chicken fingers and fries, and two bowls of spaghetti. Total bill: $50.24.

While Mr. and Mrs. Winters are willing to splurge occasionally, and budget for their weekly meal out, day-to-day frugality is essential. They spend about $300 a week on groceries. But that includes the day care they run and their own kids. They buy 50-pound bags of oatmeal, cases of cereal, and 20 quarts of yogurt at a time. Each day they go through a gallon of milk, at least one box of cereal, and one or more cans of frozen juice.

"I do a lot of baking," Mrs. Winters says. One recent morning, she prepared two gallons of pea soup, two cherry pies, two pumpkin pies, five pounds of chicken. That might, she hopes, last all day.

It's fun to dress in Mom-made clothes

Because Mrs. Winters is adamant that the children look neat and tidy whenever they are away from home, they dress alike in clothes that she makes with help from Destiny. Although they attend St. Sebastian Christian Orthodox Church, she says the kids' clothes are somewhat influenced by the Amish.

The boys wear pants as crisp as celery; the girls wear clean dresses because Mrs. Winters believes in modesty and thinks girls look better in them. "I don't like the styles in the stores," she says. "I prefer simplicity. And the kids feel special because Mom made their clothes."

The clothes are kept in a pantry near the living room and laid out on a picnic table in the kitchen each day. A trash bag full of socks is dumped on the floor, and the kids descend on it, picking through the rainbow-colored tube socks.

All these clothes mean one thing: laundry - three loads a day, usually, in two sets of washers and dryers. Not too long ago, however, they got behind. That meant Destiny and Tzietel went to the laundromat with six 40-gallon trash bags full. Forty-five dollars and 4-1/2 hours later, the clothes were clean.

"Raise your hand if you need socks," directs Mrs. Winters. A smattering of hands shoot up. About half the kids are sockless on the way to Wal-Mart. "Every time we go out to eat, I stop and buy socks at Wal-Mart," she says.

On the way, Zhenya, who is always smiling, is kissing everyone, Chavaleh is teasing Tzietel, and Zoya is bouncing around in the family's new 15-passenger van. Baby Tzipporah ignores the din; she sleeps.

Destiny calms them down and manages crowd control. At 14, she's the Winterses' oldest daughter and often turns into the third parent. She changes diapers, brushes hair, cooks meals, and scolds the little ones. Destiny says she doesn't mind helping out. And her mother says she is more mature than some of the day-care assistants they've hired.

Whereas Destiny is almost a second mother in the Winters family, Mrs. Maier will not have her oldest daughter playing caregiver to her siblings. In fact, even if she just has to be away from home for a short time, all nine pile into the family van instead of the eldest having to baby-sit.

"From the moment I ever decided to have kids," says Maier, "I never wanted my kids to feel like they were there to raise the others or be my servants. I do expect them to keep their own room clean, to bring their dirty clothes downstairs, or pick their dish up from the table, but other than that, no.

"I want them to be [kids]," she continues. "I keep saying I'm going to have them help with [this or that], but it's so much easier to do it myself."

How do large families manage the daily chaos?

"Prayer and a lot of patience," Mrs. Winters says. "And No. 1, to love your husband. If [kids] don't see Mom and Dad in love with each other, it's fractured all the way down the line."

Even with nine children, the Winterses still don't feel they have too many kids in their lives. They say they want more and are considering adoption.

"It's a calling by God," says Mrs. Winters, who has dreamed of having a big family since she was 11. "I love kids. I feel rich with my life."

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