Life with a supersized family
The average US family has 1.87 children, but families with eight or more kids haven't disappeared.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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.