Friday, August 30, 2013

Expand Your Family, Expand Your Heart (A Review of Big Hearted)

When the cover story of Time magazine brags that having it all means not having children, the culture badly needs a reminder that getting married and having kids is actually a good idea. That having children, whether one or five or ten, is not only praiseworthy but worth it. The percentage of childless couples has nearly doubled since 1980, and the percentage of families with three or more kids has dropped by almost half. Today's burning question is no longer why would any couple want to remain childless. It's why would anyone want more than one or two.

Big Hearted, by Patti Armstrong and Theresa Thomas, answers that question in a collection of moving, true-life stories, each one more inspirational than the last. The stories in Big Hearted open up a window into the private thoughts and feelings of parents of large families. Not all of them love babies, although some of them do. Some mothers walk away from corporate jobs without a backwards glance, and others lock themselves in the bathroom to cry bitter tears before squaring their shoulders to walk out and give and receive as much love as they are able.

Perhaps the most touching stories are by fathers. Much parenting advice is written by and for mothers. The father's perspective rarely takes center stage. But in Big Hearted, it was the painfully honest struggles of one father to accept his child with Down syndrome that brought tears to my eyes.

Big Hearted debunks the myth that parents of big families are too crazy, too holy, or just too different to be quite normal. As revealed in the pages of this book, these parents face the same self-doubts and temptations as anyone else. But the power of prayer has wrought remarkable changes in their lives. They have weathered crises like alcoholism, unwed pregnancy, serious illness, and severe financial difficulties, and in the end they have found happiness.

As a mother of six, I know that parents of large families don't have more God-given talents or sunnier dispositions than parents struggling to raise one or two children. But we keep trying to forge spiritual growth out of the seeming rubble of everyday life. Our hearts don't start any bigger than anyone else's. They stretch to fit our families. 

Not knowing that big families make big hearts, people ask insatiably curious questions. Are you done? Are you still trying for a girl? Or a boy? The conversations usually end with the questioner insisting, "I could never do that." Our immediate reaction is annoyance. But behind people's constant questions, however poorly expressed, is often admiration and a deep desire to understand the increasingly rare phenomenon of a big family.

Big Hearted brings big families back into the realm of the real, the understandable, the achievable, and the desirable. It contains a treasure trove of insight for people wanting to know "why would anyone choose to do that?" And for those just embarking on the big-family parenting adventure, it might answer the question, "What on earth have I done?"

For more information about Big Hearted, read Lisa Hendey's interview of author Patti Armstrong here.

Big Hearted is available online from Scepter Publishers and from Amazon. My thanks to Scepter Publishers and Patti Armstrong for providing a free review copy.


  1. Since 1980, the median age at first marriage for women has increased from 22 to almost 27.

    That's five years less of fertility, and would cause a significant increase in the number of childless couples and decrease in the number of children per family simply because the woman would be married for fewer of her fertile years.

    A woman who marries at 22 can wait five years, then have three children spaced a generous five years apart without too much trouble. A woman who marries at 27 will have significantly more problems.

    Furthermore, doctors are much more aggressive in prescribing hormonal contraceptives at a much earlier age. 10-15 years of hormonal suppression can cause fertility problems, which seem to be an epidemic.

    The second trend I am seeing is that young women, especially high achieving young women, are absolutely terrified of being bad parents. They are also terrified that the more children they have the less they will have to give their siblings. Now that child-intense (helicopter) parenting has become the norm, many people simply don't feel like they measure up.

    The big problem I see is that marriage and parenting is no longer seen as basic elements of society, but as accomplishments to be earned. Society sees increased age of marriage as an unqualified good, without thinking of the consequences. I believe society has set the bar so high on marriage and parenting that many people don't think that it is possible for them. The "perfect" marriage has become the enemy of the good.

    Likewise, the gay marriage issue is a clear sign that society has rejected a "foundational marriage" in favor of "capstone marriage". Marriage is something the couples have "earned" by being together for so long, not the beginning of a new life together. But capstone marriage is dangerous.

    Any ideas about reversing this?

    1. James, you raise several excellent points.

      1. There are fewer big families because women are getting married at an older age.
      2. Fertility problems seem to be epidemic, perhaps in part due to long-term hormonal contraceptive use.
      3. High achieving women are reluctant to become mothers because they're afraid of being bad parents.

      Census statistics do show a "delayer boom" in educated women, who tend to become parents at older ages. However, since fertility statistics relate to women only, what's missing is the male half of the equation. Here in the Northeast, there are many professional women in their 30s who desperately want to get married and have kids, but aren't finding men with the same ideas. Similarly, I know many married women who have stopped having children because their husbands didn't want any more (sometimes because of perceived financial obligations). So there are multiple factors discouraging large family size.

      I agree that many professionally driven people see marriage and family as something to do when they've finally reached a satisfactory point in their career. Not necessarily the capstone of a relationship, but the capstone of an accomplished and well-planned life. I also agree that family is and should be more foundational than any workplace. Companies and careers come and go, but your family is supposed to stick together through it all.

      As for reversing this, one key is in parenting. Helicopter-style parenting is stressful for parents and kids. So is the idea that the kids must all go to Ivy League schools and become lawyers, doctors and accountants. No amount of helicoptering can give a child a talent he doesn't have, nor can it replace the plans God has in mind for that child's vocation. Parenting (especially parenting a big family) entails a good amount of letting go, and letting God. If we realize that we as parents don't have to do it all for our kids (and we shouldn't), it will help.

    2. Excellent point about men. The reason I bring up female fertility is biological. Even a professional woman in her 30s who wants to have kids and has a willing husband will statistically have fewer children than a woman who marries in her early 20s. I don't mean to blame later marriage on women (it takes two to marry), only to point out that this is a factor.

      Regional differences are so important, as we have discussed before. It seems the culture of the Northeast is very anti-child. (As is the Pacific coast, although for somewhat different reasons.) The high achievement, Ivy League, professional culture you refer to is something I have no experience with. Even in the legal community, it doesn't seem like the pressures are quite the same as what you describe.

      Interestingly, they seem to be having a baby boom in Texas. Texas has the second highest fertility rate after Mormon dominated Utah. I'm curious as to why.

      Amen to the end of helicopter parenting! The hard part, as I'm sure you know, is convincing high achieving parents that it's OK to let go and that they aren't being bad parents or neglecting their children by doing so.

      This is why I worry so much about the homeschooling trend in Catholic circles. Perhaps I could be wrong, but homeschooling seems like helicopter parenting gone mad. Not only do you have to make sure that they get into the best schools, but you have to BE the best school. That's a lot of pressure. (That being said, my wife's experience as a homeschooled only child was quite different from homeschooling in a large family) The large Catholic families of old simply sent their children to parochial school and were probably grateful for the break!

    3. But Catholic schools are not affordable, especially for large families. This is, in part, because parochial schools used to rely on religious as teachers. Now, most of the teachers are lay people ,with families of their own to raise and who need to earn a living wage, with health benefits and the like.

    4. True in most cases, Allison. Our parish school has a cap on tuition, however. After four kids, the rest get in free!

  2. Thanks Karee for an amazing article and review. I love this quote from you: Our hearts don't start any bigger than anyone else's. They stretch to fit our families.

    You put everything in clear perspective while contradicting the lies our culture is telling us. I pray that families will come to understand what their greatest treasures are: faith and family.

    1. Wonderful review Karee and of course, wonderful material to work with!

    2. Thanks so much for your kind words, Nellie.

    3. It was my pleasure to review your work, Patti!

  3. Just seeing this and love your last line especially ;) Didn't get it fully first time I read it. But that pretty much sums it all up for me.

    1. Lol, Tara! I definitely feel that way sometimes, too.

  4. I loved reading all the comments -as much as your post! Great food for thought.


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