Forty years ago, when I first came to Milwaukee, a large family was not a common phenomenon. After having had a number of children, I appeared at an event in maternity clothes and very obviously pregnant. A woman observed my condition and without a second thought, right there in public, asked "Didn't you ever hear of birth control?"
I have to admit I was somewhat taken a back. I saw that there was no malice in her question. But at the same time there was no sensitivity to the fact that a) this might be a private matter, or that b) even from her frame of reference, the right to choose should include the option of a large family.
Money, in our time, is a value. Having children, our link to immortality and eternity, is not.
I found this incident to be sad commentary on our culture. No one would walk up to other people and ask them how much money they had in the bank or why, if they already had a million, did they need to hustle for more. That would constitute a terrible breach of privacy. Money in our time is a value -- it is sacrosanct. Having children, our link to immortality and eternity, is not.
In a world where the color spectrum is rapidly yielding the landscape to stark black and white, the concept of "quality" and "quantity" have come to represent irreconcilable opposites. Against this backdrop of mutual exclusiveness, it was only a matter of time before I would receive the question: Are there any advantages to having a large family?
The implication was clear that a smaller family provides a far better context for "quality" parenting than its "quantity" counterpart.
Before commenting on this issue, a number of salient explanatory notes are in order.
- God runs the world! It is His Omniscient decree which determines fertility, its presence or absence, its fecundity or paucity, its health or insufficiency.
Judaism recognizes two cardinal objectives in marriage: one, procreation, and the second, the dynamic significance of intimacy itself on the marital bond. To the extent that contraception challenges one of these two dimensions, advice of a qualified halachic authority is imperative.
Amongst the relevant issues such an authority would need to know is whether this family's physical, emotional, psychological health and continued well being would be threatened by the pregnancy and/or birth of another child. Only someone well versed in the delicate considerations of Torah and halacha would know how to weigh and balance all of the variables of this complex equation.
For a husband or wife to simply ignore real risks and dangers and to proceed without addressing the situation puts one no less in violation of the Torah mandate of respecting life. Whether the question is one of limiting or expanding one's family in mitigating circumstances, the Torah knowledge, objectivity, absence of rationalization and bias of a reputable and competent rabbi are critical to the process.
Procreation, bringing life into the world, is an awesome responsibility and privilege.
Procreation, bringing life into the world, from a Torah vantage point, is an awesome responsibility and privilege. It is the closest we come to being like God. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that there are three partners in the formation of a child: mother, father, and God. We literally become partners with the Almighty. This is not a relationship or trust that we want to treat cavalierly or casually.
On then, to large families.
MANY CHILDREN, MANY JOYS
In a functionally healthy context, many children multiply life's joys while dividing its sorrows. Happy occasions are more festive, sad situations are mitigated by the caring and sharing of kith and kin. It is for good reason that many communities encourage "Big-Brother and "Big-Sister" clubs. There is singular comfort in the know that one belongs to someone who takes a personal interest in him or her and with whom one shares a special bond. The security of being part of a larger whole can be matched by little else.
Another bonus of sizable families is one of "economy." In my experience the most difficult time was when I had but one child. I carried all the responsibility. My daughter was dependent on me exclusively. When her younger sister came along, with time, they entertained each other. As the family expanded they looked out for each other, helped cleanup, baby-sat, assisted each other with homework -- each contributing to the well being of the family with their unique talents, proclivities, and resources. The family unit became the flint against which the children ignited the flames of their manifold talents and abilities.
Another benefit, in my experience, has been the way in which children use the family as a testing ground for developing their social skills. A large family provides an ideal laboratory for the definition of interpersonal competence. Parents know that no matter how many children they have no two are ever alike. Curiously, just when we think we have it down pat, the Almighty in his unfathomable wisdom and sense of humor dispatches to us yet another unique model.
It is always a delightful but humbling experience to learn that each child comes with their very distinct personality, character, strengths, and weaknesses. Some are more flexible, and easy going, while others manage to drive everyone in their immediate vicinity "up the wall." The long-term advantage here is that in the context of a loving and supportive family, these different specimens of "human becomings," have the opportunity to learn to co-exist and interrelate with a wide variety of people. Having experienced many siblings of different temperaments they will be better equipped to handle challenging social situations, not necessarily of their choice.
What about giving each child the love they need? Part of the occupational hazard or definition of being a parent in both large and small families is a feeling of insufficiency, of second guessing ourselves and beating ourselves up over our perceived limitations. I personally found peace and comfort in knowing that having brought children into the world in accordance to what I understood to be the Divine will that I was only human and that I could do no more than try my best.
Most importantly perhaps, I tried to be mindful of my blessings.
Ingenuity proved to be a key concept. I tried to give each one of my children personal time -- they took turns accompanying me on errands, sitting on my lap, trips to grandparents, etc.
Most importantly perhaps, I tried to be mindful of my blessings and as they walked by me, in the kitchen or wherever, as I was doing chores, (cooking, baking, cleaning, talking on the phone, etc.) I would grab them and give them a hug or kiss for no special reason -- just because I loved them. In retrospect I hope these expressions of affection helped them as much as they helped me.
LOVE AND CARING
Creating a context of love and caring in the marital relationship is perhaps one of the most critical components of helping children feel loved. Psychologists have confirmed that nothing works better for children than the sense that their parents love each other. Finally, as in all things, one needs to constantly pray for heavenly assistance.
No one can deny that when the children are young and numerous that the intensive supervision they require makes it difficult to project beyond the moment. But there is, incontrovertibly, an exalted light at the end of the tunnel, when at long last, and despite our parenting mistakes, we find ourselves surrounded by upstanding mature human beings who represent the proud and amazing products of our many years of blood, sweat, and tears.
It is truly remarkable to find ourselves in a place where our children become our confidants, where we look to them for wise counsel, erudition, care, and concern. Speaking as a mom, it is very special to be able to share woman-to-woman experiences with grown daughters who move with me side by side through life.
And there is, of course, the interest on the principle. The blessing of many children contains the potential blessing of many grandchildren, wherein lies the splendorous logorhythmic progression of love and naches to even more sublime heights.
Needless to say, reaching this destination mandates the extra special vigilance over many years that none of the children fall between the cracks.
"Raise each child according to their own unique needs", King Solomon, the wisest of all men, urges us. For an already stressed parent this exhortation presents a constant summons of intimidating magnitude. Moreover, no matter how old the children may be, parents still feel compelled to kiss their "owies" away. The ancient paradox of parenting, however, requires that just as the younger years demand our involvement, the more mature years require us to know when to let go.
The bottom line is that God delights in every soul that comes to this world on a heavenly mission.
The bottom line is that God delights in every soul that comes to this world on a heavenly mission. The Kabbalah teaches us that life as we know it will reach its destiny when the repository of the souls scheduled for duty on earth will all have fulfilled their purpose. With every child born we come closer to that day of eternity.
Cheryl, one of the fabulous members of my community comes from a secular background. Her parents are sophisticated and educated people but were not prepared for the change in her lifestyle when she became Torah observant. As many parents of such children, they unfortunately viewed her Torah life as a personal affront and a rejection of their values. Cheryl loved her parents and their attitude hurt her deeply. Their reaction to her having multiple children was especially painful.
I would have to hold her hand and lend her strength when she called to advise her parents that she was pregnant and having yet another child. They could not relate to the blessing and the joy that every additional child brings with it. They were concerned that their daughter was confining herself and sacrificing the possibilities of vacations, new cars, summer homes, etc. and everything that in their estimation was worth having.
It took a while and after many visits and opportunities to derive naches from this magnificent bunch of kids, Cheryl was finally in a position -- confident of their great pride in every child -- to confront her parents and ask the question "Now which one would you like me to have sent back?"
At the bar mitzvah of her oldest child, her father, surrounded by his remarkable group of grandchildren put his arm around Cheryl and with tears in his eyes and in choked voice, told her that indeed she was right.
May God give each one of us the clarity, insight, and strength to make our unique contribution, whatever it might be.