The feeling I get from such questions is that the commentators must view parenthood as though it is like ordering food at a restaurant: “One boy and one girl, reasonably spaced, please. No more than five years apart, but no less than two!” In extreme cases, children are referred to more as commodities than autonomous individuals. A few stories from my girlfriends with several children really caught my attention though.
First, my friends are pretty amazing. These women are even more sassy, fiercely intelligent, independent, and articulate than they were in high school and college. The ones that are married with children are the types who should be used to illustrate how loving, self-determined couples can create powerful mini-communities of positivity with their lovely little offspring. Yet these wonderful women –with an amazing capacity to love and nurture their children – get a steady water-torture-trickle of criticism from people who not only disapprove of their family planning choices, but feel the need to publicly correct them on it.
Officious comments from strangers about family choices are so common that The Stir has a list of rude things people say to pregnant moms with small children. I have been hearing tales of bizarrely personal commentary on family planning ever since my friends started having children. Some busybodies rush at young mothers like a liberator helping an especially dim-witted cult member to explain to her the errors she is so clearly and foolishly making. These vocal critics seem to miss that what they are so passionately condemning are the small people clinging to their mother’s knees. Young though they may be, children can understand when people treat them and their family like freaks. Children can feel their mother wince in pain, and then bristle in defense of her offspring. One friend with four children and fifth on the way said she can expect one rude comment per outing, and several more girlfriends concurred with that average.
And that made me realize something: my friends are being bullied for living the life they have chosen for themselves.
A woman choosing to have more than two children is now often an object of scorn because she is presumed too stupid to make smart choices. The view from the outside is that no attractive, young, well-educated woman would freely choose a life with a large family. People, purportedly being helpful, seeing a young woman with three or more children in tow offer unsolicited advice on birth control methods so she won’t “continue to ruin her life and her body with kids.” That is a direct quote a stranger made to one of my friends in front of her children. On the more vicious side, a fast-food worker disgustedly blurted out, “Ever heard of birth control, lady?” as he waited for the order. Evidently, he did not think it was offensive to insinuate that the world would be better if some of his customer’s children had never been born. Demeaning questions masquerading as comical such as: “Do you know where babies come from?” or: “Is this your little oopsie?” come from an immoveable mindset that only the most abject ignorance and juvenile irresponsibility could result in so many spawn.
Why is it that for that vocal minority, respect for a woman’s “right to choose” comes to a record-scratch halt if she chooses to have more than two children? Surely this is a terrible misinterpretation of the birth control movement’s philosophy to respect a woman’s choices on her reproductive health! Oh, wait, what’s this? Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s 1920 treatise Woman and the New Race includes a chapter called “The Wickedness of Creating Large Families” which Sanger introduces thusly: “The most serious evil of our times is that of encouraging the bringing into the world of large families. The most immoral practice of the day is breeding too many children.” The philosophy of the modern American birth control movement has emphasized respect for the “right to choose,” but only when women are smart enough to make what the movement has deemed the right choice. If you doubt the unequivocal nature of that statement, give that Sanger chapter a thorough reading.
What we have now is a deeply entrenched philosophy that advertises the language of supporting “freedom of choice,” yet the women who choose more children often get belittled as under-educated, brainwashed, or careless. Sanger, in fact, wrote that “It may be said for the mother and father [of a large family] that they are usually ignorant.” This demeaning attitude flourishes today; women who choose not to use birth control are dismissed by feminist websites like Salon as too stupid to understand how birth control works which is not terribly supportive or respectful toward women with a dissenting opinion. When people ask why the choice to have a large family should be so harshly criticized, the excuses come rolling out: population control! No way could the children be getting enough love! Education! Money! There were these kids behaving badly this one time at a restaurant!
But these answers are mere deflections from the main thesis of respecting the choices of others. People that abrasively insult and belittle families that do not conform to their own beliefs clearly do not respect the reproductive choices of these parents. The current narrative is that such families must be too poor, too uneducated, and too irresponsible to provide a happy home. The narrative insists that large families are in some way inherently abusive to the children and offensive to society at large.
Think I am exaggerating? Sanger, a vocal advocate of the negative eugenics movement, wrote: “The immorality of large families lies not only in their injury to the members of those families but in their injury to society.” Sanger then goes on to blame large families for all of modernity’s ills up to and including war. She wraps up her false syllogism by concluding that since large families are the cause, they are, in fact, even more evil than war, prostitution, oppression of labor, child labor, and even the “human holocaust” that closed the First World War. (It is a grotesque historical irony that the Holocaust of the Second World War was in fact following the blueprint of an extreme and bloodthirsty interpretation of the American eugenics movement.) Sanger then proceeds to paint a picture of Dickensian oppression and misery for any parents with more than two children because three or more offspring inevitably make you a ruined shell of your former self. If you think that is hyperbolic rewording on my part, read the link. Supporters of this extreme narrative do not take into account if the particular family being criticized is actually characterized by a robust and loving marriage, steady finances, and bright, well-behaved children. Those details have ceased to matter to the ideologue.
Indiscriminate critics of large families are generally focused on such things as demanding whether the latest pregnancy was “planned.” As noted by one mother of four in a Huffington Post article: “Does the child from a “planned” pregnancy have more value than the child of an “unplanned” pregnancy?” Also, does the plan to have a large family just not count? It is a striking inquiry because so many of the prying questions directed at moms and dads with over two children seem designed to degrade their choice as an inherently unworthy and reckless one. Sanger goes so far as to say that even for the wealthy, educated, cultured families, a mother with more than two children cannot possibly maintain either her health or her “social value.” Sanger’s eugenics-style bias, obsession with placing people on a value scale, and, I would argue, her despair of the better parts of human nature is so strong that it is impossible to recognize the many large families I know in her bleak picture.
I have never heard anyone argue that parenthood is easy. As with everything in life, the burdens and tragedies do not have to define the entire endeavor. Being parents of any number of children is a full-time job, and that job is difficult and demanding but even more rewarding. A recent Acculturated article discusses The Motherhood Study which found that while 97% of mothers express satisfaction with motherhood less than 48% reported that they feel validated or appreciated.
Keeping that in mind, if you feel the need to say something to a stranger herding several small children, make sure it’s something along the lines of, “What a beautiful family!”