|My family, on our front lawn, circa 1979.|
My parents were just . . . very productive. (Yay for that work ethic!)
Growing up as the second-youngest in a big family certainly has its pluses and minuses. Here are just a few.
ON THE MINUS SIDE
- When I was young, my chore was to set the table for dinner. I had to count on my fingers to know how many places to set: Mom, Dad, Stew*, Dougy*, Patsy*, Harvey, Andy*, me, Chrissy*. Nine. (Subtract anyone who wouldn't be home; add any guests.) I swear I had to do this for years. I'm grateful my parents stopped when they did or I'd have had to start using toes.
- There are 15 years between the eldest and the youngest. The eldest moved out to go to university when he was 18 years old and I was five; that means that I barely remember him living at home. In many ways, he felt more like a very dear uncle than a brother.
- My mother was exhausted. Drained. Battered down by the incessant labour of caring for a household of seven children, and who can blame her? Even with only four children, I've often thought: What? They need to eat AGAIN? I just fed them!!! The dishes are still dirty, for Pete's sake! (Never mind the rounds of parent-teacher nights.)
- There are no "bulk discounts" for large families (unless you go full-Duggar, then you can get sponsorships and reality shows). Money was often tight. For many, many years I wore hand-me-down clothes. From my brothers. (I did get new clothes of my own as well, but those were supplemented with pants and T-shirts from Andy and Harvey.)
ON THE PLUS SIDE
- I was never, ever without a playmate. Often one who shared a bedroom with me.
- My mom and my older sister knew how to handle a fussy baby. (That would be my little sister, not me. Oh, no no, never me.)
- My parents had pretty much given up on most household rules by the time I came along. Either that or I just pushed them beyond the point of even trying to enforce them.
- They had also learned not to teach their own children how to drive. Or maybe that was just with me?
- Having grown up with sometimes-uncertain finances, I am forever grateful for the tangible blessings I've enjoyed with Stephen. I never take them for granted.
- I learned a few skills that helped stretch a dollar: 100 ways to cook ground beef; how to sew (back when fabric, notions, and patterns were less expensive); and how to garden.
- I also learned very young how to do my own laundry.
- I learned about teamwork. One night, my younger sister and I argued over whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher. My father lost his patience and declared: "Do it together." It was bruuuutal to work alongside someone you'd just been arguing with. But we learned to negotiate more civilly after that.
- Now that my mother is in her golden years, it's good to have siblings to share the worry. I'm especially grateful to the brothers and the sister who live near my mother and have taken on the major portion of caring for her for the past decades.
It is that last point that prompted today's post.
I've watched friends who happen to be only-children struggle with the cares of being in the "sandwich generation" (caring for children while also handling parents who are in failing health). It's exhausting for them, a never-ending hamster-wheel of responsibilities, with no one to give them respite. And when their parents die, they are left untethered in a way that I will never know.
In my case, and my cousins' case -- they also come from a family with seven children -- there are other shoulders to help lift the burden -- and shoulders to cry on when things get really rough or we are plunged into grief. Not that siblings all see eye-to-eye. (Hah!) But even in dysfunctional families, there is a sense of shared responsibility.
So, here's to big families -- the more the merrier!
* Note that I am using the names we used as children. Most of my siblings now use "grown-up" names: Stewart, Patricia, Douglas, Harvey, Andrew, me, Christine.