Victoria, a girl I knew in college who later moved to Rome, fell in love, and got married, is moving back to the States. She is expecting her second child and says the treatment she receives in Italy, a nation in which the birth rate has the birth rate has fallen below the replacement rate, is beginning to border on open hostility. I wonder if she will fare much better over here.
This actually happened. My friend Mary had her first two children 13 months apart. While on a shopping trip, carrying the first and still pregnant with the second, she happened to pass a woman who, upon seeing Mary thus encumbered, said, “Sick.”
This actually happened. During a Christmas Day Mass I attended in Florida a couple of years ago, the priest made reference to the large “dysfunctional” family he grew up in. The woman who spoke in place of the homily began by telling the priest (and the congregation) that she, too, came from a dysfunctional family. To illustrate, she said simply, “Nine children.”
This actually happened. After she gave birth to her fourth child, Anne Albright, who writes the “Kid Stuff” column for this paper, received a letter (in this paper) urging her to get her tubes tied.
Children as sickness. Children as source of dysfunction. Children as blight upon the face of the earth. People exhibiting jaw-dropping rudeness toward total strangers, treating large families as if they were self-evident, evil, poking their noses into other peoples' most personal decisions. The mind reels and races with objections, but for starters, where are these people’s manners? Where is the simple consideration for others that is the most basic form of civility?
It may be that these commentators see in multiple children some moral evil, however abstract, which demands comment. They may be trying, however artlessly, to stand up for what they think is right. But even the attack on a perceived moral evil requires civility toward the perpetrator. Someone might object to homosexual sex on religious grounds, but if they were to say, “Sick,” upon seeing a homosexual couple pass by, they would be branded a homophobe, intolerant, bigoted. What are the words for the woman who accosted Mary?
Some people might see Mrs. Albright’s case as special, since she opens herself up for criticism by sharing her frustrations with the everyday difficulties of raising small children. But suppose she had chosen to abort one of her pregnancies, then written about the emotional aftereffects? Suppose she had felt depressed or guilty and had shared those feelings with her audience. Imagine the reaction if someone had written in telling her to get her tubes tied so that we wouldn’t have to hear her whining about any more abortions.
Or imagine if someone suggested that a person who committed a sexual act that they disapproved of get the equipment required to perform such an act removed through surgery. They would be excoriated as a hatemonger. Yet this person told Mrs. Albright to get her tubes tied in order to prevent an integral part of her sex life. Though I do not know for certain, I will venture to guess that she sees sex and children as being intimately, even essentially connected. Is this the truly shocking, the truly offensive claim that elicits such a visceral reaction? If not, why do people dislike kids to the point where they get mad when other people have them?
Do they see them as a threat to the environment? Do they take it at face value when Paul Simon sings, “The planet groans every time it registers another birth”? Does Anne Albright make them think of children starving in the streets of Calcutta? The issue of poverty is complex; it involves management of resources and, most fundamentally, whether the well-off in a given place have any concern for the less fortunate.
It is not as simple as saying that population density necessarily causes poverty. Tokyo is densely populated and prosperous; Russia is sparsely populated and impoverished. Nor is it clear to me that by having a large family in San Diego, I am taking food from the mouths of starving children elsewhere. True, the United States consumes a disproportionate percentage of the world’s resources, but multiple children does not mean mass consumerism.
Perhaps they see the dirty faces and hear the keening voices and assume that these children are neglected, unloved. That there are simply more kids than there is love to go around. Perhaps they have some experience of neglect and fear that these children will suffer a similar fate.
I cannot speak for that woman at the Christmas Mass, who offered her eight siblings as evidence of familial dysfunction. Her family may indeed have been wretched. I don’t know. That’s the point. I don’t know, so I can’t judge. What I do know is that having nine children is not a necessary cause of dysfunction.
My friend Ernie is the 16th of 17 children. He seems a ripe candidate for neglect, coming as he did near the end of a long line. But he wasn’t neglected; he isn’t damaged. Neither are his siblings, several of whom I am familiar with. Anyone present at the 50th anniversary party held for his parents a few years ago, a party that saw the reunion of the entire family, could see that they are not dysfunctional. They are a community of love, in which the parents devoted their lives to their children’s happiness and well-being. My own family is different from his — I was the second of two, though my parents would have liked to have had more — but in Ernie, the Grimms produced a solid, happy man.
Or perhaps they see the kids and Mom and we see her as a victim, oppressed by these mewling brats, tied down by their incessant needs. Again, how can they judge? How do they know that Mom did not want every one of these children, that no matter how tired or frustrated she becomes, she would sooner die than give one of them up? I suspect that Anne Albright feels this way, no matter how many times she wearily records the mopping up of vomit. I know that in my own case, it was Deirdre who first looked at me with big eyes and said, in tones of mock-pleading, “I want another baby.”