It was a beautiful June evening in Madison, Connecticut, an upscale seaside town. An unseasonably cold wind coming off the Long Island Sound had stopped. So had the rain that fell earlier in the week. This was the kind of evening you go out in. Anne Bascom thought so. The two-year-old went for a walk, down a dead-end street and in between houses to the nearby beach. A family friend says she saw Anne leaving shortly before 8:00 but didn’t think anything of it. Anne never wanders off.
Some of the other Bascom kids—there are seven of them—had coaxed their dad outside to play volleyball in the neighbor’s front yard. At 8:40, Paul Bascom says, he and his kids headed back to the house.
“Where’s Anne?” asked his wife, Mary, counting heads. “She’s in the house,” he answered.
Then came the chilling meeting of the eyes that every parent knows. Each had thought the other had Anne.
Mom, dad, kids, friends—everyone started searching for the baby, Paul remembers. Without luck. Paul went to see if she was outside. She was—in the arms of Officer Robert Mulhern of the Madison Police Department.
Mulhern told me later what had happened. “A witness saw the child on a rock ledge for over an hour,” he said. “Or something like that.” He admitted that he didn’t have the police report in front of him. Half a year later, memory is dim. “I took the child around for probably another half-hour. She barely spoke,” Mulhern said. “I found a neighborhood kid who recognized her.”
Sergeant Todd Curry joined his officer to assist him. Officer Mulhern held Anne. “He had created a little bond with the child,” Curry told me later.
Paul walked forward to greet the police officers as Mary walked out of the house behind him. Mulhern thrust Anne toward Mary and ordered her to change her diaper. “No,” Mary said. “I want to know what’s going on.”
Curry told the Bascoms they were involved in a “very serious situation”; Paul would have to go to the station for questioning. The gratitude the Bascoms felt for the police finding Anne turned into anxiety. It only got worse in a months-long series of events that saw them handcuffed, arrested, and told that Anne might be taken away from them—a threat that still hovers over them today.
More Kids, More Risk?
Talk to large families about the difficulties they face in today’s world and they’ll give you an earful. I know because I did. The ideas in this article are largely theirs. The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of a large family that they shared were fleshed out and made vivid in the harrowing story the Bascoms told me.
“They seemed to be good parents,” said Curry, whose decisions set in motion the chain of events that still haunts the Bascoms (and which, he says, were mandated by police protocols). “It’s just a large family. It seems to me that maybe they lost track.”
Parents couldn’t possibly keep track of so many children—it’s a suspicion large families are familiar with. Richard Amrhine, columnist for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, summed up this usually unspoken prejudice in a summer column commenting on the case of the Kelly family in Manassas.
Kevin Kelly was at home with 12 of his 13 children while his wife visited her ailing father in Ireland with one of their oldest. Frances, not quite two, was left in the family van after errands one day. Seven hours later, she was found strapped in her infant car seat, dead.
“Good parents these days don’t have 13 kids,” Amrhine wrote. “It’s not cute, or funny, or right. It’s stupid and irresponsible.” He called incidents like Frances’s death “not only tragic, but criminal.” On November 20, a Manassas jury agreed, convicting Kelly of involuntary manslaughter.
Regent University School of Law associate professor David Wagner said some of the evidence in the Kelly case was suggestive but that a manslaughter charge was too severe: “That’s for the sort of parents to whom it comes as news that they are expected to look after their kids.”
Wagner was at Frances’s funeral. “Sharing the grief of that family gathered around the baby-sized coffin, and knowing that for them the pain of loss was compounded immeasurably by well-founded fears of criminal charges and possible prison time, was, for me, as close to ‘unbearable’ as I’ve ever gotten,” he said.
But what makes the Kelly incident seem unlikely is precisely that so many people—a large family’s worth—forgot the baby. What are the odds of that? Check other incidents of children dying in cars, and you’d be convinced that a large family is the best defense against it. A Houston couple in August took one child out of the car, and each thought the other had gotten the second child. Her corpse was discovered six hours later. In an ABC news special on the phenomenon, all the families were small.
A large family is a web of intimate relationships. It forms a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. But look at it from the two-child world, and you’ll see a teeming mass of people—a day care, not a community of love. You’ll think, “No wonder no one noticed the one who wandered off.”
The Bascoms think they may have come face to face with another aspect of large-family suspicion.
It’s what Mary Hasson, a mother of seven, calls the “Neanderthal” syndrome. “If you have many children, then it’s assumed you must be a Neanderthal in every way,” she said. “The dad must dominate the wife, beat the children, be morally rigid and repressive. The poor wife must be a doormat with low self-esteem, a flabby figure, frumpy clothes, and no ambition.” This ready-made and mostly unconscious image affects the way people see large families.
People like social workers.
When Paul came back from the police station, Mary had already put the kids to bed. Paul, feeling agitated, was reading on the back patio a half-hour past midnight when he saw a police cruiser and another car pull up and park in front of his house. It was Officer Mulhern and a tall, blond woman, who turned out to be a Connecticut Department of Children and Families social worker.
The social worker grilled Paul and Mary. She insisted on seeing Anne.
That part was fairly typical, said Gary Kleeblatt, a Department of Children and Families spokesman. “If we receive a complaint, we are required by law to conduct an investigation.” But what the Bascoms say happened next, he told me, was “not typical.”
The social worker, who mentioned that she herself had only one child, said she wanted to wake all of the children to interview them. Paul and Mary said they didn’t think that was necessary. After calling her supervisor, the social worker said that not only did she want to talk to all of them, she wanted to do it without the parents present. Paul refused again. So she called her supervisor again. She repeated her demand.
The Bascoms began to relent. They woke Stephen, eleven, and brought him into the living room. The social worker asked the parents to leave. They slipped around the corner and listened. How often did he watch his younger brothers and sisters?, she asked. Was he left alone with them? For how long?
The Bascoms put a stop to the interviews and sent the social worker on her way. A week later, another social worker visited the house. She was positive and respectful. She reported that there was nothing to fear in this home.
But the worst was yet to come. On July 6, the Bascoms were arrested for Anne’s June 20 adventure.
Homeschooling by Necessity
There’s another reason families like the Bascoms feel they are suspect: They homeschool. They have to.
“I have been dismayed at the increasing tendency of
Catholic schools, private for the most part, to not offer multi-child discounts for families with many children,” said Hasson, an author and frequent speaker on homeschooling. “I know of situations where couples are advised by priests or their pastors not to have more children, just so they can afford the Catholic school.”
In such circumstances, large families naturally congregate into clusters of homeschooling families. They form their own organizations and create their own systems of support apart from the parish community. If the homeschoolers feel wronged by the Church community, or even if they just feel unwelcomed (they often feel both), then the character of the homeschool community won’t only be a parallel Catholic universe; it will be an antagonistic one.
The irony of the situation isn’t lost on large families. They’re following the Church’s teaching and sacrificing to do so. They don’t necessarily expect an award from the Church—but they don’t want to be treated like they’re from Mars either.
Families complain about pews that make it impossible for children to sit still, impossible CCD schedules for large families, scowling homilists, inconvenient crying rooms, and tiny, hidden bathrooms.
The Bascoms used to be Evangelical Christians. They are Catholic now. Were the Evangelicals more open to their children? In some ways, yes. “The [Protestant] church had lots of programs for kids,” Paul Bascom said. In other ways, not at all: “Doctrinally, contraception and even abortion were an option.”
For Catholics, Pope John Paul II has set the right tone from the top. In his historic visit to the Italian Parliament, there were many things he could have mentioned, but he used the opportunity to ask Italians to have larger families. The Catechism makes it official: “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional teaching see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity.”
They are a blessing, to all involved. These parents are faithful parishioners: the kind that tithe, care, and provide many of the Church’s vocations. The culture at large gets a lot, too: a future workforce to support the aging population, stable citizens, and the preservation of the family.
Kevin Clark of Seton Home Study School in Front Royal, Virginia, says society also gets better future parents. Clark and his wife, Laura, have seven children. “I have noticed how fascinated many children are by babies?’ he said. “They want to see them, want to play with them, want to hold them. It is clear that the reason for this is that the majority of children growing up today have absolutely no experience with babies in their own families. We are literally raising a generation of people in this country that has never had any association with babies.
Large families are filling the gap.
And the gap is widening. It’s astonishing how rapidly society developed the assumption that families should have only two children. Three, max. This mentality was among the first side effects of the pill.
Take your typical soccer mom, for example. If soccer is the field of dreams her Taylor and Connor have chosen, she’ll use all her considerable energy and affluence to fill the soccer season with pomp and pageantry. Victories will be celebrated in restaurants. There will be uniforms and uniform accessories for every possible weather condition. The team will tote matching soccer bags. There will be an expensive gift for the coach at season’s end. When you have only one child at play in the system, or two, or even three, you can keep up with the team and your checks will still clear your account. If you have four, five, or more and, consequently, a single family income, it all becomes iffy. This mismatch accounts for much of the discrimination against large families in our society. But not all discrimination is inadvertent.
Bascom listed for me the litany of comments large families hear: “When are you going to stop?” “How many are you going to have?” and “I have my two—that’s enough for me! How do you do it?” Large families like to dream of ways to answer such questions. Jim Deary of Des Moines confided that his wife, Jean, mother of nine and grandmother of 23, has longed to give a mischievous answer to that last question. “First, you need a man and a woman…”
Ed Peters, a canon lawyer in Ypsilanti, Michigan, saw his dream answer become reality. His wife was confronted in a fast-food restaurant with a clerk who commented, “Are all these your kids? Haven’t you guys ever heard of birth control?”
When Peters found out, he got mad. Then he got the name of the employee and “dropped everything, drove over to the place, walked past a line of about a half-dozen customers, and said, ‘Where’s the manager?'” He demanded an apology and later received one—in writing, along with a promised reprimand for the employee, a sincere invitation to visit the restaurant whenever the Peterses wanted, and “enough free-food coupons to feed a little army.”
What I Wanted to Say is the first CD of Marie Bellet, a popular Catholic singer in Nashville, Tennessee. In the title song, the singer thinks of all the things she wanted to answer to disapproving comments in the grocery store. Big families love it. Bellet’s CDs (her newest is available this spring) are the soundtrack to their family drama.
“The song lets families know they are not alone. They are in love with life and are laughed at for it,” Bellet told me. “I hope it reassures them that there is no need to doubt their openness to life.”
In the song, she has a profound response for the grocery store grumps. What does she say in real life when she gets comments about her family? “Usually I just giggle stupidly and roll my eyes at them and say, ‘You’ve got to admit, they are pretty cute!’ And they are.”
The Sheer Joy of It
The list of sacrifices parents of large families make could go on and on: chaos, noise, no solitude. No one invites you over for dinner. You can’t fly because you’d have to buy four rows of seats. When someone says, “It’s in the refrigerator,” you answer, “Which one?” The sacrifices for kids? Lack of privacy, less one-on-one time with Mom and Dad, fewer trips to the movies, fewer trips to amusement parks. For teens? Potential embarrassment. As one mom put it, it’s hard to arrive inconspicuously anywhere in a 15-passenger van full of kids.
So why do Catholics do it?
Author H.W. Crocker III said it best recently in the National Catholic Register: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers who accept the Church’s teaching on contraception do not, ultimately, do so because of the unchanging tradition of the
Church or the argument from natural law or any other argument, however true. Ultimately, we accept the Church’s teaching because we have decided to give without counting the cost.”
Let’s admit it: Human nature renders even the crystal-clear logic of Humanae Vitae unpersuasive when it’s read in the front seat of a crowded minivan. I should know. I’m a shockingly-young-to-have-so-many-kids Catholic. I have read papal documents in such a minivan, parked under a streetlight outside an Irish dance class.
I’m finishing this story a week after my deadline but with a new appreciation for the suffering of big families. Last week, a pestilence swept through my house. I was crouching in a steaming bathroom at 2:00 in the morning with a baby who wheezed when she breathed, while human barks rang out in the darkness outside the door and my wife hit redial over and over again downstairs, trying to wake up the doctor who was supposed to be on call. The next morning, when I regained consciousness, my house was literally strewn with bodies—pale children crouched on pillows with expressionless faces, waiting to see if the flu raging inside them would give out before they did. My wife’s face was drawn and her voice was weak as she thanked me for the water I brought her. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m going to work.”
But today, Dorothy, two, came downstairs beaming from ear to ear. She hid coyly behind the counter and said, “Good morning, Daddy!” in a flirtatious voice. Then Tom Sinclair, four, and I went out to breakfast, just the two of us. He called out to me in abject fear halfway across a two-story-high human gerbil tunnel in the McDonald’s playground. “It’s okay. I can see you,” I said, and somehow, he was okay, simply because I could see him. At home, I asked Olivia, six, what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A mommy with five kids married to a man who works at the National Catholic Register,” she said. I would introduce the canonization cause of Cecilia, nine, if she died tomorrow. And people say Benjamin Joseph, mere months old, looks just like me.
Together, we have years—decades—of adventure ahead of us. When I’m old, I expect my sacrifices to pay dividends. When I die, it will be the death of a patriarch. Without them, my life would be a pale sliver of what it is today.
The truth is, most large families I’ve met think of their life more like an amusement park than a martyrdom.
“I love the intensity,” Bellet said. “I love being in over my head. Big families keep everything relentlessly real. And Catholicism is all about hard-core reality. I guess it keeps me Catholic.”
She, too, is bracing for the adventure ahead. “I love how beautiful and mysterious these souls are. One of the most rewarding developments as they get older is to see how God’s design plays out—the sense of humor, the sensitivity, the thinking, the noble struggle in which they will be engaged—what could be more exciting? I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
It’s not so bad from a kid’s perspective either. As novelist Bud MacFarlane Jr. told me, “I grew up with nine sisters and one brother. I think that every family is different, but for MacFarlanes, the atmosphere was always fun. Small families can have fun, sure, but big families can have big fun. It’s hard to play cowboys and Indians with 1.2 children.”
Do the joys outweigh the sacrifices?
“People think that being in a big family means sacrificing attention, but it’s just the opposite,” MacFarlane said. “More people in the family not only means more, and more varied, attention, but it’s also a jump up on learning practical social skills like negotiation, charity, and self-reliance. In a good Catholic large family, it’s all joy, really.”
Mary Bascom offered the same sentiment: “The greatest joy is knowing that our kids will always have each other,” she said. “If they are betrayed or hurt by friends, they aren’t crushed by it; they have each other.”
Dragged Before a Judge in Chains
Or if they’re betrayed or hurt by society. When we last left them, the Bascoms were set to be arrested. On July 6, the babysitter came to their house before dawn, and they drove to the station at 6 A.M. They were read their rights, finger-printed, searched, stripped of shoelaces and belts, and locked, one after the other, in a large cage. “All of the policemen I met that morning were likeable, polite, and relaxed. They acted like what was happening to us was completely normal. It seemed very unreal,” Paul said.
The Bascoms were handcuffed and put in a paddy-wagon that filled up with suspects on its way to New Haven, where it backed up into a large wire pen so that the prisoners could get out.
Then came more questions, more officers. Finally, the Bascoms were brought before the judge. “The prosecutor asked that a $20,000 bond remain in place and that the child be removed from the home,” Paul told me. When the judge asked why, “He read from the police report, apparently from Officer Mulhern.”
It had everything wrong, Paul said. It said he had been unaware that his daughter was missing when Anne was brought home. It said the child was “urine-soaked,” a reference to her diaper, apparently. It quoted Paul saying, “I have so many children, I’m afraid sometimes I can’t watch them all.” Paul laughed out loud when he heard that comment read in court. “It isn’t something I’ve ever felt, let alone said,” he told me. “Nor is it the type of statement any parent I know would make.”
The judge didn’t buy it either. She removed the $20,000 bond and released the Bascoms on the condition that they not send their children alone to the beach and that they appear in court on August 13. “I have wondered many times since that day in court if the way the police report was worded resulted in the high bond and the humiliation of being dragged before a judge in chains,” Paul said.
Ultimately, they were not acquitted. The charges were put in a holding pattern for 13 months, during which time they can be brought up again if the Bascoms or their seven children have any more contact with the police.
They’ve come a long way since that June night when Anne decided to go out and explore the world.
“They assumed that someone else was watching the child because it was a large family,” Sergeant Curry explained to me. “With so many kids, I’m sure kids get misplaced.”
“How many kids did your family have, growing up?” I asked him, out of curiosity.
“You know what?” he laughed, “I was brought up with seven brothers. And we turned out all right.”