‘Are They All Yours?’

I once met a mother of triplets in the parking lot outside of Wal-Mart. Her three babies had bright, blinking eyes, honeyed hair, and rosebud lips. They reached toward their mother with chubby arms, dimpled at the elbows, and made the most delicious slurping sounds as she scooped them from their car seats and plunked them, one by one, into a triple stroller. 


“You have three babies!” I found myself stammering in surprise. “What beautiful babies!” 


I wanted to go on, to ask their names, to congratulate the mother, to try to make the babies smile, but the woman gave me a pained smile that stopped me in my tracks. 


Oh, I realized. I was bothering her. 


She did not need me to tell her she had three babies. She knew all about the babies. They were the reason she likely hadn’t had a shower in days, an uninterrupted conversation in weeks, or a moment’s peace for months. They were the reason she was hoping — just hoping — to get into Wal-Mart, buy an industrial sized bottle of Johnson’s baby bath and a jumbo-pack of paper towels, and then get back out again without encountering an exploding diaper, a tantrum, or a throng of strangers stopping to stare and count her baby bundles. 


I know how she feels. When I dare enter the public view with my own gang of eight kids, it can be hard sometimes not to feel like a circus sideshow. The more reserved count heads quietly and avert their eyes. But others gawk. Some stare. And many interrogate. 


I used to be embarrassed by the attention before I just grew weary of it. These days, my garrulous 8-year-old fields most public inquiries. 


“Yes,” she explains cheerily, “these are all my brothers and sisters and no we don’t drive a bus and yes we do sometimes drive our mother up the wall and no I haven’t any idea how much we spend on groceries.” 


A little bit for my own sake, but mostly for the sake of younger moms who might be less battle-worn and a bit more sensitive, I offer some rules of conduct for those who encounter a mother of many children: 


1. Don’t ask if she’s “done” yet, because:
  • Some of us won’t know that we are “done” until we are 86 years old, and yet we have no idea how to explain such a radical concept to you.
  • Some of us do want more children, but our husbands do not, or our bodies are not cooperating, and we are trying very hard to make peace with our circumstances.
  • Some of us took a pregnancy test that very morning and were stunned when it came back positive and our minds are spinning with health worries, financial woes, and marital stress — none of which we are prepared to discuss with a stranger at the drug store.
2. Don’t ask if she’s figured out “what causes that” yet, because:
  • Some of our children know “what causes that” and will be horrified to hear their parents’ sex life discussed while standing in line at the post office.
  • Some of our children do not know “what causes that” and will be sure to use rather a loud voice to demand the details at a company dinner three weeks from now.
  • We might just blink at you innocently and say, “No. What?”
3. Don’t count her children aloud and then pronounce her a saint, because:
  • Every last one of our kids, our husbands, and sometimes even our neighbors knows better than that.
  • Even if you don’t intend to, you are telling our children that they are burdens — and no child should be told that.
  • It might just go straight to our heads.
Not everyone who needs to will read and adhere to the above, so it helps to keep in mind that most inquisitors don’t mean to be rude. In today’s world, large families stand out, and I can’t fault people for noticing us. 


When I noticed the mother of triplets at Wal-Mart, I didn’t intend to embarrass her, judge her, or take pity on her. I was reacting to her family as a thing of beauty — the glorious abundance of God’s generosity I saw manifested in the cooing contents of her triple stroller. 


Whether they realize it or not, and regardless of the words they use, when people react to large families, what they are really saying is, “You have been abundantly blessed.” 


The only appropriate response is a gracious smile.


Danielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.

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