The birth of octuplets to a California woman who already had six children seems to have started a national discussion about large families. My opinion: Although I come from a pretty big brood myself — I had nine siblings — I feel it was irresponsible for Nadya Suleman to bring all those children into a situation where they can’t possibly be cared for properly. And as a nurse, I think that the doctor who enabled her to do it behaved unethically, violating the Hippocratic oath. Any medical student knows to “first, do no harm.”
But is it hypocritical (rather than Hippocratic) for me to say that when my own family numbered in the double digits? I don’t think so. Things have changed since then.
It took a village
First of all, big clans were no big deal when I was a girl. Many of the families in my town were of recent immigrants — Italians, Poles, Russians, and Irish like us — and it was common to have lots of children. Nobody found it particularly unusual for me to have nine siblings.
For another thing, communities were closer-knit in those days. You couldn’t get away with toeing the line at home but then getting away with mischief when your parents’ backs were turned. “I have eyes in the back of my head,” my mother would say when we wondered how she could know what we’d been up to at school or at the other end of town. Her secret weapon was the neighbors. There weren’t many telephones yet, but people talked over the back fence, and nobody shied away from disciplining other people’s children if they thought they needed it. Teachers got involved too; they would come to your house and let your folks know how you were doing.
We didn’t get food stamps, as the octuplet mom has; we had other ways of keeping many mouths fed. For one thing, we had just about every kind of fruit and vegetable in the garden. Blackberries and raspberries were canned and put up on basement shelves to last through the winter. And because there were many of us, what we did have to buy we could save on by buying in bulk — giant sacks of potatoes, for example, and huge piles of oatmeal that my mother would cook in a big pot.
As far as clothing goes, we were fortunate to live only a few hours from New York, so there were factories where you could buy remnants of beautiful materials for a song. My mother was great at sewing, and also got some of our clothes by mail-order from the Sears catalog.
My father helped out too; he cut most of our hair. Good thing for him that six of us were girls who wore our hair long; about all he needed to do was trim our bangs.
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With so many siblings, of course there were hand-me-downs. People ask me if I objected to wearing clothes my siblings had worn, but I didn’t mind; I was always looking at what everybody else was wearing to see what I might like to have!
Medical costs, particularly for her children with special needs, are a big part of the expenses Nadya Suleman is facing as the mother of 14 children. My little town only had two doctors, so my parents did their best to keep the 10 of us healthy without them. My father always had mustard plasters and Vicks VapoRub to treat colds. And every night we lined up for him to give each of us a tablespoon of emulsified cod liver oil. The stuff is good for you, but it tastes like fish. Fortunately, my mother was always there with a drink of something to wash out the taste.
And there were advantages to having a lot of siblings, particularly older ones. For one thing, if you needed a chaperone to go to a dance or a movie, there was always one handy. Granted, we didn’t have much privacy — houses weren’t very big back then — but the upside was that little ones always had a pair of older eyes on them. People look at me like I have two heads when I insist that I never saw a baby put to bed crying, but that’s how it was: There was always somebody to rock it in a rocking chair and sing to it until it went to sleep.
Somehow I don’t think that will be the case in Nadya Suleman’s house. As others have pointed out, at least a few of her octuplets are likely to have disabilities because they were born premature, and they’re going to need a lot more than cod liver oil and mustard plasters.
That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be allowed to have large families anymore. It just means that the right number of children to have is the number that you’re sure you have the resources to house, feed, clothe and love — all the way until they’re adults.
Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here .
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