When I was very young, my father read the Chronicles of Narnia to my siblings and me, doing animal voices and putting on a British accent. We didn’t get to the movies much back then, nor do we now, but when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came to theaters in December 2005, it only seemed right that we go.
We made it a family Christmas outing, packing everyone into two vehicles and trekking across the city to the movie theater. There, we slid one by one into a row until we had taken up the entire thing, with Tabithah, our youngest, sitting sometimes in her own seat and sometimes on a lap. No, you didn’t read that wrong — we filled the row — all 14 seats — all by ourselves.
After the movie, we gathered in the lobby while Mom and Dad went to fetch the cars. We older ones amused ourselves by arranging everyone under the poster for Cheaper By the Dozen 2, smiling nonchalantly as passers-by goggled at the sight of our dozen under the appropriate signage.
I am the oldest of 12 children, 10 girls and two boys, and am almost exactly 20 years older than my youngest sibling. Many people assume that my parents planned to have a dozen children. They did not. Rather, early in their marriage, my parents decided to trust God for the number of children they would have. They determined not to prevent conception. And while the thought of so many children could sometimes be overwhelming, they decided to believe scripture when it calls children a blessing and a gift from God.
As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve tried to glean parenting wisdom from my own parents and others. What have they done, I have asked myself, that really worked? What have they done to enrich my life and bless me, to grow me into confident and capable adulthood?
I’ve heard that big families exist wherein mothers run ragged, fathers are chauvinistic bullies, and children live impoverished, embattled, resentful lives without proper childhoods or sufficient parental attention. I have heard that. I’ll even believe it, for many children alone do not a happy family make. But in my own experience, my parents’ decision to let God plan their family has had a greater positive impact — not only on them, but on us, and even on others — than almost any other decision they have made. We are blessed beyond measure.
I wish very much that my generation would sit up and take note, and perhaps rethink what they have thought about families and children and God’s purposes in creating us.
The Bible is not silent on the question of family planning. It names God as the sole opener and closer of the womb, commands us to raise up a godly seed, and both explicitly states and constantly implies that God gives children as His gift for His purposes. “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD,” declares Psalm 127:3-5, “and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”
In recent years, more and more parents have started to open their lives to more and more children, conceived or adopted — to seek a full quiver, as many term it. These parents may not know it yet, but they are giving their children invaluable gifts of training, community, and lifelong ministry — and though they may not see their actions in such grand terms, they are giving a future to us all.
The Potter’s Wheel
In my book Tales of the Heartily Homeschooled, I wrote about the unique character training found in a large family.
Our character is built by the way we react to people and situations. Scripture compares the molding of our souls to the work of a potter with his clay. (Have you ever seen a potter at work? The words mash, mangle, smush, smoosh, manhandle, and knead come to mind. So do the words big family.)
Automatic enrollment in Character School is one of the greatest advantages of life in a big family. I’m going to build character whether I like it or not, or else I’m going to fold up and become a dried, useless lump. So, mash, mangle and the rest of it aside, I’ll choose to learn my lessons.
Sharing my life with 11 siblings has given me innumerable opportunities to be more giving, more helpful, more unselfish and more outward-looking than I could be without them. I’ve learned about working hard, being part of a team and caring about others. Being one of many gives me perspective and understanding.
Frankly, it has made me a better person — and by making me better, it’s made me happier.
I expect my family life to influence my future, too. What better training for marriage can there be than dealing with so many different personalities on a daily basis? How better to gain insight into the mysteries of the opposite sex than to live with brothers and sisters in all stages of life? Parenting is best learned through intimate involvement in the lives of younger siblings — and the younger ones don’t have to be left out. The “little kids” can learn parenting from involvement with their nieces and nephews.
Being one of many is incredible life training in other practical areas. I’ve had opportunity to learn housecleaning, cooking, baking, business, finances, emergency coping strategies, marriage skills, conflict management and more. Big family life is a fabulous hands-on training ground — the ultimate potter’s wheel of life skills.
Community Now and Tomorrow
Loneliness and isolation are two of the greatest problems facing our culture, along with the host of personal problems and neuroses they birth. When my parents made room for God to give them many children, they created a community. At our house, life is full of life: We work, pray, laugh, cry, lose, win and create together. Life is not always easy, but it is warm and full.
Numbers don’t automatically create a loving community. But when parents choose to have many children because they love God and love their children, and when each child is welcomed as a gift from God, and when the family views itself as abundantly blessed, those attitudes make for a healthy, dynamic home and community.
Lately, as I’ve branched into new seasons of life, I’m coming to appreciate another aspect of family relationships: their permanence. As everyone who complains about having to see that relative every Christmas knows, family relationships don’t just dissolve with time and distance. They’re here for life. For me, that means I’ve got at least 13 people who will always know me, love me and matter to me. When my siblings marry and have children, they’ll add even more people to my lifelong community. If I believe — and I do — that life is most fulfilling when it’s full of relationships, this thought is a wonderful one.
Ministry for a Lifetime
Some time ago, I got involved in an online discussion with someone whose relatives were getting into “quiver full” mentality. This person was concerned about ministry. If we’re so busy birthing and raising children, she asked, how can we impact the world?
The answer is simple: exponentially. When my grandmother passed away six years ago, hundreds of people came to her funeral to mourn with us. Some of those people had known her well personally. She had spent hours with them and been a significant part of their lives. But many, many of those people had entered her life through her children. Her eight children had reached out, built relationships and shared the community of their own family with others — and with it, the love of God.
In our house, it’s the same way. As we kids have grown older, each of us has entered different circles and reached out to different people. We bring others into our home and love them, minister to them and disciple them. No two of us draw quite the same crowd, but our gifts and personalities come together to serve all. Even Tabithah has a role in our family ministry, with her 5-year-old affection and sweetness.
Ministry outside of the home begins with ministry within the home. I have learned so much from my parents, and much of what I’ve learned has been a result of our unusual family life. Like I said, my parents didn’t set out to have a big family. Rather, they set out to trust God, to give Him room to create through them and direct their family from conception on. Their faith for family size translated into faith for finances, provision and direction in life, and we have all been influenced by it.
Hope for the Future
At times, when I come home to my bright, cheerful household with feasts in the oven and shrieks of laughter ringing in the air, I realize that I live in a refuge. The rest of the world is not like this. The rest of the world is lonely and hard and immoral and scary. Our culture is in a period of darkness that truly frightens me.
It has occurred to me, as it has to many others, that it might not be right to bring children into such a world. But that attitude can only doom us.
To me, two of the most powerful verses in the Bible are Exodus 2:1-2. A chapter before, we’re told that Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and made their lives bitter; that they lived under an evil pagan king; and finally, that Pharaoh commanded every male child to be cast into the river and drowned. Into this context come these words: “And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bare a son.” In such horrible circumstances, one man and one woman had the courage to marry and give birth to a child. That child was Moses, and God used him to set his people free. Moses’ impact is still felt in the world today.
My parents’ trust in God to plan their family led to an attitude of stewardship in the way they have raised that family, and today my siblings and I — and our friends and acquaintances, and someday our spouses and children — reap the rewards of their faith.
If the Lord blesses me with my own family one day, I hope to carry on my parents’ legacy of faith: with as many children as possible, and all the training, community and purpose I can give them.
Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.