Sometimes I’ll be mindlessly going about my day when I start to feel it—the slow simmer of failure. It’s like it’s always on the back burner, humming along as I go about my usual activities. Sometimes it burns and boils over and other times it’s just sitting here, humming away. But as a mom in a large family, I pretty much always feel like I’m failing.
If you saw me out in public, you probably wouldn’t know. The woman with a baby balanced on her hip, holding the hand of a toddler with an adorable parade of children following behind may look like anything but a failure (except when those children are punching each other, which they often are). Making dinner WHILE helping with homework WHILE soothing a cranky/hungry toddler WHILE on the phone with a friend may make me seem like the ideal multitasker, competently handling my life.
But that is NOT how I feel. And I think lots of large family moms feel the same. Here’s why:
I can’t get to all my kids’ events. If a basketball game conflicts with the baby’s nap, then we have to divide and conquer. Nobody wants a grumpy, screaming baby in a middle school gym. When two kids have basketball games at the same time, it’s not possible to be at both of them. When THREE kids have basketball games at the same time, you’ve got to figure out a carpool and trust that one kid won’t be eternally scarred by having no parent in attendance. Sometimes I hear parents talk about all their parenting failures and end it with, “But I was there for all his games/musicals/chess tournaments/etc.” Yeah, I can’t comfort myself with that one. If my kid needs therapy for all the times he felt unsupported by my lack of attendance, I’ll help him get the therapy. But there’s no physical way I can be at everything.
I have no idea how much milk they drank today. When I go to the pediatrician’s office they have me fill out this form. Part of the form asks questions I honesty have zero answers for. How many servings of meat daily? How many fruits and vegetables? How much milk they drink, in ounces. OUNCES. I fill it out with educated guesses, but I have no clue how much of what I served them actually went into their stomaches and how much they fed to the dog, slipped onto their sister’s plate, or put in their pockets. I can’t stay on top of all that. I can get good food on their plate, but micromanaging the number of ounces of milk they drink went out the window about three kids ago. Same for just about any issue your average parent is stressing over. I don’t even know to be stressed about it, but there’s always this feeling of failure that I can’t micromanage their lives.
You can’t co-sleep with six kids. When you have a first child you get a lot of adorable parenting advice about being the perfect parent for your one child. And then you have four or five more kids and that parenting advice is useless. Maybe this kid does “need” to co-sleep with me, but in order to do that he’d have to crawl over the three other kids already co-sleeping with me. It would be great if I could do extensive bedtime stories alone with each child before they went to sleep, but that is not physically possible unless the last kid wants to go to sleep at midnight (which he does, but that doesn’t seem wise). How sweet would it be to rock each precious child as long as they needed? But it’s not happening.
One-on-one time is a joke. I love the idea of spending alone time with each child. I take opportunities to do that where I can. But it often looks less like adorable lunch dates and more like grocery shopping or a trip into the public restroom alone together while we’re all at the zoo. If I wanted to feel guilty for not spending daily one-on-one time with each of my kids, I would NEVER STOP FEELING GUILTY.
Self-care is virtually impossible. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Fold laundry when the baby folds laundry. It is really hard to find time to care for yourself when you are trying to balance the competing needs of lots of kids, work, and marriage (and church and your in-laws and and and). Finding time for yourself often means reframing things you have to do anyway. Showering? Me time. Coffee while I tidy up breakfast? Me time. I know I’m not doing a good job at self-care, but to do a better job would mean just piling up more guilt in another area.
Being an awesome parent for one kid means totally failing another one. This kid really needs me to snuggle with her and read her a story. So I do it. And I am Mom of the Year to that child and World’s Worst Mom to the five other ones who think I’m rejecting them. Holding hands with two children during church means four other ones are silently giving you the stink eye. And I will never have enough laps for every kid to sit on. Even when you win, you lose.
Date night. . . what is this “date night” you speak of? Reading marriage “wisdom” often feels like another list of “shoulds” that I just can’t. Date nights, special late night conversations, savoring the moment. . . these are hard things to do when babysitters cost the price of a black market kidney and you’re so tired by 10 p.m. that you just want to be back in your sweats anyway. All this marriage advice comes with dire predictions about what happens if you don’t, so I’m pretty much always operating out of some feelings of wife failure along with all the parenting failure.
We’re poor. At some point I quit caring about keeping up with the Joneses and now I’m just trying to keep up with our grocery bills. My kids know they can’t have the material things other kids have and even when they deal with that reality fine, I still feel like I’m failing them. A McDonald’s Happy Meal is not that expensive, but multiply that by six and you’ll see why even the small expenses end up seeming major. Let’s not even talk about Disneyland.
Toothbrushing. And that’s all I’ll say about that because my dentist might read this.
We’re late. All the time. To everything. And there’s a 70% chance someone isn’t wearing shoes. I am a person who values timeliness, but trying to get six kids somewhere on time feels like herding cats. Slippery ones. For every ten things I do to get people ready, someone is behind me undoing things– throwing shoes back off, losing their backpack, or messing up their hair. The first thing I say at just about any public gathering is, “I’m sorry we’re late.” You’d think at this point I’d be over feeling guilty about that, but I’m not.
Nothing is ever “fair.” Kids don’t all have the same needs, so you’d think they’d be okay with things not always being the same for everybody. But they aren’t. One time I had to go to Target to get one kid a water bottle, one kid needed socks and another had to have a set of crayons. When I got home and realized that meant one of my kids was going to feel left out because I didn’t get anything for him, I gave him the roll of tape I bought for the house and told him it was especially for him. This is my life.
Someone is always crying. If I thought the measure of a “good mom” was that her kids were always happy, then I’d feel like a failure pretty much all the time. Which I often do. Because someone is always crying. In one breakfast someone can cry that the food is too hot, this isn’t the breakfast they thought they were getting, someone looked at them wrong, he took the milk and won’t give it back, and one doesn’t want to go to school so he’s going to hide under the table and cry. It’s endless.
So is this just a gripe session or a list of reasons why people shouldn’t have large families? No. The thing is, I came from a large family and I loved it. I don’t know if my mom felt like she was failing all the time. In some ways, I think the pressure is on moms differently now than it was then. I love the Jim Gaffigan line, “Large families are like waterbed stores. They used to be everywhere and now they are just weird.” I think we are more obvious now as a large family and the additional attention on us makes me feel more pressure to overcompensate or try and mitigate the ways our family is different.
But when I try to remember things from my childhood perspective, I remember being loved. I remember always having someone to play with. I remember how special and fun looking through a bag of hand-me-downs felt. I remember feeling like my family was my team. I remember loving having older siblings who looked out for me and a younger sister I could look out for. The things that may have felt like failure to my parents never felt like disappointment to me.
Moms carry these failure feelings alone, sometimes. Our kids aren’t dissatisfied, our husbands don’t feel the weight of these expectations, but we worry that we aren’t enough or this life we created is too much. I think saying these things out loud (or writing them) can help normalize what it means to be in a large family. Yes, it means sacrifices. But it also means an overabundance of joy and family and beautiful chaos. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And (at this point) neither would my kids.
(If you want to know why moms in large families pretty much always feel like they’re winning, I’ve got you covered.)