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The Large Family Phenomenon


By Chris & Wendy Jeub | Family Life

My wife and I are about to welcome our tenth child into the world. We are the type of family that, upon entering a restaurant (on “Kids Eat Free” night), cause couples to request the booth farthest from us. Trying to find an empty pew on Sunday morning is a weekly trial. And while our 15-passenger van struggles to keep up with right-lane traffic, we have plenty of room in the far back end for friends to drop off bags of clothes.

We are a “large family” – a modern familial phenomenon that finds comfort in noisy homes, chaotic schedules and lots of little pattering feet. Or at least people assume we find comfort in those things.

A Large Family nowadays is a family of more than, say, three kids. The number isn’t scientific or anything, just the time in our marriage when people started asking, “You do know how babies come about, don’t you?”

Yes, we know where babies come from. The challenge is where to put them.

Take the “minivan,” for instance. It isn’t that “mini” for the typical family of one or two kids. For Large Families, however, these vans are literally “mini.” At 4-6 kids, a suburban (with third seat) is much more suitable. Families with more than six kids find themselves taking the plunge to a full-size van with 12 or 15 seats.

My dear wife, Wendy, and I are often subject to intrusive questions about birth control and child discipline. We know many young couples — typically the ones with one terribly strong-willed son — who’ve come to us with gaping mouths asking, “How do you do it?” The thought in these couples’ minds is really, “How could you handle 10 of my little boys?” Truth is, we probably couldn’t.

But God has His way of spacing the births of our children, and He has never blessed us with more than we can handle. Really, our answer is not how we do it, but rather why we do it. I interviewed five Large Families in a somewhat Freudian attempt to understand why Wendy and I continue to have children. The answers I found to the question of why parents have many kids aren’t much different from the answers to the question of why parents have any.

The Large-Family Phenomenon: The Shipes

Christy Farris married her high school sweetheart, Rich Shipe, and conceived their first child a month later. Emma, now 3, debuted into the world May 21, 1999. Rachael came along on May 24, 2000. Allie appeared on June 28, 2001.

Rich grew up with three brothers born five years apart. Now, after three years of marriage, he has three kids. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he explains.

Christy, on the other hand, is the oldest of 10 children. Daughter of Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, Christy grew up in a home school larger than some real schools.

“It was a blast,” she admits. “My sisters became my best friends. I wouldn’t trade anything about that very positive experience.”

But did she have any idea what she was getting into? Not really.

“We weren’t expecting what happened. I was bedridden for the entire first trimester. We went on our honeymoon, came home, and I was in bed for three months.”

“It was really difficult,” Rich remembers. “Christy’s mom had picture-perfect pregnancies, but Christy was keeling over for the first three months of our marriage. It was really bad.”

“I was not the kind of wife I had expected to be,” Christy says. “I didn’t cook, I didn’t clean, I didn’t do anything. I was kind of a mess and the house was a disaster. I don’t know what Rich ate the first six months of our marriage…”

“And everything I made for Christy she didn’t want, and when she ate it anyway, she’d throw it up!”

We were all laughing by now. But then I thought, How could such a miserable experience be such a comical reflection?

“If I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t,” Rich says. “Looking back on it, God used those circumstances to refine Christy and me.”

“When you have gone through a common struggle,” Christy says, “your relationship is strengthened. And in this end, as compared to something really tragic, we had children. There’s just nothing like having a baby together.”

There were issues, though – issues that both Christy and Rich were kind enough to admit. In the 21st century world of birth control and childcare, hardly anyone would call the Shipes’ actions responsible. Many would say they should have waited, taken precautions to help ensure their marriage was strong. Now they’ve been married just three years, can they really say they know each other?

Well, they really didn’t marry right away. “We had five years together before we got married,” Christy says. “We had a dating or courting – whatever you want to call it – time together. We felt God kept us from marrying soon, so He knew best. God gave us that time together to just have fun and get to know one another.”

“After we got married, we were ready to have kids,” Rich says. “We didn’t wait around.”

I asked Christy if she was pregnant with Number 4 — yet. No, she wasn’t. I didn’t ask her if she knew how babies came about.

The Large-Family Phenomenon: The Whelchels

I don’t have to ask Lisa Whelchel about the facts of life, either. This former Mouseketeer, best known as “Blair” on the ‘80s sitcom The Facts of Life, also conceived three times during her first three years of marriage. She and her husband, Steve, never used birth control.

“I had my last child when I was 30,” Lisa says. “At 38, it makes sense. But at 31 or 32, it doesn’t make sense why I couldn’t conceive. Steve and I have done nothing different. I guess my explanation is that it really is in the Lord’s hands.”

The Whelchels did not plan to have three children so close together in age. “I was married for 10 months when I found out that I was pregnant with Tucker,” Lisa says. “We were ready to have children, just not so quickly. But I love that we had them so close; they always have playmates, and it makes home schooling a lot easier.”

Lisa is the author of Creative Correction, a Focus on the Family resource filled with practical suggestions to raise children properly. Since her oldest son, Tucker, was diagnosed with ADHD, she says having children spaced so closely has helped her in her parenting ability.

“What’s wonderful about having kids so close in age is that it is a very personal and intimate time of learning how to discipline my children.”

Perhaps the Shipes, like the Whelchels, are done having children. Needless to say, though, both families are not hesitant to value the large family.

“We have a family up the street with eight children,” Lisa says. “They are the sweetest, most content, most grateful godly children. One cannot just say they all have compliant temperaments. They don’t. You just can’t be raised selfish in a large family. Perhaps the health of the next generation being preserved goes back to large families.”

But how large is large? Can we ever say that the quiver is full? A family of five isn’t too bad, but what about 13?

The Large-Family Phenomenon: The Lawleses

I never quite understood the title of the ‘60s musical The Sound of Music. Seven kids (actually, the real von Trapp family had nine) running through hills — hills that are alive — sounds more like the sound of screaming than the sound of music.

Move over von Trapps for the Lawles family, a traveling family of musicians with 11 kids from ages 8 to 25. Bobby and Nina Lawles enjoy filling shopping malls, churches and public squares with the family’s mix of violins, guitars, keyboards and singing and a puppet show.

The Lawleses have been known to sneak amidst the busyness of Wal-Mart in their Alabama hometown during Christmas. Carrying their cello, guitars and violins, the family stands in front of the registers. The cello slides an even note, and immediately the joy of the Season is filled with beautiful Christmas melody. Busy shoppers can’t help themselves but stop and watch these 11 young people lead them into a reflection of the Holiday season.

“When we first started playing in public, it was so embarrassing,” says 23-year-old Rachel, “but when we see people cry, dance, some jump and clap, we see that we change people’s outlook on the Season, and the music changes their lives.”

The Lawles parents have complete statements of mission, vision and philosophy for their family ministry, and they don’t let this get in the way of their parenting. Bobby and Nina propose to dedicate each morning to devotions, and they intentionally schedule time for the mentoring of each child during the week.

“As we grow in our knowledge of the Word of God,” Bobby says, “we grow in need. There was a time that I didn’t need to know how to take care of 11 children, because I didn’t have 11 children. Now, by God’s provision, we are able to parent all 11.”

But how does Bobby and Nina handle a household of teenagers? Seven of the Lawleses are adults with personal lives that include cars, friends, college and dreams.

“As the children get older, their needs change,” says Bobby. “I have younger children whose life-conflict is when they go to bed. I’ve got teens who are not at a place to make big decisions without consulting me. And I have adults who communicate with me out of courtesy rather than permission.”

Nina agrees, but admits that she had not had many models when she and Bobby were considering a large family.

“We didn’t have models when we were a young family,” she says. “Now I look for ways to communicate to other families what will help them.”

All 13 cram into one 15-passager van with utility trailer to travel cross-country to sing and encourage families. They each do their part. Second-oldest Rachel encourages single young ladies to wait for God’s best, and next-oldest Bobby John encourages young adults to make true friendship a priority. Lori, 21, is her father’s secretary, and Ben, 19, is the family’s lighting expert. Billy and Bonnie, the 18-year-old twins, live more introverted lives, but Timothy, Emily, Tommy and Katie — the non-adult children — take the stage.

Music soothes the soul, and this string orchestra brings cheer into people’s lives. “I would have loved to have an even dozen,” says Nina, “but the Lord has blessed us tremendously with my 11 children, and He has always met our needs.

The Large-Family Phenomenon: The Heppners

When asked what he needs with such a large family, DuWayne Heppner says he needs three hands.

“Five, ten, fifteen,” he counts.

Living just six miles from the Canadian border, this northern Minnesota family makes Swiss Family Robinson look like nothing: Fifteen natural-born kids – no multiples – from ages 1 to 22. They retired the two 15-passenger vans a year ago for a bus.

DuWayne and Miriam Heppner believe God has chosen to bless them—abundantly—with children, but the blessings have not always been planned. Despite the doubling-up on birth control and practicing Natural Family Planning, they wound up with five kids early in their marriage, each less than two years apart.

“Personally, it was a change of heart that God took care of,” Miriam says. “If someone would have asked me then if my children were blessings, I would have said ‘yes’ in my head, but ‘no’ in my heart.”

DuWayne and Miriam claimed they were taking the responsible approach. They had not been blessed financially, so (therefore) they believed they were doing what was right. Trouble was, they say, God kept overruling. Twenty-two years ago, Miriam believed it was the worst time to have kids.

“Spud [as she calls her husband] came to me one day and said, ‘Miriam, if God said, “I want to bless you,” would you say, “No, thank you, God, I don’t want your blessing”?’ ”

So together the Heppners began saying “yes” to God’s provision. Since that change of heart, every child was a joy to receive: the sixth, seventh, eighth…all the way up to the 15th, born January 2001.

“We usually tell people that two is not enough,” DuWayne says. “You need more. Three is worse, because then you have the middle child. Get over that and have more.”

The Heppners insist that this change of heart impacted them not only with kids, but in all other areas of their life. Everything turned to blessings – a stewardship – given to the Heppner family by God. Their needs grew with their new children (paced about a year and a half apart), but God kept their needs met.

“I can see how our children had seen direct answers to prayer,” Miriam remembers. “Just little things like how He has provided our fridge and dish washer and stove from three different places – and they all match! It was God’s way of showing His hand in it.”

Miriam says she cares deeply for moms with a lot of little ones. “When these moms look at us they think, ‘There’s no way I could handle it!’ Well, they come typically one at a time. Most large families can start breathing when the oldest one gets to be 11. At that point, they are able to help more and mom gets to take short naps and things like that.”

DuWayne asked me, “Are you going to ask the million-dollar question?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“If Miriam is pregnant.”

So, I asked, “Is Miriam pregnant?”

“Yep,” he said, grinning from ear-to-ear. “Number 16 is due in October!”

The Large-Family Phenomenon: The Dunhams

Is love in the house when the house is packed? The Dunham household is definitely packed, and they claim there is so much joy, they place two L’s in the title of their magazine for large families: Joyfull Noise. This periodical started a year ago as 44 pages with a mailing list of 200. Now, just eight issues into its lifetime, Joyfull Noise enjoys a print run of 2000 and growing. Publishers Paul and Paula Dunham claim these statistics show the need for encouragement for large families.

“We all have tons of laundry, cook huge amounts of food and love our kids,” says Paul. “We all want to do the very best that we can, and we all know that our children are blessings.”

When they married, Paul wanted two children; Paula wanted four. They have had eight children, and, that not being enough, they adopted three more. Just recently, they adopted six Filipino children – all siblings – from a disrupted adoption. Now, with 17 children, they have the Heppners beat!

While the Dunhams agree that their family is definitely a unique family, they are convinced that their audience is not as narrow as some may think.

“We have some readers who are from blended families – he had two, she had three, they married and had two more, and now they are one big family,” Paula says. “We also have adopt-a-families, like ours, that, for various reasons, added to their quiver with adoption.”

Their first three adopted children were 15, 14 and 12 when they entered the Dunham family from foster homes. They admit that there were many issues that they had to deal with.

“The kids were raised in a completely dysfunctional environment,” Paul says. “These are children that are hurt, their birth parents have lost their rights to them, and my other children have had to learn compassion and grace.”

“But there are daily joys,” Paula is quick to interject. “Just having hugs and kisses and seeing them love each other. The children have to interact with one another, and I think they learn much better coping skills. They have to help out – it isn’t an option – everybody’s got to help out…”

“Or else nobody can find socks,” Paul adds, and they both laugh.

The Dunhams’ new children joined them on May 24, 2002. They now have nine girls and eight boys aged 17, 16, 14, 14, 13, 13, 12, 12, 11, 11, 9, 9, 8, 7, 6, 4 and 2.

The Large-Family Phenomenon: Conclusion

While each of the families in this series of Large Families is much bigger than most, they are transparent with the natural struggles they go through. But, are struggles for large families any different than small families? Perhaps finding a pair of matching socks is more challenging in a house of 17 kids than it is with two kids.

A recent Ann Landers column called its writer “a woman of strong conviction and courage” whose letter was “brimming with candor and common sense.” What was Lauren in Toronto’s conviction? That contrary to the traditional view, children are not a blessing: they are a burden.

“If I had to give up my career, my social life and my figure,” Lauren in Toronto writes, “you can bet your bottom dollar I would resent the child” (Ann Landers, August 27, 2001).

And I have to admit, there were single-with-no-children days where I would not have found much wrong with Lauren in Toronto’s comments.

Various anti-child movements pepper the media with reminders that babies are burdens. As Jeff Hooten from Citizen magazine points out,

“They want your children out of sight, out of mind, out of their way, out of their conversation, out of the theater, out of the Cineplex, and, for goodness’ sake, out of their favorite restaurant.”

And, I still have to admit, there was a time when baby spit-up or splattered ketchup made me queasy.

While certain modern arguments call parents of Large Families irresponsible, or contributors to overpopulation, I can’t help but wonder what life would be like without my children — each and every one of them. The number of kids in our family is sliding into double digits, and I can’t image life without Alicia, Alissa, Cynthia, Lydia, Isaiah, Micah, Noah, Tabitha and Keilah.

And the other families would agree. The Heppners– as the Shipes, Whelchels, Lawleses and Dunhams would agree – claim that God is calling some to have children, but it is a matter of the heart.

“God spoke to our hearts and showed us that children are a blessing,” Miriam Heppner explains. “Whether we have two or 16, this is His desire: to bless us with children.”

Taken from www.family.org, a Focus on the Family web site. Copyright © 2004, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.
2002 Nov 14