Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Happiest Parents Have A lot of Kids!

Or at least that is what the popular press is reporting.  I was shocked that they were covering it at all, but not so surprised that they got the results just a little wrong.

As a mother of four, I was thrilled to hear about Dr. Harman's findings out of Australia's Edith Cowan University. Often when the news reports research in my field, I go straight to the source and have a little chat with the study author. It is a perk of having the letters P H and D after my name. Dr. Harman sent me copy of the actual study summary and we went back a forth a few times about the research.  Although she said the results being reported are a little misleading, it appears as though we do have evidence that of "the more the merrier" really is mostly true but maybe not in the way you think.

Dr. Harman conducted a 5 year research study with the goal to explore the relationship between resilience, social support, self-esteem and life-satisfaction in parents, (source). Dr. Harman found that mothers of four or more children were the happiest group of the various family types. She did not however find that mothers of four or more were happier than mothers of say two children, or less happy than mothers with eight kids, because she didn't compare family size, but rather family type.  Dr Harman writes in her summary discussion

Overall, mothers of large families with higher self esteem were more likely to report greater life satisfaction. One interpretation of these results is that mothers of large families feel supported (older children helping younger children, for example), but may lose their sense of self.

Dr. Harman said that mothers of larger families overall had higher self-esteem.  They basically feel like they are doing a pretty good job and are well supported. They also were more likely to report greater life satisfaction. She speculated that they may loose their sense of self in the process - she didn't measure that quantitatively, but collected some qualitative data that directed her to that conclusion. But that loss of self is still associated with greater life satisfaction so maybe we shouldn't fret so much about having to drive the dreaded mini-van (for more on that click here).

The next great question is of course

"Why do lots of kids correlate with greater life satisfaction?"

Dr. Harman was sited in The Sydney Herald in August (2015) as stating "The parents usually say they always wanted a large family, it was planned that way, and it was a lifestyle they'd chosen".  So are these parents who choose this lifestyle just a different 'type' of people?

Yes, actually. That seems to be at the crux of this study comparing family types.

As a mother of four myself, and friend to many mothers of four or more children, I can say as a lay person that parents like those in the study who have been purposeful in having a larger family are likely couples who have chosen to take an optimistic and hopeful approach to parenting. I am not speaking of research here, but rather experience when I say that these types of parents tend to able to embrace the beauty and joy of parenthood and delight in their little ones. When discerning whether or not my husband and I felt our family was "full" with just the three, my mother pointed to my (then) 2, 5 and 7 year olds and said she could think of 3 reasons why we should have more kids... Gracie, JR, and Anthony.

Parents who choose large families, don't let fear prevent them from loving another child.  They love with reckless abandonment and choose to leave a family legacy not of human 'replacement' or social reproduction, but of human expansion.  

I recently got caught up reading about the War of the Roses in England.  Truth be told, I was reading historical fiction (not real history), but one thing that struck me in the novels was the love and appreciation that people used to have for large families. Large families were the ideal and each child was embraced as a blessing. There are many social reasons for this of course, but I found such comfort in that attitude which permeated the (then) Catholic society, whereas I find the current cultural (secular) attitude to be isolating. In present American society, the stereotype is that couples with many off-spring either don't know how babies are made, or they are too ignorant to stop it, or they are socially and financially irresponsible. A couple couldn't possible want more than just a few of these little people, right? Children are not seen as a gift, or a blessing, or something to cherish. They are approached as one more thing on a checklist of lifetime achievements and something to accept in moderation.

College (check), job (check), spouse (check), house (check), 
kid one (check), kid two (check), vasectomy (check).

Large families are more chaotic, but that chaos doesn't descend overnight. We grow into the noise and the chaos. We start with one (or maybe more) at a time and slowly re-adjust our family life, then we add another and re-adjust, and then make room for another, and another. Good parenting is about adjusting and shifting as our children grow and mature.  In our adjusting and shifting we too grow.  Growth is constant when you have a larger family and living a little off balanced allows us to turn to one another and to God with great regularity, often resulting in a closer knit family.

Large families require both parents to be completely committed to the family. In order for large families to really function you have to have both parents really involved. Although the division of responsibility can still be fairly traditional in many of these families, large families require that dads participate in the daily raising of the kids, even if that role is as mom's cheerleader. All of the children learn how to pitch in and help out, because just one person can not possibly do it all.

This study is great evidence of something that those of us with large families have known all along. Having large families is great for our mental and spiritual health. Yes it is messy. Yes it is crazy. Yes, it is hard. Yes, we have to loose ourselves in the service of others, but all parenting is messy and crazy and hard. There is no shame in loosing a little of ourselves to make room for more love. The love that we share in a family grows exponentially with each child we welcome into our home. And with love comes happiness.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. There is so much to say on the topic and space here was limited.  I hope this research sparks conversation and as always, thanks for stopping by!

For more on raising multiple kids check out this post (click here).

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