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With stories like that of octomom Nadya Suleman, large families now face extra stares, scrutiny

Tracey Henry of Safety Harbor with daughter Amy and sons Matthew and Steven, now 5, 8 and 13, respectively. She and her husband, Sean, were expecting little Jessica, now almost 2.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times (2007)

Tracey Henry of Safety Harbor with daughter Amy and sons Matthew and Steven, now 5, 8 and 13, respectively. She and her husband, Sean, were expecting little Jessica, now almost 2.

There aren't enough spaces on my 1040 to list all of my dependents. We defy standard hotel occupancy rates. I can't escape the grocery store without at least one cashier asking, "Are they all yours?"

Yes, I am a mother of four. A happy, healthy, mentally stable mother of four who has had to hide behind lampposts while TLC comes looking for their next reality show. Because lately, it hasn't been all that easy to be a mother of a large family, and four isn't even all that large considering there isn't even a clever descriptor like "six-pack," "eight is enough" or "cheaper by the dozen." (All I could come up with was "Four is More!" but that sounded like a bad re-election slogan.)

With stories like that of Nadya Suleman — single mother of six who recently underwent fertility treatments resulting in eight more children — big families cannot help but feel the residual heat from the public spotlight.

The perception of large families can be harsh. Some people make assumptions that are simply unfair, untrue or even completely uncalled for. Judging by the number of children we have, there are some who think they can accurately determine our religion, income and values. I have noticed that they do not draw these same conclusions on my friends with one or two children — at least not as articulately as, "So, you done yet?"

Instead of being happy for me, or better yet, not saying anything at all, I am usually met with one of three reactions when people realize how many children I have.

The Angry Guy: Usually not so much in person, but behind the anonymity of a message board or online forum, this guy jumps to all sorts of false assumptions. He believes that somehow we are irresponsible, on the dole, and he is going to end up buying our groceries. On the contrary, Angry Guy, every large family I know is raising their children in a stable marriage, and in a fiscally responsible household.

The Apologizer: She feels the need to apologize that this fate has befallen me, but she really liked to watch The Brady Bunch growing up.

The Rude Fertility/Virility Doctor: "Better keep your legs crossed!" Creepy wink to husband. "You going to have any more?" and my all time favorite: "Was this planned?"

Valerie Burri, Clearwater mother of seven, can commiserate. She's used to the eye rolls and occasional rude inquiry. She can't call a friend without being interrupted with, "You're calling to tell me you're pregnant, right?"

And yet, it wasn't always like this. My husband, Sean, is one of six. His brother-in-law is one of 10, another is one of 12. Extraordinary? Yes, but not uncommon all that long ago. Larger families used to be the norm: In the 1950s the average number of children per family was more than 3.5. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that number was 2.06 in 2008. In real numbers that 1.44 of a child difference translates to about 45 minutes of additional waiting time for the large table at a restaurant and third row seating in the minivan.

But it's not all a joking matter. There is a subtle social prejudice that some large families feel. A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Lorin Arnold, interim dean of the College of Communications at Rowan University who studies large families, as saying, "We have this cultural belief that two or three kids is the right number. Anyone who is outside that norm feels the need to justify their family size."

Most negative reaction is borne out of confusion. "Mostly they want to know how we do it," my friend Valerie observes. "And you always get the question, 'You do know what causes this, right?' I assure them we've always had a plan in place."

Perhaps that is where the biggest discrepancy lies. Some can't imagine life with additional children, and we can't imagine life without them. Georgann Vohsen, mother of six, does this math this way: "The misconception that having all those little people around means you have to divide your love. Wrong mathematical configuration, it's just the opposite, your love is multiplied."

Which leads to the most appreciated reaction of all. Just when you've heard enough unsolicited comments on your fertility to last you through a Duggar Family marathon, an elderly couple will hold the door for you as you maneuver a double stroller holding two other sets of hands. With kindly smiles that have seen many years filled with parenthood, life and love, the woman will whisper, "You've got your hands full — with many blessings."

Tracey Henry, a.k.a. Suburban Diva, is a freelance writer in Safety Harbor. She is a guest blogger for Whoa, Momma! at blogs.tampabay.com/moms and on her Web site, suburbandiva.com.

With stories like that of octomom Nadya Suleman, large families now face extra stares, scrutiny 03/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 10:56am]

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