Big Families, Wide Sidewalks, and Frogs

Our nation is broken to a certain extent because of the dearth of babies. The nation could heal with more of them.

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A baby was born to my daughter Gigi’s teacher in our parish Montessori school. The baby lived in the classroom for a few years. I don’t think that baby’s feet touched the ground for two full years. They kept a closely guarded list of the girls who got to carry her next.  

In this part of Northern Virginia, we have large families all around us. It is lovely to see teen boys gathering around to cuddle a baby. Babies are healing for everyone, little girls and teen boys.  

Catherine Pakaluk makes this point in her marvelous new book Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth (Regnery Gateway). The book tells the stories of women who have not one, not two, not three, or four children, but the small 5 percent of women in our country who have five or more children. Everyone knows this is very special and unusual. 

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There is no way to sum up why women opt for five or more, except that they are part of living faith communities, and each new baby seems like an objective good for the mother, the family, and the community. 

Pakaluk says that 20 percent of the women she interviewed reported how a baby brought healing to the family. A boy in one family experienced depression and anxiety when he was eight or nine. “It was the sixth baby that turned him around, just having this little person that loved him unconditionally and that he could love unconditionally. And it was, the baby was the turning point.” Pakaluk projects this across our largely babyless nation. She says that our nation is broken to a certain extent because of a dearth of healing babies. The nation could heal with many more of them.  

Pakaluk’s book is one of three remarkable books that have come out simultaneously. They cover slightly different parts of the same family topic. 

Where Pakaluk reports on how and why some women have the sometimes-startling number of five or more children, in his book Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be (Harper), Timothy Carney explains how we make it difficult in this country to have any children at all and that most people end up having fewer children than they say they want. There are reasons for this. 

He says central to the issue is that having children seems very hard. He notes that we have largely brought the difficulties on ourselves but that town planners have had a heavy hand in it, too. 

In Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization (Broadside Books), sociologist Brad Wilcox explains how marriage can save civilization; but it must start with a proper view of marriage and not the various myths about relationships, marriage, and family. 

It is striking that these books have come out simultaneously, that the authors know each other and live not far from each other, and that even their cover designs are nearly identical. It’s almost like there is some divine design or an actual conspiracy. One central point: Pakaluk, Carney, and Wilcox know of which they speak; among them, they have something on the order of 33 children. 

Carney says we make parenting way too difficult, and that is a detriment to having more. He says we have to relax. Sell the helicopter. Cancel all the lessons. Get out of travel sports. Junior is never going to Major League Baseball, and trying to get him there may make him hate baseball and almost certainly will cause agita to parents and the family.  We make parenting way too difficult, and that is a detriment to having more children. We have to relax. Sell the helicopter. Cancel all the lessons. Get out of travel sports.Tweet This

He argues that extravagant expectations for little ones detract from the child’s enjoyment of what ought to be fun, and such expectations prevent parents from having more of them. He says all the lessons and hovering make parenting harder than it needs to be and deter others who may see how hard it seems. 

He says to get a house with a yard and a porch, and if you can find one, a neighborhood with sidewalks. And turn the children loose. Let them hunt frogs in the creek and come home when the streetlights come on. Invite other families over. Have cocktails. Make parenthood seem fun. So relaxed is Tim Carney that he drove up Interstate 95 heading home but had left little Seán behind at the Marine Corp Museum at Quantico. He lost Seán at Wolf Lodge in Pennsylvania. The phone eventually rang. Tim expected cops, but it was Seán, “Dad, where are you?” Tough kid. I know Carney’s kids. I hope my daughter marries one of them. They are amazing and refreshingly independent. 

Brad Wilcox is one of the big brains of sociology. He is a professor at the University of Virginia. His home of nine children, many adopted, is a hub for students of faith looking for community at secular, highly competitive UVA. In his book, he punctures various myths that inhibit family formation and other mindsets that lead to divorce. 

He warns against the “soulmate myth” that keeps a person in marriage only as long as you feel happy. Once the happiness goes, walk out the door and claim irreconcilable differences, the get-out-of-marriage-free phrase that may have been coined in the fiery depths. 

Wilcox says there are certain “masters of marriage” that include Asians, conservatives, the faithful, and strivers. These groups manage to “get married, steer clear of divorce, and forge reasonably happy unions.” The Faithful are motivated by their religious beliefs and connection to a living faith community. Pakaluk found the same thing, as did Carney. Conservatives embrace what some would call old-fashioned values, religious or not. “Strivers” are those who occupy “the professions, the business world, the universities, and the media.” Interestingly, these are the folks who may defend the woke world and the sexual revolution but who do not live those kinds of values at home. Finally, there are the Asians who build strong marriages and families. 

Pakaluk’s notion of national healing through babies is what sticks with you. There is a large cohort of children haters among us, to be sure. Just recall how much the Covid-fearful gave those little disease vectors a wide berth back in lockdown days. We can certainly see how more babies might be a balm for our economic woes; but more than that, one can see a nation of babies creating a national goochie-goochie-goo that we desperately need just about now. 

A few days ago, I was at CarMax. I would not otherwise have spoken to two strangers sitting nearby, except there was a new baby lying on Dad’s lap. That baby did his work. He was an invitation, a bridge, a balm. I accepted that invitation. I bent down and asked his name. Richard. I called him Richard the Lionheart. He seemed like a prince to me. The father liked that. So did the mom. There was this moment of balm. Imagine this happening all over the country with large families in healthy, selfless marriages, with wide sidewalks and frogs to hunt. It could happen again. 

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