I didn’t feel loved or important and I know I don’t want that for my children.
All hail the large family! I grew up watching The Brady Bunch. And like many who evolved from small families, I’ve always been fascinated by our larger counterparts. At times when my brother had no interest in playing with me, I thought, If there were just one more of us! But who knows, maybe that one wouldn’t have wanted to play with me either. There are no guarantees in life or in family.
My husband is the youngest of five, all only six years apart (total). When I married into his family, they seemed like a cool club to which I didn’t yet belong. I wondered why my family never seemed like a club. We were more like four people from four different clubs trying to figure out what to do next, what to think, what to say, and how to feel. Although we all loved each other in unique ways, there lacked a connective thread I saw in other families. Now, I realize it has nothing to do with size; size definitely doesn’t matter in this situation.
Heather, the latest member of the Aberration Nation works each day to provide that all-embracing connection within her young family of eight. So why is this an aberration? Because it’s not always easy, that’s why! As a family grows, love can grow, but so can the complexity of relationships, group dynamics, calendars, homework, meals, taking this one there and picking up another over here. I can’t imagine the energy required when a family of six children are all young, and the continuous insight and careful word-choice necessary when they’re teens. I know from experience that the energy required to raise small children changes into a new, sometimes more difficult energy as they mature and explode into young adults filled with new intellectual thought processes, critical choices, and deep emotion. Watching my daughter experience pain as a teenager was a new experience, a new wound that I’d never felt. It’s a pain that forces you to bite your lip and pray, sometimes knowing there’s no other alternative.
Heather and her husband, like all of us who are parents, are on a roller coaster. Sometimes you just want to slow it down, stop it, or jump the hell off. But the thrill of the downhill is so victorious, so absolutely exhilarating that we hang on tight. We don’t let go. We believe in the ride, knowing it doesn’t last forever. One day the little children we loved so dearly morph into something that is altogether different yet similar. In a strange way, they’re gone. Whether across the country or across the street, they depart.
I admire the goals Heather has established for her family. Knowing what I know, things may not turn out like a perfect pie-in-the-sky dream, but she’s doing her absolute best to ensure her children feel the type of beautiful connection that serves as a powerful brace throughout life … come what may.
You have six children. What compelled you and your husband to have such a large family in a culture of shrinking families?
My husband and I both come from large families. He has six siblings and I have five. When we were dating we discussed children and both wanted to have a large family. Then reality hit after we had our first two children (boys) 16 months apart and we began to question how many children we really wanted. The two boys were more than a handful and kept us very busy.
Our children come in pairs (the first one planned and the second one a nice surprise). As I mentioned our first pair (boys) are 16 months apart. We then had a two year break and had our second pair (girls) 18 months apart (the younger girl, Morgan, in this set has Down syndrome). I knew I wanted more children after Morgan but also wanted to give her as much time and attention that she would need before making that decision. It was an unknown journey and I didn’t have any idea the impact a child with special needs would have on our family. But I also knew I would have more children at some point. I felt like I was allowing fear and defeat enter into my family if I stopped after Morgan and also sending a message to others that it really was a negative impact on our family even though I didn’t feel that way. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was what I felt at the time.
We waited until Morgan was walking (29 month old) and got pregnant again. It took a lot of faith and hope to decide to get pregnant again, more so for my husband. It wasn’t like our other pregnancies that were filled with joy and excitement, this pregnancy was filled with fear and uncertainty of everything that could go wrong. We knew too much. I lost that baby (a girl) at 18 weeks. It was extremely hard on my children and my husband (he had a difficult time having to watch me go through the pain of labor and not end up with a baby). The doctors told us the odds–60-80% of 2nd term fetal demises are caused by chromosomal anomalies. It made us nervous to try again. Maybe I was too old (34 years old) and my body just wasn’t meant to have more children. We decided to have DNA testing to help us determine if we would try to get pregnant again. Everything came back perfect ( a word I hate)–nothing wrong genetically and nothing wrong structurally. We still don’t know why we lost that baby.
We got pregnant three months later and decided to have prenatal screening done for Down syndrome at 14 weeks even though we knew the outcome wouldn’t make any difference in our decision to have the baby. I just needed to know. The tests came back showing the risk extremely low. It was a difficult and stressful pregnancy. I had an abnormal ultrasound at 16 weeks that showed something wrong with one kidney. The perinatologists weren’t sure exactly what was wrong since it is difficult to make prenatal kidney diagnoses via ultrasounds. They weren’t sure if it was MDKD or hydronephrosis. The latter one is common in Down syndrome which raised my risk of carrying a baby with Down syndrome. I refused the amniocentesis. I had just lost a baby at 18 weeks and wasn’t about to put this baby at risk. It wasn’t until after he was born that we got the diagnosis–MDKD (multicystic dysplastic kidney disease) which basically means he has only one kidney. The other one never developed. It shouldn’t affect him and he has no restrictions. It was an emotional pregnancy and my husband knew that we were done. We were very busy with five children and our new baby was a difficult baby with extreme colic for six months. My husband wanted to do something permanent but I wasn’t so sure we were done. I just didn’t feel like my family was complete. Maybe it was the baby I had lost. I knew it wasn’t fair for me to push him into having more because realistically maybe I would never feel done.
Then when my baby number five was nine months old I started to feel sick and dizzy. It took me awhile to realize I was having pregnancy symptoms. I took a test and it was positive. I was terrified to call my husband. He had made it absolutely clear that he did not want any more children. We both felt maxed out with five. I called him and he didn’t want to believe me. I think I took 3 pregnancy tests before he was willing to accept it. We waited to tell our families until I was 20 weeks along. We were a little embarrassed to tell people. It was obvious to everyone around us that we were already way over our heads with the five children we already had. Why were we choosing to add more to the chaos? Fortunately everyone was very excited for us. We both got more and more excited as the due date grew closer. We welcomed baby number six last year into our family–a baby girl. After she was born I just knew our family was complete. She is the perfect ending to our family.
What are the most rewarding and most challenging facets of being part of a large family?
I absolutely LOVE having a big family! I look at families with only a few children and wonder how the parents were able to stop. Being a mother is the most amazing thing I have experienced. There is nothing that compares to the overwhelming feeling of love that I have for my children and husband!
The most rewarding facet is that my children have each other. They are never without a friend. They also learn valuable life lessons of sharing, cooperation, communication and hard work.
Even though I wouldn’t change having a large family, there are definitely challenges that come with it. The biggest challenge for me is that I don’t feel like I can take the kids and go do fun field trips and activities by myself. We spend a lot more time at home than I would if I had fewer kids. It is hard to know if this is because of having so many children or because of the challenge that Morgan presents with being a ‘runner’ and her special needs.
Another challenge is it’s difficult to give them all the time and attention that they each need. My daughter, 18 months older than Morgan, is kind of my ‘invisible child’. It’s ironic but sometimes feel like she is alone in a home full of children. She is independent and tends to do her own thing. I wish I had more time for one-on-one dates with the children. I don’t want any of my children to feel like they got lost in the shuffle. I hope each one knows how much they are loved and valued in this family. I didn’t feel that when I was growing up in my family. I didn’t feel loved or important and I know I don’t want that for my children.
I have two daughters who are eleven years apart so I can’t even imagine having two or three kids close in age, much less six. How do you make it through each day and get everything done?
I don’t home school!! I live for routine and structure. I have to, otherwise it would be complete chaos. Each child has certain jobs that they are expected to do before they can play with friends (practice piano, clean bedroom and make bed, clean an assigned bathroom and living area). We have also followed a nap and bedtime schedule. I have my home completely child proof so I can relax in my own home. It also helps that I don’t know anything different–this is my life! I am used to the busyness, chaos, constant cleaning, noise, and juggling that encompasses each day.
One of your daughters has Down syndrome. How has this changed the family dynamic? What challenges and rewards has her condition given to the family?
It’s really hard for me to answer how it has changed our family dynamics because Morgan joined our family when it was still so young. My oldest had just turned five when she was born (I had four children under five years old) and we were still figuring everything out. I often think about how our family would be though if she were a typical six year old. It’s hard to not think about how things would be if she wouldn’t have been born with Down syndrome but I think it is easy to get caught up in those thoughts and lose sight of the gift that each child brings to their family.
I think Morgan has been more influenced by being in a large family than her presence has influenced my children. She has behavioral issues with pushing and getting along with other children and I think the chaos in the home has added to her behavioral problems. She doesn’t fit the ‘happy and sweet’ stereotype that is so commonly used with Down syndrome. She spends a lot of time upset and ornery.
My children have a great respect for others with special needs especially Down syndrome. They love it when they see someone else with Down syndrome out in public and always have something positive to say about that individual. They see Morgan as a blessing. They have overheard me talking on the phone to new moms in the ‘Down syndrome club’ and wonder why the mom is sad or upset that her new baby has Down syndrome. I showed them a picture of a family with two children whom have Down syndrome and they said, “Wouldn’t that be so cool? They are so lucky!” They have learned that all of us being different is what makes the world such a beautiful place.
I think the biggest challenge for my children is being patient with Morgan’s needs. They treat Morgan like everyone else–which is great, but she does require some things to be done differently. For example, she acts out when she wants their attention and they get mad at her for hitting or pushing instead of just including her and understanding that she acts out when she can’t communicate her needs.
Do your other children understand the full extent of Morgan’s challenges? How do they cope, and how do you and your husband help them to cope?
I don’t think they do understand the full extent of her challenges. I don’t even think my husband or I understand the full extent of her challenges. We try to just take one day at a time and focus on what her current needs are and not let ourselves become overwhelmed with the future and what ifs.
We chose to not tell our children anything about Morgan’s diagnosis when she was born. They were five, three, and one years old and we didn’t think they needed to know that something was different with their sister. We wanted them to love Morgan for exactly who she was, not a diagnosis. They knew she had something wrong with her heart and needed surgery and we also told them that it might take Morgan a little longer to learn how to do things and that was why she was having therapists come into the home to help her learn how to crawl, walk and talk. I really think it has only been in the last few years that they have realized what it means to have Down syndrome because the delays are more obvious as she gets older.
As a child, my brother had a learning disability. Due to this, my parents gave him much more one-on-one attention than they gave me. Although I understood and learned to be highly independent, I also suffered for it. How do you manage to give each child the individual attention they need, particularly with a challenged child in the mix?
Morgan does take more of my time than the others. I have spent A LOT of time this past year trying to get her potty trained and reading. I try to include the younger kids in whatever I am doing with Morgan. If we are in the bathroom working on potty training and reading books together than I usually have my baby on my lap and my 2 year old toddler in the bathroom with me all reading the books together. I feel like Morgan takes up as much time as a toddler does. She is independent in many areas but also requires constant supervision when her little brother and sister are around. I think the bigger problem with one-on-one time is due to having such a large family and not so much the special needs factor.
No parent is perfect. We try to do the best we can for our children. What are your primary parenting goals?
I want to raise happy, respectful and responsible adults that have a love for their Savior, Jesus Christ. We are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) and the gospel is a part of our everyday lives. There is a lot of pressure in our church to raise your children to be active members in the church with their own families. I know a lot of people in the church feel like they have failed as a parent if their child is no longer active and not living their life in accordance to the things they were taught. I don’t agree. Although it would be difficult if one of my children chose to not be active in the gospel, I hope it wouldn’t make me feel like I had failed in some way.
We spend Monday nights discussing different gospel principles with the children (Family Home Evening). My children LOVE this tradition. They are the ones that remind us about it each Monday. They love having all of the family together and being part of the planning whether it is being in charge of the prayer, song, lesson, activity or treat. We go to church every Sunday for 3 hours. We honor the Sabbath Day and do not shop, boat, swim, ski, do yard work, etc. on Sunday. We spend Sundays together as a family.
How do you and your husband manage to make time for each other?
A happy marriage is our biggest priority and this may be surprising but we actually spend a lot of time together. We both love to travel and go on several vacations a year, just the two of us. We have a couple of babysitters that are absolutely wonderful and we completely trust with our children. It is expensive to pay for someone to come into our home (it’s usually the biggest expense of the trip) but the reconnection and individual time it gives us (not to mention the much needed break from my busy life at home) are more than worth it!
I also mentioned that we have scheduled bedtime for the kids. Bedtime is 8:00-8:30 pm during the school year which means we have our own time together almost every evening and usually end up watching tivoed shows or renting a video. We also try to have a date night once a week.
For those of us who are parents, that role is likely the top life-changing experience we encountered on our way to becoming responsible adults. What are the top three life lessons you’ve encountered and embraced as your family has grown?
1. True happiness is found through sacrifice and love.
2. Being a mother to a daughter with special needs has opened my eyes to the world of disabilities and the potential each individual has to make a difference in this world. Every child is of worth and deserves acceptance and love.
3. Nothing is more rewarding or harder than being a parent! And I need a lot more patience!