Rorate Caeli

Guidance for young parents: how to raise a big, holy Catholic family

After posting a video of a Catholic family with 15 children -- that boasted eight religious vocations -- we asked our readers (see here) to write into us and share their stories on what it's like to raise a big family, and what they did or are still doing to make their family holy, happy and peaceful. Here is one of those stories.

Please consider sending your story to Rorate (see here for very flexible instructions) to post in this on-going series to help inspire young Catholic couples to forgo the abuses of Natural Family Planning (NFP) and simply go fourth and multiply with faith and confidence in a loving and all-knowing God: 

By Maeana Cragg

Some people may think we’re crazy.  Others may think that we are just foolish.  Few have ever said that directly to us. 

In fact, after asking the obligatory, “Are they all yours?” most people are kind enough to tell us what a beautiful family we have.

There was a time when a Catholic family with at least seven sweet little stair steps was not extraordinary at all, but quite typical.  Somewhere, we seem to have lost that beautiful part of our Catholic identity.  Honestly, I’m not sure how, as the Church’s teachings on family, on contraception, and on the blessings of children have not changed. 

There is so much peace, so much joy to be found giving your will entirely to God.

My first baby was a hard baby.  Now that I am a slightly more experienced mom, I realize just how hard Ethan was.  He spent most of the first part of his life sobbing.  He wouldn’t nurse to sleep, but had to be rocked in a special bouncing rocking rhythm that his daddy perfected.  We quickly realized that a crib was an impossibility with this beautiful little boy, unless we wanted to spend the nights standing over him, both hands on him.  

I could go on and on, but the point is, if we had decided when to have another baby from a perfectly rational, perfectly human point-of-view, chances are, the next wouldn’t have come for years, if at all.  Instead, we got our sweet Asher 18 months later.  

This little guy was so different from his brother.  He didn’t do very much crying, but took the whole world in with his big eyes.  He was also very physical.  He loved hugs and snuggles and had a sweet and sensitive little heart. 

Ethan would sit quietly for hours reading books and doing puzzles.  Asher would sit with him for a while, but would then pull him away to dance and wrestle. In so many ways, Asher was just what his big brother needed and Ethan was just what Asher needed.  We had our two darling little boys. 

I couldn't imagine my heart having enough room for another, and then, 17 months later, Colin came along.

Colin was Mr. Personality.  As a baby, he smiled constantly.  He was able to put on entire shows at 18 months old that would make the whole family laugh so hard, we were gasping for air.  Physically, he was somehow able to keep right up with his brothers. They were now the Three Musketeers.  

We had three amazing sons, all three years old and under.  If I had to pick a point during my motherhood where I could have said, “That’s it, that is all I can handle”, it would have been then.  The house was never organized, laundry never put where it belonged, and dinners were simple, to say the least.  I was even teaching flute lessons in the midst of it all.  Most days, I barely held on.  

Humanly speaking, I certainly didn’t need another baby, but that was before I met my darling girl, Clare.

God knew I needed a little break, and so there were over two years between her and the boys.  She was sweet, petite, and the boys all adored her.  I now had my girl.  “Now you can stop”, said the world.  God said, “Trust me”, and fourteen months later, he gave me her Irish twin, Lucas.  

He continued to shower me with blessings as my beautiful, independent Celia arrived two years later (she walks Lucas upstairs when he’s scared), and two years after that, I got my cutie-pie, Gavan.  God apparently thinks I do well with boys, as I am being blessed with my sixth in just a few weeks. I can’t begin to describe how much easier life is with seven helpful children than it was with three [Rorate emphasis, and a big phew!].

One question we often get is how we can possibly afford all our children. Hand-me-downs are wonderful.  Because my three oldest boys are pretty much the same size, I just found a tote for my Lucas that had more clothes than he could possibly wear.  I was able to give many away, and there are still plenty for both Lucas and his little brothers later on.  

Homeschooling makes it easier, as no one cares about the latest fashions.  If they had their way, they’d stay in their jammies all day.

Food is so much cheaper when you buy in bulk, and very little goes to waste.  We raised our own steer, our own pigs, and our own chickens for meat, and we have our own dairy cow.  Honestly though, if we weren't able to do that, we would be able to do just as well by buying on sale at the local grocery stores. 

I grew up with a very frugal mom, and she taught me well.  Children don’t each need their own room.  In fact, I wouldn't be able to separate most of my children, even if I wanted to.  They bicker and fight, like all brothers and sisters do, but one of the biggest punishments I can give them is telling them they have to play in separate rooms.

Which brings me to another concern people have when it comes to having a big family, how can I possibly give ALL those children the attention they need.  

First of all, I am a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom.  My children often get more attention from me than they want.  More importantly, a family isn't only about how the parents interact with their children. My children are horrified when they read books about not wanting a baby brother or sister.  They are offended when a character describes a little brother or sister as a pain. Instead, my kids like to talk about how Ethan was the least lucky baby in our family, because he only had Mommy and Daddy to love him.  

They then go through each sibling, each of whom is luckier and luckier because they each have one more person to love them until they get to the last baby, who is the luckiest of all, because he has Mommy, Daddy, Ethan, Asher, Colin, Clare, Lucas, Celia, and Gavan to love him. 

It is so easy to be scared, to listen to the world, the world that tells you that you are nothing without a career, that having a bunch of kids is insane, that trusting in your God, in your Church is foolish. 

It is even easier to live a life where you are everything to a bunch of insanely amazing kids, and where trusting in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God is the most intelligent thing a person could do.


Msgr. Byrnes said...

These posts about our heroic Catholic families are great. I would just like to say that 2 of the families that attend the TLM I offer on Sundays don't fully fit your criteria for posting, though they should. Both mothers suffered from ruptured wombs giving birth to their last children (one family has 5 and the other 7 little ones). Both families would have gladly had more children had the Lord blessed them, but this was not to be. in any case, I cannot tell you how all these families help me in my vocation -- each day I am able to see myself as their spiritual father. Thank you for all your good work and be assured of my prayers and a remembrance at holy Mass.

Msgr. Byrnes

Anonymous said...

Thanks Msgr.!

With four children six and under we still don't consider ourselves a "big family." So I came up with the admittedly arbitrary number of six, which I'm glad was ignored.

God bless you!

Unknown said...

Perhaps we are focusing too much on the little details and forgetting the bigger picture:

"Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." Matthew 6:33

When the important issues are taken care of first, then the things of lesser importance get taken care of "on their own" - I mean naturally, without too much effort.

Geremia said...

This seems to be a common story: the first child is hardest (for many reasons, but probably mostly because the parents are inexperienced), with each additional child more and more a blessing.

Cheaper by the dozen ☺

George said...

It's curious that when people bring up lack of income as a personal reason to limit family size it never apparently occurs to them that dad needs to work harder.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this post! It was a very good story. I can't even imagine how difficult it is to raise 7 kids but I know that you can do it in such a beautiful way because you are such an awesome mom and you know that He's there to back you up. May God bless you and your family. :)

JTS said...

Sounds like a lovely bunch you have there. We have 5 but we'd love more. Getting a bit old though now. It IS a bit expensive for food shopping, clothes and outings but worth every penny. We never say " how could we afford another one?" because we know that God will look after us. That doesn't mean to say we don't budget or think of the future, but we leave it in God's hands how many children we are blessed with. Some people are openly critical of us having more than the normal 2 kids, but most people are happy to see the little group out and about. Any tips for new couples? Well, as everyone says the first one is hardest because you are a bit nervous and inexperienced. If the baby is crying cuddle him/her. Controlled crying technique is mean. Babies like to feel loved and cared for so you can't overdose on cuddles. The biggest change is going from having one child to two. Going from two to three is not as big a change but still takes some getting used to because we only have two hands. Once you have got the hang of managing three children, then going to four or five isn't much different. You DO need a bigger car though. It's good fun most of the time. The children are sometimes restless at Mass which can be stressful because we don't want to disturb the other people. I say lots of prayers to the Holy Family that we will be good parents and that the children will keep God in their lives.

Bwangi Kilonzo said...

George, its not, to work harder, but trust in Gods providence

Karl said...

"There was a time when a Catholic family with at least seven sweet little stair steps was not extraordinary at all, but quite typical."

I hear this a lot, but I wonder if it is correct. Is there any way to check what the average Italian / Spanish / Portugese / French size-family was, say, 150 years ago?

ann said...

On a related note, here's a reflection on "contraception and the sovereignty of God" and Humanae vitae.

nemo said...

My father's parents came from Italy around 1902 and they had 10 children, born in the US.

One thing to keep in mind is that before the discovery of antibiotics, infant mortality was quite high in Europe. It was not unusual for a couple to have 6 or 7 children, only two of whom survived childhood.

George said...

I agree that ultimately it's God's providence. But it always seems very weak (and unmanly) to say that I'm limiting my offspring because I cannot afford it. Work a 2nd shift; or deliver pizzas at night. Work.

Before you wed, did you really think you'd be making considerably more income than you do now? Were you caught off guard by the cost of living? Had you realized this would you have chosen a different vocational or educational path? Or are you happy doing "x" job, but just don't want 10 children.

I'm serious. I guess I can understand the nominal Catholic who comes to learn the fullness of the Faith later in life, after marriage, I can understand how he is not ready to live both open to life and within whatever means his place in life provides him. But for informed Catholics, I cannot understand how you can wed, after choosing a certain career or job path, and then think life's too tough for more children. No one put a gun to your head at the wedding. Set yourself up for the life you want before getting married.

Unknown said...

I went looking and found this lecture. It doesn't talk about Europe, but does talk about rises and falls in the number of children among different denominations. There was a large resurgence in the early 60s, which may be why we always think of the large Catholic family. I found it very interesting. Thanks for asking.
Thank you to all those who have made such lovely comments.

Confitebor said...

"Is there any way to check what the average Italian / Spanish / Portugese / French size-family was, say, 150 years ago?"

I'm sure there are published studies on that available, but I've never looked any of them up. I do know, however, just from extensively researching my parents' genealogy, that in the 1800s in the U.S. and Eastern Europe, families who had less than 10 children were very rare. This is what I've found consistently in all the old vital records I've consulted and collated. My father's side of the family (who were Eastern Orthodox) and the other families in their village, however, saw a lot of infant and child mortality due to communicable disease, so these families of 10-15 children usually only saw 3-6 of them make it to adulthood or even make it to age 10. On my mother's side (U.S. Protestant), however, there was much less childhood mortality, so most of those children went on to have kids of their own . . . . but they would only have about 5-8 kids instead of the 10-15 that their parents had . . . and the following generation only had 3-5 kids, and the following generation only 2-3, and finally the family size was reduced to 0-2 (that is, adults getting married but having no kids or having just one or two). From my personal research and from my more general reading, it's apparent that the trend over the past 150 years in both Europe and the U.S. has been that the better off the parents get, the fewer and fewer children they decide to have (or that they decide to allow to be born, rather).

Confitebor said...

That said, my wife and I are deliberately bucking the trend, and so far God has blessed us with eight children (including one who died due to miscarriage).

Our experience has been right in line with what Adfero said. We too have received many compliments or expressions of surprise or admiration about how well-behaved our kids are at church or in restaurants. But I always reply, "Yeah, but you don't see them at home."

Especially right after dinner and just before their baths. We don't know what it is about that brief period of time that gets them wound up, but anyway we finally get them calmed down for bedtime prayer.

I also concur with the advice and encouragement that Adfero has received from families with more kids than he and his wife have -- it does indeed get easier after a few years, not only once you've made all your biggest mistakes with the three eldest kids (sorry guys, we do love you -- really! We hope you don't get upset that our parenting style is much more "relaxed" and gentle than it was when you were little), but also once the older kids are able to start helping out around the house and are mature enough to babysit their younger siblings.

Most of all, though, these are the keys to successful Catholic parenting:

1) Pray, a lot. Every day.

2) Take your kids to Mass every Sunday and every holy day -- even on some that aren't holy days of obligation.

3) Mark time by the Church's calendar. Note the saints of the day and invoke them as a family. Learn their stories and hold up the saints as examples to be followed. Tell them about Our Lady and St. Joseph. Teach them the Rosary and pray it with them, especially on long distance car trips.

4) Teach your children the Faith. Don't expect your parish school or CCD program to do it for you -- even if you're blessed with a decent school or faithful catechists, it's not their job to teach your children the Faith: that's why God made YOU your kids' parents. That, of course, means learning the Faith so you can teach it. If, as is more likely, you have an inadequate if not worthless or pernicious school/CCD program, it's all the more important to assume your rightful role and burden to teach your children the Faith, especially in matters of sacramental preparation.

Confitebor said...

5) In particular, teach your children about the Mass and about the Blessed Sacrament, and all the sacraments. Make sure they know what -- WHO -- the Holy Eucharist is, and how properly to show Our Eucharistic Lord the reverence that is His due. Start when they are babies: get their attention when the altar boys ring the Sanctus bells and when Father elevates the Host and the Chalice, and tell your babies, "Look, it's Jesus!" And take your children to Confession every week if possible -- and go often yourself.

6) Teach your children manners. Start at home with Please and Thank You and asking food to be passed at the table and asking to be excused from the table. Then extend the lessons to church -- EVERY TIME you go to Mass, remind them of what we are about to do and why we do it. Remind them of the proper decorum and etiquette of a temple of the Lord. Remind them what happens in the Consecration. Remind them of what Holy Communion is. Don't just tell them those things, though, but "quiz" them and prompt them.

7) If possible, sit as close to the front of the church as possible, especially when your children are little. If your church has a cry room, stay away from it during Mass. Nursing moms can cover themselves and usually can stay in the pew. Dads, if you have to take a crying baby out of Mass, unless it's to change a diaper, just go back to the vestibule and hold the little guy while you continue as best you can to participate in Mass. Try to avoid taking kids out of Mass if possible -- that will help them learn to sit still throughout Mass, and they won't get the idea that if they make a fuss they'll get to leave. That in turn will teach them self-control and patience and will build their attention spans, which will help them to concentrate and think. . . . Which brings me to:

8) Monitor TV and videos and computer games. You might even want to get rid of your TV altogether, but if you have one, make sure your kids don't watch anything inappropriate or spiritually harmful. Ban music videos and high-pressure commercials from your home, since they are designed to destroy the human intellect and weaken the will, shortening the attention span and making it impossible to think or reason.

9) Be kind and affectionate. Try not to lose your temper or to punish when you've lost your temper. Hug and kiss your kids every day -- especially when they're little, because one they're teens, they (well, the boys, anyway) won't want you to do that any more. And dads, hug and kiss your kids' mom in front of them every day -- especially if it makes them feel silly or they say it's gross. It is a parent's divine right and a grave responsibility to gross out your kids every day by kissing one's spouse in front of them. :-D Don't ever call your spouse names or anything like that, especially in front of the kids. Show them how husbands and wives are meant to treat each other.

10) Have family meals -- every night, if possible. And even if one parent can't be there for the meal, the other parent needs to maintain the custom of family meals. Pray at every meal. This is a perfect time to mark the saints of the day and to spend some time talking about their lives.

11) Did I mention how important it is to pray every day? Especially when they're little, gather together as a family for bedtime prayer. This is when you teach them the Pater Noster and Ave and Gloria Patri and Memorare. This is when you can introduce them to the Litanies and the Holy Rosary. Pray with them, teach them about sacramentals, give them Bibles and catechisms and study them with them. And when you're not praying with them, pray for them. Constantly. Ask God every day for the grace to be a good father and a good mother. And don't be too proud to ask your kids' forgiveness when you fail.

Long-Skirts said...

Maeana said:

"My children are horrified when they read books about not wanting a baby brother or sister."

Every baby come with a loaf of bread under his arm! God bless you dear Mother!!

Thom said...

George, I'm not sure how inspirational, to say the least, it is to say to a man, "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps you lazy oaf!" Only God (and his wife to a far greater degree than you or I) know whether the poor fellow is working at his full capacity.

Liam Ronan said...

God bless you and your lovely family,Maeana Cragg!