So You Wanted Kids

Here’s what happens when you take a trip to Baltimore Harbor to tour a visiting warship with your five kids. 

You’ll pull into the closest parking garage that you use to visit other attractions like the Science Center and notice the overhead clearance for the first time. You’ll realize that your days using this garage are numbered, since the new van you ordered from Ford—not a mini one, you ordered the type that Amazon delivery drivers use— doesn’t fit in this garage, or many parking garages, for that matter. You’ve officially outgrown your 7-seater Honda Odyssey.

Oh yeah, and did I mention number six is on the way? 

After parking and unloading, you’ll walk across the street to the ship, past the people who made comments like “Hands full?” and “Slow down!” These comments from strangers are so commonplace you’ll scarcely notice them anymore. Your responses, such as “Thank God!” and “We like them” are on autopilot.

When you arrive, security will inform you that they could only accommodate groups of five people or fewer. You’ll look at your kids and ask the sailor running security which of them, all aged eight and under, you should leave behind. They’ll laugh and let you on. After, for lunch, you’ll need the largest booth at the kosher Chinese restaurant. Such is a morning trip for a homeschool family of five kids, like mine. 

Since I’m part of the religious Jewish community, the usual assumption is that I’ve taken the command to be fruitful and multiply very seriously. The reality, of course, is far more complicated. 

I grew up moving around New York State: mostly on Long Island and in the Finger Lakes, an only child of a single mother. She was a social worker for group homes for profoundly disabled adults until she was sidelined by her own disability when I was ten, at which point, we started living on her Social Security disability payments. Growing up with my mother and her rotating cast of live-in boyfriends, I had basically no connection to my small, extended family on either side of my family tree.

I cut off relations with my father when I was seven, and my mother died from complications from lupus when I was sixteen. My mom was Catholic, and pretty religious, my dad Jewish, and not at all. Judaism is matrilineal, and I’d decided to convert before meeting my husband. At our wedding, we didn’t split the aisle into groom’s and bride’s sides, lest the minuscule size of my family be glaringly obvious, an extremely painful reminder of who was missing. 

I’m due with this sixth baby just days before the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m not saying I planned this, but I’m not saying it’s not a gift from God, either.

From the loss of my parents, I decided to bring forth into this world a lot of life. And that’s what my home is filled with: life. Life, and also two bunk beds, two cribs, bulk packages of wipes and multiple sizes of diapers from Costco, and more half-broken plastic toys than I can count. I learned from my parents how truly short life is, and how incredibly valuable it is, and that instead of trying to optimize for money or quiet or “me-time,” I should do what brings me deeper happiness and fulfillment. Which isn’t to say my days are all blissful and fulfilling. 

While Elon Musk and Nick Cannon are the poster children for fecundity, billionaires and celebrities are the anomaly, and most families with a lot of kids are like ours: middle class. Generally speaking, the data indicates that the more income one makes, the fewer children one has. Having a baby roughly every other year for the last decade is not a decision that comes cheaply, but if we’re being honest, it’s not as expensive as many might think. The largest cost for any parent is that of childcare, and with me writing, editing, and consulting part-time from home, the costs aren’t exponential. Even with the activities my kids take part in, there are financial workarounds. This year we found a violin teacher who charges by the hour, not by the student. 

And fine, since you asked: We do at least one load of laundry a day, I’ve changed between twenty and thirty thousand diapers (and counting), we have no family nearby who helps us with childcare. The built-in flexibility of homeschooling makes managing a large family with little help attainable, and since Covid, my husband is able to work from home two days a week. The amount of sleep we currently get depends on the whims of a three-year-old who sleepwalks.

Despite everyone telling me that I’d change my mind in labor, I have always been too much of a wimp to get an epidural. A needle in my spine? No thank you; I’ll take pain so bad it feels like death. Also, we homeschool—another decision that might seem like I’m a glutton for punishment. In reality, it’s mostly driven by my desire to spend time with my kids that isn’t just the most stressful times of the day: the rush to get out the door and the Bedtime Meltdown. We finish our classes in a couple of hours and have the rest of the day free for hiking, playing, classes, play dates or loafing around reading.

When I was in my teens, after my mother died, I got a tattoo of a sun and a moon on my hip. I was informed by the tattoo artist that it wouldn’t be a pretty picture, literally, after I had children. I assured him that wouldn’t be an issue, because I wouldn’t be having any. My husband, the last person to see the tattoo—I no longer can see it over my belly—assures me that you can still kind of tell what it is, through all the stretch marks of six pregnancies. He’s the reason they exist. When I met Seth—we started dating long-distance while I was living in Cambodia, teaching at a Western-run elementary school—I carried around a deep sadness because of the loss of my parents. Being with him made me, for the first time, think more about my future than my past. We thought we’d have three, maybe four kids. But like tattoos, once you start having babies with someone you love, it’s awfully hard to stop.

In Orlando four months ago, we all came down with what we call the vomit sickies. I was three months pregnant. I watched as my oldest son (7) selflessly took care of his sister (8), who warned him that if he came too close, he would be next (and, oh, was he). But he knew that by caring for her, he was caring for his pregnant mom, and caring for his three-year-old sister, too, by freeing their dad to focus on her needs. Our family is a team, and it feels good to know that we’re fostering a collaborative attitude in our kids. I want to raise my kids to be better than I am, and they push me to be a better version of myself. It’s moments like that one in Orlando when I know that we’re on the right track.

Our friends and family have stopped asking us if we’re done. To be fair, we said we were after numbers four and five. Our kids are already petitioning for a lucky number seven. Around the country and around the world, people are having fewer children, if they’re having any at all. The result of this population catastrophe is a hot topic among sociologists and experts.

The anti-natalists run a wicked good PR game. Even among mothers, the “wine mom” content is what rules social media: with kids portrayed as tiny dictators and mothers feeling the need to booze or hide in bathrooms in order to make it on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. There are any number of arguments to be made against procreation, like that babies accelerate us to an environmental doomsday by using up our finite resources now and filling our landfills with diapers that take centuries to break down. But those arguing for protecting the Earth by not making babies are just existing on Earth, not living in it. 

I’m not trying to single handedly repopulate the Earth over here. Having kids, especially lots of them, is now counter-cultural; it’s so far outside the norm that I’m used to random strangers commenting every time we’re all out in public. But it’s the most fulfilling expression of hope and belief in the future. I like to think that, by making not just one or two babies, but by bringing into the world a whole brood, we are doing our part to inject more vitality into it.

I’ll find someplace else to park the van.

Bethany Mandel

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Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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