Books blog: A life-affirming celebration of large families

Children wave to Pope Francis as he arrives in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican for a meeting with large families in 2014 (AP)

I have just returned from a visit to the city of Perm in Russia. There is much that could be said about this extraordinary country and society, but one thing was obvious: as with the rest of the western world Russians have very small families. Having one child is seen as normal and not remarked upon, although two children are also fairly common. More than two is very rare; I was told that “in the villages in the countryside” people sometimes have larger families. This trend is in spite of President Putin’s financial incentives to couples to have three (or more) children, knowing as he does that a world super power cannot flourish in the long run if its population is shrinking.

Against this background, it is instructive to read (Catholic) accounts of the experience of large families: families not necessarily with much money or even space, but with a lot of life, love and laughter. Before I went away I read the hilarious online story of Jennifer Fulwiler, Living Among Scorpions: One Woman’s Quest to Survive her Suburban Life. The title comes from Ezekiel, chapter 2 – “It shall be like living among scorpions” – and the story is an account of her life in Austin, Texas, with six young children. It is a reminder that choosing to raise a large family requires a cultural as well as a spiritual shift – especially when you live in a country such as Russia, or in a society such as the US, where it is considered deeply unusual.

Fulwiler’s account is very life-affirming and that is why, as well as her humorous prose style and the dramas of her daily life, it is well worth reading; it persuades us that life can be a much larger and more exciting adventure than we think possible – especially if we put ourselves into God’s hands. She and her husband are both converts.

Fulwiler, who wrote about her conversion and its consequences in her book, Something Other Than God, considers herself, “a mother who loved being a mother, yet was ill-suited to motherhood.” I know exactly what she means: children are wonderful but their constant domestic demands can be overwhelming.

Large families can feel isolated among their peers and neighbours. This is where the internet is handy; it can provide a whole new community of like-minded mothers who also have families bigger than the norm and who also struggle with daily disasters; it provides a community of those who share the feeling that “life is way too much for us to handle” and which creates online bonds where mothers can share “the absurdity of it all”.

Fulwiler’s book is a collection of her funnier blog pieces. I had no idea that Texas was such a tricky place to live until I read her account of life there: I had thought that “scorpions” must mean the nasty comments of neighbours when surveying her somewhat chaotic life, but no, it means real scorpions that apparently love both a hot climate and a family home to hang out in. According to Fulwiler, they (and huge, evil-looking centipedes) particularly like her house. She is frank about the problems her fear of them creates and also honest about her general domestic disorganisation; “We’ve given up on fancy organisational techniques like throwing toys in boxes and just kind of rake everything over to one part of the living room at the end of the day.”

I have a sneaking feeling that her husband Joe might be somewhat long-suffering, especially when Fulwiler writes, “Last night Joe asked me in passing if I could pick of a coffee creamer from the store today, and my response was a 30-minute tirade about how everything is terrible in my life and in the world.” At the end Fulwiler humbly reflects that despite all the daily demands, her chosen way of life comes “with graces too… They transformed me into a different person – a person who was a little stronger, a little more loving and a whole lot less judgemental than the person I’d been before.”

If this e-book can persuade one reader to consider expanding their domestic horizons and welcome a new baby, in the face of many pressures not to, it will have achieved its deeper purpose.