Over the years, people have often expressed shock when my parents reveal they have 11 children. Some ask my parents "how many" they wanted. I am always proud of my mom’s beautiful, humble response, “As many as God gives me.”
Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan received an environmental award this summer for their “enlightened” decision to have no more than two children – a decision that supposedly reduces “their impact on the earth.”
The award is ironic considering they live in an 18,671-square-foot mansion and use private jets for travel. As the "Relatable" host Allie Beth Stuckey pointed out on her podcast, in spite of their family size, the couple’s carbon footprint is still likely higher than the average big family living in the Midwest.
Harry and Meghan's decisions regarding their family are their own matter, but rewarding them for limiting the number of their children is condescending and insulting to families like mine.
It not only implies that big families, and their children, are a net negative to society; it also negates the beauty that children and big families have to offer, and the role that they play in forming model citizens who will positively contribute to society.
Big families teach responsibility
Big families are a lot of work. Each child comes with a host of medical, educational and other bills. When my parents were expecting me – their fourth child – my dad quit his job and took a leap of faith to enroll in law school. He and my mom were frugal and raised my siblings and me to act similarly to keep our growing family afloat.
My mom devoted her time to homeschooling my siblings and me while caring for all the babies that came along the way. She was an exacting teacher, ensuring that we received a good education and achieved our potential in both school and sports. She was up at the crack of dawn each day caring for her babies, cooking breakfast and getting us out the door for daily Mass.
My parents’ selfless efforts taught my siblings and me to be grateful for what was given, and to be humble and deal with it when things didn’t go our way. I’ll never forget the shock I experienced when a friend slept over and demanded my mom make her pancakes for breakfast, despite the food that had been already laid out for us.
My parents’ example instilled in us a sense of responsibility for one another, and for maintaining our home. “Everyone pitches in,” they would say. From a young age we knew to never walk by a messy kitchen and leave it for the next person to clean.
We learned how to change a diaper and how to calm a fussy baby.
Sacrificing our time in these small ways was a nonissue because we knew that our family needed each of us to help to function properly. It made us proud of our family, and made our home a happier place.
Looking out for each other
Big families are like model societies inside the home. Despite the fact that my siblings and I “look the same,” each of us has a unique personality, talents and weaknesses.
Maintaining a peaceful home with so many diverse people requires that siblings build strong relationships with one another, and accept each other's differences with patience, understanding and love. It requires that they sometimes humble themselves in disputes, or act as the peacemaker between other siblings. It built sibling loyalty, and intolerance for outsiders picking on our siblings.
Children in big families are never lonely. They benefit from built-in best friends without the pressure of comparison or social media expectations, which induce depression and anxiety in so many of their peers.
My oldest and youngest brothers are best friends, despite a 20-year age gap. Not many kids have the luxury of having a grown adult – and nine other older siblings – at their beck and call like my youngest brother does.
Older siblings become pseudo parents for the younger, setting the bar for what behavior is acceptable, and what goals their younger siblings should aspire to. My oldest brother graduated from the University of Notre Dame, paving the way for two other siblings and me to attend our dream school. I am sure other siblings will follow in our footsteps as well.
My oldest sister was a second mom for the rest of us. Her duties have evolved over the years from head disciplinarian, hairdresser and outfit lender to the dependable sister we all respect and trust. Because of her and my other older siblings’ examples and generosity, I am happy to help when my younger siblings ask me to edit a school paper, read them a story or tuck them in at night. I was once in their shoes and know the priceless value of an older sibling’s attention and time.
These experiences prepare older siblings to be responsible adults from a young age. Their care is simultaneously a gift for younger siblings, who keep the family young with their innocence and joy.
Presence over presents
Having lots of siblings means that there is always someone to celebrate your joys, and to comfort you in hard times. When my grandmother passed away shortly before Christmas last year, all 13 of my family members gathered around the fireplace to pray for her together.
When the rest of the world was shuttered and cold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my parents welcomed every one of their 11 children home to quarantine – the first time we had all been together for an extended period since my oldest brother went to college.
Nearly bursting at the seams with 13 people sheltered inside, my home saw Zoom Masses, family dinners and movie nights. A moment in history that should have been scary and depressing has become one of my favorite memories.
This time together reinforced the truth to me that all the money and recognition in the world can’t replace the human connection and love that I find in my siblings and parents, which is the trademark of big families.
It's easy to be unaware or take for granted all the manifestations of a parent’s sacrificial love as a kid. Today, I am grateful for my parents’ tireless dedication to the spiritual, academic and personal development of each of my siblings.
I am even more grateful for the greatest gift that they could have given us – each other.
Theresa Olohan is an Opinion fellow on the USA TODAY Editorial Board and a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter: @olohan_theresa
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No baby bust here. Why I love being part of a big family.