On Comments and Questions from Strangers

So I’m a mom of a “large” family. Large in this case = 11 kids. Over the years we have heard many, many rude, insensitive, unhelpful, prying, inappropriate comments on our family size and topics relevant to that… such as our fertility/sex life.

Though it has been done before (search Google for “things not to say to a mom of a large family” if you are curious), I will compile a list for you of some of the comments and questions I have personally received:

Nosy

  • Are they all yours?
  • Are you Mormon? Catholic?
  • How to you handle it? I’m going crazy with just my two (while their kids are standing right there, usually).
  • How many loads of laundry do you do per week?
  • Do you have more than one washer and dryer?
  • What does your husband do? or Your husband must have a good job.
  • Do you also home school?
  • How many boys/girls?
  • What are the ages?
  • Any twins? Wow, all single births? Are any adopted?
  • What is the age range of your kids?

Intrusive or rude

  • Do you know what causes that?
  • Don’t you have a television?
  • Do they all have the same father?
  • What is your grocery bill like?
  • How many bedrooms do you have?
  • You must be rich.
  • You gave birth to them all?
  • Are you going to have any more?
  • Are you done now?
  • How old were you when you got married?
  • How old were you when you started?
  • You must have been married at 14.
  • You don’t look old enough to have 11 kids.
  • How old are you??
  • You look great for having 11 kids.
  • Were they planned? Did you plan to have __ kids?
  • Do you use birth control?
  • Why do you have so many children?
  • When are you going to stop having kids?
  • How do you afford it?
  • Do you take government assistance? (e.g. welfare, food stamps)
  • There’s a cure for that.
  • You don’t look like you have 11 children.
  • Are you a blended family? (His, Mine and Ours?)

Absurd

  • Are you related to the Duggars?
  • Do you know the Duggars?
  • You must be patient.
  • You are so brave.
  • They are so well-behaved!
  • You are lucky you got _____(calm, happy, kind, easygoing, etc) kids.
  • Like Cheaper by the Dozen? (the one with Steve Martin is what people are thinking of… Umm, no!)
  • Just wait until they are teenagers.

Captain Obvious

  • Boy, you have your hands full.
  • You must be busy!
  • Do you work?
  • Wow, you’re still smiling.
  • You look happy.
  • You look relaxed.
  • I’d go crazy!
  • Better you than me.
  • I could never do that.
  • Looks like you have some helpers with you today.

There are the non-verbal “comments” too. The shocked, open-mouth stare. The obvious head counting. The furtive whispering. Early on in my mothering career… say, after child three… when I received the “big family”, “rapid rate of reproduction” comments, I was irritated and frustrated. Why couldn’t people just keep their comments to themselves? Why could they not see that they had no right to pry into our intimate life, and no business asking the kinds of things I was regularly being asked? Why could they not imagine how they would feel if the tables were turned? Golden Rule anyone?

I pondered and arrived at a variety of appropriate responses to these rude questions. Sassy, pointed and sometimes vague responses. With the intent that hopefully they would take a hint and spare the next poor mother of many. My responses, even to the same question, varied depending on the context of the situation. Who was asking, under what circumstances, what was their tone, what did I sense was their reason for asking? Was this a person with whom I was to have a lasting friendship/acquaintance, or just a passing stranger?

Somewhere along the line, my perspective on these questions, and on the askers of these questions, changed. And I can only think it was God who orchestrated the change in me. There was a defining moment about 13 years ago… I had all my kids (7 kids all age 10 and under at that point and I was pregnant with my 8th) with me in the public library. We were weekly visitors there and the staff “knew” us. On this particular day, there was a new staff member (volunteer, perhaps?) helping out. She was an older woman. She made audible “whispered” comments to another volunteer about me and the kids. Finally she chose to speak to me directly. “Are they all yours?”, “How many boys/girls?”, etc.

And then came a question I was totally unprepared for. One that I had never before been asked. “Do they all have the same father?”

My mouth dropped open and my brain went nuts trying to think of a proper response to this rude and intrusive question. As it so happens all my children do have the same father, but that is NOBODY’s business! I could not believe this woman, from another generation than me, a generation that generally speaking I have found to have better manners than more recent generations, would ask such a thing.

I was about to retort sharply that it was none of her business to ask such a thing, when I heard a voice of caution in my head and a revelation hit me. What she was trying to say was “Are you a blended family?” Still a bit prying, but much less rude in my opinion. In this day and age of step- and half-siblings, my family dynamics are an anomaly.

So I replied, “Do you mean, ‘Are we a blended family?'” And she nodded. I’m thankful for that caution I had. That moment of pause that kept me from rudely responding to a woman who had the misfortune to put her foot in her mouth. How many times have I done that? Say something, intending to communicate one thing, and having it come out so wrong that it is just awful.

I’m so thankful for gracious responses when I screw up. If I had responded rudely, what would the result have been? I would have alienated someone, not just from our family, but from all big families. The next family to come along would be treated with contempt and disdain as she would have had a negative association in her mind.

I need to act above reproach. People asking curious, often prying and intrusive questions are ones for whom Christ died. Do I really want to eliminate any opportunity I might have to share Christ with them by my harsh or unkind responses? I have come to realize that the vast majority of people who ask these nosy, rude, insensitive or just plain absurd sorts of questions are simply curious. Not malicious, not hateful, not even trying to be rude. They just aren’t thinking through what they really want to communicate before they let their words out, which is something I am frequently guilty of, much to my shame. We all need better filters. We all need to think through the impact our words will have before we speak them.

Still, I do enjoy a feisty comeback to some of these questions, particularly when I feel that the answer is personal/private and I don’t care to discuss it. I keep a smile on my face. Answer the things that I’m comfortable with and try to make my responses lighthearted and gently pointed in the hope that the speaker will take the subtle hint as to the inappropriateness of their comments.

I think that as my own attitude has changed toward the intrusive questions (viewing them more as an opportunity to share the joy of a large family), the overall tone of my interactions with people has changed. I think at least 95% of all comments and questions I receive are pleasant, curious (without being negative), supportive and positive. Seldom do I receive a negative comment. Some things that I have had said to me or done that have just made my day: a genuine smile from a stranger as they pass by, comments (when appropriate) such as, “Your children are well-behaved,” “You are blessed,” “How nice to see a big family.”

What I’m mostly discussing here are interactions with total strangers. I’m a pretty open, forthright person. If a friend has a genuine question, I’m almost always willing to share. A deeper relationship brings with it a right to ask deeper questions. And once in a while, a “total stranger” interaction turns into a lasting friendship. Many of those friends are the ones who have encouraged me to write a blog to share the ups and downs, the real-life, nitty-gritty details of my big family life. The Hands-full Life.

12 Comments

Filed under Odds and ends

12 Responses to On Comments and Questions from Strangers

  1. Ruth Abbott

    Well done Christina! Thanks for sharing.

  2. MOM

    Very proud of you, Christina. I love everyone of you.

  3. Yvette

    My siblings are the greatest gift my parents ever gave me…. 🙂

  4. Bonnie Archer

    When I see a “Large Family”, I immediately think to myself..what a blessing from God. Loved reading your Blog Christina..a must share..

  5. Vicki

    Wow, Christina, I’m impressed by your words expressed so eloquently:). Loved it!

  6. Susan

    Wow Christina. Thanks for sharing this. I appreciate you sharing your journey from anger and reacting to responding with grace. I too have had issues with comments from strangers, but my blood boils when it is a fellow Christian/acquaintance from church. After all, shouldn’t they understand Genesis 1:28? Their comments about “knowing what causes that” and “getting the tv fixed” don’t line up with the Biblical view of a fulfilling sex life. Again, maybe they are just used to that kind of humor from the world and aren’t even thinking about the inaccuracy and inappropriateness of their comment. Still working on a comment other than “if you think watching tv is better, you are doing it wrong”.

  7. Carla

    Don’t always take head counting as a bad thing. I head count and then long to have more children when I see large family’s out. I am very thankful for the two children I have but long for more and my Husband says no. I find this to be a good article and nicely written.

  8. Great article! Loved the Captain Obvious lines.

    I never had anyone ask if they all had the same father, but maybe it’s because they all look like their father!

  9. I have six six and under. I have never gotten any of the Rude category.
    I get a lot of the “Are any of them twins?” I think because they’re so close in age.
    I don’t find these offensive, just annoying more than anything.

  10. “We all need better filters.” I so agree with that. Thank you for the gracious tone you ended this with. So often I see these with the tone of outrage and I usually cringe when I see that. I don’t often go places with all of mine–two have moved out and two others have jobs and a couple more are old enough to stay home to work on school projects, but it is fun to take the youngest 5 out with me and know there are more that aren’t with us when I get those comments. 🙂

    • Christina

      Thanks for your comment. I’m also at the stage of life where I am pretty much never out with all my kids. Four have moved out. Two of those live in different states from me.

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