Why are we fascinated with big families? Hint: it’s not about the children.


When I announced my fourth pregnancy to my boss, I was startled by her response.

“What’s the matter with you? You’re a gynecologist; if anyone should know about birth control, it’s you.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” I replied. “We want a fourth child.”

I have never forgotten her look of disbelief.

She was not the only one who was amazed. For every person who congratulated us on the news, there was another who offered “condolences.” For them, the decision to have another child was bewildering. Why would anyone make that kind of commitment?

It is this amazement that is at the heart of America’s current fascination with big families. TLC (The Learning Channel) has led the way in catering to that fascination. From Jon and Kate Plus Eight, to Table for 12, through The Duggars: Eighteen and Counting, we can’t seem to get enough.

Why are we fascinated? It’s not about the cute children, since the newer shows have teenagers and young adults, as well as a severely handicapped child. I suspect we are fascinated because we stand in awe of the commitment required to deliberately choose a large family: the commitment to parenting as a lifestyle choice and the commitment to marriage that lies at the core of the decision to have many, many children.

In contemporary America, such a commitment is not only unfashionable; it is unfathomable.

If contemporary America could be distilled to one imperative, it would be this: The highest calling is self-actualization. Or, more colloquially, “it’s all about me.” In other words, being happy (and being happy is considered the highest state of being) requires doing what you want, when you want to, unfettered by obligations and commitments. Children are an obligation, a temporary detour on the road to a life devoted to self.

The Pill has been cited as the central reason for the shrinking of American family size, and that’s true as far as it goes. The Pill has allowed American parents to choose the size of their families, instead of making do with unintended results of sexual activity. Yet the Pill is not responsible for the belief that a smaller family is better. That is a product of our philosophy.

When the highest calling is following every personal wish and whim, commitment to someone else can seem exotic indeed. Half of married couples can’t manage to maintain a commitment to the person they promised to love, honor and cherish forever. Last year almost 40% of women giving birth couldn’t manage to meet the most minimal commitment to their newborn, that of providing a father to support and nurture that child.

Even within a secure marriage, most couples cannot fathom willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to support and nurture more than two children. Children are important accessories to a “good life” but very few Americans seem to believe that children represent a “good life” in and of themselves. Having more than two children makes about as much sense to them as wearing more than two socks at a time. Why would anyone bother?

To watch the day to day life of parents who have committed to large families is like watching an exotic animal in its native habitat. Look, they put children’s needs ahead of their own, and they enjoy doing it. Wow, they’re not obsessed with following their own desires and whims. Amazing, the parents are not obsessed with having as much discretionary income as possible.

What feeds our obsession with super size families is not the logistics of caring for so many children. It is the commitment, to spouse, to children, to the family itself that undergirds the decision to have a large family. Octomom Nadya Suleman misunderstood that crucial point. She thought that by having a mega family she would be guaranteed a TV show and lots of merchandising opportunities. She didn’t understand that no one wants to watch a selfish, mentally disturbed woman who collects children as if they were trinkets. They want to see adults who value and live commitment to others.

That’s also why we’re obsessed with the state of Jon and Kate’s marriage. Husbands cheat on wives every day of the week, but this is a special case. We thought Jon and Kate were more committed to their family than to themselves as individuals. We’re disappointed in Jon because he turns out to be just like everyone else.

The current popularity of TV shows following large families is not about the children; it’s about the parents. In a world that values self actualization as the highest human aspiration, adults who put others before self, who believe that marriage is forever and children are not “accessories” to life but are life, inspire curiosity, admiration and fascination.

  • Jet Kin

    I was enjoying recent posts on this blog so I decided to go back and read some of the earlier stuff. Now I’m regretting it. This article screams of privilege and Dr. Amy standing in judgement of all families she considers “inferior”.

    “Most couples cannot fathom willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to support and nurture more than two children” – Really?? Right, because everyone has a medical degree, a husband with a law degree and is financially comfortable enough to leave her job to be a SAHM. It’s like Dr. Amy has never heard the statistics about how many people struggle to pay for childcare, let alone rent AND food AND utilities. I’m sure she believes it’s their fault for being poor.

    “Last year, 40% of women giving birth couldn’t manage to meet the most minimal committment to their newborn, that of providing a father to support and nurture that child” – Right, because adoptive families, single-parent families, same sex parent families are so much more inferior to the golden ideal of daddy going out to work while mummy stays at home to watch the kids.
    In your more recent posts, you talk about sanctimommies. Newsflash Dr. Amy. You’re just as much a sanctimommy as any of them, just from a different viewpoint.

    • space_upstairs

      Keep in mind that people don’t always think the same thing that they thought 9 years later, and that Dr. Tuteur is of an older generation. It was fascinating for me to read this old post and the commentary, and learn about views I would have considered surprising and am inclined to disagree with, most notably that children “have a moral right to a father” and the implication that it’s a mother’s fault for not aborting, not using birth control, or possibly even not being straight if a child is born without a loving father in his or her life.

      Reading the more recent Dr. Tuteur material though, it seems that her objections to the norms of “natural parenting” are consistent with these older views of hers, including seeing small families as a possible sign of selfishness, on the basis that many parents and prospective parents this century do not see parenting as primarily about family relationships as an inherent source of fulfillment. Instead, they appear to see trendy methods of parenting – including having no more than two kids unless the first two are both the same sex or you have triplets or something, caring more about how you bear and feed them than whether you do so successfully and with love, documenting everything online, and making excuses when things go wrong – as a game to improve their status. It’s like choosing to do a job you hate just so people will praise you for its prestige or pay, except arguably worse insofar as you’re dragging another life into it that could have been spared the burden of fully conscious existence. Although I don’t agree with all the specific views of hers expressed in this thread, I do not see her as necessarily hypocritical and inconsistent, insofar as her views come from the position that the primary focus of parenting should be relationships rather than status or appearances and she has no aspirations or pretenses to political ideological purity.

      Although my husband and I are not planning to have any more kids beyond the one we’re expecting now, due to wanting to be sure of being able to provide for this kid and also engage in other fulfilling tasks including jobs that we do for more than just money, we also surely do not plan to try to make a status symbol out of her or how we raise her. We will bear her and feed her in whichever way works best for us and is reasonably safe, not give in to pressure to have another kid because “everyone should have at least one of each sex if they can without going over 3 or 4” (because the decision to have more kids shouldn’t depend on something so arbitrary as the sex of the kids in question), and certainly not push her into activities, schools, and career interests meant to give us bragging rights rather than give her a fair chance of developing healthy values, relationships, and career interests like we both managed to do. If Dr. Tuteur today would call me selfish for wanting only one kid, with an interesting job being part of the motivation not to have more, so be it…she still at least is a useful source for information about debunking popular trends like breastfeeding at all costs and avoiding C-sections at all costs. But I don’t think she’s about judging people for how many kids they have or with whom they raise them, but rather opposing approaches to having and raising kids that are not mainly about valuing a relationship with a free and unique new individual.

      • Jet Kin

        You know, I’m usually more than willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t believe her views have really changed. Not in any commentary of hers have I ever seen a willingness to entertain another person’s point of view or try to put herself in someone else’s shoes.
        I’d like to tell you about another doctor I know, about the same age as Dr Tuteur. In the 1990s, she taught her teenage daughter that the fact that her violin teacher was openly gay was her own business and had no bearing on the quality of instruction she was capable of providing. This daughter was one of two children she managed to raise alone with support from her own mother after consciously deciding to deprive them of their biological father. This father incidentally had a nasty habit of getting drunk and angry and hitting people so I’d argue that she absolutely made the correct choice.

        I absolutely agree with your argument, and hers, that raising kids needs to be more about what you are providing to your kids and not the other way around. However, it’s possible to make that point without implying that all single parent or LGBT families are somehow less because nobody is carrying around a penis (well, except the dog…)

        As to the fact that this post was written almost a decade ago, this is true. However Dr. Amy, as the owner of the blog, has the option at any time of going back to amplify any of her previous blog posts and acknowledge that perhaps she was too hasty in her often harsh judgements. She does not do so, which brings me back to my initial point that I don’t think she has become any more progressive.

        I may or may not continue to follow this blog, I haven’t decided. I applaud Dr. Amy for calling out women who needlessly endanger their children to garner social media attention. Her outrage is completely justifiable in those posts. In this one, I believe her judgements are not reasonable and I would respect her a great deal more if she would acknowledge that publicly and retract some of her statements in this post.

        • space_upstairs

          I agree that Dr. Tuteur in this post and its commentary was far too judgmental of families who deliberately raise children without their father, and that not all older people are necessarily so. There are too many complicated reasons for doing that, one of which – that the father was not the kind of person the mother initially thought he was and could be dangerous to both her and the kids – you point out as being common and serious. Once those kids are born, well, what then? Or what if the prospective mother has good, non-status-oriented reasons for not wanting to abort the child or put him/her up for adoption if she finds out the truth about the father before the child is born?

          If Dr. Tuteur continues to have a conservative and judgmental point of view of how families should be comprised, an exception to her otherwise liberal philosophy about these matters, I suppose that fact and the readership she may lose as a result (among its other consequences) are her business. She probably has her personal reasons for such beliefs. I do not think her ideological impurity in any way invalidates her history of justified social criticism of people making parenthood decisions on the basis of status and fads. I would agree that it’s foolish to plan to have two or three kids, for instance, simply because you’re “supposed” to have at least one kid and preferably one of each sex but too many kids will lower your standard of living, and obviously much more foolish to insist on bearing and feeding your kids a certain way for status/fad reasons as her later posts point out. The same criticisms can be made or appreciated by someone who does not believe that children need to be raised with the help of their fathers if humanly possible.

          I find the expectation of ideological purity (or close ideological similarity) with someone before we take their arguments seriously to be itself problematic. Perhaps there’s a long and interesting personal story worth listening to, but not necessarily enough to change our minds, behind this harsh notion that children should be raised with their fathers if at all possible and that a mother is (usually) to blame if this doesn’t happen.

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