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.