News of an (unmarried) California woman who gave birth to octuplets following three sets of twins (all with artificial intervention) has prompted the New York Times to run a feature on big families. Some mothers feel the octuplets’ mother has done them no favours, since they already face “scorn, slack jaws and stupid jokes” for broods of up to 14 children. Not that the moms can’t come up with their own wisecracks. Asked by a photographer, “Are all these yours?” Kim Gunnip, mother of 12, replied, “No, I picked some up at the supermarket.”

The TLC (The Learning Channel) television network has three shows about large families. Author Meagan Francis, mother of five, says one show is about “religious fundamentalists, one has sextuplets and the other is about two dwarfs raising four children. “You get the feeling that anybody who has more than three kids is either doing it for bizarre reasons or there’s a medical anomaly,” she observes.

In 1976, census data show, 59 per cent of American women aged 40 to 44 had three or more children, 20 per cent had five or more and 6 per cent had seven or more. By 2006 those numbers had crashed: 28 per cent had three or more children, 4 per cent had five or more and just 0.5 per cent had seven or more.

Critics think mothers with many children cannot possibly give each child enough love; or that she has no ambition; or that the family are hogging the earth’s resources. Signs that some upper middleclass Americans are having larger families (like, three) are interpreted by some as the rich adding to their status symbols. Otherwise the assumption is that the large family is “really poor, living off the dole and completely devoid of culture,” says the Times. Among its interviewees are teachers and writers.

The accusation that they are burdening the environment is increasingly heard — recently from a prominent Briton — but Mrs Gunnip points out that large families “are some of the greenest”, making sure that noting is wasted. A light bulb lights a room whether there are four people or 14. Besides, a small percentage of large families are not going to increase the US birth rate, which is just on “replacement” at 2.1. ~ New York Times, Feb 8

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet