A family I am friendly with recently brought home their eighth child. A day or two later, as we sat around their dining room table, I wanted to find out what the other children were thinking of their new brother.
“His ears are tiny!”
“And his nose.”
“He’s got pink skin. It’s dark.”
“And smooth—so soft!”
Wrinkly was true, especially of his tiny fingers. I looked at my ageing hands and thought: Wrinkly skin is one thing we have in common.
Many of them noticed that the sibling who just days before had been the baby of the family suddenly seemed much larger. “How huge he looks now.”
A bit later, when I was sitting with the new baby in my arms, the seven-year-old came up beside me. He had a truth he wanted to confide: “The baby used to be even smaller. He was as small as this button” (pointing to a snap on his brother’s onesie). I agreed, and told him it had been true of him as well, and of me. All of us were once as small as that button.
“And even smaller,” I said. His eyes bulged.
He said, “Really?”
I said, “Really.”
When I was his age, I didn’t know any families as large as his. I do remember one with five children. The parents put out our weekly newspaper and I hung out a lot at their office. One day, the co-owner of the paper picked up an envelope that had come in the mail and pointed with disgust at the stamp. It said “Family Planning,” and pictured a man, a woman, a girl, and a boy. “What business do they have putting out a stamp like that?” she exclaimed.
It was everywhere—in the air, on the airwaves, in the assumptions of right-thinking people. The world was in danger of being over-populated. We humans were overrunning the planet. Millions might die of starvation. Disaster was ahead of us, and we needed to take serious action—now!
My late wife, who was one of five children, remembered seeing birth-control material when she was a teenager, especially a button that instructed “Stop at Two.” “But I’m number three,” she thought.
I told a good friend about the family with eight children. He was the ninth child in his Lutheran family. “You know, Victor,” he smiled, “they’re just one child away from perfection!”
I’m no romantic about rearing children. It’s hard work. A child has to learn everything, from toileting and tooth-brushing to the proper handling of emotions and the use of words. Parents lose control over their own lives, putting the needs of the new, co-resident lives ahead of their own. Neither at midnight nor at noon is there any escape.
And yet, looking around that table weighted with children, there wasn’t a spare in sight. When a child is merely hypothetical, one thinks of the work, the burden, and might well decide to defer from parenthood in morally appropriate ways. But when a child is actual, he or she is not a spare, not a replacement. Although a cliché, it is nonetheless true: Each one is unique, unrepeatable.