According to the CDC, most babies in the United States are conceived during December and January. Is it because couples hunker down for the long winter season? Or is it the holiday celebrations and spiked eggnog that lead to mistletoe munchkins nine months later? Whatever the reason, the statistics remain pretty consistent. More couples begin families -- and add to them -- during this festive time of year.
For me, like millions of others, the holidays now bring a fair amount of preparation for my already existing family. I am a psychologist, wife, mother of three, step-mom to one and grandmother of two. While once focused on the festivities (yes, my brood sprung from that popular generative season), my attention now centers on all that has to get done between Thanksgiving and New Year's -- with relatives visiting, kids coming home, meals to prepare, parties to attend -- and presents to buy! It got me thinking about the differences between holidays shared with small families versus larger ones, a topic I recently discussed with Michael Coren on The Arena.
On the show, Coren brought up the Dugger family -- you know, the one with "19 kids and counting," who just announced that number 20 is on the way? Clearly, every month is a busy one for this couple, but it is particularly hard to imagine what it's like at their house this time of year. And even more unimaginable what it will be like when those children add spouses and offspring to their holiday celebrations. While it's easy to disparage this reality show phenomenon, Coren asked me to talk about the psychological upside to having lots of siblings. He referred to his own positive experiences with his wife's family of fifteen, which made me think of mine, with my husbands many relatives.
You see, it's all relative, about relatives. I just returned from a lovely Thanksgiving dinner hosted by my in-laws, which included about 25 of my extended family members. A warm, lively affair, it felt like a huge extravaganza in comparison to the ones of my childhood. Growing up, holiday dinners in our home were small, intimate gatherings shared only with my parents and two siblings.
When I met my husband, he came along with a three-year-old son from his first marriage and close relationships to his large extended family. They included parents -- a dad, now a robust 99, a mom still graceful at 95 -- a younger brother, a sister-in-law, aunts, uncles, cousins and more cousins. For them, family get-togethers were well choreographed and much anticipated events. Most everyone lived close by (few seem to want to move far from one another), but even those who had to travel wouldn't miss these celebrations.
It took me some time to get used to this fanfare on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays and so on -- any event was an excuse for a large family gathering. The preparation, the decorating, the bustling, the presents -- oh, and the chaos! Our most recent Turkey Day was just that -- an afternoon of continuous chatter, endless food, wine and non-stop toasts -- a collaborative event from beginning to end. At some point, music went on and everyone began dancing, the evening winding down only as the elders and babies fell asleep. It was so unlike the atmosphere created by my smaller family, who celebrated holidays is a very different way.
My parents were Holocaust survivors, so by the time I was born, only a few of my extended family were around for celebrations. My grandparents, and all but one of my mom and dad's ten siblings had been killed in concentration camps. We had no cousins or second cousins, and only a couple further removed. On holidays, my mom did the cooking (most often brisket and mashed potatoes), the serving and the clean-up. There was kosher wine, candles and usually a blessing that my dad sung before the meal. It was kept simple and the same -- except for the conversation. We talked books, politics, current events and topics that seemed important to us at the time -- plans, dreams, expectations. Sometimes we would talk over each other, but each got a turn. For my parents, every holiday -- or for that matter, everyday -- was cause for quiet commemoration. They had survived and we were their proof.
My parents are gone now and my siblings don't live nearby. So my holidays are most often spent with my husband's large, boisterous family, which I have come to view as a built-in nest. As new children are born, they are happily welcomed. As elders get more frail, responsibility is shared. Between the swapping of stories, jokes and pictures, there is always time for a family member in need of support. Bottom line, they are there for one another -- to depend upon for comfort, to count on for fun.
No doubt, bigger does not necessarily mean better, but large families can teach us important lessons. Whether or not we approve of the Duggers' religious and reproductive beliefs, watching how they work -- or don't -- shows us an exaggerated form of what large families entail. There are the compromises, the necessary patience, and a constant sense that life has to be divvied up. The available resources -- not only financial, but parental affection and attention -- have to be shared.
In a world that seems so unpredictable and unsafe, it's an appealing notion to think the more the merrier. On the other hand, most of us realize that 20 kids is a bit much -- maybe even a little bizarre -- given that many couples are postponing having even one during these tough economic times. Interestingly, when you ask those who grew up in huge families if they plan to recreate that experience for their own children, often they cut the number down by quite a lot. Mostly they say they can't afford it, but they also talk about wanting more quiet time and of course, more sweet potatoes to go around!
In the end, family satisfaction seems to come down to how well parents create a loving atmosphere at home -- and not just during the holidays. You can have a family with one or two kids and experience deprivation and disconnection, or a family of many more and feel as if your cup runneth over. Regardless of size, there is something to say about family gatherings that give us all a chance to celebrate what we have -- big or small.
'Tis the season when more than mice will be stirring all through our houses. So be merry and have fun, but take a moment to ask yourself how you feel about large or small families? It's a choice worth contemplating between drinking eggnog and eating latkes -- one that impacts not only the holidays, but the rest of your life.
What do you believe are the benefits and disadvantages of having a large (or small) family?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.