As a mom of 5, I'm constantly told 'I don't know how you do it.' Inside the magic, and challenges, of having a big family
Because I am about to give birth to my fifth child, something I hear almost weekly is “I don’t know how you do it.” Outsiders are stressed by what they perceive to be chaos, financial burdens, stress and a whole lot of noise when they get a glimpse into our lives as parents of so many young kids. Their confusion makes sense — the last time my family’s size was the norm was closer to 1900 than 2023. Apart from a brief uptick in birth rates from 2020 to 2021, families are still trending smaller each year, as people opt to have kids later in life — or not at all — or prefer to have fewer kids due to economic concerns.
But it works for us, in spite of the shocking prices of swim lessons, the logistics of changing multiple kids in diapers and other challenges. That’s because there’s a secret magic about having a large family, a comfort and profound love in having little feet pattering around all day, brothers bickering like brothers do in the backyard or seeing the whole family lined up under a blanket for movie night.
For Jaime Maser Berman, a mom of four in Westfield, N.J., the pleasure comes in "looking around our (very long) kitchen table and seeing this legacy we’ve created, knowing that when we’re gone, they’ll have each other." She also loves that her kids entertain each other, that they each have distinct personalities and that they are “fiercely loyal” to each other.
Here are some of the benefits and challenges of having a house full of kids.
Chaos isn’t always bad
Like me, Berman has heard the same comments about the perceived level of chaos that must be present within our big families. But just because it seems crazy to others doesn’t mean there isn’t order and fun baked in. “What perhaps surprises me is how relatively seamless it is for us," Berman says. "Emphasis on the relatively, as we have moments where things are bananas, trust me. But for the most part, having such a big family, with young kids no less, works pretty easily for us. When we meet people who hear how many kids we have and how old they are, they’re baffled and ask how we do it. My answer is always, 'we just do' … and we embrace the chaos.” Leaning into the “chaos” instead of fighting against it often means dealing with a messy house 'til the end of the day, cleaning up with the kids, changing expectations and being flexible with schedules.
Travel can be trying
As a large family, we committed to travel by buying a camper and staying within four hours of home, mostly. This modified travel plan has been much more doable, and affordable, than trying to take many kids across the country or world on an airplane, navigate rental cars full of various types of car seats and other obstacles. Berman, meanwhile, is excited for her kids to be older so they can make trips more doable, noting that the prospect of being on a plane with four kids age 6 and under "isn't exactly appealing." She says, "Every now and then, I feel like we’re missing out on traveling because it would be too damn expensive to get our family of six, plus our au pair, on a plane. So for now, we road trip to our vacations, [which entail renting] a shore house for a week or [going] to the Poconos for a few days."
Su-Mari Hill and her husband Tim have five children between the ages of 5 and 11. The Vancouver-based mom and co-founder of iLOLA tea points out that North American travel isn’t really built for big families, which presents some unique “problem-solving opportunities."
“It is also a little frustrating that most airlines, vacation sites, etc. won’t let us book through their platforms as we are considered a “group booking," she says. "During COVID we could not sit together at one table at a restaurant as we are more than six [people]."
An expensive endeavor
It’s no surprise that having a large family comes with a large cost that doesn’t necessarily improve at age 18 or even 22. A recent Experian survey revealed that families with four or more kids average just over $141,000 in debt, which is around $35,000 more than those with just one child. Steve Sexton, a father in Temecula, Calif. and the financial advisor and CEO of Sexton Advisory Group, says that while it seems baby gear is expensive, the more trying financial burdens come later.
“The truth is, the type of financial pressures that arise will evolve as your children get older — which means many parents or parents-to-be are unprepared for the cost of childcare, healthcare, education, transportation, technology, enrichment programs, clothing, entertainment and more," he says. "The cost of raising children quickly adds up and can create a serious strain on your finances if you don’t have a strategy in place to offset these costs."
He recommends the following to his big family clients:
Start early by creating and sticking to a realistic and sustainable budget, and hold yourself accountable to living below your means.
Consistently save and invest money, and utilize tools like 529 college funds, HSAs and kiddie Roth IRAs to ensure your money works harder in the long run.
Shop around for the best home and auto insurance deals annually or every other year
Refinance your mortgage when interest rates are low
Consider getting life insurance when you’re young and healthy
Make time to teach your children about financial literacy and good money habits — doing so will not only prepare them for life and adulthood, but will hopefully reduce the chances of them financially relying on you in the future.
And a few hacks to survive the day to day
There’s never a day that we wish we had a smaller family, or fewer kids. But there are days when it can feel overwhelming, and the full hearts are challenged by steep bills, emotional needs and other trials of parenting. It’s on those days you need some go-to hacks from big family experts to make it through. The Hill family notes that they need 14 shoes and socks to get out of the house every day, and there’s only one solution — everyone gets black socks, so that any two can be pulled out of the sock basket and they will match. Brilliant.
They’ve also drawn a hard line when it comes to kids’ activities — one activity per kid per season, and no quitting or changing your mind or switching halfway through, except in extreme circumstances.
Both the Hills and Berman say bulk buying is a must. “The things I have invested in were a great dehydrator, juicer and an extra freezer. So when things are on sale or in season I buy caseloads and make apple or banana chips, I juice fresh lemons and freeze it in ice blocks for year-long lemonade,” Hill says. “We buy bulk salmon from the boats and berries from local farms and freeze it for the year. We are also that family with an additional cooler and freezer in the garage. Life this size is not possible without it.”
In the end, Su-Mari says that waking up to a queen-size bed full of kids sleeping soundly makes it all worth it.
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