A Mother Is Only As Happy As Her Saddest Child

  A few months after my grandfather passed away, I joined my parents for dinner at my grandmother’s home.  When we arrived, she and my Uncle Mickey were sitting at the dining room table pouring over boxes of old family photos.  As my grandparents’ marriage had been a true romance in a decidedly Catholic sense of the word, one of the many results was a brood of ten very different children.  Needless to say, when we arrived that mid-winter evening, there were many boxes to go through and even more photos to review.


As one of four, I was use to having siblings.  After Vatican II, four to six children were what moderate thinking Catholics brought into the world.  Gone were the days of rhythmic birth control and offspring numbering into the teens.  It was a compromise and it was a number that, as a child, suited me fine, though there were days, thanks to my younger brothers, where sometimes even four felt like too many.


But as I sat there, pouring over those many photos, a quick glance at one memory captured so long ago caught my attention and gave me pause.  As I looked at it, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many IS too many?


A close up of a double bed clad in basic white sheets filled the frame, but more importantly, child after child after child filled the bed, all sound asleep with mouths open and pajamas askew, and all as equally entwined together as a kite string in a tree.  It was hard to tell under the bunched up sheets and assorted lumps where one child ended and another began.  That they could be so knitted together like a well worn sweater while still obviously sound asleep amazed me.  A middle class upbringing and four siblings may have forced me to share a room, but as long as I could remember, I always, at least, had my own bed.


My one and only encounter with that picture was 16 years ago and, frankly, I had forgotten about it.  What prompted that long-lost memory and it’s feelings of shock and awe to resurface, however, was the recent news that a single mother on disability had willingly given birth to octopluts – bringing her own burgeoning brood to a grand total of 14.


I may still not know how many is too many, but I’m sane enough to know and brave enough to admit that a parent/child ratio of one to 14 is not good, not good in the least.  It’s too many, regardless of what the mother, an only child herself, cares to admit.  As a Catholic, I’ve been around the block with more than my fair share of large families and, sadly to say, there are repercussions to rampant breeding.  With limited parental attention to go around, it’s eat or be eaten.


It’s a mentality I saw all too often in my own father – number four in that family of ten.  He was the second son of eventually four boys, and after him a string of three girls separated him from the next.  That Dad felt the need to fight for his existence I have no doubt.  A sensitive, sometimes brooding man, he often related tales to his own children of how rough he had it growing up.  A favorite dealt with the time when it was his turn to help his mother cook supper and he used food coloring to dye everything blue in order to make it unappealing – the mashed potatoes, the corn, the homemade gravy, even the flour for the fried chicken – so as to have more to eat himself.  It was obviously a success, because he repeated it again one morning with blood red pancakes and green scrambled eggs.


As a child, his was a world of hand-me-downs and doing without, and as an adult, he slayed that dragon by bringing home any and all junk that he would stumble upon on the various construction sites he worked as a plumber.  He was a collector of stuff, believing eventually it would serve some purpose, and it piled up over our many acres, filling the barn, filling the basement, filling the fields.  When he died, six gigantic sheets of commercial grade tinted glass leaned against the large wild cherry tree in the yard.  As we tried to estimate when he had put them there, our best guesses tended toward ten years or more.  For ten years or so those sheets of glass leaned against the tree, never to move until my brother-in-law broke them up into manageable pieces and eventually hauled them off.


But limited food and limited stuff and even limited privacy don’t even begin to strike me as the harshest legacy of being part of a burgeoning family.  It’s the emotional toll that seems to leave the greatest scars.  Over the years I’ve worked with several individuals who come from large families – one of 14, one of 15 and, unbelievably, one of 18.  What strikes me most about so many of these individuals is the need for attention – ironically the very thing that seems to have driven Octo-Mom to have 14 children.  It’s as if standing out in a crowd is a seemingly insurmountable task, and they fight tooth and nail to be heard, to be seen, to be recognized, to be acknowledged.


And it’s what bothers me the most about this woman and her many, many children.  As she has stated time and time again to anyone who will listen, she lacked both siblings and attention from her mother.  Odd, that last one.  As an only child, one would think there would be little competition for her mother’s attention, but that’s her story and she’s sticking to it.  But I can’t help but wonder what the situation would have been like if there HAD been siblings in the mix.  Would they have filled the void created by her inattentive mother?  Or would they have only served to suck even more attention away from this bobble-headed baby machine, ultimately driving her to hate the very siblings she claims to crave?


Even as one of only four, I can somewhat understand that need, though apparently not on her level.  When I was 13, I remember being excited about my first school dance at the junior high.  I made no special plans and I didn’t think it was important to anyone in the family but me, so imagine my shock when I arrived home from school the day before the dance and found a brand new dress and a tube of my very own lipstick waiting for me on my bed.  It stopped me in my tracks and for many, many reasons.  One, it was my first actual makeup of any kind and I remember the excitement I felt as I opened the tube and twisted it up and down, watching the petal pink lipstick bob up and down.  Second, we didn’t get much in the way of new clothes – most certainly not a dress – and this one was beautiful, even if it was polyester and came from K-Mart.  It was white with short fluttered sleeves and a multi-tier skirt that fell just above my knees.  When I put it on and spun around, the skirt and its many layers floated around me like a cloud and I fell instantly in love.


But what left the biggest impression on me was not the lipstick or even the dress, but rather it was the knowledge that at some point in the day my mother – my very overworked, exasperated mother – had thought about no one else but me.  Not my siblings, not my father, but me.  It was as if for the very first time in my life, I realized that my individual needs DID matter to my mother and that she DID see me and hear me and love me.  I always knew she did, but before that moment, it had always felt like a “group” effort, as if, these are my children and I love them all.  That she could separate me from the crowd was a new concept entirely.


And that, to me, makes Octo-Mom’s reasoning even more disturbing as she has sentenced her own children to the same fate she apparently suffered through as a child – a lack of real maternal attention.  She now has 14 children clamoring for her looks, her touch, her hugs, her stories, her smiles and her tears.  And despite her best intentions, it will not be enough, that much I know.  It can’t possibly be, given that so many of her children have special needs.  So they’ll turn to each other, yes, but they’ll turn against each other too and like an elementary school yard at recess there will be clicks and niches and bullies and battles and winners and losers.  It will get ugly and it will be brutal and, for those 14 children, it will be life as they know it, and I say God help them all.


At least as an exclusive member of the now famous 14, one of them will eventually write a best selling tell all which will provide him or her with the funds so lacking in childhood.  He or she will have money enough to begin to soothe those demons of doing without – at least on the surface.  I only hope for all taxpayers everywhere that the future author stills remembers how to share with the siblings.