In a grocery store, Rebecca Braun and the children with her encountered a young boy and his mother.
“Mommy, she has a lot of kids,” the toddler remarked. The mother was not amused.
“She has too many kids,” the woman said, then turned an ugly glare to Braun. “Are you serious?” the mother said. “Are you kidding me?”
Braun walked away. “It’s those people that make me feel insecure about this big family I tote around,” she said.
In Braun’s case, the family that draws such responses is made up of foster children. But birth mothers of large families have similar experiences.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that since 1970, the percentage of households containing five or more people has fallen by half. Since the 1930s, the Gallup polling organization has been asking Americans what they consider the ideal number of children to have. From 1957 to 1978, the average answer dropped from 3.6 to about 2.5, where it remains.
There are, however, no numbers to quantify the degree to which people in public react to large families with surprise, insensitivity and even rudeness.
Such behavior is so common that when The Advocate posted a Facebook query about large families — which we defined as five or more children — dozens of messages quickly poured in about negative reactions they get in public. What no one could answer was why.
“No, strangers do not ever give us any deeper insight into the source of their comments,” said Brad Bourgeois, of French Settlement, who has five children. “Their comments are only really ever made in passing.
“We can only speculate that it’s for similar reasons why we’ve received ‘concerned’ comments from friends and family about them being ‘expensive’ and ‘a lot to handle.’ Perhaps they think the world is overpopulated, and here they behold competitors for resources. Perhaps it’s horror at their own prospect of having to juggle so much activity if they were in our shoes.”
Whatever the reason, large families cause a stir.
“I have heard so many things from people in the past five years,” said Ashley McQueary, who has two sets of twins. “Most people just stare or say something ‘quietly’ to whoever they’re with. I have been asked, ‘Are you done?’ more times than I can begin to count. The number of people who ask personal questions is absurd.”
How personal? Real personal.
“What type of fertility were you on?”
“Are you fixed now?”
“And have you or the dad put an end to this … had your tubes tied … had a vasectomy?”
“Vaginal or C-section?”
“I bet you get a lot on your food stamp card!”
To be sure, not all reactions are ugly. Most comments, our responders said, run a gamut from amazed to sympathetic to lame attempts at humor. The most frequent comments seem to include:
“Are they all yours?”
“You’ve got your hands full!”
“You know how that happens, right?”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“More than anything I wish folks would be more creative,” Bourgeois said.
He might want to reconsider. On a recent grocery trip, Taylor and Hannah Birchman and their six daughters — ages 5, 3, 22 months and 7-month-old triplets — got through the store with only a few comments, and one head-shaking stare from a man in the next checkout line. But, the woman checking their receipt at the exit made the trip memorable.
“Did she say, ‘You’re going to need a lot of handcuffs?’” Hannah Birchman asked her husband as they reached the parking lot.
“That’s a new one,” he confirmed.
“What does that even mean?” she said.
For Braun, ambiguity would be a relief from what she often hears.
Braun and her husband are foster parents in Livingston Parish, and the children in their care vary in number — as many as eight, sometimes — and are usually young.
“One lady said to her friend behind me, ‘I wonder how many different daddies there are; none of them look alike,’” she said. “My son who was picking out candy says, ‘Because foster families don’t look that way.’ We are certainly used to the negative reaction, but it’s really never welcome.”
The families do get their share of supportive comments, and older people, said mother-of-six Bridgett Quinn, tend to be kinder.
Those who have big families of their own are especially empathetic. Bourgeois’ favorite encounter came from a man as he was leaving a convenience store.
“He looked at me and asked, ‘How many you got?’” Bourgeois said. “I said, ‘Five.’ He replied, ‘That’s how many we have, too! And people would always ask me if they were all planned, and I always say, ‘Well, honestly, when it was time to do the final planning I had my eyes closed!’”