Pope Benedict XVI, in an audience with members of an Italian association of large families earlier this year, offered encouragement to couples who welcome children as a blessing from God. He said, “There is no future without children.”
The Holy Father continued, “In today’s context, a family made of many children constitutes a witness of faith, courage and optimism. … I hope that adequate social and legislative measures are promoted that safeguard and sustain large families, which represent richness and hope for the whole country.”
Large families are not uncommon in traditional Catholic circles, despite declining family sizes in broader society in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in the developed world in recent decades. Parents of large families, religious and non-religious, are confronted with many challenges, including the social stigma associated with having more than two or three children.
British soccer star David Beckham and wife Victoria, for example, welcomed their fourth child into the world last year, to the consternation of environmentalists, liberal politicians, and media figures who accused them of being selfish with the world’s resources. President Barack Obama’s senior science and technology advisor John Holdren has even gone so far as to argue that children from larger families have lower IQs.
But some couples are choosing to ignore criticism and buck societal trends. They welcome and embrace the gift of human life with which God has blessed their marriages. While the challenges are many, the blessings are far greater, they say, so long as they maintain a strong faith in God, work hard, and accept the sacrifices required of their vocation.
Diana Martens, 46, of Santa Rosa, California, and husband Jon, 58, have 13 children. They have 11 biological children together, ages 3-23, and Jon has two adult children from a previous marriage. Jon works as a facility manager and teacher and travels extensively in his work; Diana is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her children. She also works as a doula and lactation consultant for new mothers.
The couple married 24 years ago; both are converts to the Catholic faith. Diana said, “We were open to having a large family when we were married, and it’s all been a blessing.”
Challenges include keeping up with the daily schedule and providing for the family’s financial needs, but “we’ve survived by the grace of God,” Diana reported. “We don’t put a value on material things. We don’t have a big house and we drive old cars. We find that all our needs are taken care of.”
The family is active with the Legion of Christ’s Regnum Christi apostolate. One son is a seminarian with the Legion; some of the older children are engaged in apostolic work with the organization. The family is active in their parish, St. Sebastian in Sebastopol, attending daily Mass, praying the Rosary daily, and serving as volunteers. Diana noted, “The faith is the glue that holds our family together.”
Diana and Jon are also active in the Couple to Couple League, which promotes natural family planning.
When Diana and Jon were first married they had five children in six years. Strangers came up to them in public criticizing their decision to be open to a big family. Diana recalled, “They’d say, ‘Why would you want to deprive a child of the one-on-one attention he needs?’ We’d respond that we had the attitude that we are open to life.”
The criticism has subsided in recent years, but people are still amazed when they learn the couple has 13 children. “We like to joke about it,” Diana said. “My husband has a t-shirt that says ‘Our large family is going to be paying for your Social Security.’”
Diana also added that the best gift to give a child is another sibling. When the older children are away from home and return, they’re always anxious to see their younger brothers and sisters, she said.
Diana encourages young married couples to be open to the gift of life. “Be open to life,” she said. “See where God wants to take you.”
Eileen Heaton, age 80, of St. Charles, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, married husband Vince 59 years ago. Regarding children, Eileen said, the couple decided to “leave it all in God’s hands, confident that He would provide us with the means to take care of however many children He sent.”
Last year, Vince died at age 83. Three hundred mourners attended his funeral, including all of the couple’s 15 children and their 46 grandchildren.
Eileen recalled, “He was a wonderful man, selfless and patient. He taught our children the importance of integrity, and to always seek out the truth.”
The Heatons’ 15 children range in age from the late 30s to the late 50s. All, with the possible exception of one, have stayed active in the Church. All are successful professionals; most are college graduates.
But when the kids were small, there were many challenges, Eileen said. “Every day I got up and begged God for the graces to do the right thing,” she said. “I took it one day at a time.”
For Eileen, one of the greatest trials was laundry. With 15 kids, there was always something to wash.
Vince was an accountant and computer systems analyst, and he worked part-time in convenience stores to make ends meet. During his professional career, in fact, he held 16 different part-time jobs, in addition to his full-time job and continuing education studies.
The Heatons were disciplined in the practice of their faith; children were always expected to go to Mass and pray with the family. Additionally, they had family rules which had to be observed. Girls going out on dates, for example, were expected to be home on time.
One time, Eileen recalled, a young man was late in returning with her daughter. Eileen waited in the driveway in her housedress. When the car pulled up, she told her daughter to go inside. She then told the man, to his great surprise, “Never call my daughter again.”
Eileen recalled, “And my family accepted that, and never challenged us.”
She often experienced social condemnation when people became aware of how many children she had. She recalled once when she worked a part-time job a co-worker called her a “polluter” and accused her of overpopulating the world. She challenged the man, arguing that countries needed more children and suggesting he research the issue himself. He later apologized.
Another critic was a teacher of one of her sons at a Catholic school who angrily asked, “How dare you [have such a large family]?” Eileen’s patient response was, “Even with one child, how dare I? With God’s help, we can do anything.”
The teacher offered Eileen an unspoken apology of sorts a month later, appearing at her doorstep unannounced one evening offering to tutor her academically struggling son. Eileen reflected, “Had I gotten angry, I would have lost her.”
Eileen’s children, too, experienced ridicule at school when word got out that they came from a large family.
About six years after they were married, the Heatons participated in a “post-Cana” retreat for married couples, but were disappointed that the retreat centered on techniques for limiting child birth rather than spirituality. She asked the priest leading the retreat, “Father, why don’t you talk about faith in God?”
The priest responded that it was not the purpose of the retreat. The Heatons went home early. Eileen explained, “We had things to do; we didn’t have the time to waste.”
She concluded, “Vince and I raised each of our children as individuals, and never lost one. And, we always had a strong faith that God would help us. Whether you’re raising 15 children or one, you need a strong faith in God.”
Laura Power, 38, of Culpeper, Virginia, grew up in a family of 14 in Cupertino, California (near San Jose). Her siblings range in age from 16 to 41; she is the third-oldest child. Today most of the family lives in Virginia.
Although she attended Catholic school as a child, she recalls her classmates giving her odd looks when they learned that her mother was pregnant again. “I was embarrassed by it at the time,” she recalled. “I couldn’t understand why my parents kept having kids.”
But today, she’s grateful for each of her 13 siblings. “I can’t imagine not having them,” she said. “I’m glad each one is here. My life is my family.”
Her mother’s last pregnancy was at age 46—her father was 53—but her youngest sibling, now age 16, “is the life of the family,” Laura said. “She knows all the family secrets. Everyone confides in her.”
As an older sister, Laura was a “second mother” to the younger children, taking on much responsibility and helping take care of their many needs. In turn, “they were my entertainment.” She, in fact, returned home for six years after she had moved out when she learned her mother was pregnant for the final time.
The faith was important in the home. “Catholicism defined us,” Laura noted. “We were not just a large family, but a large Catholic family.”
The family was always faithful to the Rosary; Laura’s older brother was leading the family Rosary at age 3. Today, all of the children still practice the faith. Most of the kids have left home; many have married. Laura’s parents, Ted and Mary-Margaret, have 29 grandchildren.
She and husband Nicholas, a US Marine Corps veteran, married three years ago and are hoping to have a large brood of their own. They are currently fostering two children in hopes of adopting them.
Patrick Madrid, age 52, and wife Nancy, age 51, of Granville, Ohio (near Columbus), have been married for 30 years and have 11 children and 12 grandchildren. Patrick has supported the family for the past 25 years as a Catholic apologist, writing books and giving talks on the Faith at parishes and conferences.
Patrick was one of eight children himself, and he and Nancy wanted “a lot of kids, but we never had in mind how much ‘a lot’ was.”
They experienced all the typical challenges parents have in rearing children—educating them and teaching them the faith, teaching them manners, and, of course, paying for them. “With us, finances were always tight, but God always provided,” Patrick said. “With each new child, we managed. We never had a sense that we’d passed a threshold.”
For Patrick, one of the most thrilling things about being a parent has been “getting to know each child, like watching a flower unfold.”
The children range in age from 11 to 31; six have grown and left home and five have married. The oldest, in fact, already has six children. Patrick is especially pleased that all have married well and each has remained active in the Church.
Patrick, too, has experienced the “looks of scorn” in public from those who disapprove of his family size, as well as the snide comments: “Are you finished yet?” “Don’t you have a television?” “Are you crazy?” He’s been accused by complete strangers of consuming too many of the Earth’s resources.
Patrick is concerned about the contraceptive mentality that he believes has permeated the developed world. Birthrates in some countries, he noted, have “reached the point of no return,” leading to only two possibilities: 1) heavy influxes of younger workers from Third World countries, often Muslim, to support aging populations, and 2) the “right to die” will become the “obligation to die,” as the unproductive elderly will be viewed as wasting precious resources and pressured to commit suicide. He added, “I don’t know when that will be, but I think I’ll live to see it.”
When he counsels his own children on getting married and starting a family, Patrick tells them three things: 1) Don’t waste your time with recreational dating. Look instead for a Catholic spouse who shares your belief in God and the Catholic faith. And don’t expect to convert a non-Catholic, as they usually won’t. 2) Actively seek God’s will for your marriage, rather than merely waiting for what he sends along. 3) Be open to the gift of life. God knows best.