Monday, August 16, 2010

A Dozen Kids? Are you CRAZY?!

First, I want to thank Vince for providing me with the idea for this week’s blog when he wrote, “so much of what we think we know is wrong.” Immediately, a topic came to mind, because what I thought I knew was wrong.

What do most of us think when we see photos like this one? (Count the children, folks.) What did I think when I learned that the woman sitting in the buggy in the next photo had babies in 1872, 1875, 1877, 1880, 1883, 1885, 1886, 1889, 1891, and 1894?

Show these photographs to a group of twenty-first century

women, share the list of birth dates, and it won’t be long before the topic of birth control comes up. “They didn’t have a choice.”

“If they’d had a choice, they never would have had so many babies.” “No wonder women died in childbirth so often. They had to be worn out! Who wouldn’t be?”

Those musings would likely lead into a discussion of the women’s rights movement and advances in medicine—all of it assuming that no woman in her right mind would want a dozen kids. I tend to look at these photos and title them, “I am woman—I am tired.”

Luna Sanford Kellie taught me to reconsider my assumptions about pioneer women and large families. She came to Nebraska in 1876 and kept house for her father and brothers until her husband finished business in the east and joined them. By late that fall, Luna, J.T., and their first child were living in their own soddy. Luna wrote, “We always planned for a large family. When Aunt Sophy asked me how many children I was going to have I told her ‛as many as I can.’ And J.T was of the same mind …we thought twelve the least number that would do us and fifteen would be better.”

Enter another assumption: “Well, of course they wanted a big family. They needed boys to work the farm!” And again, assumptions would tend to lead to a discussion of how female children were less valued in an agrarian society than males. But Luna Kellie said that one reason she wanted a large family was that children in small families learned to be selfish. She wrote, “so selfishly are they raised no one can live happily with them.” Luna would eventually give birth to thirteen children. She worked alongside her husband in the fields, planted an orchard, raised her children, published a Populist newspaper on her kitchen table, and, when she was in her seventies, homesteaded alone outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Obviously she was an exceptional woman. She was bright, articulate, and energetic. And she wanted at least a dozen children.

We all see history through a lens colored by our personal world view. That’s unavoidable. But history lovers, historical novelists, and historians alike should beware of putting our value judgments and our assumptions on others. We should remember that women of the past were just as diverse as women in 2010, and that the generalizations historians make based on their studies are just that—generalizations.

And to every generalization there is an exception—and an exceptional woman.

--Stephanie G.


  1. Steph, I absolutely love this post. My great grandparents who married in Stockholm, Sweden, then sailed for America in the 1860's, had 13 children, first two born in Illinois, the rest in Iowa. When I did the family chart, I figured out that GG Selma was pregnant or nursing for 25 years. Yikes! Toss me an aspirin.

  2. Here's to your GG Selma and all the interpid women like her. Can you imagine landing in America on the eve of the Civil War and trying to learn a new language in a culture that was in such upheavel? Amazing. I'd need something stronger than aspirin!

  3. Ummm........ intrepid. Not "interpid." Time to call it a day, apparently. . . .

  4. Hi Stephanie:

    I support your view about family size and would like to add to it concerning ‘not having a choice’.

    Throughout history there were many birth control methods. Prostitutes were experts in these methods. The Roman Empire was said to be weakened by the drastic drop in the birth rate among Roman citizens. Having small Roman families was a choice. The government paid bonuses for having children. A roman woman who had three children was addressed with added respect and given the right of a man to own real property and run a business in her own name.

    I think one of the tipping points in any civilization is when a child goes from being an economic asset to being a major liability. At times children are assets. They work the farms (or in the factories!), they defend the family in disputes, and they are the only social security system for the parents. In the past a child was not a big expense on a farm. The child didn’t eat much food, didn’t get much education, and would wear hand-me-down clothes.

    In our society, as in Roman society, a child is a major liability costing up to $250,000 by the age of 18. Everything about a child is expensive. Consider health care, education, and clothing. If a child gets into trouble with the law and you have to pay a lawyer that can be ruinous. In addition, we are already paying for a social security system. Russia now pays big bonuses to women who have children under the right conditions.

    I think one of the hardest things to do in writing a historical novel is getting the mindset (on dozens of important issues) right for the characters in the given time period.


  5. I recall being terrified (pre-children) by one of those monumental statistics about what it cost to raise a child. Certainly it is expensive, but parenting can also be a wonderful lesson in how the Lord provides. I remember literally praying before heading out to garage sales specifically for shoes for one child, etc. . . and finding them. I like to encourage young marrieds these days to remember that God called children a gift. And you are right, Vince, our society too often sees them first as a financial liability. That's a tragic world view IMHO.

  6. Hi Stephanie. I'm a reader in Kansas City and I love your books! I started with "Walks the Fire" and was hooked on the first page. I have a friend with 12 children. She and her husband wanted a dozen from the beginning and the Lord has blessed her abundantly! He has given my husband and I 6 kids and I truly believe that they are all gifts! The Lord has provided for each one and our love has just multiplied for them and for each other! We serve an awesome God!

  7. Hi Stephanie -

    Wonderful post and discussion!

    We think life is hard today, but the folks in the 1700's, 1800's, and early part of the 1900's faced monumental challenges. While $250,000 is a ton of money, $1,000 would have been a daunting sum to them.

    Thankfully, they didn't have all these "helpful" statistics to strike fear in their hearts. Otherwise, some of us might not be around.

    Susan :)

  8. I remember when my mother did the family genealogy, taking our Swedish roots back into the 1600's. What struck me was the repetition of first names. I remember seeing "Karin" more than once in a list of children. They'd lose a child named "Karin" and name a later child the same name. We can't imagine doing such a thing now, but when losing children was expected? Did they honor the first Karin with the second? Or...were they simply too tired to think up a new name? :o)

  9. Just wanted to pop in and thank Christy for saying hello and for mentioning my very first novel Walks the Fire. I am truly amazed that after all these years and books later (fifteen years and over twenty books) the Lord continues to provide me with work. Praise Him. made my day. BLESS YOU!

  10. I was just looking for Luna Kellie on line, she was my great great grandmother and came across this blog. Do you happen to know exactly where she homesteaded in Arizona? Am going there in March and would like to see if it is still there.

  11. It's off AZ 79 NW of Tucson AZ

    The highway has been moved a little to the west, IIRC, - of the original road but it still follows the same route. While my second sister, Marilyn Stout, was alive she and her husband located the old homestead on a topo map
    and tried to drive out to it.

    They think they found the exact location but they were not certain.

    It's now - and has been for many many years - state trust land. Here again, my memory may be faulty.

    My nephew, Roger Stout, may have all those papers and maps but I don't know that for certain.

    Bil Munsil
    Mesa AZ

    A great grandson.