“You have how many brothers and sisters?” This was a common question we would get when we were kids. “So, was it difficult being part of a large Catholic family? Did you have to make lots of sacrifices because of it?” Absolutely!! Did we have issues of privacy? Oh, clearly we did. Were there frequent arguments over what was yours and what was “shareable”? Well, I’m not even sure if that’s a word. Regardless, pretty much everything we had, we were taught to share.
Being Catholic had its responsibilities also. My siblings and I attended Catholic grade schools and Catholic high schools. Payment for the grade school was made based on what your family could afford. Looking back, that must have been a huge relief for my parents. The Sunday offering was the place to pay; that way your privacy was respected. My Dad sung in the choir and often times did solos. He was a convert and it was important for him to give back in this way.
Each of us started working at age 14 so that we could afford the high school tuition. I also worked in the cafeteria during the three lunch periods to earn credit off the tuition bill. Essentially, I gave up having a study hall. My mother was adamant about Catholic school. You’ve heard people say that in large families they made sure there was always food and clothes but then everything else came after that. In our family, it was Catholic education and then anything left over was for food. Clothes—not a big priority! We relied on stores like Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul, for clothing. Even our uniforms were donated by the school from children that outgrew them.
Financially, it was a huge burden. My parents struggled most of their married life to keep things going for their family. So was it all worth it? Wouldn’t it have been better to have fewer children and then be able to give those children so much more? What possibly could we have gained from the circumstances we were raised in?
The answer – Everything! I firmly believe the lessons we learned were invaluable.
I should clarify here; I realize that in many Catholic homes important lessons are taught. I know I tried to do the same in mine with having three children. But I have come to realize there is something unique about growing up in a large family. I believe that it prepared me for so many of life’s challenges. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been exposed to coming from such a large family. Would I be the person I am today? Would I have the same skills that have made me who I am?
My mother used to say “I didn’t give you much, but I gave you each other.” That was probably Lesson # 1 – To Share and Compromise: We knew no matter what friends we had or didn’t have, whatever hardship we were experiencing or whatever accomplishment we made; we would always have our brothers and sisters at home to share it with. We learned the value of giving until it hurts. If someone was in need of something, it seemed any one of us would extend a hand to help. This lesson carries through this day.
Lesson #2: We learned Communication. You might say everyone learns this in some way within their family dynamic. But, we learned about it at our kitchen table. Gathering there was a common occurrence. My mother would begin many discussions sitting there drinking her coffee and talking to us sometimes individually, but many times with all of us together. It was the place to talk about school, friends, difficulties, and yes even God.
Lesson # 3: We learned the importance of having God and faith in our lives. Some of us became adults before we realized it, but each of my siblings and I have been impacted by this lesson. My mother set the tone and example and we followed her lead.
Lesson #4: We learned humility and sacrifice. I remember so many of my friends having so much in comparison to us. I remembered oftentimes being envious of clothes and things that some of these friends had that we didn’t. We were often reminded that those were just things. What was important was being together as a family. I should offer a side note here that it’s interesting how many times it was at our home that these same friends wanted to visit.
Lesson #5 – Respect and Love: As adults, my siblings are my closest friends. We help each other with things like being a sounding board for family problems, issues with raising our children, and other important decisions with life. The ability to show empathy was something we seemed to all pick up. I am so grateful that these expressions of love were present in our home. No matter what mistakes you made, you knew there would be a response such as “Don’t worry, it will all be ok” and mostly, lots of suggestions to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Lesson #6 – Responsibility: When I look back at growing up, from a very young age I always had responsibilities and daily chores that were on my list of expectations. I believe these taught things like self-knowledge and self reliance and even self confidence.
Lesson #7: “Team building”: I never seemed to lack for someone to play with. You would always ask “Hey do you want to play four-square?” or kick ball or basketball or “Do you want to ride bikes?” It never mattered if we were proficient at any one of these skills; we just knew there was always someone to do these things with.
Lesson #8: We learned the value of giving to others: It seems to me that children growing up in large families understand from early on the meaning of responsibility and why it’s important to give to others. Consequently, the moral development moves from “self” to giving to others.
Lesson #9: Independence: Another lesson I learned from a very young age; if you wanted something you would have to work for it. My siblings and I all began working from the age of 14. This was necessary to pay our tuition for Catholic school. If you wanted anything beyond that, you would have to pay for it yourself. We were not able to afford those extras that so many kids get today.
Lesson #10: Appreciating talent – in our family it consisted of music, writing, nursing skills etc.: My father was a great singer. His love of music was passed on to several of my siblings. Five of my siblings were musically talented. There was always lots of music in our home. My mother enjoyed writing so my sister and I leaned more in that direction. My other sister is a nurse. Most nurses are excellent at multi-tasking. This is certainly the case of my sister Judy. She is one of the best.
Oftentimes, we don’t appreciate the value of our upbringing until we are grown adults with families of our own. I think in our case and in our situation, we just always knew it. We knew that each of us became unique individuals with a strong sense of giving to others. To this day, I am grateful to my parents and God for growing up in a large Catholic family!