Mothering a family of 16 has its unique challenges, to put it mildly. Not only did our mother raise all 14 of us kids, but she even somehow managed to find time to get a master’s degree with 13 of us between the ages of 1 and 18 at home (my youngest sister was not yet born when Mom received her master’s degree).
Though she is an inspiration in the realm of perseverance and serves as the ultimate educational role model, I learned even more from Mom about the pragmatics of love.
Mom is a master at anticipating and then meeting each person’s unique needs. For example, my brother Tommy did not like chocolate chips, so Mom’s cookie-baking process took this into account. Rather than mixing the chocolate in with the cookie dough like Betty Crocker demands, Mom would first make a few chipless cookies and then add the chocolate to the remainder of the dough for the rest of our brood.
Similarly, other kids in our family couldn’t eat spicy food, so Mom would make her chili recipe very mild (prompting my grandfather to christen it ‘hamburger soup’). The rest of the spicy heat lovers just had to flavor accordingly at the dinner table.
Mom also recognized that it is important for each child to have a special day. My brother Chris, born on December 25th, could easily have had his birthday lost to the holiday season that engulfs the entire month. So for Chris, Mom instituted the half-birthday, celebrated in late June. Chris had his own special day, with the cake and presents just for him that would have otherwise dimmed in comparison to the shared excess of Christmas.
Yet even while recognizing the importance for each child to have her own special day, Mom understood that even that well-intentioned, important custom could be a recipe for disaster. So, at each birthday party there were “favors” for the rest of us kids- usually an inexpensive toy that could be bought in bulk- to ensure that no one felt left out.
Fairness and equality are not just concepts, but daily acts for my mother that she has elevated to a science. For instance, during Christmas time, she creates a rolling spreadsheet in which she documents each recipient (us kids, our spouses and our own kids included) and the status of their gifts- i.e. whether it has been purchased, wrapped, and mailed or placed under the tree. Further, she details what she is giving each person to ensure that no one feels less loved than another. Mom even has an annual gift-giving algorithm- for example, clothing, something practical (that only a mom could know you need) and something unique and fun, just for that person. I can’t imagine that St. Nick runs a tighter operation than Mom.
Mom even managed to turn the requisite austerity of having a family of 16 into daily expressions of love. I learned from the lunch prepared for me every school day that there are four food groups – sandwich, fruit, crunchy (e.g., Cheetos, potato chips, etc.), and dessert. The sandwich often consisted of a single, thin slice of Carl Buddig-brand sandwich meat. Much to my chagrin now, I used to complain that the layer of mayonnaise was thicker than the meat. But Mom could make one package of sliced meat feed all us kids for that day. (Later, when I went to college, I would buy Carl Buddig sandwich meat, but would splurge and load the whole package of meat on one sandwich!) It is an enduring (and probably seemingly endless to Mom) act of love to make upwards of 10 sack lunches a day, every school day, for an entire school year, for over a decade.
Patience is the utmost act of love and a constant exercise in restraint in a large family. My Aunt Mary’s advice to my mother served her well in the cacophony of 14 erupting children- “Don’t kill them… today”. To her credit, Mom never did. Mom’s words of wisdom from letting us all live? “You have to wait until a child is AT LEAST 30 to find out if he turned out okay.”
To summarize the lessons of love I learned from Mom- make some of the cookies chipless, go easy on the chili powder, every person gets a special day (and everybody gets a present on someone else’s special day). Christmas should be treated with methodical precision, a package of sandwich meat can feed an army (of 14) and, if possible, “don’t kill them today”.
Mom’s example of love in action shows that it is possible to discover strategies to satisfy the needs of the most difficult, diverse set of folks (it doesn’t get more diverse than ages 0 to 20!)- IF you are dedicated to understanding and meeting their needs.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.