Making the case for larger families

By 
  • December 11, 2009

{mosimage}AJAX, Ont. - It was only their second date when Patrick Douglas asked his future bride how many children she would like to have in her family.

Her first answer was “however many children God gives me,” Carissa Douglas, 31, recalls. Her second answer, she adds, was 12.

“Then (Patrick) hugged me tighter because it was an odd thing,” she says with a smile.

“We were obviously meant to be together because having a large family is a vocation.”

With five young children and a baby on the way, the Douglases aren’t your typical, 2.5-children kind of family. In fact, they’re going against the so-called trend of couples who are choosing not to have children.

A Maclean’s cover story in August featured “The case against having kids.” The article said there has been a “societal shift in attitudes towards childlessness” and suggested that some couples are freely choosing not to have children because “they can hurt your career, your marriage, your social life, your bank book.”

But a Statistics Canada report released in September suggested an upward trend in children, with the fastest annual increase since 1989. The report, which collected data for 2007, said Canadian women gave birth to 367,864 babies, up 3.7 per cent from 2006. The number of births increased for all age groups, especially mothers aged 30 to 34. The total fertility rate — the average number of children per Canadian woman — rose from 1.59 in 2006 to 1.66 in 2007, the report said.

Yet though this is the highest fertility rate since 1992, it is far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman which is the rate needed to replace the population in the absence of immigration.

For the Douglases, they say they’ve always wanted a large family. Carissa said she saw the support that many siblings can give after her four-year-old sister, Allison, died in a car accident. She and her three other sisters relied on each other to cope with their loss.

“I like the idea of the gift of siblings to your children,” she said.

Patrick, 34, has three siblings and a large extended family. He remembers meeting a family of 14 kids which opened his eyes to the “many dynamic personalities and interactions” of a large family.

But this isn’t quite the main selling point of having many children today. Often there’s a social stigma attached to large families where they’re seen as “a burden for others,” said Andrea Mrozek, researcher manager at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

Most people are having fewer children due to a host of factors, from infertility to having a career or pursuing higher education, to the cost of raising children, said Clarence Lochheed, executive director of the Vanier Institute for the Family.

{mosimage}Former teacher Liz Rebello says having nine children isn’t a “burden” to the family finances or her career.

“I see the kids as a gift from God,” Rebello, 37, said.

The Mississauga, Ont. mother adds she doesn’t regret not pursuing a teaching career. Her primary vocation, she said, is as a mother. Rebello said although she only worked full-time for a year as a teacher, she’s been able to use her skills because she home schooled her children when they were younger.

As for family finances, there are certain sacrifices like “not getting brand new clothes or toys all the time,” Rebello said. But they are able to provide for the family’s needs with her husband’s job in sales at a large steel company.

“We don’t even have cable TV,” Rebello adds, “but nobody seems to mind.”

As for educational expenses, five of their children attend private schools (Hawthorn School for Girls and Northmount, a private Catholic boys’ school) with some financial assistance from the schools.

From a national perspective, Canada’s aging labour force, and potential skill and labour shortages in the future, could signal a need for a a national discussion about policy options on fertility, according to Lochheed.

This doesn’t mean setting a fertility rate as a target, but rather looking at what barriers exist for having children such as the lack of a national day care program and the absence of income support programs recognizing the additional cost of raising kids, Lochheed said.

“It’s not so much about how do you encourage people to have more kids, but how would you remove barriers so people can make their choices more freely and unencumbered by penalties they incur in having a child,” he said.

Mrozek added that the tax system could be improved by lowering taxes and having a preference for large families.

Back in the Douglas home, Carissa says one of the greatest blessings of a large family has been each child enriching their lives.

“It’s a busy life,” she said, “but it’s a really beautiful one.”

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