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Is the Large Catholic Family Headed Toward Extinction?

BigfamiliasaurusThe wall of the front hallway in Pat and Toni Kilner’s Silver Spring, Md., home tells a story. It is a story of family — one that spans four generations. The story begins with Toni and Pat’s parents; black-and-white portraits of each couple hang just inside the front door. Below is a picture of Toni as a young girl with her three siblings. Underneath hangs Pat’s comparatively cramped family portrait — nine brothers and sisters crowd the frame. Below both is a picture of the couple on their wedding day — just a few weeks after Toni graduated from CUA in 1978.

“That’s what I looked like with hair,” Pat (B.S. 1976, M.S.W. 1977) quips. He is a barrel-chested man with a dynamic voice. And that voice loves to talk, especially when the conversation is about the people photographed on that wall.

The proud father quickly moves on: His son, Patrick, circa 1980 — ruddy cheeks round with baby fat — tops the next row. Below that is a photo of Patrick and his newborn sister, Maria, about a year and a half later. Then a picture of Patrick, Maria and their infant brother, Joe. Then one of Patrick, Maria, Joe and Antoinette. Then one with Bobby added. Another portrait with new addition Michael. The next includes Katie. The next, Mary Eileen. And, finally, number nine: Brigid. “Don’t show her that one, I look like a boy in that picture!” exclaims the youngest Kilner, now 8, as she tugs at her father’s shirt.

Here again, is a photo of Patrick (B.A. 2001), now a full-grown man. He is cutting the cake with his beaming bride, Elena, on their wedding day in 2004. The next one is a wedding portrait of daughter Maria (B.A. 2004), who, Pat adds, is now pregnant with her first child.

The last picture in the photographic timeline is their first grandchild: Patrick’s 2-year-old son, Joseph. They haven’t had a chance to hang the picture of Joseph’s 3-month-old brother, Liam, yet, and Pat adds that he’s not quite sure what they’ll do about wall space once many more grandchildren start appearing. Given the precedent, it seems only a matter of time.

America is a place where bigger is considered better: larger houses, bigger cars, grander weddings, bigger portions. Yet with all that super-sizing, one facet of American society has slimmed to a rather lean size: the family. The average number of children per mother is two, and the average family size is three. That’s why, these days, a family portrait like Pat and Toni’s — with 11 smiles crowding one 8 x 10 glossy — seems such a cultural anomaly.

“We’re oddities in our generation,” Pat Kilner says, “but we would not have been oddities in my parents’ generation.”

Few acts are more central to human tradition than the creation of a family. But as modern life and culture have evolved, so too have the face and fabric of the American family. In fact, the traditional “nuclear” family, defined as a married husband and wife and their biological children under 18 years of age, now makes up just a quarter of American households — down from 40 percent in 1970.

Signs of the evolution of the family unit beyond that traditional classification are everywhere: Nearly half of American families are affected by divorce, young men and women marry later than ever before, many couples choose to start a family outside of marriage, and many individuals choose not to have children nor to couple at all. The perceived causes of those changes are as plentiful as people willing to offer an opinion. And when it comes to the issue of family and morality in America, just about everyone has an opinion about the societal trends: They’re an inevitable byproduct of modernity; young people are terrified of divorce; our society has accepted living together as a substitute for marriage; we have a decaying value system; today’s young people are self-absorbed, placing their careers and materialistic wants above starting a family; raising a large number of children in today’s economy is financially impossible; the cost of college tuition alone is a fiscal death knell.

What, then, of the large family? And more specifically, the large Catholic families that once filled entire pews at Sunday Mass? Families like the Kilners are increasingly viewed as an endangered species. Yet while their numbers have dropped precipitously over the past century, the large families we interviewed say their kind will not go the way of the dinosaur, no matter what the trend in family sizes. The secret behind their survival is perhaps counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural: Having more children is easier, they say. It’s better for kids. It is financially possible. And it’s definitely more fun.

The path to the modern American family, with its 2.1 kids and dual incomes, winds its way back to the corn fields and cattle pastures of pre-Industrial Revolution times. Having a large family made common — and economic — sense for a couple whose livelihood came from the ground: More children meant more hands to sow and reap; they played an integral role in the family business. In 1865, 82 percent of the nation’s adolescents lived in families with five or more children. By 1930, the majority of minors had two or fewer siblings.

The stark drop in family size during that time period — from a median of 7.3 children per household to just 2.6 — was partly the result of moving from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. And during the industrial age, the economic hardships of the Great Depression left many couples unable to provide for several mouths. On its heels came World War II, with millions of young men serving overseas, their prayers focused on making it home rather than starting families.

But the war ended, troops returned home and start families they did. In the days, months and years following WWII, today’s “Baby Boomer” set was born. Births rose steadily from a rate of 2.19 per family in 1940 to a peak of 3.58 in 1957. Americans — including Catholics — began growing their families enthusiastically.

One factor driving Catholic family size during this period was traditional Church teaching, which instructed married couples then — as now — to be completely open to bringing new life into the world. “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married life is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Adherence to this teaching in the late 1940s and ’50s, says CUA history Professor Leslie Tentler, was “reinforced by the post-war feeling that the best thing you can do now is go home and have lots of babies and look for happiness in private life because the public world is a very dangerous place.” Combine these factors with the trend toward marrying young — the textbook age for brides was 20 — and a couple could create a very large family over the course of 15 or 20 years.

“In 1955 if someone said, ‘There’s a family that lives down the street from me and they have 14 kids,’ and you said, ‘I bet that family is Catholic,’ you’d have much better than a 50 percent chance of being right,” reports Tentler. “Most Catholic families did not have nine, 10 or 11 children, but there were those who did, and there were enough to make them a really visible presence in a neighborhood.”

But that surge began to ebb in the later 1960s and ’70s, as several cultural factors began discouraging parents from having more children. Catholics increasingly married outside of their faith, to spouses that did not necessarily share the same child-rearing beliefs. Many also began making their own decisions — independent of Church teachings — regarding the use of birth control. As women became increasingly college-educated and employed, the balance between raising a family and going out to work became a major consideration. Catholic parents, many of whom had gotten college degrees and good jobs, wanted the same opportunities for their children, which often meant paying for each child’s college tuition. Meanwhile, the issue of the environmental impact of a rapidly expanding population was gaining public prominence — and discouraging the practice of having large families.

In 1936, a Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of Americans thought a family of three or more children was ideal, a preference that held steady for the next three decades. The same poll, conducted in 1973, marked the beginning of a sea change — with preference for three or more children dropping to 50 percent. By 1980, just 40 percent favored three or more children and the average “preferred family size” had fallen to 2.5 children, a number that has hovered between 2 and 2.5 in the decades since.

Ask a young couple today what the biggest challenge of having a large family might be, and usually it comes down to dollar signs. The cost of having children in today’s economy can seem overwhelming.

Mairin (Gilhooly) Kuligowski’s family offers a modern portrait of a “large” family — large when compared to the 2.1 average of today’s American family. Now a mother of five, Kuligowski graduated from CUA in 1992 and met her husband four years later. One of four children herself, Kuligowski and her husband knew they wanted a large family, but they were also a little worried about the expense that would go with it. They did end up needing a bigger car to seat everyone and Mairin found that children’s sports could get pretty expensive. Flying makes the cost of a vacation soar, so now the Kuligowski clan of seven drives to holiday destinations.
There’s also that nagging tendency to try to “keep up with the Joneses.” That gets pretty tough to do when the Joneses have only two children. “You don’t want to tell your kids, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ ” Kuligowski says.

But that doesn’t mean indulging every whim, either. “I think a lot of people look at it like, ‘Each child has to have their own bedroom,’ or ‘Oh, I need to provide this, and this and this,’ when, in reality, they don’t need their own Everything,” she says. “Kids are just so willing to share. All of my girls share a room together and they choose to — we have an extra bedroom.”

“I think people are so afraid of not being able to give their kids everything they want,” says Lynne (Dardis) Pesce (B.A. 2002), herself one of 10 siblings. “It’s much harder financially when you think of a number like 10 and you think of college or even elementary school tuition.” She admits the prospect can seem overwhelming, but as a young mother of two she still aspires toward a big family of her own. “I wouldn’t trade anything for one of my siblings,” Pesce says, invoking her grandmother’s oft-quoted philosophy about a big family — “It’s better than having a yacht.”

“Balancing finances is just as important for us as it is for other families,” says the eldest Kilner offspring, Patrick. But finances aren’t going to limit his family’s size. The biggest difference distinguishing his family from others, says Patrick, “is our concept of what our children need in order to grow to become productive members of society and virtuous men and women. I would argue that having siblings is far more crucial to meeting these ends than any college degree.” His father readily agrees, proudly noting that all of his college-age children have paid their own way through school.

“Both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa have said the best gift you can give to your children is siblings,” says CUA Associate Professor of Theology John Grabowski. He and his wife have given that gift to a full handful of children, though he chuckles at the notion that five might now be considered a big family. He believes there is a tremendous amount of truth in the late pope’s message. “It teaches your children generosity, it teaches them not to focus on just themselves,” he says. “And if you can teach your kids that, you’ve taught them so much.”

CUA Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Gorman is another person who will tell you that larger families provide an antidote to selfish behavior. And he should know: At 42, he’s already the father of seven. “There are certain kinds of selfishness that are just harder in a large family,” Gorman says. “You don’t get your own bathroom; you have to wait in line for the shower.” And while all that daily sharing and sacrifice is a challenge, he says, it’s also a blessing.

“I get this question from people all the time: ‘How do you say ‘no’ to your kids?’” remarks Toni Kilner. “I say, ‘It’s really easy, I tell the kids we don’t have the money!’ ”

Saying “no” is a big secret to the success of the larger family, says Pat Kilner. “What we noticed is that if you have a smaller family, you actually have to think of how not to spoil your kids.”

“Couples need to push themselves away a little from the materialism of our culture,” Grabowski says. “Buying a new car: $15,000; building an addition on the house: $30,000; putting a Jacuzzi in the backyard: $2,500; having another child: priceless.”

But material desires aside, having confidence that the mortgage will get paid and the groceries and clothing will get purchased is not for the faint of heart. “It takes a certain amount of faith,” Lynne Pesce admits. “Maybe that’s why you see more religious people having larger families.”

Seeing it work as a child has made trusting that it will work as a parent much easier, she says. Growing up in her family’s crowded home in New Orleans, “Life was always an adventure, and always lots of fun,” she recalls. So when she married at 24, she knew she wanted the same bustling family environment. Her husband, Stephen, shares that desire, but since he grew up with only one sibling, Lynne says he gets a little nervous about the logistics of going big.

“We saw it work out,” she says of making ends meet in a family of 12. “Even during times when money was tighter than usual, things just always worked. I don’t know how it happened.” Pesce says the most important thing for her is the tricky balance between being practical, staying open to God’s will — and trying not to plan too much. “I think there’s a call to be open,” she says. “I could want 20 kids, but if I were not able to have them, I’d have to be as accepting of that [reality] as I would of God giving me another child when I’m not necessarily ready for one.”

That feeling of needing to be ready, of needing to plan, may well be the Achilles heel of Generations X and Y. Where do children factor in when it comes to a career plan, graduate school, buying a house or paying off student loans? What is the five-year or 10-year plan?

“I think maybe our parents’ generation was a little bit better about letting God help you get through these things and not worry so much about family finances,” says Ryan McAllister (B.A. 1999).

Having gotten married in December 2006, McAllister, now 29, says that he and his wife, Deb (Ruggiero) McAllister (B.S.N. 1999), know they want to have a large family, and they’re trying to resist the temptation to get bogged down by financial planning.

While marrying in their late twenties wasn’t something the McAllisters “planned,” it does fit a growing trend. Since 1950, the average age for first marriages has inched up from 22.8 years to 27.1 for men and from 20.3 to 25.8 for women.

Mary Kay (Dardis) Barket (B.S. 1991) thought about children from an early age — for this elder sister of Lynne and the second oldest in their family of 12, the subject was largely unavoidable. “I did a lot of baby-sitting,” she volunteers with a laugh. And having enjoyed what she calls the frenetic but fantastic home life of a big family, Barket knew she’d be open to having plenty of children herself. She entered corporate life after graduating from CUA — all the while keeping her eye out for Mr. Right. Barket jokes that she dated every eligible Catholic man in Manhattan — some of them twice — hoping to find her life partner. When at 32 years of age she married her husband, Bruce, 42, they were open to having as many children as they could, but realized that age might play a factor. Their daughter Katie is now 18 months old, but Mary Kay, 38, is acutely aware that, physiologically, a large family is probably not in the cards.

Plenty of young people today think they’ve already found the right person, but for a variety of reasons they choose to delay marriage and a family. That doesn’t mean they’re delaying other aspects of married life, however. Indeed, an estimated half of all married couples cohabited before marriage and in 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 4.9 million unmarried-partner households. Pat Kilner, who helped teach a Catholic marriage preparation course with his wife, said he was amazed to realize that most of the young Catholic couples they instructed were already living together, a reality that points to perhaps the most immediate cause of smaller family sizes: contraception.

“What happens is people have already planned their life,” Pat says. “If they’re living together, they’ve already started a contraceptive lifestyle. So when they’re married, they’re already in that lifestyle.”

That “contraceptive lifestyle” appears to have become predominant: According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 90 percent of Catholics (as compared with 93 percent of all Americans) support the use of contraception. In a 2005 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 78 percent of the U.S. Catholics surveyed said the next pope should allow Catholics to use birth control. And in 2006, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a document encouraging married child-bearing-age Catholics to embrace natural family planning, perhaps in response to surveys that show most Catholic couples use some form of artificial birth control.

“From what I have observed, it seems many couples believe that having more than two children is asking for a catastrophe,” says Patrick Kilner. “They think that once you have two, you are matched up man-to-man, but that by having three or more children, you are forced into playing zone defense,” he says. “The reality is children can become a parent's greatest resource in parenting, whether they are older or younger in the lineup.”

“It’s easier than it seems,” says Professor Gorman, the father of seven. “When someone pictures a family with seven children, they sometimes think of seven 3-year-olds, and that’s really hard.” But Gorman says his older children now do much of the housework and baby-sitting.

This points to a model that Pat Kilner has coined the “suburban family farm mentality,” in which every member of the family plays a role in the household machine, from setting the dinner table to mowing the lawn. “So they naturally learn early to take responsibility and work for a greater cause,” he says. Giving a child the confidence and the tools to take on responsibility at an early age is one of the most important lessons you can offer him, says Kilner.

“Being part of a large family gives you a good sense of self and self-esteem, and it’s good for humility,” says Barket, who draws a connection to her nearly two decades spent in the corporate world. She says she was able to get along with co-workers and stay grounded, something she credits her siblings with fostering. “Coming from a big family and being forced to get along with a variety of personalities helped.”

Beyond the acquired social skills, Kuligowski observes an added benefit that most of our large-family parents say cannot be overstated: how much siblings enjoy each other. Of course built-in playmates provide an obvious perk, but it’s much more than that, she notes. “They really watch out for each other — especially for the 1-year-old. They don’t get uptight about stuff, and they’re willing to try more things because they see it can be done,” says Kuligowski, noting that her 3-year-old son insisted on bypassing training wheels in favor of a two-wheel bike — because that’s what his older brothers and sisters were riding.

Even at 10:30 on a Monday night, the Kilner home is bursting with energy. Antoinette has just returned from running some errands; she excitedly shows off the purse she bought as a gift for Katie’s eighth-grade graduation. Having graduated from CUA in May, Antoinette is home for a few weeks before she begins a two-year volunteer teaching program in Chicago. She sits down at the table and helps herself to a plate of blueberry cobbler, which she cooked earlier for the family’s dinner.

Pat likes to tell a story about Antoinette. It begins on a day in 1985 when finances were looking rather bleak for him. As a private contractor of family homes, his business had taken a hit, money he was owed had not been paid, and he’d been forced to lay off his staff and fold his business. “I was bankrupt,” Pat recalls. “I owed more money than I could count.” That evening, Toni told him she knew he would be very successful — and that God must have thought so, too, because she was pregnant.

“Now,” Pat says, looking back 22 years later, “if you had thought about the ‘right’ time to have a baby, that was the absolute wrong time to have a baby.” He pauses, then adds softly, “And that’s our lovely Antoinette.”

Michael, a sophomore in high school, wanders in and gladly grabs the late-night snack of leftover cobbler his mother is cutting up. Katie, taking a momentary break from studying for her final exams, makes an appearance: She has her arm around her 10-year-old sister, Mary Eileen, who’s woken from a bad dream. Upstairs, Brigid is sleeping.

“Sometimes you actually do it somewhat blindly,” Pat Kilner says, musing on the course his life has taken. “You say, ‘I don’t know where this is going’ when you’re 30, but I tell you, looking back at 52, I wouldn’t change a thing — except maybe trying to have a few more.”

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Revised: July 2007

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