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As we approached the coffee shop, I steeled myself for another barrage of comments. My two elementary-aged children walked with me while I pushed a behemoth stroller containing our eleven-month-old triplets. It's impossible to go anywhere without at least a catcall or two from across the street of "Boy, you've got your hands full!"
Observations about the fullness of my hands, frequent though they are, are among the milder comments I hear daily. On this particular day, the tone was harsh and sharp from a middle-aged white woman standing next to us who said in a voice clearly intended to be overheard, "Revolting! To have so many children in this day and age!" My jaw dropped, and I quickly confirmed that neither of my older children had heard her. I fumed for a few minutes as I administered water to the babies who were happily oblivious to the ire their mere presence evoked in a stranger. I decided to hold my tongue, and was even able to laugh when the offender drove away in a car with a "Coexist" bumper sticker (the sort that has the "x" made out of the Star of David and the "C" as the crescent moon symbol for Islam).
Large Family TV
So I fume and sometimes laugh at the absurdity of these remarks. Yet, I wonder: What in the world are people thinking when they say these things (directly or indirectly) to me? Why does my admittedly large family move total strangers to approach me and hold forth? Have Jon and Kate ruined it for the rest of us?
Jon and Kate Gosselin, that is: king and queen of family "reality" television, parents of twins and sextuplets. Their lives are documented by the cable channel TLC for all to see, to their financial gain, and to the detriment of their children. They have sustained many a grocery store tabloid and provided lots of blogger fodder as their marriage unravels. A consensus seems to have (belatedly) formed that raising children in front of a camera is not such a good idea after all.
Within a day of sharing the news that we were, to our surprise, expecting triplets, strangers and friends alike asked me and my husband if we watched Jon and Kate. They asked with a noticeable urgency, suggesting that because I was pregnant with multiples I might learn something from the show (or at least feel that I had a lot in common with the Gosselin family). We do not watch the show—we don't own a television—but we have caught a few episodes on hotel TVs in order to see what all the fuss is about. (Fellow Americans without television: you, too, watch way too much TV every time you find yourself in a hotel room, don't you?)
I watched three episodes. I'll admit to a bit of morbid fascination on my part, of the car-wreck-cannot-look-away variety. But the show made me feel sullied. And not because of the way Kate talks to Jon (the subject of many a blog post in the world of Gosselin fans/haters), nor because of Kate's hair (completely incomprehensible to me, in much the same way that Donald Trump's is), but because of the absurd illusion being constructed by the Gosselins before their (and our) very eyes: the ignis fatuus of being a "normal" family. Both the Mr. and the Mrs. have repeatedly made statements like, "We just want to give the children a normal life." This, after taking twins and sextuplets to a pumpkin patch with the entire TLC production staff.
From Institution to Freak Show
I can say with confidence as the mother of triplets that having higher order multiples is not normal. Do I want a stable, loving environment for my five children, one in which they are each able to experience the typical joys and pitfalls of childhood? Of course, but make no mistake: Three high chairs at the table is not normal; thirty dirty diapers a day is not normal. Raising multiples is extraordinary, and if your goal is to give each child a "typical" childhood, then don't share your home with a television crew.
During my pregnancy, a well-meaning ultrasound technician suggested that I contact TLC to be on another one of their family reality shows, one that follows triplet pregnancies and deliveries. Wow, I thought, that sounds like the one way to be even more miserable during the last trimester of my pregnancy, a time when my circumference was almost equal to my height.
Far from being the adorable, inspiring celebration of a large family letting it all hang out on national television, as Jon and Kate Plus Eight is touted to be, the show is instead the embalmed corpse of the cultural institution of the big family, lying in state. The irony is that, as middle- and upper-class Americans tend to stop at two children per nuclear unit, reality television shows featuring large families thrive. The big family has moved from being an American institution (not for everyone, at every turn in history, to be sure, but an institution until recently nonetheless) to a voyeuristic freak show.
All reality shows, but particularly family-themed ones, breed a false sense of familiarity. Get two sentences into any fan's blog about the show and you'll read statements, such as: "Kate really didn't mean what she said about Jon last night," or, "Jon said on camera that he thought this about Kate, but he was clearly trying to tone down what he is really feeling." This faux-intimacy also runs through the comments by the show's detractors. The presumptions about the Gosselins—whom none of us know—abound.
Unsought Familiarity Breeds Contempt
This false familiarity, this feeling that a fan might really "know" Kate or "understand" Jon, horribly mistaken in the first place, is also transferred onto me! Yes, people have said stupid things to pregnant women and offered unsolicited advice to young mothers in grocery stores since time immemorial. And yes, my unusual circumstances might prompt the inane remarks. But it's the Gosselinization of the big family that makes people react the way they do to my own family.
We are an exceptional family; not everyone has seen triplets, certainly not in a five-foot long stroller cruising around town with two other siblings. I am sure mothers with triplets a hundred years ago, well before the demise of the big family and the advent of reality TV, heard "Got your hands full!" ad infinitum. (For the record: I prefer "God bless you!" to "Got your hands full!" because, although both appear to be well-intentioned, the former can be met with a cheerful, "Thank you!" whereas I am never sure what to say to the latter. "Well, duh?" is not quite my style, so I usually go with a smile and say, "Indeed!")
However, the assumed intimacy I experience daily is new. This faux fellowship bothers me. One woman called across a crowded playground, "Did you have them vaginal or caesarean?" Many people ask me if I did in vitro. (No, I did not, but thanks a lot! Now I am going to have to explain IVF to my six-year-old because you asked about it in front of her.)
I also don't care for the presumption of commercial connections: "I bet Pampers is sponsoring you!" The urge to compare and contrast lifestyles puzzles me, as when my neighbor with a Smart Car, an expensive but ostentatiously small vehicle, volunteered, "I'd rather have a Smart Car than triplets." (I responded, "Well, I'd rather have triplets than a Smart Car." He looked disappointed.) But the very worst of all is the extreme (and always unsolicited) negativity, like the former chair of my department who, when I told him I was expecting three babies at the end of the semester, instructed me to go home and tell my oldest son (then eight): "Your childhood is over."
I know that having five children is exceptional among educated white folks like myself, and I understand that triplets are so rare as to be sensational. Yet there's the white, middle-aged woman, with two ferrets on leashes, who came over to us at the city market and said, "Five children?! And triplets?? I would have committed suicide if I'd had triplets after these two," gesturing (well within earshot) to her own children. For her, large families are apparently a source of amusement or a freak show, rather than a kinship group of actual human beings. Therefore she, and so many others like her, feels compelled to express her opinion on my brood to me, in public, for all to hear.
An aside about the demographics of our unsought critics and fans: The people who smile and have something positive or encouraging to say generally are black, Hispanic, or Asian, or are white people well past their sixth decade. Those who are negative or intrusive (even if well meaning) are affluent young to middle-aged whites. My peers.
Morbid Fascination versus Nostalgia
There is a difference between actual nostalgia for a bygone cultural fixture and morbid fascination with something dead. The latter is what is promoted and celebrated by the rabid and dark fascination with the Gosselins, and what prompts Ms. Coexist and Ferret Lady to feel entitled to air their deeply personal feelings about my family. Nostalgia involves love and care of something, like the big family, and can be concomitant with the knowledge that it's not coming back (at least not for my socio-economic class in America). This love and care is altogether different from the acute objectification condoned by family-themed reality television.
If we feel actual nostalgia for, or even healthy fascination with, large families, then let's open the coffee shop door for the mother with the stroller and a few older ducklings in tow. Or let the father at the grocery store with a baby strapped to his chest and two other kids in the cart go in front of us in the checkout line. Or make dinner for the folks down the street who just had their third. Supporting the family-themed "unscripted series" industry as it objectifies and degrades the family—and especially its most vulnerable members, the children—sullies us all.
Our family walks downtown several times a week, always taking the same route. On almost every trip, we pass an octogenarian sitting on his porch. Until recently, we were only on waving and smiling terms, but yesterday he gestured to me that he wanted us to stop. We—I and my five children—waited for him to make his way down his sidewalk to us. By the time he reached us, he was misty-eyed. He stated simply and respectfully that our very presence on this earth and in his neighborhood heartened him; he was one of six children, and every time we stroll by he remembers his siblings, all of whom have now departed this life. He said he wished he could help us, but that given his age and poor health he felt he had little to offer my family.
Oddity and exception though we may be, we are not a sideshow, nor a Gosselinesque exhibition soliciting public comment. We are a family. My dear neighbor did help; he helped so much, by simply appreciating us as such. •
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