What to do when you stick out like a sore thumb…
I go everywhere with my five (going on six) children. This is mostly because I like going places with them, but also because they’re still too young to leave at home by themselves. When we go out in public, whether it is for shopping, recreation, or a quick library stop, I’ll often look up for a moment from whatever task I had been focusing on and find myself confronted with the unsettling (because I’m really rather shy) sight of someone staring at me. Just staring.
Many times, what I see is a look of pleasant interest. Often, I have seen looks of disgust. Other times, it has been pity or simply blank incomprehension. Sometimes it’s just plain amusement. It’s OK! I think we’re funny, too. People usually don’t seem to know that their thoughts are plainly written on their faces, and for the most part, they are simply reacting normally. Most people have very little experience with large families, and so I don’t blame them for wondering. Still, it requires a thickening of the skin to grow a large family–or, for that matter, to be different in any other way.
My children and I are well-behaved, civilized people–or so we think, at least. There is no public nose-picking or loud cursing or otherwise uncouth behavior in our ranks. (Well, alright. The nose-picking thing might be a problem for some of our younger ones. But the rest of us are fairly presentable.) Our clothes are whole, clean, and covering all the right body parts. We’re usually not even getting in anybody’s way! Even in Walmart, where being courteous enough to try not to block the middle of the aisle makes us even more of a rarity, we try to make sure that we’re not a nuisance.
“What’s the big deal?” I used to wonder.
Fortunately (for my curiosity’s sake, if not for that of my peace of mind) many of these individuals, upon noticing my noticing them noticing me, have pulled their faces back into a semblance of politeness and taken the time to tell me what it is that has them so shocked.
It is my brazen display of fertility!
I don’t mean to give the impression that we’re in danger of being stoned and left for dead every time we go to the library. Most people are, in fact, kind and sweet and accepting! Once even the most unguarded observer has picked his chin up from the floor and put on his company manners, he will still treat us as an oddity, but a harmless or even enjoyable one. Real hostility is rare, thank God! However, scattered amongst the harmless and amusing comments and smiles, there are always those scandalized few who are all too happy to let me know that what I’m doing is not at all socially acceptable:
“Doesn’t your husband know how this keeps happening?” (As if I’d somehow duped him into this.)
“Slow learner, huh?” (Spoken directly to my husband with a humiliating sidelong glance at my very-pregnant belly.)
“You poor thing! I’d go crazy!” (Um, my children have ears and they can HEAR you!)
“That’s too many! You can stop now.”
“Last one, I hope!”
Or, when spoken a certain way, the words that mean “you poor idiot” in the South: “Bless your heart!”
These are, thankfully, extreme examples, (hand-picked for their egregious rudeness). I try very hard not to lump them in with the well-meaning individuals who are just remarking out of surprise or interest.
But it is at times difficult to know how to respond, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but when I go grocery shopping, I don’t think I should have to talk about birth control with random men who don’t know me. People who are addressing you expect a response, and I was raised to offer one, so it puts me in kind of a bind.
What does one do, when one is weary of the whole discussion?
I’ve given a name to this uneasy, unhelpful feeling I carry with me to Walmart: Sore Thumb Syndrome. Try as I might to ignore the fact, we stick out, and people notice, and sometimes what they say hurts. The temptation after a few painful encounters is to protect and defend, not engage. That’s natural! But defensiveness is almost never appropriate because most people aren’t trying to be hurtful.
I’m a pretty introverted person, and when I speak to people about things that matter, I don’t want it to be in the middle of the dairy aisle. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to do it anyway:
Be patient. My children haven’t taught me nearly as much patience as have the strangers who like to remark on the amount of patience I must have. I have to remind myself that this is a completely different person than the last person who said the exact same thing to me. Yes, I am tired of hearing “You’ve got your hands full.” But this lady doesn’t know that. I have to remember that the person in line behind me is not to be held responsible for the fact that I’ve already heard (and answered) that particular comment one hundred and thirty times. She gets my standard “Yes, ma’am, they keep me busy.” It’s not witty, but…well, I do have my hands full. I don’t have time to be witty!
Pay attention. Sometimes “bless your heart” is just a random comment. Sometimes it’s a door to a real conversation. Last month, a dear lady said that to me, and it did sound at first as if she were feeling sorry for me. But I stopped to talk with her for a minute, and found out that she’d had one child who (as she put it) “lived as a vegetable for eleven years” after a complicated delivery. After that, she was barren for ten years. Her second child was a wonderful blessing to her, and she wanted to talk to me about how blessed she was to have him. Her interest in my number of children was a chance for me to meet a kindred spirit, and a sister in Christ. It was her chance to talk about something that she probably didn’t have a lot of chances to talk about–her sacrificial love for her children. Her story ministered to me, and I hope I was able to minister to her in my response to it, as well. If I’d ignored her as I was tempted to do, I’d have missed a blessing! This sort of thing happens pretty frequently, so I’ve learned to never assume that there’s nothing new to learn from the same old remark.
Know that this is just small talk. Typically, people who like to do small talk will pick whatever topic first springs to mind. Forget about the weather. When you have five children hanging off your cart, they are what is going to come to mind first. Unfortunately, the fact that I hate small talk is not going to stop the people around me from loving it. “Introvert” is not the same thing as “rude”, so I’ve accepted that I’m going to have to suck it up and be the topic of conversation for a minute. It’ll be over in thirty seconds. I can handle thirty seconds of small talk.
Smile. The very last thing I ever want to do when asked about my very busy life is give the impression that I’m not enjoying it. That’s pretty tough to accomplish some days, not because I’m not enjoying it (I am!), but because the conversation itself is not pleasant. It is hard to smile and respond graciously when I’m told how much someone would hate to be in my shoes. This is an insult to my children! But I will not have my children thinking that our critics (and yes, some percentage of these people are critics, rather than just curious bystanders) must have a point because Mama is such a crankypants when she talks about it. Each one of these little people is a blessing in his own way. I can enjoy telling others about that, even if I don’t enjoy the way the conversation started.
Witness. You’ve got a conversation starter. Use it! As my mother-in-law reminded me recently, we are a peculiar people. Following Christ has led us to a very unusual lifestyle, and we must expect to be treated as oddballs. Christ sustains us, nurtures us, and yes, blesses us through our families! Never miss an opportunity to praise God for what he has done in your family. Children are a blessing!
As long as we’ve got this conversation going, though, let’s try very hard not make it all about the kids. See if you can find something out about the person to whom you’re speaking, as well, and minister in whatever small way you can. I certainly don’t do this every time, but there’s a nudge that the Holy Spirit gives when a little bit more than a smile and a nod is required. Go with that nudge.
Shamefully, I’ve been given to complain about the number of comments and questions I’ve gotten over the last few years. It is hard sometimes, and I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting it. But we need to be positive in our interactions with others, and complaining is a very bad thing to do. Jesus said so. We large-family parents are human, though, and this kind of attention (especially the cruel or unthinking kind) requires practice to handle gracefully. This is doubly true for those of us who prefer to go through life receiving very little attention at all.
Just as I’ve learned to thank God for the hard work of motherhood because the time that I’ll have these miracles in my home is so short, I’m certain that there will be a day when I miss even the strangest of comments, because the silence means that I’ve run out of ducklings to waddle behind me. Even the pettiest comments will fade away from my memory one day, but God will require an account of my response to each one.
35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.
If I’ve learned one thing, it is this: Make your answers good. The person to whom you’re responding may need more than an empty, canned response.