In Praise of Big Families

Pope Francis recently praised the benefits of big families – that a big family teaches children selflessness and sharing, which benefits the whole of society – and I couldn’t agree more.

I was raised as an only boy with five sisters, which was at once a blessing and a curse.

Thomas Purcell 1

When I was 12, the neighborhood bully was constantly picking on me, but I had no brothers to teach me to fight. My sisters taught me. I looked the bully dead in the eye and said, “You are soooooooo immature!”

Despite me having no brothers, my father made me wear hand-me-downs. It wasn’t too bad most of the year, but Easter Sunday was unpleasant. Do you know how hard it is to outrun the neighborhood bully with your pantyhose bunching up on you and your bonnet flopping in the wind?

Though my sisters loved and doted on me at times, at other times they complained to my parents that my behavior grossed them out. (So I liked to pick my nose. Big whoop!)

I longed to have a brother – longed to have someone of like mind and griminess – and almost was blessed with one in 1970 with my mother’s sixth pregnancy. (I had four sisters by then and my mother had suffered one miscarriage years before.)

All of us were rooting for a boy. And if the baby was a boy we would name him Edward, after my mother’s father.

I had big plans for little Eddie. I’d teach him to play ball. We’d ride bikes together. We’d go down to the creek by the water company and build a dam and catch crayfish. We’d build a shack in the woods!

Early one morning, my mother began having contractions. Our neighborhood went into Red Cross mode. Mrs. Krieger tended to my mother, as my father rushed home from work to drive my mother to the hospital. Other neighbors were assigned to watch over my sisters and me. And then Mrs. Clearly showed up with a meatloaf, as she did every time any family in our church had an emergency.

I was placed with Mrs. Gillen, since I was buddies with her son, also named Tommy. Tommy and I played all afternoon. But after dinner, Mrs. Gillen pulled me aside.

“Tommy,” she said, in a somber tone, “may I talk with you?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling suddenly awkward.

She put her hand on my shoulder.

“Tommy, it is about your mother. It is about her baby. Tommy, your mother had a miscarriage.”

The doctor told my father the baby was a boy. We were all saddened by our loss, and my parents would eventually heal. They’d have one more child, my sister Jennifer, almost a year later, and our family would roll along.

According to Breitbart, Pope Francis said that “the fact of having brothers and sisters is good for you: the sons and daughters of a large family are more capable of fraternal communion from early childhood.”

He said that “each family is the cell of society, but the large family is a richer, more vibrant cell … .”

I found this to be true.

My parents’ house is still a raucous place where people come and go at all hours. The laughter and drama common to big extended families has filled me with an incredible sense of joy and camaraderie. It has been great to be the only boy with five sisters and, when we get together, we laugh as hard as we ever did.

Still, I wonder how different my life would have been if I had a little brother. We could have teamed up to really gross out our sisters. And we’d surely be best buddies today.

That’s why I still get sad, now and then, at the loss of little Eddie.

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