We have a family of seven-to-ten, depending on whether my step kids are visiting; as you might imagine, we consume a tremendous amount of food. You may be thinking that our children are too small to do much damage to the pantry, but you would be wrong. These kids are born eaters, gobbling up copious amounts of grub, which gives them fuel to rush around in frenzied play burning it off just in time for the next meal. The problem with a large family eating a lot of food is that it requires many trips to the grocery store (or at least a couple very long trips), often which includes bringing the large family’s worth of children with me. It’s a vicious cycle that can be stopped only by cutting off their food supply or buying a self-sustaining farm.
Whenever possible, I schedule the shopping trips while my husband is home, but this isn’t always possible with his long, erratic work hours. Often I am left with no choice but to bring the kids with me or concoct a dinner recipe using baking soda, soy sauce and stale Doritos. Aside from being a chaotic way to shop, my five little tagalongs turn a simple run to the market into an all-day excursion.
First there is the preparation. If I had one child I probably wouldn’t think twice about tossing them in the car bedraggled and mismatching; after all, it’s a toddler in the grocery store, who cares right? But a little-known rule of the large family is that we absolutely must keep our children looking a notch above the rest, at least while in public. From the moment you decide to have more than three children, you volunteer yourself up for constant public scrutiny. A single child with bedhead and dirty knees from a morning at the playground is “adorable”; however when they have four siblings with them it is seen as “neglect at the hands of a mother who couldn’t possibly have enough time to take care of them all.”
After a round of showers, wardrobe changes and enough hair styling to qualify me for beauty school, the children look presentable and I look… well, like I had just spent two hours wrestling five kids in and out of the shower. My uniform tends to consist of an oversized t-shirt and yoga pants with flip flops. My hair gets shoved back into a messy bun, unbrushed, and my only makeup is a pair of oversized sunglasses to hide the fact that I’m wearing no makeup. But in the eyes of the judgmental outsider, my embarrassment is a far more acceptable alternative.
I load the kids into my ancient Suburban, a feat far easier now that we are down to two carseats and three boosters. I buckle the baby in while Tony & Brileigh help the preschoolers and off we go. Long gone are the days of carrying each of them out of the house one by one and hurrying to strap them into five-point harnesses while the remainders run amok unsupervised inside. In a few short years everyone will be able to get in and out all alone, which might even leave me enough time to brush my teeth.
Before I can even back out of the driveway the barrage of questions begin;
“Where are we going?”
“Which store? ToysRUs?” (I have never in my life been stupid enough to take all five children into a toy store, but they never stop asking.)
“The grocery store”
The resulting cheer is possibly more enthusiastic than if I had been on my way to buy toys; after all, they can’t eat toys. Menu requests ranging from apples to gum rang out from both rows of bench seats behind me. I absent-mindedly satiated them with mumbled answers as I focused on maneuvering my massive vehicle through the parking lot without getting a “smart car” stuck in the tread of my tire.
I find my usual parking spot next to the cart corral in the outer reaches of the lot. This is a prime large-family spot. Close enough to grab a cart to load the babies into, far enough away that innocent bystanders won’t get dented by distracted kids rushing to be the first ones out of the car. I load the baby in the front seat of the cart and Ainsley and Delaney into the basket area. Tony and Brileigh each mechanically take their place at either side of the cart and hold on, a habit that has been engrained in them from the time the younger kids came along, promoting them to walkers.
As we make our way through the aisles wedging only the barest necessities into the cart around the children, people stop us every ten feet to comment. Some are good natured and deliver the universal large-family greetings: “Boy, you have your hands full!” (yes, but at the moment it’s just my cart that’s full, and my 3 year-old is getting frost bite from the frozen pizza that is smashed against her leg, so I really must be going) and “Are they all yours?”(no, of course not, I just get bored shopping alone so I kidnapped them in the parking lot). I smile and answer politely as I squeeze a jar of peanut butter under Ainsley’s elbow.
Other more outgoing people, usually men over 60, like to crack the same tired jokes I hear every day as if they were the brilliant minds who originated such witty lines as “Haven’t you figured out what causes that yet?” (yes, yes I have, and I see you have no children; I’m not shocked) and “Boy, you guys should try getting a TV!” (nah, who needs TV when you can have sex all day long?). I’m not sure exactly how these comments became socially acceptable, considering you never see anyone going up to someone with one child and tell them they need to get laid more often. But it’s obvious that these crass one-liners are meant in good fun, so I laugh as if charmed by their wit, and balance a third box of cereal on Delaney’s lap.
But what truly astounds me is the number of people who seem to take personal offense to my cartful of children. Not because they are being loud or crying, not because they have said anything obnoxious or bratty, but simply because there are so many of them. The era of large families is decidedly over and going against the modern family mold has left me vulnerable to such nosy comments as “Lemmie guess, you have a welfare check in your pocket?” and “How many different Dads are there?” I often wish I had the personality type to stand up against such rudeness, but I’m usually left dumbstruck and embarrassed until 10 pm, at which point a brilliant retort pops into my head while lying in bed.
By the time I load my sixth gallon of milk under the cart, I have run out of time. Lacey starts dropping food over the side and kicking the bread, Delaney (or at least it sounds like Delaney) starts wailing from under a mountain of produce, and I discover that Ainsley has ripped open a box of goldfish crackers and is treating herself to an afternoon snack.
We stand in line for what seems like forever while the kids chat with anyone within ear shot until we get up to the conveyor belt where I can finally unbury my preschoolers and save my eggs from Lacey’s path of destruction. The bag boy looks at me hesitantly as I start piling the grocery bags back atop of my poor kids but I pretend not to notice, the same way I pretended not to notice the people in line behind inspecting my purchases to see what exactly I have time to cook.
Back at the car, which is undoubtedly now sandwiched between two vehicles despite the rows and rows of empty spaces all around, I fill up my spacious trunk area and load my babies back into their seats. Two hours were spent in the store and we only were able to fit enough food in the cart to get us through a couple days, but at least it would last us until I could go alone and do a full excursion at the wholesale club.
At home, my kids set to work unloading the groceries and carrying them into the house, Tony showing off his strength by carrying the heavy stuff and even little Lacey pitching in one can at a time. I can’t help but wonder what anyone could dislike about a family full of children. These children are taught that life isn’t always going to center around them; that sometimes they will have to spend a few hours sitting on a head of lettuce if they want to eat dinner. These children grow up learning that no matter how much of a hurry you are in, you need to stop and laugh at a lame joke to brighten an old man’s day. My grocery trips might take all day, but having a full family around the table makes it all worth it.