Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh reminisces about 10 lessons she learned growing up in a family with nine children.
“You have how many brothers and sisters?” This was a common question we would get when we were kids. Was it difficult being part of a large Catholic family? Did we have to make lots of sacrifices because of it? Absolutely!! Did we have issues of privacy? Oh, clearly we did. Were there frequent arguments over what was yours and what was “shareable”? Well, I’m not even sure if that’s a word. Regardless, pretty much everything we had, we were taught to share.
Being Catholic had its responsibilities also. My siblings and I attended Catholic grade schools and Catholic high schools. Payment for the grade school was made based on what your family could afford. Looking back, that must have been a huge relief for my parents. The Sunday offering was the place to pay; that way your privacy was respected. My dad sang in the choir and often did solos. He was a convert and it was important for him to give back in this way.
Each of us started working at age 14 so that we could afford our high-school tuition. I worked in the cafeteria during the three lunch periods to earn credit off the tuition bill. Essentially, I gave up having a study hall. My mother was adamant about our attending Catholic school. You’ve heard people say that in large families they made sure there was always food and clothes but then everything else came after that? In our family, it was Catholic education and then anything left over was for food. Clothes: not a big priority! We relied on stores like Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul for clothing. It wasn’t unusual that when we had to dress up, we wore our school uniforms. Mostly those uniforms were donated by the school from children that outgrew them.
Financially, it was a huge burden. My parents struggled most of their married life to keep things going for their family. So was it all worth it? Wouldn’t it have been better to have fewer children and then be able to give those children so much more? What possibly could we have gained from the circumstances we were raised in?
The answer: everything!! I truly believe the lessons we learned were invaluable.
I should clarify here: I realize that in many Catholic homes, important lessons are taught. I know I tried to do the same with my children. I have come to realize there is something special about growing up in a large family. I believe that it prepared me for so many of life’s challenges. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I wouldn’t have been exposed to growing up in a large family. Would I be the person I am today? Would I have the same skills that have made me who I am?
Lesson 1: Share and compromise.
My mother used to say “I didn’t give you kids much, but I gave you each other.” We knew no matter what friends we had or didn’t have, whatever hardship we were experiencing or whatever accomplishment we made, we would always have our brothers and sisters at home to share it with. We learned the value of giving until it hurts. If someone was in need of something, any one of us would extend a hand to help. This lesson carries over with all of my family, even today.
Lesson 2: Communicate.
You might say everyone learns this in some way within their family dynamic. We learned about it at our kitchen table. Gathering there was a common occurrence. My mother would begin many discussions sitting there drinking her coffee and talking to us, sometimes individually, but many times with all of us together. It was the place to talk about school, friends, difficulties, and yes, even God.
Lesson 3: Keep God and faith in your life.
Some of us were into adulthood before we realized it, but each of my siblings and I have been impacted by this lesson. My mother set the tone and example and we followed her lead.
Lesson 4: Humility and sacrifice.
I remember so many of my friends having so much in comparison to us. I admit to remembering being envious of clothes and things that some of these friends had that we didn’t. We were often reminded that those were just things. What was important was being together as a family. I should offer a side note here that it’s interesting how many times it was at our home that these same friends wanted to come hang out. I learned later how enjoyable it was for these friends to be in our home with music, laughter, and love always there.
Lesson 5: Respect and love.
As adults, my siblings are still some of my closest friends. We help each other by being sounding boards for family problems, issues with raising our children, and other important decisions with life. The ability to show empathy was something we seemed to learn. I am so grateful that these expressions of love were present in our home. No matter what mistakes you made, you knew there would be a response such as “Don’t worry, it will all be OK,” and mostly, lots of suggestions to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Lesson 6: Responsibility.
From a very young age, I always had responsibilities and daily chores. I believe these taught self-knowledge and self-reliance and even self-confidence.
Lesson 7: Team building.
I never seemed to lack for someone to play with. You would always ask “Hey, do you want to play four-square?” (or kickball or basketball) or “Do you want to ride bikes?” It never mattered whether we were proficient at any one of these skills, we just knew there was always someone to do these things with.
Lesson 8: The value of giving to others.
Children growing up in large families understand from early on the meaning of responsibility and why it’s so important to give to others. Consequently, the moral development moves from “self” to giving to others.
Lesson 9: Independence.
Another lesson I learned from a noticeably young age: if you wanted something you would have to work for it. My siblings and I all began working at the age of 14 to pay our tuition for Catholic school. If we wanted anything beyond that, we would have to pay for it ourselves. We were not able to afford those extras that so many kids get today.
Lesson 10: Appreciate talent.
My father was a great singer. His love of music was passed on to several of my siblings. Five of my siblings were musically talented. There was always lots of music in our home. My mother enjoyed writing, so my sister and I leaned more in that direction. My other sister is a nurse. Most nurses are excellent at multi-tasking. This is certainly the case for my sister, Judy. She is one of the best. She is the go-to person in our family and usually the first phone call whenever anyone is experiencing a health issue.
I think we don’t often appreciate the value of our upbringing until we are grown adults with families of our own. In our case and in our situation, we just always knew it. Each of us has a strong sense of giving to others. We knew how important family and faith was for living a fulfilling life.
To this day, I am grateful to my parents. I am happy to have learned the importance of having God in my life. This all happened because of growing up in a large Catholic family!
Copyright 2021 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh
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About the Author
Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh (Cathy) completed her education in Special Education and English and now works as an Agent in the Insurance Industry. A mother and Grandmother, Cathy grew up in a large Catholic family and has spent the last 30 years as a caregiver for her husband, Jack. She is a cancer survivor, which inspired her to begin writing.