When Supersize Is Better

In the religious home of my youth, there was no privacy, but the overcrowding and warmth bred love and friendship.

Once we forgot my little sister at the bus stop. As the bus pulled away, my mother shrieked: "We forgot Nuriti!" We got off at the next top, boarded the bus in the opposite direction and went back for her. Today Nurit is a lawyer, but the story still brings a smile to our lips.

For a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) family without a car, visiting relatives was one of our vacation attractions. When we got on the bus or train, we would scatter with a joyful whoop and Mother would walk around counting heads. Sometimes she miscounted. The truth is, with two children of my own and a car at my beck and call, I can't say that six children romping around a bus, with a baby-in-arms and a cumbersome stroller to maneuver would be my idea of fun.

So it was pretty clear why my mother avoided going to places that she didn't have to go to. Like school, for example. Parent-teachers meetings? A waste of time. "You kids are at the top of the class anyway," she would say, hushing us up. And, of course, she was right.

It wasn't just that my mother was a rebel. In big families, there is no time for trivialities. All the girls in my class brought ironed towels and napkins. My mother thought it was pushing it to expect such a thing from someone who had four children in diapers. Anyway, an old towel cut into strips could do the job just as well.

No one ever sat with us to do our homework. No one ever wrote notes to the teacher. In an emergency, my mother would rip off the corner of a newspaper and scribble something in pencil. Out of embarrassment, we had to be the best in the class and not be late for school.

As children, what bothered us the most was the sandwiches. At a certain age, Mother stopped making them. What's the problem? Kids can't slap together a few slices of bread on their own?

People always have someone they are jealous of when they are young: the smartest kid in the class, the prettiest girl. My sisters and I remember the kids with the perfectly made sandwiches. Maybe that's why we get up every morning and make our kids the perfect sandwich.

We invest a lot in our mothering, not only in our sandwiches. But does that make it better? No way do we miss parent-teacher meetings or forget to check homework. We get involved in the tiniest nuances of friendships and quarrels. We hope, we cheer, we worry. We would never think to skip a regular dental check-up.

Sometimes I wonder how it works in these large Haredi families - the functioning ones, of course. Why do I have this impression that the children grow up perfectly fine, without complaints and with lots of happy memories? Am I a prisoner of nostalgia? My mother, who used to read a story in chapters to all seven of us every night, says that big families have a different style of child rearing. They raise kids in masses. Everything is geared to large quantities. They do the same thing, but without the excess anxiety, without lending undue importance to what kids want, without inspecting them under a magnifying glass.

But there was something else. On any given night in my childhood, it was hard to know how many people were sleeping at our house, with so many mattresses spread out on the floor, for sisters, for girlfriends. Not only the sleeping arrangements were shared, but also the clothes. It did lead to arguments. There was no privacy. But there was something about this overcrowding and warmth that bred love and friendship. It's a fact. Today, my sisters are my best friends.

I have tried hard to create the same experience for my children. But they are six years apart, and in a constant state of war. They shut themselves up in their private bedrooms, surrounded by their private toys, cell phones and computers. This year, my son is in first grade in the same school as my daughter. I imagined them walking down the leafy boulevard every morning hand in hand, the eldest taking charge of her little brother. But I worry that they will fight on the way, that he'll make her late. One way or another, I have plans to sneak behind them, at least in the beginning, to make sure that everything is okay.