Parents of big broods buck Palo Alto trends
A little more than a century ago, women in the U.S. on average gave birth to seven children each. That number has steadily dropped to 2.1 children today, and in Palo Alto, the average family is downright petite — 3.06 persons, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
The reasons are many: the urbanization of the country, the rise of the two-income household, both sexes postponing marriage and families, and even concerns about population growth.
Raising a child also is not cheap. It costs at least $266,770 per child for a low- to middle-income household, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sum can be double for a family earning above $100,000.
But some Palo Altans are bucking the trends, opting to raise large families in a world where small is considered beautiful — or at least practical. Many were raised in large households themselves and found the experience rich and loving. Others hold strong spiritual beliefs that children are the blessing of a loving god.
Their choices are not without consequences. With more children comes a greater scarcity of time and weightier financial decisions. Unlike their neighbors who have one or two kids, parents of big broods have to work hard to maintain family cohesion and to give each child adequate individual time, they said.
Fathers with demanding Silicon Valley careers that pay for their families' needs must balance work with a focus on being present with their children in targeted ways. Mothers, some of them formerly career driven, must adjust to managing the chaos of an always bustling household.
But amid the hubbub of shifting play dates, sports activities and recitals, these Palo Alto couples say they have learned to manage their wealth of children and the challenges that accompany them.
Five large families sat down with the Weekly to discuss the joys and challenges of raising children in Palo Alto.
The Kadifas: The diversity is enriching
When people learn that Sally and Abdo (George) Kadifa have five kids, they always get a reaction, she said.
"Our family is on the large side," she conceded, but it's not that unusual from her perspective.
Sally, 52, was also raised in a family of five children, a number that was not considered large when she was growing up. In her Minnesota community, she recalled families with six to 13 children. George has only one brother, but his parents' home in Lebanon was always filled with extended family, she said.
Growing up with her siblings was enriching, she said.
"They are totally different from me. But I like that there are these people I'm very close to who I wouldn't have known otherwise. They are some of my closest friends," she said. And she wanted to give her children — George, 21, Margaret, 19, J.J., 16, Charlotte, 12, and Sophie, 10 — the same experience.
The Kadifas married when Sally was 29 and George was 30. They knew they wanted a big family, and they were willing to make the sacrifices, they said.
When their first child was about to be born, George was embarking on a high-tech career that would take much of his concentration and time. Sally was in her medical residency. She decided not to complete her training.
Sally said she knew George could not build his career if he had to split his time with managing the household and children while she continued her career.
For Sally, giving up her career "was a difficult decision," George said. "I was lucky to have her make that family choice. It hasn't been easy."
When the children were young, he worked at Oracle during an intense time. His job became 24/7, and "it was critical how to balance travel with being present," he said.
"When our first son was born, I had to go to Japan. A kid his age, every few weeks they look different," he said.
He founded a company that went IPO, which kept him on the road for four weeks, he recalled.
"Sally was the support that protected everything. I couldn't imagine the family moving forward at that time without her. In some ways, I feel she did all the work and I didn't," he said.
George said he never imagined he would have five children, but he loves having a large family.
"The more children we had, the more we enjoyed it," he said.
To keep close to his children and balance his busy schedule, he will have dinner at home sometimes and take a red-eye flight for business. He will fly back the next day so the children will have the continuity of seeing him. In some ways, that arrangement has been advantageous, he said.
"Sometimes I felt that I got more sleep on the red eye than at home," he said, somewhat sheepishly.
"With large families, the key is patience. To be fair with everyone is critical and to make sure that everyone is equal," he said.
Sally said that with a 12-year spread in ages, it is important that the children find common ground with one another. She looked for things they could do together. Everyone took part in the Peninsula Swim Association Summer Swim League, and the family took part in the First Congregational Church's spring musical, including Sally.
"That made it less crazy for me. We never did club soccer or volleyball. When there are five kids, you can't have one parent leave for out-of-town games on a regular basis," she said.
If there are shortcomings from having many children, Sally said it hasn't seemed to affect her children negatively.
"One thing they give each other is a lot of attention. Where I sometimes feel I fall short, they do a lot for each other," she said.
There are things she wishes she could have done, however.
"We never got to Disneyland when my oldest daughter was in the middle of the princess phase. We couldn't go with an infant and a baby," she said.
Ironically, her toughest parenting challenges haven't come from within the family but from the Palo Alto school community, she said. Parent volunteers make many of the activities happen, but the volunteer opportunities — and what is expected — are set up for parents of two kids.
Schools rely on parents for everything from classroom help to driving on field trips, she said.
"Many nursery schools require parents to help out weekly or monthly during the school day. There are informational meetings to attend for many activities. By participating parents get to know other parents and build community and support each other in raising their families. This is very positive, but sometimes with a large family it can be overwhelming to try to participate in some way in everything each child is doing — even if that is limited to two activities per child," she said. "That is 10 activities ... in addition to school and church involvement.
"With a large family, it sometimes feels that there just aren't enough hours in the week for two parents to do it all," she said. "You can't do everything that people expect from you. Sometimes I feel I haven't done everything I should do. I do what I can do," she said.
As her own parents have aged, Sally said she's been grateful to have many siblings to help share in decision-making.
"In any kind of tough time, it's nice to have that family there for you. You're sharing that long history together. There aren't many people you can say that about," she said.
The Etheringtons: Teaching tolerance and responsibility
A photo-mural of family covers an entire wall of Linda and Robert Etherington's home. There are little girls in dresses on a spacious front lawn and the family posed on the front porch. One part of the giant mural contains a family joke of sorts: all seven girls sit lined up with their backs to the camera. Each wears a sports jersey with her position in the family on the back — numbers 1 through 7.
Linda Etherington smiled at the mural.
"We love kids. We love being around kids," said Etherington, who has six brothers and sisters. Robert was also raised in a family with six children, she added.
"There was always someone to play with, always someone to go somewhere with. My mom was easygoing. She let us go play for hours. When she wanted us, she had a giant bell and she'd gong it," she recalled.
The Etheringtons' brood includes Avianne, 21; Allyson, 20; Holly, 18; Cassidy, 17; Amy, 15; Taylor, 9; and Elizabeth, 7.
"Because of our faith we consider children to be a great blessing and opportunity," Etherington, who is Mormon, said.
She said she understands and doesn't discount concerns about overpopulation, but the family believes God loves children and wants them to be brought up to do good in the world. From a young age, the Etheringtons' children have learned compassion, tolerance and self-sufficiency.
"Their first job started at 18 months. When I changed their diaper, they would walk over and throw it away. Everyone has something to do," she said.
Etherington said she was amazed at how even at age 4 her children could read what was going on around them and instinctively knew what to do.
Eldest daughter Avianne Germany, who is married and has a baby daughter, said she was always aware of what needed to be done. When she turned 8 years old, she was responsible for making the school lunches. That was her job until she was a high school freshman.
"And laundry. I always loved doing the laundry and would gather it from everyone's rooms," she said.
Avianne never liked doing the dishes, but fortunately she had sisters who did. Allyson loved the task and had it down to a science, she said.
Etherington said the children were raised knowing that their family does not spend money on extravagances. The children have not received iPads and other trendy equipment.
"Our experience is you can spend as much on one kid as you can on seven. Our oldest daughter buys everything on Craigslist; another daughter is a high school senior and works at Sprinkles, and she saves (her money)," she said.
And when it comes to college, the Etheringtons pay for room and board, but their daughters are responsible for paying tuition. The college-bound daughters made it work by applying for scholarships. Avianne attended Brigham Young University; one daughter is currently in the nursing program there, she said.
"We expect them to suck it up and make it work," she said.
Mothering changes the more children one has, Etherington said.
"With two or three, you can teach them manners and focus so much more on them than with four or five or six. You get spread a lot thinner. You only have time for the things that are most important. I'm less in their lives; you have to trust them more," she said.
The Etheringtons hold a weekly family meeting. Linda grew up having "Family Home Evening" each Monday night. The idea is actually part of what members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do, she said. It has been in place for many decades.
"We include a topic which seems like we need to hit because of either where we need help as a family, or something we want to teach, or we just have some family fun together.
"If you see something wrong, you bring it up. If someone's been lying, you might address it immediately, but at the meeting you bring it up for a longer talk," she said.
Other important ways for a large family to connect?
"Dinner together," she said. "I think that when we sit down and share a meal together at home we connect in ways that are meaningful and safe and full of friendship. It helps us enjoy and like each other when we are in the regular busy-ness of life. I don't know if you call eat-as-many-meals-together-as-a-family a strategy, but I have read statistics that support it as one of the most meaningful things families can do together," she said.
One-on-one time is also important, she said.
"Today I took Elizabeth to go to her orthodontist appointment during school. It only took about 10 minutes at the doctor, but on the way home I stopped and got her an ice cream cone and we sat together on a bench in the sun and she told me about school and her friends and she leaned on my arm. It only added 10 more minutes to our outing, but this was precious look-in-her-eyes, sit-together-and-listen time. Children in big families need this one-on-one time because big families are made out of many individuals — individuals who need to be enjoyed and appreciated for their unique selves," she said.
Like the Kadifas, the Etheringtons tend to clump activities together. The piano teacher comes to the home for two hours to teach five kids. The family might have an all-day outing once a month.
The family has one special-needs child. Her challenges have taught her siblings to have compassion for others, but that quality also develops simply from having a large family, she said.
"Living with that many people teaches you tolerance," she said.
For some of the children, good grades come easily; for others it is harder. One child is an elegant dancer; another is quiet and likes to read. One daughter would have a tantrum if she didn't have one-on-one time; another was content to draw or play on the swing. Fortunately, the older girls were happy when taking the younger ones shopping for a pair of pants or a dress for the prom, she said.
Avianne said living in a large family means always having someone to play with. As she and her siblings grew older, there was always someone awake late at night to talk to.
"I never felt like I didn't have enough attention. It just changes through the years," she said.
She added that she and her husband would like a large family, but the number is still up for discussion: She wants five; he wants fewer.
The Peerys: Working in sync
On a recent evening, the screeching and squeals of little boys echoed through Lisa and Jason Peery's home, as their son Brady, 6, and his cousin Ben, 5, dueled with their toy light sabers.
Lisa stopped to listen for a moment and smiled.
"That's what I call music," she said.
Being around large numbers of children is not unusual for Lisa. She is the seventh of eight. When it came to growing their own families, Lisa said she and Jason didn't plan on how many they might have. The Peerys have six; the oldest is a senior in high school and the youngest is 6 years old.
Lisa credited the strength of their marriage to successfully raising a large family. Without each other's support, it would not be possible, she said.
Jason said he and Lisa have to plan carefully to make sure they are in sync.
"I work hard and try not to travel much. When I'm home, I'm home. I really try to play lots of games and do things face-to-face with the kids every night. A lot of board games, playing catch, just goofing around. There's no substitute for face-to-face time.
"With my oldest child leaving for college, I'm shocked at how quickly time goes, so I really cherish every moment. I quit a very fun high school head-coaching job as varsity boys basketball coach at Pinewood after 4 years because I just couldn't sacrifice any more time with the family," he said.
The most challenging aspect is that there is physically an enormous amount of work to be done every day, he said. Lisa said it took a month to get the kids all settled in at school, as she had to attend every back-to-school night, she said.
Also, there are eight totally different personalities under one roof, Jason said. Trying to attend to the needs of each takes some creativity and much thought. It's tricky, he said.
"We are just crazy about each child. Each one really has us wrapped around their finger. You'd think with shared genetics there would be more similarity, but they are completely different. We try to do lots of one-on-one time, doing overnight trips, even if it's just to a local hotel. The kids love it, and there are always good memories. ... The most rewarding thing is just being together. My happiest times are when all eight of us are together — doing anything, no matter what it is," he said.
He and Lisa regularly touch base about each child, he added.
"We try to spend a lot of time together early every morning just talking about the kids and how we can do better," he said.
The couple has learned to coordinate the work of child-rearing, with flexibility being one key.
"My husband and I have learned to divide and conquer," Lisa said. "Sometimes he takes the big ones, and I take the littles. Other times we may switch."
If Lisa attends the older daughter's volleyball game, Jason may concentrate on the little ones, she said.
"I think in both cases we both had parents who put family as their unquestioned No. 1 priority," said Jason of his and Lisa's parents. "There was never any doubt to us whether family or work came first. It was family," he said.
Jason's brother Dave and sister-in-law Lillie Peery also live in town and have five children. The oldest is 7, and the youngest, August Steele, is 6 weeks old. Lillie described Dave and Jason as "incredible spouses. That is key to having a large family. You have to have a strong marriage," she said. Dave will see when she needs something — a helping hand or space for herself — and he will see that she gets it, she said.
On the recent Friday that Brady and Ben rambled through the sitting room with light sabers brandished, Lillie reflected on what she has learned from her brood.
"I'm no longer under this false impression that I'm in control of anybody. I changed with each child," she said.
With the first child, who had an easy-going personality, she thought she had more authority than she did, she realizes now.
"When more children came with different personalities, I realized that I didn't really have control — just a small amount of influence but no control.
The children "have a certain amount of independence; you're not necessarily all over them. But it's not like I leave them to the wolves. There's a certain amount of space that you naturally give them because there's only so much energy," she said.
"People say, 'How do you manage?' Well, I don't manage. I gave up on child No. 3 on having to always have the kitchen clean," she said.
Dave said there are challenges for a father and husband in balancing work and family.
"I wish I could say I've figured out the work/life balance issue. I constantly feel that if I excel in one area of my life, the inevitable my performance will be sub-par everywhere else. Then I think, well maybe I should get up earlier, or stay up later, or not watch a movie. But you're human, and there's obviously a limit to what each person can accomplish before completely burning out.
"Being present with my kids requires the acceptance that things might slip through the cracks at work; you have to put things in place at the office so there's room for some of that, without leaving everything in a lurch. I truly believe that no professional accomplishment will compensate for, or justify, my failure at home," he said.
Dave said he feels that any family is in constant competition with an ever-growing list of opportunities worth pursuing: boards to be on, projects to undertake, various things anyone could justify taking part in.
"So at some point you have to draw a boundary around your family and make sure absolutely nothing encroaches. The moment you make an exception, it becomes very difficult to protect precious family time and relationships for things that are worthwhile, but not most important. Once you've given up territory, it's hard to get it back," he said.
Lillie's mother had 10 children in 13 years, and she remembered her mother didn't have much time to focus on each child. Older kids helped with the younger kids, and she and her siblings understood that their parents couldn't be at many school events. It didn't bother her, she said.
The competitive needs of their children can sometimes be challenging, she said. She and Dave make sure the kids have their individual time. They make dates with their kids, she said.
One thing Lillie has learned is that isolation from other families grows the more kids one has, she said. So she has become more of an inviter.
"It's not like people say, 'Come over to my house on Sunday and bring all five of your kids,'" she said.
"As a husband, making sure my wife is able to live a balanced life is extremely hard. People oversimplify this and say 'Just get help,' as if the complexities of our family dynamic can be managed by hiring 'help.'
"We get help from family and sitters, but there is very little one can do to truly share the load of a mother," he said.
Dave said what is most rewarding about having a big family is that they have each other.
"It's when I see my kids having a blast together, I can't help but think how lucky they are to have each other. The friendships I share with my siblings are the greatest blessings in my life.
"Because they have each other we're not worried about their socialization or having to schedule a million play dates. One benefit of having them close in age is that they play with each other. ... Do we have to break up fights fairly regularly? Yes, but we also get to do other things while they play for stretches of time.
Dave said that having a long-term vision for the family helps ease them through the days when raising a family takes more effort.
"I think that once parents get through those exhausting but short years of raising little ones and teenagers, they find that the return on investment is huge — and comes in the form of rich family relationships, grandchildren and a powerful network of support," he said.
The Zengers: Running a 'powerful' household
As a child, Sondra Zenger was separated from her two siblings by a considerable age gap, and as a result, she felt left out, she said.
"I was really driven by the lack of closeness I and my siblings had and watching the relationships my husband and his (five) siblings had and their closeness," she said.
Zenger didn't want to have an only child. She felt there would be more advantages for her kids with more siblings. And everything she saw about large families she liked, she said.
Now her four girls are close in age: 10, 11, 12 and 13 years old.
"We run a powerful household," she said, smiling at their family of daughters.
Zenger, who was an outside sales representative for an engineering firm and a pharmaceuticals representative, initially found the isolation of motherhood daunting. Few mothers came to the park during outings with her child. In Palo Alto, the playgrounds were full of children accompanied by nannies.
And it was hard to give up her career, she said.
"I was embarrassed to be a stay-at-home mom. I even fibbed about it," she recalled.
Not that being a mother was any less challenging than a career outside the home — quite the contrary, as it turned out.
"When we had three, I really, really contemplated the fourth. I felt overwhelmed," she recalled.
But now the favorite part of the weekend is watching her children's multiple soccer games, she said.
Every night the family sits down together to a home-cooked meal Zenger has made, and her husband, Drew, is always home by 5:30 or 6 p.m. He also helps the children with their homework, she said.
Zenger has found friends with whom she can laugh and complain, and over time her isolation has eased, she said. Taking some time for themselves, Drew plays soccer with friends after the children are in bed. Zenger reads every chance that she gets.
"My kids think I'm a dork because I read everywhere," she said.
The family has a very strong foundation based on their Mormon faith and a set of family values that de-emphasizes material acquisition, she said.
All of the children have friends who understand the family's values, which makes navigating raising kids in an affluent community more manageable, she added.
The family makes a point of communicating openly and often, and often the discussion is about peer pressure, she said.
"We say, 'That's our family,' or 'That's not our family.' We make these choices that others don't. They are not all going to have iPhones — no Uggs, stuff like that. We talk about it very openly. They know things cost a lot of money. ... We joke about it a lot. It's not embarrassing that they won't have all the bells and whistles," she said.
Zenger said the family hasn't had to make any hard choices. The family is financially secure and makes judicious decisions about how they spend their money.
Managing the home is a balancing act, but having kids who have similar interests such as soccer helps, she said.
"Sometimes having the kids, I've lost a lot of brain cells. It's so many little unimportant things. I've never left my kids anywhere; I've never forgotten them. But when we're going somewhere in the car, I always count," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.