Maralys Wills


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A Circus Without Elephants

A lighthearted memoir filled with family stories

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Maralys Wills


By Maralys Wills

I’ve always wanted to know. How do other mothers of large families survive the dinner hour? What happens when the dad regularly gets home late?

I know what happened to me. I went crazy. My oldest son teased all the younger kids (four boys and a girl), and the kids shrieked in protest, and I turned into a shrew. But first I slammed down the kitchen window. Even a shrew has pride.

Trouble was, I couldn’t outwit our oldest son, Bobby, who saw his role as Tormentor of Younger Siblings . . . in direct opposition to mine, the nurturer of hungry children. My husband, unable to face what our passions had wrought—-you could call him devoutly anti-bedlam—-faced our dinner hour in his own way. He went to the gym.

My book, “A Circus Without Elephants,” tells the funny (sometimes tragic), story of raising six active, sports-minded kids. But I’ve often wondered about other large families . . . How did the mothers cope? How do the offspring feel about their large families? What factors made them functional . . . or dysfunctional?
The answers were surprising, even to me.


By Maralys Wills Offered for Publication.
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“AFTER OUR DAD LEFT us,” said the youngest daughter in a family of seven children, “our family fell apart. Mom was hanging on by a thread, so there wasn’t much discipline. We had only two rules: No tattoos, and no heroin in the living room.”

Out of seven children in that family, only three ever married--and one unmarried child committed suicide.

In a survey of 62 adult offspring from 23 large families of five or more children, author Maralys Wills discovered, to her surprise, that what mattered most to the success of large families was the parenting skills of the father. With each new interview, she was aware of a semi-visible father in the background, carrying the family unit on his shoulders.

While waiting for the publication of a humorous memoir about her own family (she raised five boys and a girl), Wills became curious about the mind-set of children from other large families. She devised a survey of seven questions and began contacting families in ten states: California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New Jersey.

After a month of calls, she saw no regional differences in the success rates or happiness levels among the various children. But huge differences loomed between families whose fathers were supportive, as opposed to those whose dads were absent or abusive.

When she asked, “What was the biggest difference between your family and the small families you knew?” she wasn't surprised that seven grown children mentioned “noise” (some with exclamation points!) or that ten said in various ways, “We learned to deal with a lot of diverse personalities.” Eight used the words “share” or “hand-me-downs,” but an equal number said, “We had more fun than the small families.”

A woman from the seven-child Peters family said, “At school I remember staring at the kids from small families and feeling sorry for them.” Others thought small families were boring, and one even said, “I thought ‘only’ children were kind of weird.”

The oldest girl in the Anton family remembers an “only” child coming to visit. After a lengthy debate among the seven children about which pizza palace to choose, the visitor finally noted, "Wow! It takes a long time to get dinner in this house!"

Few children escaped the onus of chores. One daughter said, “Kids in other families had jobs. We had a well-oiled machine.” A daughter in the Peters family said with a smile, “Our oldest sister often packed the lunches. Sometimes she whispered, ‘I’m making bread sandwiches.’ I knew what that meant. When I opened my lunch pail I’d find two pieces of bread stuffed in a sandwich sack, but nothing between the slices. I’ll never know why none of us ever told on her.”

Near unanimity came from the question, “Would you rather be part of a large family or a small one?” Fifty-three said “Large,” and most answered emphatically: “Absolutely large.” Among those who found their big families a burden, all were either middle children or came from homes where the father was absent or abusive.

Adult siblings were asked to name the worst and best parts of belonging to a large family. Eleven could find no “worst part.” For others, birth order was key. A woman noted, “I was locked into the oldest daughter role, with more responsibilities than were good for me.”

Other oldest children complained that they had fewer freedoms than their younger siblings. One said, “By the time Mom got down to the babies, everything changed. The punishment for my youngest brother was taking away his cell phone. When I was growing up, I never had a cell phone.”

Middle children invariably fared the worst. One man said, “We middle children were sandwiched between the controlling older kids and the demanding youngest.” A girl from the Eastman family said, “I was the left-behind kid. I was so quiet, my parents once left me at the beach and drove all the way home.” Her older brother added, “One day I needed a ride home from school, and a father I barely recognized came up to me. 'We know where you live. We’re the family that takes your sister home when they leave her at games.’”

Competition marked the youngest—competition to be heard (“I had to fight to get a word in”), to attract the attention of parents, to acquire something—or anything—that wasn't a hand-me-down. A California man said, “Nothing I ever did was special. Everything had already been done before."

Among the overall negatives, a lack of parental attention was primary. A close second was lack of privacy. "I was never alone;" "The car was always crowded;" "I never had my own room."

More than once, an adult child found, looking back, that what had seemed "worst" as he was growing up, turned out to be a "best." "We never had the latest toys, clothes, or cars," said a Peters girl. "Now I know that was the best thing for me. I learned to value my possessions, to work for what I wanted."

A son in the Watson family said, "My worst thing was not being in the spotlight.” He laughed. "That was also the best thing—I got away with behavior my parents never knew about."

Wills learned that positive feelings had nothing to do with birth order. The 62 respondents found 62 ways to express their enthusiasm. “In a large family, you’re born with friends.” She heard words like “cozy,” “secure,” “snug,” and “safe haven.”

Beyond comfort and safety were the bright feelings of excitement. "There was always something going on . . . never a dull moment.” “A constant party.”

Almost everyone mentioned the abundance of playmates. One woman said, “We were teaser-friendly.”

For most, the advantages extended into adulthood. A Phoenix woman said, "Our family friendships blossomed again and again over the years."

Given the question, "How did your mother cope?" moms were described variously as multi-taskers, drill sergeants, great motivators, organized, and good at discipline. Others called their mothers patient, calm, or radiating warmth. Many children said, “We were her life.” And one summed up his mother perfectly: “She always arranged the carpool.”

A mother in Norfolk, Virginia, gets the prize for being calm. Her daughter said, “When my brother rushed into the house with a serious injury, she called up the stairs to my Dad, ‘Joe, you want to come on down?’” Another daughter remembers that same mother in the maternity ward, about to give birth. The doctor said, “Sally, it’s time to put the book down.”

Children of successful families seldom mentioned their mothers without giving credit to their dads . . . “He was always there, supporting her.” In fact, the role of fathers plays over the survey like a rotating beacon.

Many fathers played with their children, some rarely. A few changed diapers and others didn't. But in each case, the father gave emotional support to the mother, presenting a united front to the children. Fathers always worked—-some, long hours. But nearly every dad found a way to be home for dinner. If a generalization can be made about large families, a shared dinner hour rises poetically as one of the most important features.

This survey contained only four clearly dysfunctional families. In each case, the mother's role was distorted by the behavior of a cruel (multiple beatings), or deserting father. In those families the children fared poorly. As a symptom of unhappiness, they married late, or not at all . . . or they entered into strange relationships. An unhappy Utah son married a woman thirty years his senior. A disturbed son in Virginia joined a controlling religious cult. Three offspring attempted suicide. One succeeded.

One son said about his dad, “He beat us so regularly that today he’d be put in jail for what he did.” Another said of his father, “The randy little bastard got what he wanted.” An oldest daughter admitted, “He regularly whacked us in the head." A disappointed son said, "None of us ever achieved in life what we thought we should."

The father of the Espinoza family deserves special mention. A day laborer whose education ended in second grade, the father raised four of his eight children in the tradition of his own father . . . with strict, sometimes harsh discipline. Suddenly he realized the children were leaving home as fast as they could. In the midst of his parenting, he changed course and became kinder. "I was going to lose them all," he said. Later children became ever more successful. In the end, his last two graduated from a university.

As a final question, the survey asks whether the children wanted large families of their own. A few did. But only one had as many as six children. The rest had one, two, or three, and only a couple had four. As numerous siblings said, "Times are different now."

Maralys Wills saves the assessments of her own children for last. "When I began the poll with my own three (still-living and/or functioning), children, I assumed that all families would be like ours. It came as no shock when all three of my kids described our family in terms of the word "chaos." Frankly, I thought our dinner hour was pretty chaotic myself. As more questions were answered, I could see I was rapidly flunking the test. And I'd hardly begun. When asked how they thought I coped, each of my children used various words to say I didn't . . . or couldn't . . . though my daughter made me feel better when she said I didn't sweat the small stuff.

"So hey, I wasn't strong enough to fully control five boys and a girl. But truth lay in every paragraph of those forms. The children also recognized that their dad coped by not being there. He almost never came home for dinner, or even until most of the children were in bed. The bad times of day (called by some mothers “the arsenic hours”), were left for me alone.

"As a family, we are reconciled to the truth and its aftermath. My three coping children are all wildly successful, accomplishing, and happy. And my husband functions wonderfully as a grandfather. Except for a youngest son on drugs (and that is a huge exception), as a family of five, we are doing fine."

Maralys Wills has published nine books, and her tenth, a light-hearted memoir, is due out in March. It is called, "A Circus Without Elephants."

Books by Maralys Wills:

Damn The Rejections Full Speed Ahead

THE book on how to write a book!

Get it in Maralys's Store


Hang Gliding with Higher than Eagles

A poignant hang gliding memoir

Get it in Maralys's Store

Where to Buy:

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Thoughts on Writing
A Moment With Maralys
Hang Gliding: Higher than Eagles


Damn the Rejections
Higher than Eagles