We DO In Fact Have Our Hands Full, Do We Not?

by | Apr 30, 2013 | Catholic Living, Parenting, Things I Think | 23 comments

Back a few years when we lived in Chicago, and I only had three kids, something horrifying happened to me.  The kids and I were in line at the cutting table at the fabric store (which takes a long, long time) behind a young black man with a big pouffy afro.  Jack was three and a half at the time and quite chatty.  The man turned back towards us and Jack announced, loudly, “You have crazy hair.”

I was mortified.  But before I could even apologize or chastise Jack, the man had asked him, “Do you like it?”

Jack looked closely at him and considered, while I squirmed, then he said, “Yeah, I like it.”

The man said, “Thanks, I teach at a school.  The kids there like it.”

Jack said, “My hair’s yellow.  I think the kids at my school probably like it.”

The man agreed, and that was it.  He got his fabric cut and so did I and I never saw him again.  But I learned a lesson from him that has been very useful to me as a mother of many, which is: Assume the best of people’s comments, ask follow up questions and you just might find that they meant well all along.

Once a week or so in my Facebook feed, a friend will post something about how some person at some place said something to them about how many kids they have and how offended they were.  And I recently read a lovely and impassioned defense of mothers of many against people at the grocery store and what they say and what they probably really mean.

I have been there, for sure.  I have stewed and thought of witty retorts in the car on the way home and vented to the husband (this was before I was on Facebook, so HE got to hear about it).  But now I’m thinking that if my feelings were hurt by an offhanded comment in the grocery store, it was probably because of my own insecurities rather than other people’s actual prejudices against my family.

Now, before I bother to get offended, I ask myself, how sure are you that they really meant to insult you?  Did you assume the best?  Did you ask follow up questions?  

I get comments all the time, of course.  Just about every time we go shopping.  Especially since I often have all six kids (10 and under) with me.  We are a spectacle.  There’s no denying it.  And yes, I’ve heard “Are they all yours?” (As if perhaps I swing by a local daycare to pick up some extra kids to bring with me to Target) and “You sure have your hands full,” more times than I can count.  And even that most inappropriate of all, “You’re done right?” more than a few times.  But perhaps we’re the only family of our size that that particular lady has ever seen at Target, and maybe she’s just trying to make conversation.

So, instead of getting defensive, I assume the best and ask a follow up question.  I’ll say, “Yes, they’re all mine.  They’re pretty cute through, right?”  Or “Yes I do, but better full than empty, right?” Or, “Goodness, I hope not.  We figure we’ll just keep going until we get an ugly one.  So do YOU think we’re done?”

And sometimes, that’s it.  But MOST of the time, I’d say 80-90% of the time, they’ll then tell me how they are one of five or their mom was one of eleven or how they always wished they’d had more themselves.  Then they almost always say something complimentary, even if it’s “Well, I could never do that, but good for you.” But more often it’s how the kids are friendly or well-dressed or well-behaved.


Which brings me to the second aspect of this . . . THIS is my apostolate.  The apostolate of being a big family at Target and Costco and Trader Joe’s.  EVERY TIME before we go inside I remind my kids that how we behave inside that store is probably going to determine how this particular group of people view big families.  If my kids are sweet and helpful then all those people will think that big families are sweet and helpful.  But if I look like I just rolled out of bed and my children are unwashed and screechy, then any negative stereotypes about big families that they might have had are now confirmed.  (I don’t count Frankie.  I figure if everyone else is good, but he’s throwing groceries at me, we’re probably still okay.)  And if someone was just trying to make contact with what SHE considered a creative and funny comment and I get defensive or sanctimonious, well I’ve just lost an opportunity to make a friend, or at least have a conversation.

I am here to tell you that I take my kids out in public.  All of them.  Often.  And I can’t think of a single time when someone was genuinely unkind to us (except this time, and that was just me and the baby!), unthinking sometimes, but not unkind.  I think that allowing people to see the beauty of my lifestyle is MY responsibility.  And I think even unthinking people deserve for me to give them the benefit of the doubt, just like the guy with the afro did for me.

P.S. Jack and the husband want everyone to know that Jack is wearing a Cubs hat because that’s his little league team this year, not because we are Cubs fans.  We are White Sox fans, and we are just crazy enough to take off our shirts and charge the Kansas City Royals’ third base coach, if necessary.

And I almost forgot to announce the winner of the Lilla Rose Giveaway!  Congratulations to Carol, Heather will email you soon with the details. 


  1. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this post. I have only recently started following your blog. I have 3 kids ages 4, 2, and 9 months. I get the "you have your hands full" comment a lot, but I find, like you, that most of these people are just making an awkward attempt to start a converstation and almost all of them just want to gush on my kids. I love my kids and make a point to show my joy in them whenever I introduce them, and that joy is often reciprocated.

    Also, I'm so glad to see that you go out with all your kids in tow. I still work full time, and every spare moment I have . . . even grocery shopping . . . I want to spend with my kids, so we go just about everywhere together. It is my observation, at least in the town where we live, that many kids are left at home while parents run errands and I think people around town really like to see the little kids in tow and therefore try to acknowledge us, even if it is just with a smile or poorly thought out comment.

    • Kendra Tierney

      I admit I've had to get better at it. I used to relish errands as a time to be alone, but then I started trying to bring one or two along as mommy and me time, and the shopping cart is just the best place to have toddler conversations, now I love it! And I do often end up bringing everyone and I have to admit I kinda get a kick out of watching people's reactions to us now!

  2. Rosie

    I definitely need to work on assuming the best from these comments – they're still so new to me that I'm not used to it yet! And we so rarely go out in public, but one of these days I'll be ready to get all 4 kids out by myself (just have to figure out how to tandem-wear the twins) and hopefully they'll be well-behaved enough not to scare anyone out of having kids! And hopefully I'll be well-behaved enough not to think uncharitably towards all those people who comment on our family size 🙂

    • Kendra Tierney

      Thanks Rosie. And just to be clear, I loved your post and wish I had been clear headed enough to write something like that when I was in the all little kids phase. I love reading about your family . . . Twins: the final frontier.

  3. Amelia

    I love this post…thanks for the reminder to always assume the best of everyone's intentions. I've found that most people really are just trying to make conversation and don't mean to be offensive.

    I will admit though that I hardly ever take all my kids out on errands together. Mostly because I don't run very many errands, other than a weekly grocery shop and have just gotten in the habit of doing that when I don't have to take everyone.

    The times I do have everyone though, I've never really gotten any comments.

  4. Emily

    What a great perspective!

    This is so great for me to read right before we have our #3 because I am already getting comments, since it's our first boy and people like to say, "you're done!". When that's happened I've just said, "we'll see!". I am with you in wanting others to see the amazing joy that having children brings. And hopefully, we are all dressed & well-behaved enough to show us in a positive light (myself included!).

  5. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    This is wonderful! We only have one and one on the way, but I was just crying to my husband last night (crazy hormones) about the fact that I want a big family, but I am afraid I won't be able to do it.

    If and when that happens, it is nice to be prepared for what people might say, and how I should react. You're so right. We need to be examples!

  6. Jennifer

    Thanks so much for these thoughts, Kendra. As others have said above, this is a great perspective.

  7. Kari

    I need to work on assuming better of people who make these kind of comments; that they may not have rude intentions. Though, I have met some who were very outspoken and rude. I know I need to be that example to others, but often when I hear people telling other people, "they are all hers!" and then they precede to stare, laugh, and even point at me. It really makes me want to cry not for me, but for them. I even had one lady at Mass grab one of my children from the floor, shove him in my arms and tell me to control him and myself. He was only 18 months and was just walking around the small cry room babbling. Thank you for the reminder to forgive and assume the best of others.

  8. Jenny

    Kendra you're like a mommy jedi. Truly. Marking this for a read and re-read on a quarterly basis.

  9. Christine

    Thank you for this! I have two kids (so far), so I haven't gotten too many of these sorts of comments yet. But we hope to have a big family, and I find myself often worrying about the "negative" comments we might get down the road. I never really thought about how most people who say something are probably not intending to be insulting. I love what you tell your kids, too, about the impression they will make about large families. I'm definitely going to do this!

  10. Kat

    Aww, I like this! And the post you linked to. Another post was going around recently about how to answer the "are you done?" question and it was saying how people are rude to ask that and we should gently let them know. However, I think the "I'm Catholic" statement is good because it is a simple answer which at the same time evangelizes a little. And I love the responses you have to all the questions! I need to try to not just give a wry look and keep walking. Of course, it depends on how the kids are behaving…

  11. Nanacamille

    When Kendra & Jim were at Stanford with only Jack & baby Betty Grandad and & I would take then out and people would comment on "our kids" being so cute because most people there go to school for so long getting so many degrees that kids come very late in life if at all…..took it as a compliment. Now when Grandad and I are out with all 6 of them plus a cousin Anita's age we get a big "yours"? We reply "yes aren't we blessed with these grandkids?" "They definitely keep us young." We then get very positive comments about how they wish they had so many or any at all. I have taken my cue from Kendra on this attitude for many years. Who says you can't learn from your kids.

  12. Theresa @ OrdinaryLovely

    Kendra, I really enjoyed this post – have even taken a day to mull it over some more. We *only* have four, but still get occasional grocery-store looks and comments. I used to laugh nervously and nod in agreement with people when they'd toss "you've got your hands full" my way. Then I got a little more confident in my replies – trying to "sell" big family life to strangers (and I agree with you that our children have a role in this!) Recently though, I think I finally found my stride in this regard because I realized – MY KIDS ARE RIGHT THERE AND THEY'RE LISTENING. If someone comments on how many of them there are or how stressed out I must be, and I laugh it off, get flustered, or agree and/or make excuses… Ahhh! what message is that sending to MY OWN KIDDOS!?!?! Now I love it when someone makes a comment because whatever their take is on it, I can use it as an opportunity to publically validate my children – confidently state how fabulous I think they are and how much joy they give me personally. My new reply to "You have your hands full" is (said with a smile while tousling a little blond head) "Yeah, and they are absolutely worth it. I love these guys and I'm happy to be busy with them!" Best response I've come up with yet! (No one's ever tried to disagree with me on it!) It's my hope that responses like this witness to the "strangers" AND to my own little brood!

  13. The Nem's!!

    What a great perspective and thank you for assuming the best of people's comments! I come from a family of 8 children and always thought I'd have lots of kids! I currently have 2 and as a SAHM, most days I feel like I've reached my limit! So, when I make comments to other people who have lots of kids (read my upcoming UPS guy story), it comes from a place of AWE.
    I think if you assume people are coming from a place of judgment, you will be put on the defensive–but if you think they are coming from a place of AWE (and some jealousy, as in my case), I don't think one would feel the need to have a snarky comment in return. (But again–this all depends on ones mood that day or the way in which the original comment was made…I get it!)
    Here's my UPS guy story. I got a new UPS guy and I happened to be outside playing ball with my dog (while my 2 kids napped)—don't ask me how, but he said something about 8 kids. And I said "like you have 8 kids? They're YOURS?" And he just replied "Yep. They're all mine. No stepkids. All mine. Or so my wife tells me." I felt bad for wording it like that when truly what I was trying to figure out was if he meant he had 8 kids of his own, or if he came from a family of 8 (like had 7 or 8 siblings like myself). I ended up talking to our new UPS guy for almost an HOUR about catholicism, catholic schools, homeschooling and the government. My kids nap time was done by the time I got back inside, but I had a great conversation with someone I would never have otherwise–and I've found a resource if I do decide to homeschool.
    But yet, if I feel overwhelmed with my 2 already–not sure I can deal with homeschooling them too. 🙂 And I should add–people even comment to ME that I have my hands full (and I just have two—and we're just walking down the street, both kids contained in the stroller and a dog walking nicely at my side)…generally, kids are a handful l so I don't take it personal (besides I do love my kiddos and wouldn't trade them for anything). However, I'm starting to wonder if I look like crap all the time…is that why people say that to me????

    • Kendra

      Oh you totally can't handle homeschooling. But don't worry, neither can the rest of us. Somehow it all just works out!

      And I totally don't know you. But I'm sure you look lovely today.

  14. Anonymous

    I love this! I only have three, but they're all boys and they're all close in age (newly-turned four and under), so I get the "You have your hands full!" comment all the time. And it doesn't bother me a bit. I DO have my hands full. I view it as a simple statement of fact, not as a judgement. I've found that pretty much anybody who doesn't know you but is willing to engage you in conversation is a friendly sort of person. I think they're just reaching out, even if by stating the obvious, because that's what friendly people do. I try to repay their friendliness with my own and make their day just a tad brighter for having encountered my boys and me.

  15. Bonnie

    But sometimes when you and the kids are all just having a hard day and you did just roll out of bed but you need toilet paper so whatcha gonna do… don't you just wish that people would leave you alone? Can we have sick days from our apostolate? (real question that one. What are your thoughts?)

    • Kendra

      That's a good point and a good question Bonnie. For the first part, for whatever reason, I don't really suffer getting dressed to go out. I know other people do. But it feels the same to me to put on a dress and flats as it does to put on yoga pants. And people respond to me better if I'm in the dress and flats, so that's what I almost always do.

      As for if we get a day off . . . maybe we don't. My kids are kind of like a priest's collar, I think. They really do open a door of communication that wouldn't otherwise be there. It's not always my preference, especially if I'm in a hurry. But my preferences are notoriously off, so it's probably just as well. :0)

    • Elisa | blissfulE

      Ha! I love that perspective that kids are like a priest's collar! This will help me in my apostolate. Thank you!

  16. tina hensley

    Well said, Kendra! I agree with your ma. I've learned much from Blythe. I admire her peaceful nature. I think I used to be that way but as I get older (unlike your mamma) I find myself being more nervous and scared someone is gonna get hurt.

  17. Miss Jill and Mister John

    Great post! Worth thinking about.

    We are only a family with three kids. But they are all three different races and they are all very close in age. Needless to say we get odd comments

    Almost all are curious comments though.

    The only nasty we've reviewed…. A woman in church. (This week she looked at me and the put ear plugs in… Wouldn't it be easier to move?!)

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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