OLNEY – Bob McHale, 36, crawls under the kitchen sink, wrench in hand, to attack a drain clogged with potato peelings. His 13-month-old son, Michael, has climbed into a kitchen cabinet a few feet away and is gleefully waving a blue-and-white plastic mug.
In the next room, Michael’s brothers — Robert, 7, and Louis, 5 — start an enthusiastic game of Battleship, while Joseph, 4, darts between them keeping score.
Their sister, 2-and-a-half-year-old Molly, bounces from room to room, soaking up attention anywhere she can get it.
And 36-year-old Carol McHale, five months pregnant with child No. 6, fries potatoes on the stove.
“I don’t consider us a large family,” she muses, comparing her clan to a nearby family with nine kids. “I’d say ‘mid-sized.'”
Self-definition notwithstanding, the McHales of Olney are pretty big as Maryland families go. Their seven-member clan is more than double Maryland’s average family size of 3.19, according to a 2002 U.S. Census study. The national average is 3.21 members per family.
Among families with children under 18, just over 5 percent nationwide had four or more in 2002, according to the Census.
But the McHales are proud to be part of that group. All it takes, they say, is some faith in God, frugality and love. Oh, and patience — lots of patience.
Being part of a large — or “mid-sized” — family is definitely different from membership in a small one, the McHales say.
As baby Michael sits on the kitchen counter examining his dad’s grimy wrench under Carol McHale’s close watch, his mother contemplates the difference. Had that been her first child, Carol says, she might have snatched the tool away. But people mellow in big families.
“Moms with one or two kids get stressed out all the time,” she says.
She gives her children plenty of slack to let them stretch their abilities, but is careful to make sure they don’t do anything really dangerous.
Having four siblings has good and bad points, Robert says. He likes playing games with them, but he gets mad when they crush his K’NEX models.
“They’re reckless,” Robert says matter-of-factly.
This is a common complaint, Carol McHale points out.
“Mom calls him a house-wrecker!” Louis says of Michael, as Mom chuckles in embarrassment.
Dinner ready, everyone gathers around the big table, folds hands and prays out loud. Everyone digs in with a minimum of chaos, even if Molly does grab the spotlight to lead her brothers singing, “I’m a Little Teapot.”
After the meal, the children bound to the next room and return with an Advent wreath.
Following their Roman Catholic tradition, they light purple candles counting the weeks until Christmas. And the children insist on singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — their family tradition.
“I don’t think you can have . . . a non-spiritual view of the world and have a large family,” Carol says. “You have to look at the children as gifts from God.”
Otherwise, she says, why would anyone volunteer to give up careers, fancy vacations, free time and privacy to spend their days home-schooling and changing diapers?
Many people think parents of big families are nuts, “and they tell you as much to your face,” Carol says.
“I get a lot of it at work,” Bob McHale agrees. “I mean, (they) absolutely think I’m from Mars.”
Of course, he always wanted a large family with about seven to eight kids. He has three siblings and his wife has two.
After a dessert of apple cake (or, in Joseph’s case, just Cool Whip), the Advent candles are blown out and Dad disappears beneath a squirming and squealing pile of kids clamoring to be tickled.
Their soon-to-be-sister should arrive in April, Carol says, and they think she’ll be their last child.
But if God has other plans, she says, “We’re open to more.”