The Buller family goes out to dinner once a week. When they pass by other tables, “their eyes kind of speak volumes,” Kyla Buller said. “You can see them counting.”
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. That’s right. Seven kids in the Buller household.
“There’s a lot of people that just assume,” Buller said. “They say, ‘Oh, you must be churchgoers. You must be religious.'”
The Bullers are like many parents in the U.S. whose decision to have large families has nothing to do with God. They’re not Catholics who oppose contraception, Mormons who see it as a sacred duty to procreate, members of the Quiverfull movement or other evangelical schools of thought that encourage large broods.
These families don’t subscribe to any particular religious tradition. But by choosing to have many kids, they’ve found themselves confronted with a lot of assumptions about their faith.
“Not at three. But as soon as we had four, people assumed we were very religious,” Lindsay Bartleson said. Now she and her husband, who describe themselves as a secular humanist and an agnostic, are up to five kids. “People assume. They’ll come up and start talking about God to us. Which is a little awkward at times.”
In fact, in today’s America, the only religious group that is far more likely to have large families is Mormons. The Pew Research Center provided data to the Post, based on its 2014 Religious Landscape Study, on the “completed fertility” of Americans of all religions — in other words, how many children a person has ever had by the time he or she is 40-59 years old.
Fifteen percent of all U.S. adults have had four or more children, Pew found. This data was not broken down by income, education or other factors that significantly affect childbearing.
Members of some religious groups are a little bit more likely to have had at least four children: 17 percent of evangelical Protestants had at least four kids, and 18 percent of Catholics. Some are a little bit less likely: 9 percent of mainline Protestants had at least four children, and 12 percent of Jews. The Mormons are by far the outlier: 46 percent of Mormon adults have had at least four children.
So how do the non-religious stack up compared to religious people? Not so differently. Twelve percent of “nones” — the rapidly growing group of Americans who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” — have had at least four children.
As younger adults elect “none” as their religious preference more and more often, the number of large “none” families in the country may well rise.
But if large non-religious families are getting more common, Tracey Stoner hasn’t noticed it yet. “It’s hard to find support as a large family that’s not religious,” she said.
Raising seven children who range in age from 6 months to 16 years old, Stoner has sought advice in Facebook groups for large families. But the members seem to be “95 percent Christians,” she said, often with fundamentalist ideologies.
“Sometimes I’ll post a photo of my family. They’ll see a picture of my daughter where she’s wearing shorts and a shirt. They’ll blast me for that,” Stoner said. “Because she’s not wearing a dress.”
Stoner could use some tips from those groups. She has to schedule everything — each child’s bath time, when each child can do laundry. She doles out each child’s allotted snacks for the day into a bag with the kid’s name on it every morning.
In order to be interviewed by phone by a Post reporter, she had to hide in the bathroom. Unsatisfied with the public schools around their home in Mechanic Falls, Maine, Stoner, 36, and her husband Sean Stoner, 40, stopped sending their children. Stoner now homeschools all seven, so a moment of quiet is almost unheard of.
Not that she’s complaining. “We have a party every day,” she said. She and her husband, an engineer, had four children between them from previous marriages when they got together. Since then, they’ve had three more together, and they’re considering having an eighth kid. “Honestly, once you have so many, adding one more is just like, ‘Oh, okay!’ It doesn’t really change that much.”
Buller agrees: “It really is chaos, but it’s so much love,” she says of her household of seven children, ages 1 to 14. “The love I feel that we have in our house is so overwhelming. All the different personalities and all the different strengths.”
There’s also an overwhelming amount of laundry — a mountain of it waiting at all times. And food — six gallons of milk in the Bullers’ fridge at any given time, and a grocery trip every single day that costs $50 to $60.
From previous relationships, Buller, a professional photographer, had four children and her husband Timothy Buller, a retired Navy serviceman who now works in his parents’ aircraft parts business in Bismarck, N.D., had two. They had one together and have decided to try for another, Buller said.
“Going out in public, our kids are so well-behaved,” Buller said last week as she drove their nine-passenger vehicle to pick three of the children up from one of the four schools the kids attend. “We get so many compliments on that.”
Miah, 10, piped up from one of the passenger seats. “When you go out to a restaurant, a lot of people come up. They say that. But it’s not true. We’re not well behaved at all. They just see the good,” she joked. “When only our parents are looking, we act kind of bad.”
Buller, 30, took back the cell phone from her daughter. If she and her husband add another baby to their household, they will outgrow this large van too.
To help families navigate logistics like what sort of transportation could possibly work for a family of ten, Stoner now helps run a Facebook group specifically for non-religious large families. It has drawn parents from all over the country, including Bartleson.
Bartleson, 39, and her husband Richard Bartleson, 51, left the D.C. suburbs for York, Pa., because the expense of having five children was more manageable far from D.C., even though Richard still works as a software engineer in Maryland.
The commute is crazy, Bartleson said. But she is now taking classes in information technology at Penn State; he’s working in Maryland; and they’re making it work. “You can get a lot more house for the money up here. We could find a house that really suited our family better.”
She always loved children — she babysat from the time she was 10, and got used to big groups of toddlers when she worked as a preschool teacher. Her identity as a secular humanist and his as an agnostic didn’t have much to do with their decision to have a passel of their own.
People make crude comments about the couple’s choices, though. “We hear, ‘Oh, you should stay away from your wife.’ ‘Don’t you know how they’re made?'” Bartleson said.
Stoner said she hears the same: “We get a lot of ‘Do you have a TV?’ or ‘Do you know what causes that?'”
Bartleson says a particular TV family has helped mark large families as apparently religious. “When people gasp when they hear I have five, I automatically feel like I have to say, ‘I’m not a Duggar.'”