Americans are having smaller families. Why are we obsessed with large ones?
Hannah Neeleman, the Juilliard-trained dancer turned homesteading influencer better known as Ballerina Farm, announced in October that she was pregnant with her eighth child.
Wearing a flowing prairie dress and a cozy-looking sweater, Neeleman appeared with her husband, Daniel, in an Instagram video shot in their rustic-chic Utah kitchen. She cradled her belly. He cradled a large bowl, which may or may not have been full of sourdough.
Neeleman, who posts beautifully lit videos of farm and family life (sometimes with a few dance steps thrown in) to her 7.3 million Instagram followers, isn’t the only influencer shouting out an addition to an already large family. JD and Britney Lott, who chronicle their adventures traveling in a bus with their seven kids, posted in September that an eighth was on the way. The de la Motte family, who regale TikTok audiences with their string concerts, announced in August that “Baby #11” was coming soon.
Families like theirs — ones that could field a full baseball team — are racking up billions of views on TikTok and Instagram. The current vogue for 10-person family dances and morning routine videos for a brood of 12 is a product of the particular time in which we live, experts say. The birthrate is falling, having even one kid can be ruinously expensive, and long or unpredictable work hours limit the amount of time most people can spend with their families. The average American woman had three children in 1950, a number that has declined to about 1.6 today.
In this landscape, watching videos of big families can be a way of gawking at an unfamiliar spectacle, soothing (or triggering) our own anxiety, and sampling a domestic experience many of us will never have. Viewed with a critical eye, these accounts can tell us something about what we value as a society — and what we need to value more highly.
The rise of the big-family influencers
American audiences have always had a fascination with big families, both real and fictional. They turned out in droves to see the 1959 musical — and 1965 film — The Sound of Music, about a plucky nun who becomes governess to the seven singing von Trapp children (both are based on a true story, and there were 10 kids, not seven). The 1948 novel Cheaper by the Dozen (also based on a true story), about two “efficiency experts” who have 12 children, was adapted into a film in 1950, then again in 2003, then again in 2022.
Real-life big families, from the Dionne quintuplets (born in 1934) to the McCaughey septuplets (born in 1997), have also become subjects of cultural obsession. The reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8, about a family with a set of twins and a set of sextuplets, premiered in 2007 and ran in some form for 10 years. 17 Kids and Counting launched in 2008 and focused on Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar and their growing family. (The family would grow to 19 before the show was canceled in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Josh Duggar, the family’s eldest son.) And in 2009, Natalie Suleman became a tabloid fixation after she gave birth to octuplets (she already had six other children).
In the past, a family needed to somehow catch the eye of network executives in order to get a reality show like 17 Kids and Counting, said Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and mother of five who has written about large families. But now, someone like Alicia Dougherty, who posts TikTok videos of the meals she prepares for her 11 kids, can simply start uploading without barriers or gatekeepers.
Not every parent with a TikTok account and a demanding kitchen routine will match Dougherty’s 6.2 million followers, but content about large families is undeniably popular. According to TikTok, the hashtag #bigfamily got 2.7 billion views in the past year, while #largefamily got 1.1 billion. “People are always fascinated by anyone who is countercultural,” Vanderkam said, and “we’re definitely at a moment of small families.”
Neeleman, for her part, has become a cottage industry and a strand of cultural criticism unto herself. A homesteading, homeschooling Mormon mom who quotes the Bible and can usually be found feeding the livestock or gathering farm-fresh eggs with two or more kids in tow, she’s been called “the ur-tradwife of Instagram.”
Neeleman is more mainstream influencer than true tradwife — short for traditional wife —adept at selling her brand to a wide audience (though there is a significant overlap between big-family influencers and tradwives, many of whom eschew birth control and extol the virtues of having many kids).
Dressed in earth tones and muted florals, she bakes, arranges flowers, and prepares dishes using her farm’s pork and beef, available for purchase on the Ballerina Farm website alongside sourdough starter and a variety of branded merch. Her life, though “imperfect” in certain picturesque ways (flour on her apron, strands of hair escaping from her braid), always looks gorgeous, with perfect light, fresh lilacs, and kids who help with the chores. The implication is that one can raise seven (soon to be eight) children and barely break a sweat. “The lifestyle she portrays” could be described as “care work as elegance,” said Meg Conley, who writes about care, capitalism, and the home. (Ballerina Farm declined Vox’s request for comment in an unsigned email, explaining that “Hannah and Daniel have their hands full wrangling kids and cattle.”)
On one level, the draw of content like Neeleman’s or Dougherty’s is pretty uncomplicated. “It’s just visually cool to look at lots of cute children,” Vanderkam said. The logistics of caring for those children can also be entertaining for their very extremity: Dougherty’s sped-up videos show her preparing a kiddie pool full of nachos or an entire table covered in spaghetti and meatballs. “Making one sandwich is not that interesting,” Vanderkam points out, but making 11 sandwiches at once is a bona fide spectacle.
There has always been an element of gawking in Americans’ interest in very large families. It’s in Suleman’s tabloid nickname, “Octomom,” and the constant criticism she received after having octuplets. It’s in the comments on Neeleman’s recent pregnancy announcement, which, among the well-wishes, include responses like, “Don’t they watch the news, do they care for the environment, are they religious nuts? … Why oh why …”
While some people may be hate-watching Neeleman’s blissful baking-with-baby videos, others are just trying to figure out how she makes it all work.
For many, having even a small family can feel harder than ever. In a 2018 Morning Consult/New York Times poll, about a quarter of respondents said they had or were planning to have fewer kids than they ideally wanted. Of those, 64 percent cited the high cost of child care as a reason — and child care has only grown more expensive since. An ongoing housing shortage, including a shortage of three- and four-bedroom apartments, makes shelter a constant concern for many families. A lack of paid leave, flexible work, and after-school care leaves millions of parents scrambling to balance paying the bills and picking up their kids. Meanwhile, threats to children, from school shootings to formula shortages to Covid and other viral illnesses, seem to compound without end. “A lot of people feel that even having two kids is out of reach,” said Leslie Root, a demographer and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied fertility.
In this context, parents who feel overwhelmed with one or two children — or childfree people nervously contemplating the possibility of procreating — may turn to big-family influencers to find out how they are managing their lives, Vanderkam said.
These influencers can also project a kind of calm and satisfaction that can feel seductive in a frightening and confusing world. Root calls it “brazen well-being” — they appear to thrive despite the many forces that threaten to pull American families under. Like tradwives, they often present a return to the home and a particular version of the past as a remedy for the ills of the present.
In one January video, Neeleman takes three of her children out onto their 328-acre property to milk the cows and ride a rocking horse in the spacious barn, then back to the airy, wood-paneled farmhouse where she strains the milk through cheesecloth and washes the milking pail to a high shine. “I enjoy my morning milkings flanked by my little daughters,” she writes in an Instagram caption. “Like a mother quail and her covey of offspring, we scurry down to the barnyard like schoolchildren late for class.”
“By the end of the milking,” she concludes, “everyone is fed and happy.”
How big-family influencers spread an exclusionary view of parenting
Followers and critics of the Neelemans have pointed out that they are far from the average farming family. Daniel Neeleman’s father, David Neeleman, founded JetBlue along with several other airlines. Ballerina Farm was listed for $2.75 million before the Neelemans bought it in 2018. Their kitchen centers around an Aga cast-iron stove, described by Neeleman as “a homesteader’s dream,” that retails for at least $20,000, if not more. Based on the size and price of their property and the cost of raising cattle and pigs for meat, it’s highly unlikely that the Neelemans are living off the proceeds of their farm, Conley told journalist and cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen in a 2022 interview.
Not all large-family influencers are wealthy. Amber de la Motte, mother of the musical de la Motte family, recently told the Cut that her family struggles to afford rent and food, but nearly all fit the profile of the typical momfluencers that author Sara Petersen laid out in her recent book Momfluenced: They’re white, cis, thin, and straight.
Their whiteness, in particular, protects them from the criticism that Black parents and other parents of color have faced. Across American history, large white families have been “idealized as representing traditional values or religious beliefs,” Traci Baxley, author of the book Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World, said in an email. Black families, meanwhile, have been portrayed by media and lawmakers as “irresponsible or over-prolific,” and have had to endure policies, such as forced sterilization, that restrict reproductive autonomy and limit family size, Baxley said.
To this day, “often there’s no room in society’s mind for Black families who are intentional about creating big families,” said Baxley, a mom of five. “I have been asked, by white women, if all of my children had the same dad!” While influencers like Neeleman have been able to gain a following for their big families, that path isn’t available to many parents of color.
The valorization of large white families, and especially those led by stay-at-home mothers, also has historical ties to white supremacy. In the 19th century, as a reaction to anxieties about the Industrial Revolution, “white, upper-class women were tasked with acting as the moral centers of the home, paragons of virtue who nurtured and upheld the nuclear family,” Petersen has said. The ideal family was explicitly portrayed as white, while early 1900s family manuals about protecting or sanctifying a home often contained eugenicist messages against racial mixing, Conley said.
More recently, some tradwives have urged other women to have lots of children specifically to perpetuate whiteness. In 2017, one YouTube creator issued what she called “the white baby challenge,” according to the New York Times. “Citing falling white birthrates in the West, she urged her followers to procreate. ‘I’ve made six!’ she wrote. ‘Match or beat me!’”
It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that influencers with lots of kids are coming to popularity at a time when the fall of Roe v. Wade has led to bans on abortion in more than a dozen states. Those bans coincided with a rise of tradwife influencers spreading misinformation about birth control as well as the persistence of wellness rhetoric that frames contraception as unnatural and dangerous to health.
Even influencers who don’t explicitly talk politics are often indirectly promoting a political stance, Conley said: “There’s a formula to becoming a large influencer family, and some of that formula does include white Christian nationalist messaging.” Families who have incorporated some of that formula into their branding “may not recognize the themes,” she said, “but they’re spreading them nonetheless.”
Large families on TikTok can teach us something about all families
Our cultural fixation on influencers like Neeleman can be productive if we let it be. “If people can be thoughtful about where their fascination is coming from, and then channel that differently, I think that could be potentially transformative for the way we approach care work at a societal level,” Conley said.
Part of the appeal of these influencers is the way they render the often invisible labor of having a family visible, and make it appear joyful and beautiful, at a time when care work is, as Conley points out, devalued by both economic policy and cultural norms. Child care and elder care workers are among the most poorly paid workers in America, and the work of parents and family caregivers is typically unpaid and often overlooked. Against this backdrop, creators like Neeleman have made the daily tasks of parenting — making dinner, dressing the kids, holding the baby — not just art but also commerce. “They figured out how to make care work economically valuable,” Conley said.
Their method isn’t really scalable — not everyone can make money on sponsored posts or branded aprons, especially if they don’t fit the influencer mold. Instead, valuing care work in an inclusive way could look like participating in mutual aid, Conley said, or lobbying elected officials for universal preschool, paid leave, or a universal basic income.
Ultimately, the popularity of big families in the influencer economy can reveal ordinary Americans’ desire to have our labor recognized and supported, no matter what our families look like. As Conley put it, “Even if it doesn’t look like something that someone would put on Instagram, we are all performing care work every single day.”