A Nonet Family: Growing Up With Eight Siblings

When Bellingham freelance journalist Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy told me she’d written a book about growing up in a family with nine siblings in a small town in Iowa, to be honest, I thought it might be another memoir with horror stories about a terrible childhood.
But to my delight, “Many Hands Make Light Work” is a treasure-trove of how her parents instilled in their children a sense of teamwork, respecting each others’ differences, and what success  and self-reliance really means as adults.
Cheryl will talk about the book and her life at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at Village Books, 1200 11th St.
The family painted and repaired their rental houses, processed honey, sang together, dyed Easter eggs, went on car trips — not always harmoniously, but with a true sense of family.
Here are some insights that Cheryl shared:
What are the parenting takeaways from “Many Hands Make Light Work?”
My parents had a strong partnership with shared goals. We children had real work, which supplied purpose and built character. Our family’s social rituals provided stability.
Th
e assumption that kids can’t succeed without parental interference is more common today than in the decades in “Many Hands Make Light Work.” How does this attitude compare to your parents?
Besides our father’s career as a college professor, we had a family business of acquiring, renovating, and renting houses to students. Everyone had to work. Our parents knew we could do it: pour concrete, scrape and paint a Victorian manse, or shovel snow from a dozen properties before breakfast. Because they believed in us, we believed in us.
The mantra “Don’t do for your child what he/she can do for himself/herself” halts the inclination to over-serve youngsters.
In “Many Hands Make Light Work,” you kids renovated houses to rent to college students. You all sang on the job, like a von Trapp family in painters’ caps! How did your parents get that kind of cooperation from teenagers?
Our parents had zero ambivalence about having us work. They’d grown up working on family farms. They thought it was healthy training for life. We learned complaining didn’t get results. We were going to work anyway, like it or not. Might as well like it, and we liked harmonizing to pop songs.
You grew up in a harmonious household, but there must have been squabbles among brothers and sisters. How did you resolve arguments?
Our parents were in charge. There was no ambiguity about right or wrong. For example, it would have been unthinkable to miss Sunday Mass, or at mealtimes to ask for something other than what was served. Children feel secure when parents are dependable authorities.
How did your parents afford nine children born over a span of 11 years?
They put money into such things as nutrition and education. They didn’t buy anything unnecessary. We cooked from scratch. We managed several large gardens, and preserved what we grew.
What is your relationship like with your family now?
I feel crazy lucky to have my siblings and their families in my life. They’re a gift.

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