Excerpted from Ten Circles Upon the Pond by Virginia Tranel. Copyright © 2003 by Virginia Tranel. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Virginia Tranel author of TEN CIRCLES UPON THE POND
Q: You have ten children ranging in age from 25 to 46. None of these children were adopted; you and your husband, Ned, are the biological parents of them all. The average American family has 2.5 children. What was it like raising ten children in a 2.5 world?
A: At times, it felt a little like navigating a big American car through the streets of Rome--a risky endeavor that made us vulnerable to every twist and turn of the culture--but at the same time, an exhilarating journey that we considered worth taking. Our first child was born in 1957, just as the fertility rate began to drop, but it was the late 60's before I felt serious social pressure against large families. This was an issue I explored in my book--how social change influences our choices and shapes our families. If we hope to make decisions that are both responsible and true to our selves, I think we need to step back and evaluate the messages of the culture.
Q: Did you and Ned decide to have ten children, or did it just sort of happen?
A: We married with the desire to have a family--which at that time averaged five or six children--but we didn't set a numerical goal. This was a question I pondered in the book, too--why so many children? I was the youngest of three in a family I considered overprotective. Ned was the eleventh of 13. Was having ten children an unconscious reaction to our Catholic upbringing? Was I trying to empower myself through a greedy use of the limited options available to women then? What it comes down to, I think now, is that the challenge of rearing a large family captured our youthful imaginations. We saw it as inherently meaningful work. My pregnancies were healthy; a beautiful child is its own reward.
Q: What was the worst thing someone said to you about the size of your family? What was the best thing? How did you handle each?
A: Worst: "Shame on you" --a remark made by a fellow writer in a fiction workshop I took at the University of Iowa. I think I replied with some "smart" remark that established a camaraderie between us. And he admired my writing which helped redeem my reproductive transgressions.
Best: "What a wonderful family!" This comment humbles me because it reminds me that birthing and rearing ten healthy children is an amazing stroke of good fortune. Bottom line--children sabotage our sleep and give us grief, but they also awaken us to some of life's deepest joys.
Q: Do you think having ten children made you a better parent? Did it make you a better writer?
A: As I matured in age and experience, I think I did become a better parent. I remember thinking as I cared for our fifth child that I finally felt competent--but more aware, too, of the brevity of childhood and the need to cherish each individual. The challenge of a large family encouraged me to be more resourceful, patient, compassionate and discerning--qualities that definitely come into play when one sits down to a blank page. When I was about 20, an older cousin told me that it's important to live each stage of life fully, so you're ready to move on. "And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true." I love this time in my life!
Q: Every few years brings a new theory on how best to raise children. How much attention do you think parents should give to those ideas?
A: I would neither write them off nor take them for gospel–assess them and decide how they fit with your personality and goals, with what you know about children in general and your own child in particular. We have more knowledge about child development now, including neurodevelopment, how various childhood experiences influence brain development and subsequent functioning. It would be foolish to ignore that. Also, our lives and culture change. Today’s parents are dealing with internet porn and daily violence in the headlines; they need information and skills to deal with that. Knowledge is always helpful, it seems to me–but as a supplement to, not a substitute for, love and common sense. After all, children still have the same basic needs--to be bonded, nurtured and kept safe.
Q: You’ve raised five boys and five girls. What would you say are the major differences between them?
A: There are all the obvious ones, based on physical differences: boys have bigger muscles and like to use them; they’re louder and more active and aggressive: just spend a few minutes in a room full of boys! Girls are more concerned about relationships; they’re more verbal and sensitive to the comforts of others, both physical and aesthetic. All generalizations, of course, with exceptions at every turn. The Olympic rower in our family was a daughter, not a son.
That said, I think the larger differences may be based on inborn temperament and birth order as much as on gender. Boy or girl, an oldest child in a large family develops certain traits. The middle child, another way of coping; and the youngest, still another. Although we did assign a few tasks according to gender, for the most part our children were free to participate in any or all activities–and often, they functioned as a group, so it was difficult to know who was making more noise or stirring up trouble–girls or boys. But I am glad for the combination because I think it enriches their interactions and their lives. And mine, too.
Q: If you were a young married woman today, starting all over again, would you have ten children? How would your religion fit into that decision? How have your views about families changed over time?
A: No doubt I would be a product of the time--educated to be concerned about overpopulating the earth; intent on having a career of my own (not just a room!); juggling and balancing family and career the way I see my own children doing. Religion was not the determining factor in our family size. Ned and I had children because we wanted them, not because we were bound by church rules. Certainly, our upbringing shaped our ideals and desires and spirituality and probably would still influence my decisions today.
I think families have the same task now as they've had in the past: to provide children with a secure base so they can go off and do their work in the world. But it seems harder to do now. Busy, affluent parents can be tempted to trade stuff for time. We could say "No, we can't afford that," but today's parents often have to discipline themselves to say "no" for philosophical reasons--because too much stuff, too soon spoils a child's ability to wonder and work and wait for the things they want--which is critical, because it's the basis of hope and trust. I'm troubled when I see children exploit parental guilt and parents capitulating because they fear risking their child's wrath or sullenness.
Q: How has your family reacted to this book?
A: In general, they’ve been cheerleaders, fans, editors, and eager readers. At times, a particular piece has opened an old wound or called up emotions too recent for an objective response. For example, on 9/11, I was in the midst of the chapter on Ben; there was no way I could continue to write about a son working as an architect in New York City without integrating that tragedy. But it took a while before I could write it and another while before he could read and respond to it. Our youngest child, Adrienne, now in her second year of law school, asked recently if she could file an amendment on her behavior as a 20-year-old that figured into the essay on her. But all of them realize that the essays aren’t so much biographies of them as they are stories about the cultural issues that Ned and I faced raising a large family during those years of enormous social change.
Q: Have any of your children chosen to raise a large family? What advice have you given them?
A: Our son, Ned Anthony, and his wife, Dana, have the largest family--four sons. My advice is more behavioral than verbal. My children know what choices I've made, that I believe in presence more than presents, and that I respect their struggles as unique to their life and times. We're available to each other on a "consultant" basis.
1. Although the essays in this collection are arranged in birth order of the children, this is the only chronology imposed on the book. Why do you think Tranel chose this structure—circling around people and events and back and forth in time—instead of a linear presentation? What effect does this achieve? How might a chronological structure change the reader’s experience?
2. Ten Circles Upon the Pond is part memoir and part reflection on how our culture affects our choices and shapes the relationship between parents and children. How does Tranel develop these themes? What specific cultural issue were you aware of in each essay, and how did it affect the parent/child relationship? What are the main cultural influences confronting parents today, both positive and negative? Is parenting different today than in Tranel’s generation? What insights into parenting did you gain from reading these essays?
3. In chapter eight, Tranel is in Madrid observing two Spanish women on the street. One is a young professional woman on her way to work, the other, a cleaning woman leaning on her broom watching, as if comparing her own circumstances. Her daydreaming sets off Tranel’s. “What might I have been?,” she asks herself [p. 252]. Does Tranel regret any decisions in her life? Does her ruminating set off questions for you and the choices you have made? What aspect of her life do you find most appealing? Least appealing?
4. Did reading these essays make you feel intimately acquainted with Tranel’s family? Were there some members you knew better than others? Why?
5. In chapter five, Tranel writes that her husband’s “child-care methods differ from [hers]” [p. 143]. She then refers to a Mayan adage advising a mother to hold the baby close so he knows the world is his and a father to take the child to the highest hill and show him how broad his world can be. What do you think of this division of roles? Compare these ideas to contemporary expectations of fathers.
6. In the first chapter, Tranel asks herself if she is a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of her choices or an unconscious accessory to an ordained plan. How would you answer this question—for her, and for yourself? Do the essays reveal any serious aspirations beyond mothering on her part?
7. How did the strong Catholic influence in the author’s upbringing affect her adult life? How did the roles and rules she was taught manifest themselves in her mothering? In what ways did feminism influence the life she had created for herself as a wife and mother? Did the circumstances of her life—the demands of family, the isolation—allow her to develop her own interests and abilities? Did you perceive any effect from her long-term commitment to mothering on her character and personality?
8. Motherhood is fertile ground for writers. Poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were unsettled by the challenges of raising children. Erma Bombeck and Jean Kerr focused more on the humor and complexity of bringing up kids. Where would you place Tranel’s book on this spectrum?
9. In chapter five, Tranel’s five-year-old daughter tells her during an outing, “I’ve never been alone with you before” [p. 145]. The remark stuns her and triggers concern that she hasn’t given her middle daughters enough attention. Does Tranel show favoritism toward any of her children, or does she do her best to treat them all equally? What are the positive and negative aspects of life as a large family?
10. How does the title express the theme of the book? How would you characterize the tone of Ten Circles Upon the Pond? What is the book’s lasting effect on the reader?
11. Although the book is nonfiction, there are many traditional fiction techniques used—scenes, dialogue, storytelling. Some critics think contemporary essayists limit themselves too much to the tools of fiction, and fail to exploit the permissions of the essay—to think out loud, to draw conclusions, to disturb us with ideas and opinions. Instead of being bold and brash, essayists are too modest and too cute and too afraid to presume that they speak for others. How does Ten Circles Upon the Pond exemplify these traits? Does Tranel borrow techniques from both fiction and nonfiction writing?
12. An underlying theme of Ten Circles Upon the Pond is the search for home. Do you think it’s practical—or even a good idea—to try to preserve childhood innocence by finding a sheltered place to raise a family? The author weaves her strong desire to find a utopian retreat from the ills of the world through many of the chapters, but she presents an equally strong opinion about the need to commit, to plunge into the stream of life. How does she reconcile these conflicting desires?