Interview with a father of 5

Having a large and happy family: insights from a father of five

April 23, 2020

large families

Fathers can provide for their families and also be good parents to their children. We know many men who have excelled in both and are starting a new cycle of publications to share their stories. Many men featured in this series of articles are fathers of large families. All are very compassionate people and loving husbands. We are happy to introduce these men to our audience and hope to have an open discussion with them about the issues and solutions that are of relevance to all of us. Fathers can do a lot of things! Our guest today is Maxim Mikhaltsov, a film director, a teacher at the Convent’s school “Ichthys” and a father of five.

By the time Maxim was a student in a training programme for scriptwriters and film directors, he was already married. At the time, he was facing an important life choice: to stay in Moscow and pursue his career in the film industry there or to return to Minsk. Then, he received a call from his wife Inga who told him that they were expecting their first child. Maxim’s decision was obvious. He returned to Minsk.

Inga has a background in fine arts. Throughout her pregnancy, she was working on an icon with spiritual guidance from a priest. Once, as she was sharing her thoughts about her work, the priest remarked that true icon was the baby that she was carrying in her womb.

“Inga is really like a saint to me,” says Maxim confidently, although he sounds somewhat uneasy as he speaks. “I may not have fully met her expectations. When we first met, I was working as an engineer. I told her then that she could do all she wanted- that she could spend as much time as she liked painting pictures and she didn’t even have to cook for me! But when I changed my career and became a film director, she put her ambitions in the back seat to help me and later dedicated all her time to raising children and caring for the family. Incidentally, Inga is now returning to icon painting little by little.

I wanted to name our first son Andrey in honour of the film director Andrey Tarkovsky, who is my favourite, says Maxim. But we ended up naming him Ignat in honour of Saint Ignatius Bryanchaninov, even though we knew quite little about him back then. Then, a few months after Ignats birth, Maxim, the novice film director, was offered the chance to make a film about Saint Ignatius.

Maxim and Inga gave the name Andrey to their second son. 

“I let Inga choose the names of all the other children from then on,” continues Maxim. “She is their mother, and she has a special connection to the children. Whenever she made up her mind about a name, I always supported her. She named our third son Peter, in honour of his great grandfather. As she was expecting our fourth, she had a dream that she had a boy named Lev, so this was how we named him. Expecting our fifth son was a particularly special time for us, so my wife decided to call him David, which means ‘beloved’.

The Mikhaltsovs were not planning to have a large family, but a loving couple will embrace all the children born to them as a gift and a blessing from God.

“Our oldest son is now fifteen, and our youngest is four. Having children, breastfeeding and caring for them nevertheless means a lot of work and tests one’s endurance. At one moment, it occurred to us that we were largely unprepared - physically, morally or spiritually - to have a lot of children.

In a large family, neither parent can be selfish or egoistic. But both of us were raised in regular families with few children. Inga has a sister, I have an older brother, and because I was the youngest child in my family, I grew up quite selfish. The change was not easy. We were simply learning to put our trust in God.

My wife has been offered to have an abortion twice, and doctors have made all sorts of scary diagnoses of our children while they were still in the womb. She refused. This shows her to be a very brave and courageous woman.

The children of the Mikhaltsov family have grown up, and each has a set of domestic chores for which he is responsible. According to Maxim, sharing domestic work is one of the foundations of a large family’s life. There is a division of duties and responsibilities among the members and a set of rules that supports it. Maxim explains:

“The three older children always help out in the kitchen. They do the cleaning and the washing up every night. The younger children help them. Sometimes, the boys may do the cooking for Inga. They are also expected to keep their play area in order. There is simply no time to be lazy. The older children look after the younger ones, and the younger children learn from their example.

Inga is the one who takes charge of the school homework and checks that it has been done properly.

We pray several times a day but keep our prayers short so the children are not overstrained. In the evenings, we read and discuss the lives of the saints, the Scripture and the Bible. We go to church every Sunday.

We also reserve some time for exercise. We play soccer and volleyball, hike and fish. The children like to spend their summer in the countryside.

Maxim Mikhaltsov doing sports

Maxim and Inga believe in the exercise of reasonable parental control over what the children are watching on television or their mobile devices.

Maxim says: “Sometimes, parents may find it easier to let their children sit in front of the television, as this gives them some quiet time.

They may also prefer to do the chores for their children because they find it faster. They are too concerned that their children may not be experienced enough to do the job well, and they will have to redo it afterwards. But this attitude is fundamentally wrong. Let your child do a job poorly five times, so he can learn to do the task well the sixth time.

Also, did you know that on average parents spend seven minutes per day talking to their children? But, having quality time together is very important. No matter how busy we may be, we do not work sixteen hours per day every day, and we can afford to spend more time with our children. My father, for example, took me with him to help him build our family’s country house. I watched him work and would occasionally pick up a hammer to drive in a few nails. I enjoyed it very much! And, I was learning some useful skills in the process, which I came to appreciate when I grew up. I have taught technology at a secondary school, and I still enjoy making furniture with my own hands. We also did a lot of exercise and sport together with my father. We went downhill skiing. I have kept up, and now I ski together with my own children.

Maxim sees himself as a reasonably demanding father. He was smiling a lot as we were discussing his parenting habits.

I am very straightforward when it comes to discipline. At times, the boys get to do pull-ups and push-ups when they misbehave. In my youth, I thought that I would never smack any child of mine but eventually discovered that testing my patience for too long may put me on a short fuse.

Some of my children I haven’t smacked even once, but others have had to face the consequences one or more times when they misbehaved badly and persisted in it.

As Father Dimitrius Smirnov has said, smacking is inappropriate for small children and for adolescents. A child is too young for physical punishment in his early years and too old in adolescence. Smacking can only benefit a child while he is small enough to lie across a bench, as a popular saying goes. For some, it will be enough to do it once, others may need one or more times in a year. A child may receive a smacking for showing gross disrespect for his parents. But love must underlie any punishment; otherwise, it is little else than physical abuse. Children should understand what they are being punished for. In punishment, there is no place for rage or anger.

Children have a need for boundaries; absence of boundaries causes serious problems with the child’s psyche and attitude to life. The boundaries are essential; no child will take offence for the punishment if he knows the reason for it. Children can tell if they are loved. You cannot deceive them.

Recognising that the father plays a key, if not a critical, role in a family, Maxim holds himself to a high moral standard. -

“I used to be very busy making films, and would often come home very late at night; at times, the boys would not see me for days.

We are now re-learning to see our family as a small church. This means being acutely aware of how your own sins have an imprint on your children, and conversely, how your own effort at self-improvement benefits the rest of your family. Here, one has to push oneself quite hard to overcome one’s weaknesses.

I now recognise that, in the beginning, I was an immature person, unable to take responsibility or accept an obligation, even towards myself, let alone for somebody else. Now I am responsible for the whole family. My wife has been instrumental in my transformation.

We call ourselves Christians, and we must be worthy of this name. I am far from being some outstanding Christan ascetic. I am just a loving husband, and there is love between me and my wife. The mystery of the church wedding had a profound effect on our relationship, and the blessing of our wedding has lasted to this day.

My wife and I are looking in the same direction. We are of the same spirit; I  am a very happy man. The children have grown, and today I can say with full confidence that a large family brings a lot of joy and happiness. However, a person should always be prepared to deal with hardships whenever they arise, and the way to do so is to develop the habit of working systematically from childhood. The reason my children are doing the chores is not to make life harder for them; I just do not want them to follow in my footsteps and end up having to do the everyday battle with laziness, idleness and selfishness.

Maxim insists that being a child in a large family should not just be about duties, rules and punishments. Children should have freedom, and they should be listened to, but there should also be a clear hierarchy within the family. Children and parents should not treat each other as equals. He gives the example of his older son Ignat to illustrate his point.

“When he was about 11 - 12 years of age, Ignat refused to take communion. As a family, we were going to church every Sunday, and he was taking communion with everybody else. Forcing him to do it against his will was out of the question, as faith means freedom. But leaving Ignat behind and going to the liturgy without him also seemed wrong. We decided to continue to bring Ignat to church with us, and let him ‘sit-in’ on a bench in a corner. I told him that he could use this time to ask God questions that he might have. After about a month, my son said to me: “Dad, I think that God does exist after all”. I do not know what had been going on in his heart all that time, but he must have had an inspiration from God.

But, I must say that I had not been prepared for that situation. Perhaps he had been too stressed out, spiritually. Today, he is quite independent and self-driven, and may go for the early liturgy at 6 am, while the younger children continue to go to the later one.

Ignat is now fifteen, and he has entered a trade college. His choice of profession came as a big surprise even to us as parents. This was his own independent decision; it did not come easily, and he spent a lot of effort justifying it before the relatives. I am inspired by Ignat’s achievements but have no definitive plans for our children’s future lives. I see it as my main task to form their character and help them grow into good people, while their future profession or occupation is far less important.

When the monastery had a video studio, Maxim worked there as a film director. Now he is a teacher at the Convent’s school. We could not avoid asking him which he finds more difficult: making films or teaching school.

I have done many jobs in my life. I have worked as a guard, freight handler, road construction worker, an engineer at a research institution… I used to think that doing a 12-hour shift at a film location was very difficult - having to deal with all sorts of people, realising the artistic and creative idea of the project and keeping up with a tight schedule. This was a hard job indeed. But, I have found teaching school to be a lot more difficult. Perhaps I have not got used to it yet, but I find teaching a lot more exhausting. Maybe I still need to learn how to spend my energy wisely.

You cannot be insincere with children. They see through you. This is particularly true, given the subject that I teach – “foundations of Christian Orthodox culture and civilisation”. It is absolutely not possible to talk about religious truths and spiritual matters without practising them in your life; the children, on the other hand, will not miss the chance to point out to you your unworthiness as a Christian. This makes my task very challenging indeed...

In today’s world, words are losing their value, as fewer and fewer people are living according to the ideals that they express. The children have seen this happening since their early years and find it hard to accept what you are saying on faith - just like everybody else.

My experience as a film director and a father is very helpful in my teaching job. It has taught me one critical skill - to grab the attention of your audience and to keep them interested, to feel their reaction and use expressive techniques effectively. I have practised all of them extensively in my family.

Having a large family is costly, so we asked Maxim how they were managing to meet the financial challenge.

We have had our highs and lows, and some very difficult periods, too. I took up freelancing at one stage, and we all had to cope with the irregular income that brings. You may be earning a lot at one time and nothing at all at another. Despite the difficulty of that period, it became quite visible to me then that God cares for His children. I saw the truth of the popular wisdom that when God gives you a child, He will also give you enough to provide for that child. I feel God’s providential care for the family.

We also discussed the support available to large families from the Church and the state.

“I work at St. Elisabeth Convent, but we live in a different part of the city, which is close to the Church of Saint Nicholas of Japan, and we are members of its parish. 

The parish runs a crisis centre for women. Support for large families is available in other parishes. In most cases, it is coordinated by the parish priests.

The Church needs to do systematic work with large families. People need to be reminded why the family is a small church, and what roles the man and the woman should play in it. At present, our value systems are completely skewed in this regard.

There are very few families nowadays whose value systems are in balance.

As far as our family is concerned, the state has helped us acquire a flat, which is a big help indeed.

It is not easy to be a practising Christian in today’s world. We asked Maksim if his children, who all go to regular public school, had any difficulty in this regard. If so, what advice does he give them?

I always tell my children not to hide the fact that they are Christians and share their faith with others. So, they do not make a secret of it. They have no difficulty greeting their classmates on the Pascha. They answer questions about the feast and Church life and invite their friends to go to Church with them.

Some of their friends they had invited are now going to Church regularly. These are isolated examples, but they are very encouraging! To my children, this means that the Church has become a part of their lives, and they have accepted Christianity as their personal faith.

The photos used for this material are from the family album of the Mikhaltsov family.

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