By Sarah Hill
A large, majestic house on a 10-acre plot of land in Rochester Hills, Michigan, is where Laura and Pelar Esshaki spend most of their days. From the outside you would think it’s extravagant; peering around the back is the largest private pool in Oakland County. But upon entering the house, you would be faced with nine red-headed children running around, making messes, and giggling with a joy that echoes throughout the 10,000 square foot house. Instantly, the enormous amount of space seems much less extensive when occupied by this great number.
Religious paintings, statues, and objects line the walls, along with an array of family portraits. Toys are scattered throughout the halls. And smiling faces are ready to greet you in every room.
Laura and Pelar Esshaki are the parents of nine children with their 10th on the way. Laura was raised in a Catholic American family of five. Pelar, on the other hand, is Chaldean. His parents are immigrants from Iraq. While they both come from unique backgrounds, their family couldn’t seem happier.
Their lifestyle is not one that is held by many. Laura and Pelar are heavily religious people. Their Catholic faith shapes every aspect of their lives. They have nearly five times the amount of children that an average family in America would have. The Esshaki children, despite their ivory complexion and bright red curls, are half Chaldean. Their culture plays a big role in their lifestyle as well.
Laura and Pelar first met at a Halloween party when they were just 16 years old. They shared an instant connection and started dating not long after. Laura shared how, coming from a white American family, joining Pelar’s family was a bit of a culture shock.
“His immediate family was really welcoming,” she said. “In his extended family, it’s really weird to bring a boyfriend or girlfriend around before you’re married and it so was really awkward.”
She said that it took some time after their marriage before everyone felt completely comfortable. “The first time I went to his grandma’s house, I had just had a baby, and the women were in the family room and the men were in a different room, and Pelar just dropped me off in this room and all the women started speaking Arabic,” Laura said. “And they were like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, Laura.’” The language barrier was hard. They spoke Arabic purposely so they could talk about me.” Laura explained that they were not trying to be rude though, and she has become very close to them since that first uneasy experience.
Pelar added that his decision to marry outside of his culture initially caused some distress within his family. “When I first started dating Laura, we were 16 and my parents were like ‘Oh that’s cute, you’re dating someone who’s not Chaldean,’” he said. “When they realized we were like, gonna get married, it became more of an issue.” He explained that their main concern was just making sure their son would be happy. Now, they couldn’t be more pleased with Laura and Pelar’s marriage.
“When it came to wedding planning, there were some cultural things we had to do,” Laura said. Their wedding was done in Pelar’s Chaldean Catholic Church in 2006. Their reception was one of extravagance, with a guest list of about 500 and complete with belly dancers and traditional music and food.
Above, photos from Laura’s “Henna” gathering, a traditional pre-wedding celebration that includes the women from both the bride’s and the groom’s families. On the right, some of Pelar’s relatives dance with Laura and her sisters.
Since their wedding, Pelar and Laura have gone on to have nine children and are expecting their 10th. This decision, they say, is inspired by their Catholic faith.
“We are very pro-life and we don’t believe in contraception, so we are very open to life which is why we have 10 children,” Laura said. “We teach marriage prep and we do a lot of marriage ministry because we believe that families are the foundation of the Church and we need strong families to have a strong Church.”
Their faith is the very foundation of their rock-solid relationship. They shared that they frequently pray the rosary together, and often send each other texts throughout the day asking for a prayer if they are having a hard moment.
Since the Catholic Faith is also such a huge part of Pelar’s Chaldean Culture, the Esshaki family tries to keep strong ties with their Chaldean faith roots. “The closest priests the kids have are the Chaldean priests,” Laura said. “We have them over all the time.”
She and Pelar shared that they have chosen to have their children baptized in the Chaldean Rite. They also celebrate their culture by eating special foods such as “pacha”, a traditional Christmastime dish.
Laura and Pelar take their children to a Chaldean mass at least once a month so that they can be familiar with their cultural tie to their faith. Now that Pelar and Laura teach marriage prep, they are well known within that Chaldean church community. However, Laura shared that earlier in their relationship, they were not so easily welcomed since they sort of stuck out in the crowd.
While the Esshaki children are genetically half Chaldean, their outer appearances do not show it. Their complexions are all very light, and most of them have bright red curls and blue eyes, so they come across as white. “When we were engaged, when we would go to Chaldean church– and even up to six years ago– no one would sit by us at church,” Laura said. “Now it’s not like that.”
Laura and Pelar shared that they often get a variety of reactions when people find out they have so many kids. They both agreed that they receive about 60% negative comments and 40% positive. Some people will say very offensive things to them, like, “Don’t you know what causes that?” and “You guys need a hobby.”
Other people will find it touching to see such a sweet, big family, and will comment on how well behaved the children are and how they remind them of their own family. One of the sweetest comments the Esshaki family receives a lot is; “Your children seem so happy.”
Pelar said that he thinks the main reason people find their lifestyle so shocking is that they are a totally normal family. He said that he believes there’s a stereotype that if you have a lot of kids you’re going to be weird or different. “I think the big thing is that people are completely dumbstruck because it’s a totally different thing than what they’d expect,” he said. “We have a normal life with a bunch of kids and it kinda freaks them out.”
When asked about how difficult it is to have so many children, Laura shared that it’s not as hard as most people imagine. “The hardest we ever had it was three kids,” she said. “Once you get to four it’s smooth sailing. They entertain each other.”
“When people ask, ‘How many are you gonna have?,’ my answer is always, ‘All of them,’” Laura said. “How ever many I have, but I wanna have all of them. And it kinda shuts people up ‘cause it makes them think. And at the end of the day, I know that everyone that God intended to be here is here.”
Of course, one of the most obvious concerns with their way of life would be how to financially afford so many children. However, Laura and Pelar seem unconcerned with this. “Kids are as expensive as you make them,” Pelar said. “The number one question we get is, ‘What do you do?’ which shows people assume that children are an extreme financial burden. It’s a lie that people have been told and people believe it.”
“Right now we’re sitting out at a pool full of children that are all ours,” Pelar said. “There are nine kids who were all born out of Laura’s womb. Their souls will exist forever, and they are all here because we didn’t buy into the lie that the world told us.”