GERMAN grandmother Annegret Raunigk made headlines recently when she gave birth to quadruplets — not only because she is 65, but because she has 13 children already. While most parents here in Ireland don’t have 17 children, we are known for having relatively large families. So what influences that decision – how does anyone decide on a number?
Family background certainly has an impact — people who grew up with lots of siblings often want large families themselves.
“I come from a family of nine,” says Eva, a mum of six. “And I always wanted a large family too. I hoped for at least 11, but I’m happy with six!” This doesn’t always follow though. “I’m the youngest of four,” says mum of one, Karen. “Being the youngest was great in a way because I was spoiled rotten. But in another way I struggled to find my own identity. I only have one child now and we’re probably 95% sure we’re done with one.” More practical factors come into play too — childcare costs and mortgages can contribute towards decisions about family size.
“I come from a big family so it was assumed that I’d have one too, but the reality is that having kids is hard financially,” says mum of two Susan. “More kids means a bigger space to live in, bigger car, bigger shopping budget, but with only one income we can’t see that happening. So we’re happy to stop at two and feel this is a good size for us.”
Health plays a part too — for some, fertility problems dictate family size, or medical complications that can make pregnancy difficult.
“I really wanted four kids,” says mum of three Nathalie. “But hyperemesis was the main limiting factor for us. We decided to have just two kids so went through hyperemesis one more time. Our third child was a wonderful accident!”
We have the third highest fertility rate in Europe, and family size is at the higher end of the scale too — according to the most recent census, of all Irish families with children, 25% have three or more. There was a long-running trend of families having fewer children, but this has changed, although between 2006 and 2011, that figure remained almost static. So what has caused this change — is there a trend towards larger families again?
In the US, a study by the Council on Contemporary Families noted an increase in the number of families with three or four children among the top-earning two per cent of households, prompting a variety of commentators to wonder if children are the latest status symbol of the wealthy. Some celebrities fall into that category, with larger broods in the Beckham, Jolie-Pitt and Spielberg households. Closer to home, Miriam O’Callaghan, Matt Cooper and Michael O’Leary are some of the high profile names with relatively large families. But is it really a status symbol, or is it simply the case that many of us would have more children if we could afford to. The bottom line is, kids are expensive to rear.
Carmel, who has four children, is keenly aware of the costs. “It’s certainly not easy from a financial viewpoint. We’ve accepted that we’ll be in our twilight years before we have any disposable income,” she says.
And family-size is not immune from judgement. “I am regularly demented by people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to comment on our family, telling me I ‘have enough’ and that I’m not to have any more. It’s so incredibly rude,” says Eva.
Smaller families are equally susceptible. “Because I have two girls, I’m constantly met with ‘Oh you’ll have to try again for a boy,’” says Susan.
So what is the “norm” here in Ireland? Anecdotally, it seems to be three children, as is also the case in the UK, but less so in the States.
“I feel like here in the US the ‘normal’ number of kids is two,” says Irish mum and US resident Christine. “I know a couple of families with four, and they seem like enormous outliers. In Ireland it seems to me that three is closer to the norm.” Laura, who also spent time living in the States, agrees. “Yes, most of my friends had two kids. University costs are astronomical in the US.”
Here, families with two children tend to feel a push to explain why they’re stopping at two, whereas families with three don’t experience pressure to justify why they didn’t stop at two, nor why they’re not having four — perhaps more than anything, it suggests that for many Irish families, three is the magic number.
The pros and cons of big families:
There’s always someone to talk to.
Older kids stand up for younger siblings.
It’s noisy in a good way.
Adult siblings make great friends.
There are more people to chip in for the nursing home.
There’s always noise.
There’s no space.
It’s hard to give every child individual attention.
In bigger families, adult siblings can have factions and fallouts.
It’s very, very expensive.