Arlene Harris talks to mums about the challenges and joys of rearing a large family


Family pride: What it takes to raise a family of four or more

Arlene Harris talks to mums about the challenges and joys of rearing a large family

Family pride: What it takes to raise a family of four or more

Arlene Harris talks to mums about the challenges and joys of rearing a large family

WHETHER you have one child or 10, Mother’s Day is always special. But while there was a time when 2.4 children was the norm, these days it seems big families are becoming more commonplace.

Indeed, TV personality Vogue Williams, who recently welcomed her first child, claims that parenting is such as easy task that she and her reality TV star husband Spencer Matthews plan to have lots of children.

And the Dublin woman isn’t alone — the Beckhams have four children, Jamie Oliver and his wife Jools have five and, not to be outdone, Gordon Ramsay and his wife Tana are soon to be welcoming a fifth child as a sibling to their four teenagers.

So what is it about having lots of children that makes these well-known families keep adding to their brood? Ahead of Mother’s Day, we asked mums and experts about the joys of having a big family.

Suzanne and Donal O’Sullivan from Cork always wanted a large family as they envisaged a busy and fun childhood for their children — Dan , seven, Emily, five, JJ, four, and Ella May, 17 months.

“I have eight siblings, and while it was crazy growing up with so many children, it was good crazy,” says Suzanne.

“I thought we might have five or six children, but I think four is our magic number. My siblings and I are very close and we had so much fun growing up.

“Donal is from a family of four who are close in age, so we wanted the same for our children and we wanted to be young parents so didn’t wait around.

“My kids are great — well behaved and mannerly, but they can fight a lot too. But what I notice and love about them being so close in age is how much they look after each other. They are all really caring and have so much fun. We went on a camping holiday last year to France and made such amazing memories. They are so innocent and fun-loving, and I love that.”

Jeanne Delbarre and her husband Simon also have four children — Gabriel, nine, Tristan, six, Lucien, five,and Henri, one. The French woman, who lives in Dun Laoghaire, had two siblings but grew up with her cousins living nearby.

Simon has seven siblings, so both were used to a busy childhood and wanted the same for their own boys.

“For me, growing up was fun as there was always someone to play with,” says Jeanne, who runs her own clothing business online —

“I have always had admiration for large families. They are beautiful.

“Our average day is very busy, bsut there is always a lot of love. The kids entertain each other and there is a clear separation between them and the adults — which wasn’t the case when we only had one — family life is easier when everyone knows their place and they have to share a lot, their bedrooms, toys, the TV, and Xbox, so they learn to compromise and take turns.

“While it might be frustrating for them, it is amazing life training and we love watching them play and invent games together. They are such a little gang and really look out for each other, so it’s beautiful to see.”

BOYS’ WORLD: Jeanne Delbarre with husband Simon and children Gabriel, Tristan, Lucien and Henri.
BOYS’ WORLD: Jeanne Delbarre with husband Simon and children Gabriel, Tristan, Lucien and Henri.

Katrina O’Brien lives near Slane with her husband John and their five children — Matthew, 12, Sara, nine, Lorcan, five, Cillian, four, and Lauren, two. Having grown up with seven siblings, she always wanted lots of children and says her husband loved having babies around the house.

“I think I always wanted a big family — we didn’t sit down and come up with a figure, but I just knew I wanted more than three,” she says. “And John adores little babies — even now we have finished having our own, you’ll still find him holding a baby or minding our friend’s children when we visit.

“I have five sisters and two brothers, and while I keep in regular touch with my brothers (one who lives abroad), I see my sisters all the time (two live close by) and this is why a big family counts. I really want my children to experience the closeness, support and love I experience with my siblings. Hopefully, they will find this in each other — although some days it seems that couldn’t be further in the distance.”

Katrina, who gave up her job as a vascular physiologist after the birth of her fifth child, says while each day is very busy, with her four-year-old son rising at 5.30am, she wouldn’t change a thing.

There are many positives to a big family, she says, and along with the children having a close bond, they “always have someone to play with”.

“It’s so cute watching them play hide and seek, and Sara asks Matthew to help with her homework when I am busy.

“On the downside, it can be hard financially — but you have to make it work. And while I don’t want to always be telling my kids about the value of money, I don’t want them to think they can get everything they ask for. Also, the noise level can be something else — with five kids wanting to talk at the same time, it can be so difficult to hear. And of course, booking holidays for a family of seven can be difficult too.

“But when it comes to Christmas or birthdays, the excitement is shared by everyone — so while I would tell parents to be prepared, accept help and plan ahead.

“We are so happy with our children — we planned for all of our babies and were so lucky that they were all born so well and healthy.”

CLOSE BOND: Suzanne O’Sullivan, with her children, JJ, Dan, Ella May and Emily at their home in Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
CLOSE BOND: Suzanne O’Sullivan, with her children, JJ, Dan, Ella May and Emily at their home in Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Suzanne also says having a big family can be costly, but the sacrifices are worthwhile.

“August with its preparation for school is a very expensive time and while after-school activities are also expensive, these are done by our own choice,” she says.

“We manage our money well and don’t overspend on material things — so our kids want for nothing, but are not spoilt.

“I try and live in the moment with my children as these are the formative years and I want to be there for them as much as I can.

“Children need so much support and it’s hard to divide your time between them but I try and give them all one-on-one time whenever possible. They are all so different and require support at stages — I really try my best to be mindful of this.”

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, says it is difficult to ensure every child gets the same amount of attention, but it is important to be aware of their needs and to always be fair.

“Whether you have two children or 12 children, it is simply not possible to give everyone equal amounts of attention and you will drive yourself to distraction even trying,” she says.

“Instead, try to ensure that everyone gets the attention they need when they need it. Not all of your children will have the same physical or emotional needs at the same time, so focus on who needs what and when. That way you are parenting in a fair and balanced way. Maybe that’s more about approaching parenting with equity rather than equality in mind.

“Be it large busy families or busy classrooms, I always encourage the adults in charge to take time to reflect on whose name they have not called aloud that day. It can be easy to stay just below the surface in a big crowd but sometimes — not always — this can be at the cost of having your needs noticed and responded to. Some children are very well able to get their needs met and bring themselves to your attention one way or another, but some need help and to be encouraged with that.”

Child psychologist Peadar Maxwell agrees: “It’s always possible to get lost in a family because of where you fall in the order of siblings if you’re quiet or well behaved or in a family that doesn’t do a lot of things together,” he says.

“Obviously parents who have many children are more likely to be busy and distracted leaving a quiet or independent child to just get on with it or maybe not having the time to devote to a sensitive soul.

“It really is a balancing act where the parents of all configurations of families need to have their own interests, passions and dreams and make sure that the whole family does whole-family things fairly frequently.”

Joanna says large families can be very supportive and offer a great network for siblings.

“Bigger families can offer their own sense of community and children will grow up with a large support network,” she says.

“Sure, there is added expense and parents will feel a tsunami of demands, but there is also the joy of watching the children entertain each other, play and grow up together. Siblings may fall out and argue, but they can also be each other’s best friends.”

Big and small families can be equally fun, caring and supportive, says Peadar.

“At the end of the day, it is not how many people are in your family, it is whether or not you spent time together growing up and put effort into staying in touch as you grow,” says the Wexford-based expert.

Mother-of-four Jeanne Delbarre sums it up: “I’m sure people feel sorry for me and all my boys — it’s funny how someone’s dream can be someone else’s nightmare.”

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