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Big broods and helicopter parenting

'Big families' by Chris JohnstonRecently my parents attended the funeral of a friend who was the father of ten children. Yes, ten. They were all there, plus grandkids and great-grandkids, filling up the church and paying tribute to the departed patriarch by whistling Ave Maria, a feat for which he was famed.

It seems nowadays that to have that number of children is the provenance of movie stars who cherry-pick needy infants from around the globe. On the other hand, for a regular Joe and Josie such fecundity will itself guarantee you a kind of freak celebrity status; witness America's 'Octomom', who is in the process of having a reality TV show made about her and her brood.

But among my parents' generation of Catholics, having a large family was nothing extraordinary. They themselves had seven (of which I am the last), and we knew many others with five, six, eight or more, though it was generally agreed that with 13 the Massinghams were starting to push the envelope.

For those of us challenged by raising one or two children, this seems the achievement of not merely a previous generation, but of another aeon. A time when Colossuses strode the earth, begetting and begatting; a mythological era, earlier and murkier than even that of Zeus and Hera, more akin to the ancient race of Titans who preceded them.

And as the remnant of an almost-vanished breed I feel I owe a debt to history to record something of the experience. Simply put, it was wonderful. A village within four walls, the sheer numbers meant that amidst the shifting alliances of siblings there was always someone on side and someone available.

When I appeared, my eldest brother and sister were dragooned as godparents, and while the joke was that our parents had run out of friends, it was a great gift to have a spread of older siblings able to offer a different kind of advice and sympathy than parents can. As adults we are all good friends, with the happy recognition that we actually like one another beyond the involuntary ties of biology and history.

But it is not just the children; large families also produce a different kind of parent. While the logistics of caring for a small army demanded certain simplicities and severities, there was also a freedom unimaginable to many children today. Vastly outnumbered, there was no chance for adults to practice the kind of helicopter parenting common to my own generation, where we hover over our one or two, soothing and solving.

The shift to a society of 'Little Emperors' (as the phenomenon is termed in China) has far-reaching consequences. There are certain useful qualities cultivated, I can assure you, by being seventh in line!

Although scientists warn the planet cannot sustain the booming global population, there is environmental sense in many people sharing one home and its resources, rather than a mass of little families each with its own car, clothes-dryer and fridge.

Even more significant, is the assumption of affluence that has grown as we've shrunk. We complain that we can only afford to have one or two children, but these go on overseas holidays and have televisions in their bedrooms. Our families are smaller but the lifestyles are bigger.

Psychologist Steve Biddulph identifies the biggest challenge facing modern parents as 'coming second in your own life. That's not what consumer culture teaches you.' But it was an unavoidable lesson for the parents of large families, and not only in a material sense. The tribe of these mothers I know, now in their 70s and 80s, are remarkable in their selflessness and patience (qualities sometimes developed, it is true, alongside a paternal gruffness).

I am not imagining that parenting so many children was idyllic, and the simple fact is many choose not to now that our consciences and contraceptives permit. One of nine children, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney recalls his mother, 'doomed by biology' to 'nothing but parturition and potato-peeling in saecula saeculorum'.

Yet, as I and the other tail ends of these long comets of procreation confess secretly to one another, one or two just doesn't feel like a real family. 'What about Christmas?' the youngest of six and the mother of two anxiously whispered to me recently. And don't even think about the funeral.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer and broadcaster with ABC Radio National. She held a Commonwealth Scholarship at Oxford University between 2000 and 2002, and won the inaugural $2000 Margaret Dooley Award for Young Writers in 2005. 

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, catholic, parenthood, motherhood, religion, monastery life, zen buddhism, vocation



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Existing comments

Thank Sarah,
Large families were also the province of Methodists and Anglicans. My mother was the eldest in a family of 8. It was to have a
family continuity from my mother, who died in 1954. to the youngest, my aunt who died in 2005. To have such family memories as these, and from my father's family, second of four boys, died in 1979, to the youngest who died in 1999. Father a Presbyterian, mother with a Roman Catholic father

Families live in the memories of these; relations, relatives and those who have met them!

John | 08 October 2009  

Thankyou Sarah, for a thoughtful article. I can see how growing up in a big family would have advantages in terms of social interraction, sibling support, and thus fitting people to take their places in the outside world. On the other hand, I have come to see it as irresponsible to bring more children into the world than the world can sustain. Procreating two, and adopting more, would seem more responsible, perhaps.

Having said all that, I can't imagine my life without the love of our eldest son's third son!

Just a nitpicking ex-editor's comment, made in a way that I hope will be seen as helpful: you misused the word 'provenance'.

Peter Downie | 09 October 2009  

In my books having an enormous family is child abuse. I was raised in a two child household. I got four times the supervision and one-on-one attention than a child from an eight child family. I got four times the help with my homework, and had my parents had eight children, they would have to had spent four times as much money on helping us achieve through after school study activities.

My grandmother was one of thirteen children. She told us she hardly knew some of her siblings- the entire family was perhaps in the one place at the one time, a dozen times in their life.

She was so poor my father had to sleep on the porch with the dog while his bedroom was rented out to strangers. Just three generations prior, hers had been one of the richest families in Australia, owning vast tracts of land, but generation after generation of huge families had reduced that inheritance to nothing. My father was an only child, and pulled himself up by his boot straps. He had a small family so he could concentrate his resources and make sure we would never know the poverty he did in childhood.

Andy | 13 October 2009  

I was the youngest of 8 children spread over 15 years. My mother was always busy but she had time for all of us. My parents never missed a P&C meeting, parent teacher interview or school concert. Sometimes my dad worked away from home in the shearing sheds and mum solo parented during the week. We might not have had money for lots of new clothes but whatever we needed for school we got. 6 of the 8 of us went to university or college. The other two went to TAFE or nursing. We never doubted that we were loved and precious. When my dad died last year he had 24 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren. Most were at his funeral and what a celebration of life it was. I have 4 children and now that only 2 are left at home the place seems empty. The number of children you have doesn't determine how much family you have - it is the love, effort and time that you put in that counts.

Philipa Core | 19 October 2009  

There are two sides to the issue of large families.

I was the fifth of eight, growing up in a Catholic farming community where that was the norm. Certainly we had more freedom from supervision but the quality of parenting was poor.

It takes remarkable people to be loving and attentive to so many off-spring; our father considered child-raising nothing to do with him and my mother was fragile and unable to cope.

We were often temporarily cared for by others for a short time only. There was no sense of emotional security.

There are some families where the older siblings lovingly assisted in raising the younger ones, but in others the responsibility forced onto the older ones can cause resentment and poor relationships.

As soon as women had a choice, the birth rate dropped rapidly. This suggests that many exhausted women of my mother's generation had not planned for that many children. They simply had to cope, however they could, with the number which turned up.

Our children wil face major challenges on this planet. They will need a sense of inner security plus the best education possible.
Surely it makes no sense to overload the parents?

Gabrielle Bridges | 25 October 2009  

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