Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Family pack

It's been all babies, babies, babies round this neck of the woods recently...
My feature on large families in today's Irish Independent:


Tuesday July 21 2009
Kids -- who'd have 'em? Time-consuming, cash-swallowing little dynamos -- and all they offer in return is their unconditional love. Certainly the average number of children in the typical family has fallen drastically since our parents' generation.

So it is always with goggle-eyed admiration -- and confusion -- that we regard a large family in contemporary Ireland.

Ann Stapleton (42) and her family made for an eye-catching photograph in last week's newspapers. She and her husband John were pictured as she was called to the Bar in the Four Courts -- surrounded by their 10 children, ranging in age from four to 17 years.

To add to her superwoman credentials, Ann held down a full-time job and studied for her exams at night. Husband John, who took early retirement several years ago, stays at home with the children.

Far from being ground down by conflicting responsibilities, Ann told RTE's Morning Ireland: "It sounds like punishment, but I have to be honest, it wasn't punishment. I loved my time at the Inns, absolutely loved it."

She acknowledged the importance of having husband John working at home. "I worked in Bank of Ireland out in the computer centre in Cabinteely and I had organised my hours with them so that I was working from seven o'clock until three. I got up at six. Back home here after three, get a couple of hours here, the kids would be coming back from school from half two-ish. To be quite honest, John did the dinners, the school runs. I have so much support."

Family psychotherapist Dr John Sharry poses the question: would we have been as gobsmacked by Ann Stapleton's large family were she a man? "Her husband carries out the role a traditional mum would have done," says Dr Sharry.

"There is evidence that kids looked after primarily by the dad do very well. This is partly because a mum who works outside the home tends to be a very committed person. She really works hard with her children when she does come home, so they have two full parents."

Ann Stapleton also spoke of her children's unerring support. "When I would be sitting up at Easter time studying for exams, they would be coming up and putting a cup of tea up beside me, and asking, 'Do you want a sandwich?', that kind of stuff."

The children of large families tend to be more independent than children of the same age with fewer siblings, says Dr Sharry (www.solutiontalk.ie). "Largely, the children adopt much more caring roles towards each other too," he says.

Expanded clans certainly get the blessing of Pope Benedict XVI who has made it his business to call on Italian lawmakers to provide more incentives to encourage the creation of larger families.

Historically, there was an idealisation of the larger family -- child labour contributed to the family finances, and they provided security in old age.

Hollywood enshrined the jolly camaraderie of a large family in films such as Cheaper By The Dozen (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), The Sound of Music (1965), Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) and in TV shows like The Brady Bunch and The Waltons.

These days, not everyone feels as positively towards them. A 2007 report from UK green think tank, the Optimum Population Trust, said that if couples had two children instead of three they could cut their family's carbon dioxide output by the equivalent of 620 return flights a year between London and New York. Having more than two children is seen by some as an eco-crime.

There is some concern about child poverty in larger families. The Families in Ireland report released by the Department of Social and Family Affairs late last year found that the number of large families is on the wane.

However, it also reported that there is a higher than average risk of poverty found among lone-parent families -- and in two-parent families with four children or more.

It has been estimated that the cost of raising a single child to 21 is around €225,500. The children's allowance increases slightly with the number of children you have -- for one child it is €166 a month, but for eight it is €1,550 (which works out at €187.50 per child) -- but no-one knows how long that benefit will last.

The emotional impact of being one of many children vying for a parent's attention is also an issue. Ann Stapleton says: "I think it was harder on the kids than it was on me, because I'd rush home from work, try to get the homework done and then fire out the door."

David Kavanagh, systemic family therapist, says that in many large families, children assume roles (he is not referring to the Stapleton family). The elder children take on a mantle of responsibility and become over-responsible and controlling; the middle children can feel lost and adopt the role of peacekeeper, while the younger ones tend to be more selfish.

"There is something in adopting these prescribed roles in which the individuality of the child gets sacrificed," he says.

He warns of "sub-systems" that develop in which two or three of the children become closer to the detriment of their relationships with the others.

"A family split is often the result later in life -- often it comes about with an event or maybe just a gradual shifting of priorities within the family," explains Kavanagh (www.avalonrc.com).

"Say a wife of a brother misbehaves at a family party, and on one side you have a parent and some of the children saying she was disrespectful, and you have other siblings saying, 'Leave her alone, she had taken too much drink'. It polarises tensions that already existed."

Accusations of irresponsibility against parents of large families came to the fore when 'Octo-Mom' Nadia Sulaiman gave birth to octuplets in January. The derision aimed at the 33-year-old Californian could be explained by the revelations that she had the babies through IVF, as she did her six other children at home, was single and not financially independent.

But elsewhere in the US, there have been reports that large families are in vogue with the very wealthy -- as status symbols.

What is certain is that all families -- of any size -- require hard work, organisation and a lot of love to function properly.

"Dysfunction can happen in a family with several children," says Dr John Sharry, "but it can just as easily happen with parents who have just one child."

Erika Whitaker from Rathmines in Dublin has nine children with husband Brian: Luke (17), Dan (15), Anna (14), Lia (13), Gavin (11), Sam (8), Ross 6 (nearly 7!), Conor (4), and baby Adam (17 months). They are also the proud parents of Andrew and Greg, now adults, whose mum, Brian's first wife, died young. Brian works full-time and Erika had worked part-time up until January.

Erika describes how she copes: "I'm obsessionally organised. The kids' clothes would be stacked in drawers in the utility room. Once the older ones hit 10, they bring theirs up to the rooms.

"The kids pitch in -- they have a dishwasher day, or a day in charge of tidying the sitting room. When Sam turned six, he was delighted, saying: 'Now I can have a dishwasher day!' The novelty wears off!

"Saturday mornings are a bit hectic, running to various lessons and activities -- 11 of us and a dog packed into the van!"

But for the most part, their hobbies are during school, or just after so it's not a problem.

"I want them to have their own interests. My only rule would be that if you pick something, there's no quitting halfway through.

"I use internet shopping, but I would go down to Dunnes to check bargains -- we're not millionaires. I've always been conscious of budgeting. We wouldn't have taken fancy foreign holidays but we have had a place in Clare for years and we do house swaps.

"That's what I'm doing now -- I'm in a house in Donegal for a week with the kids. Mind you, if the children's allowance is cut, we're fecked.

"I always wanted six children -- I just carried on and had a few more! You think that you couldn't love a child as much as you do your first, but you just do.

"They are all so individual; I've always been conscious of protecting that. I know a number of families with eight or nine children -- and a lot with five -- because people had money and they could afford to have them.

"But I find my life easy because they are particularly good kids, and they don't fight because there is always someone else to bounce off. The truth is I hate them growing up!"

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