Family size is a complex and deeply personal decision. Ellie Gwilliam talks numbers with a mother of one and a mother of many, and reflects on her own decision to sit somewhere in the middle.
I come from a family of four kids. If one was to quantify this in childhood terms, it meant a van, hand-me-down clothes and holidays in tents, as opposed to hotels. It also meant there was always someone to play, share and negotiate with. My cousins had plenty of siblings too, so whenever the wider family gathered, there was a truckload of kids. There were plenty of challenges, but my family of origin shaped who I am today.
I vaguely presumed that I too would have a big family. And then my husband and I had our first child, and one felt like plenty. But we got the hang of the basics, caught up (slightly) on sleep and started to think about number two. We knew we wanted to give our child what we had – at least one sibling. That and the fact that the first one was pretty darn cute.
Number two arrived and I had to keep telling myself that I was not the only one to face such a challenge. Women the world over have more than one child. We breathed deep, slept when we could and got used to our pair of dependants: one each to look after when out and about, or one for each hand when braving the world sole-charge.
An endless list of factors can influence family size for couples like my husband and me, whose fertility allows them choices. Family of origin has an impact (either to replicate or avoid your childhood experiences), as does culture, career and goals for the future. While the demands of parenting young children can narrow our focus to the now, the future is actually a huge consideration. More children now means more adults later. Potentially more dynamic family gatherings, plus more people to look after us when we’re old.
Another big factor in the reproduction equation is obviously money. Adding children to your family does increase the weekly expenditure, although not necessarily exponentially – thank you hand-me-downs. There is, however, the multiplication of ballet fees and sports team subs to consider, as well as the issue of house and vehicle size. People movers are a big call. And let's not mention vans.
But in reality, after briefly pondering those issues, family size for us was predominantly an emotional decision and as such, hard to articulate. With two children, our family didn’t quite feel complete.
I remember watching a pregnancy test reveal that our third child was on the way. Then I went to the kitchen and started making chocolate fondants for the friends who were coming for dinner that night – friends who are in real estate and we were going to ask their opinion on our plans to sell our tiny house and buy a bigger one.
I remember holding Abigail on the beach the following summer, watching Josh paddle in the waves with our toddler and preschooler, and feeling acutely aware that I was a mother of three.I felt the intensity of being responsible for three little lives, and I felt this was my quota. We were all here, my family, on holiday at the beach.
This is not to say that I didn’t ever ponder the idea of having more. When Josh booked a vasectomy (I warned you this would get personal), I pondered the idea of more babies a whole lot. I almost lost my mind over it for a while, until an older woman told me that it was absolutely natural to grieve at this point. So I allowed myself a moment or two, my Mum bought me flowers, and as I counted my blessings through bleary tired eyes, I chose contentment and found peace.
This is us. There are five of us and that is not something I should ever take for granted. While the experiences discussed in this article may resonate with some readers, for others, discussion around something as indulgent as ‘how many babies shall I have?’ is too painful to bear. Which is why I kiss my sleeping kids every night before I go to bed, breathing in their muggy sleepy warmth and breathing out gratitude.
I remember Josh telling me, around the time of ‘that’ procedure, that he felt this was a defining moment for our family (ummm, yeah!) and a step forward. We were all going to grow up and into new seasons together. Now our youngest is about to start school and I am finding the end of the preschool season quite emotional. But it’s okay that we are not going back to the baby stage. Some do at this point, but the structure of our family allows us to be who we are and do what we do. I’d like to think our capacity would have increased had it needed to, but the workload of three feels like it suits me. And come April, when all three are at school, I suppose we could always get a puppy.
The one and only
While the number of one-child families is increasing worldwide, writer and mother-of-one Gretchen Carroll finds the negative stereotypes about only children persist.
Like any topic about kids, people are quick to offer their opinions about only children, generally negative. Some years ago I travelled through South America with my husband. We joined a tour group, and after only 48 hours, I was taken aback when one man said: “Only children always turn out a bit weird and socially backward”. Of the six people there, two (including me) were only children.
I’m no expert, but as an only child I can weigh in more fairly than many ‘siblinged’. There are only children among my friends and family. They're well-adjusted people, with different temperaments, so being an only child is not a personality death sentence.
Before having our son, I was already comfortable with the idea of having a small family. Almost straight after he was born, people started asking about number two. We’re not sure we’ll have another child, not because it’s been a negative experience, in fact our son is amazing and gives us joy. There are several factors leading us towards one, the main reason is we're happy as a family of three.
'Lonely onlies' is not a given. I don’t remember feeling lonely; I had playmates throughout my childhood. Mum took me to Playcentre; we holidayed in a motel popular with young families; and I’d bring a friend for weekends away. Essentially I was social, and Mum and Dad played with me too. I entertained myself and I felt, and still feel, comfortable in my own company. However, I'm no hermit.
US researchers Toni Falbo and Denise Polit found solitude is not synonymous with loneliness and often strengthens children’s character. Another US study, surveying more than 13,000 children, showed only children had as many friends as anyone else.
Another myth is they’re spoilt and precocious. Undoubtedly there are kids like this, but it’s not solely an only child phenomena. Various studies have discovered only children outperform those with siblings in achievement, motivation, intelligence, self-esteem and socially.There are several possible reasons for this – parents can focus their time and resources, and the child’s social skills are nurtured by friends, while they also learn to enjoy time alone, without conflict with siblings. Of course, they’ll have to face the playground bullies like anyone else and learn how to deal with conflict there.
Dad says being an only child meant he learnt to amuse himself. He feels it also made him mature earlier, teaching him self-reliance and responsibility. While he had childhood friends, Dad says adults in his family spent quality time with him. The main downside was the weight of expectations and responsibility as he got older, especially after his father died when Dad was a young boy.
I’m aware that, as my parents age, I’ll be largely responsible for their care. But even for those with siblings, the care of elderly parents often falls on the closest geographically or the most conscientious.
Perhaps the only con as a child was I sometimes felt my parents’ gaze too intently. I’m not sure if their high expectation was due to having one child – it could’ve been the same with siblings – but it definitely stopped me from cruising along at high school.
The growing number of single-child families may be due to various reasons. The median age of first-time mothers has increased. Many people face reduced family support with their own parents in a different town, elderly, or still working. Living and housing costs can make big families unrealistic. There are also ideological reasons where people look at the world’s population growth and finite resources, and decide one is enough.
Having one child can be a positive choice. Your family is happy and you don’t see any reason to upset the balance. Parenting choices can be fraught with guilt, and people tend to give you grief no matter what. You have to do what’s right for you and your family, whether that’s one or five children, or none. I believe, like others, it’s the quality of the relationships in the family that matter most, not the quantity.
The more the merrier
Fancy forming your own Von Trapp choir? Auckland couple Jarrod and Jess Angove have seven children: Zoe (13), Ruby (11), Elijah (10), Joel (9), Levi (6), Jacob (4) and Betty (18 months). Jess gave us a glimpse of her big family reality.
Did we always envisage we'd have a large family? I guess so. We both love children and consider them a blessing. We had a number of friends who had four or five children and we loved seeing their family dynamics – there was always noise, laughter and fun. We talked about having lots of children ourselves – six was the number that came up, but I got an extra one in! We’re not from large families – I had two brothers and Jarrod had two brothers. However, I did have an aunt with seven children.
I get comments on the size of our family every single time I go out! I have never had negative comments from strangers; some very silly ones though. Every week at the supermarket I hear “Are they all yours?” and the classic “You have your hands full!”. I even had “Do they have the same father?” Ah, yes, and yes again – that question is rude!
Our first four children were all under the age of three and a half. I remember we got a few negative comments when we announced baby number three was on the way. We decided at that point that we would only tell people whom we knew would be genuinely happy for us – everyone else could find out from elsewhere.
I have found it hard at times remembering people’s responses to our first, second and third pregnancies, but then as we had more, the excitement and anticipation from other people seemed to diminish. Every pregnancy and baby is exciting – whether it is someone’s first or seventh – and each needs to be celebrated.
Another comment I get most days is “Oh, I could never do that, you must be super-mum”. A lot of the time I also hear “You must be so patient”! This makes me feel uncomfortable – I am no more of a super-mum than a mother of one child. In fact, in lots of ways having one child is so much harder. You have to be and do everything for your child. I have older children who help out, play with their siblings, can change nappies, supervise in the bath, or strap babies into carseats – all those little things that take so much time. Am I patient? I guess so, but I didn’t start out that way. I have learnt these things along the way. I couldn’t have parented seven children when I had my first – but I have learnt on the job!
The hardest thing about having seven children is the same as the hardest thing about having one – the constant worry as to whether you are doing the right thing, what issues you need to be working on, whether you are spending enough time with them and whether they are feeling loved and valued. As they get older, I am finding that keeping organised, knowing where everyone should be and when, and providing their 'taxi service' is quite demanding!
The best thing about having seven children is that our house is always full – full of noise, full of laughter, full of squabbling, full of fun. There is always a friend to play with, someone to talk to, someone to go on an adventure with. Our baby who was born preterm has some special needs (including cerebral palsy) and he always has someone to extend him and teach him new things. It is like having therapists here 24 hours a day!
Having lots of children has shaped us as parents in so many ways. We have had to learn to be patient, to relax and take things as they come. To not sweat the small things. To realise that there will be chaos and noise ALL THE TIME! It has taught me to be more organised. It has taught us to love, even when we don’t feel like it. It has made us confront the things that we struggle with ourselves.
One word that describes life with seven children? BIG! Big noise,big fun, big van, big dinners – just big!
People ask us how you know when your family is complete. I have never felt 'done', I think I would happily continue having babies! However, our sixth baby was born at 23 weeks (he is now four years old) and our seventh was a high risk pregnancy with numerous hospital admissions. My body can’t do it anymore. Jarrod would have been happy to stop at six, but our precious little girl decided to surprise us! We won't be having any more now, although we may look at fostering or adopting in the future.
I remember, when we had only one, thinking how could I ever love another baby? My heart was full, there was no room for any more love. The moment our second was born, however, I realised that your heart is never too full to love another. Most importantly, I urge myself and others to remember that EVERY pregnancy and birth is precious, and deserves to be celebrated.