Painting a picture of Irish families by numbers
Damien and Karen OConnell, with their children Mark (12), Aimee (3), Emma (4), Dylan (18 months) and Katie (7), at Hollywood, Co Wicklow. photograph: eric luke
Janet Howley, (right to left) with grandchild Jonah, Elijah, husband Eugene, son Johnathan, his partner Louanne, children Bronwyn, Benjamin, Sophie , Isaac and dog AlliePic. photograph: michael mac sweeney/provision
Who is likely to have a big family and what does it mean for the children growing up in them?With five children ranging in age from 12 years to 18 months, there’s rarely a quiet moment in the O’Connell household – and that’s the way they like it.
“The house is always buzzing and is always fun and happy,” says Karen O’Connell (32), who is open to the idea of having more children. “They say you know when you’re done having babies and I don’t feel like that.”
Although people don’t say anything straight out, she knows many are surprised that she and her husband Damian (34) have five children, never mind the fact that they may have more.
She was taken aback when she went for her first doctor’s appointment on her fifth pregnancy, “and nearly the first thing she said was ‘what kind of contraception are you going to use after the baby?’”
The typical large Irish family of two generations ago has become rare; by 2011 the average number of children had fallen to just below 1.4 per family. Anything over three is considered large these days and family size tapers rapidly after that.
There were 64,248 families in the State with four or more children, according to Census 2011, but only 3,253 families with six or more children.
Just who is likely to have bigger families and what it means for the children growing up in them is examined in the latest research report analysing data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) longitudinal study, which was published by UCD and the Family Support Agency
“Variation in family size is complex both in its causes and effects and its overall significance for family wellbeing is difficult to decipher,” notes the report, Family Relationships and Family Wellbeing: A Study of the Families of Nine Year Olds in Ireland, which was launched by the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, last month.
The report’s lead author is Prof Tony Fahey, of the School of Applied Social Science in UCD, who says there has been a marked change in the demographic profile of bigger families.
“One of the odd things we found was that the ones who start late are the ones who have the most children,” he says. “The later you start, the more likely your relationship is to last.”
Historically the pattern was that the working-class married young and had loads of children and the middle classes married later and, by virtue of that, had fewer children, he points out. And in Protestant Europe, in the first half of the 20th century, there was huge concern about big versus small families.
“This was driven particularly by the fear that the wrong people were having the large families – the poor, the badly educated people.
However this has all changed now that fertility control is exercised at all social levels.
“In some cases we are getting the reverse – it is the poor who have the small families because they are the ones who are lone parents. I think that is an interesting shift.”
One of the features of modern family life is the instability of the parental relationship and this report observes how that instability can cause smaller family sizes.
“Because instability has a social gradient – it occurs further down the social scale – that has had an impact on the social gradient in family sizes,” explains Fahey.
Significance of family size
Generally, births are now very concentrated between the late 20s and the mid to late 30s in women’s lives.
Of those who start motherhood earlier, about half of them do not have a partner so that causes them to have fewer children by the time they are in their mid-30s.
In the GUI study, just over half of the mothers who had their first child by the age of 20 are currently in a relationship with their nine-year-old child’s father.
But the study finds that the significance of family size for lone parents seems to differ from that for intact married couples.
The more children that separated or divorced lone parents have, the worse they get on with their former partners, while for intact married couples the opposite holds – couples who get on better with each other tend to have more children.