Mother of seven: People assume we are ‘extreme Catholics’

Our 1950s-sized family invites much well-meaning but misguided commentary

Jen Hogan with her daughter Chloe and sons, from left, Adam, Noah, Zach, Tobey, Luke and Jamie. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Jen Hogan with her daughter Chloe and sons, from left, Adam, Noah, Zach, Tobey, Luke and Jamie. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

As we joined their queue, a look of horror crossed several people’s faces at the realisation we were going to be on their flight. It was summer 2017 and my 1950s-sized family and I were going on our first foreign holiday.

With seven children, ranging in age from 15 down to just one, we were a sight to behold in Dublin airport, with luggage trollies piled high while firm instructions to stay close were issued on loop.

The children couldn’t contain their excitement – it wasn’t just the holiday they were looking forward to, most of them had never been on a plane, and those that had were too young to remember the experience. That’s one of the things about having a large family – holidays of any kind are hugely expensive and even if you overcome that hurdle, there’s the summoning of motivation to manage chaos in a different location required.

Of course in the 1950s, foreign holidays weren’t par for the course for most families but in 2018, when typical families are much smaller, they’re an annual given for plenty. It’s one of the many things that reminds me having seven children is no longer the societal norm. That people count us as we pass by, ask frequently if they’re all mine and enquire often about our possessing of a television are others.

And then there’s the fact that a typical mum-mobile can’t accommodate my numbers. Seeing as we’ve thankfully moved on from the days where seven or eight children poured into the back of a Ford Fiesta with little regard for seatbelts, never mind car seats, I have to drive now what can only be described as a minibus. It causes more excitement than the typical family car when the children’s friends come over and get to travel in “the big red bus”.

In contrast, however, I imagine few parents have found themselves while parked at traffic lights in Ballsbridge, frantically waving and furiously mouthing “I’m not a taxi” at a couple trying to get into the back seat. Such are the unexpected hazards of driving this type of vehicle.

I’ve found also that people who meet us need sometimes to rationalise our size. It has been suggested that maybe I’m trying to even out my gender balance. I’ve explained had this been my driving force I’d have stopped at two when I had a more socially acceptable “gentleman’s family”.

“Sure, they rear themselves” is another one I hear frequently, as if to explain how I cope. Eh, no, I can categorically confirm they don’t! Yes, when they’re not squabbling, they are great company for each other – but that doesn’t mean they assume parental responsibilities.

Expectations of parents

In 2018, expectations of parents are high. I work hard to devote time to each of my children – but my efforts can feel so easily dismissed when a well-meaning relative or acquaintance points out that it’s easier for people with smaller families to do this. I’m not oblivious to this fact – it was a choice to have a large family and I’m prepared and happy to put the groundwork in.

Years ago, when I had “only” five children, we had an au-pair come to stay. She told me she had learned some prayers to say at mealtimes. Her mother had explained to her, in advance of her arrival, that because we had lots of children and were Irish we were no doubt (to coin her phrase) “extreme Catholics”. I laughed and explained that her mother was a little wide of the mark and that this was just a stereotype.

That’s the thing about stereotypes though – they’re hard to shake off. And sometimes they come from the most unexpected sources.

I discovered to my surprise that sweeping generalisations are even evident within my children’s educational studies. One particular child came home from school one day and recounted a morning lesson during which it was explained that educated women don’t have large families.

Eager classmates, keen to disprove their teacher’s theory, highlighted to her that one of the students in the classroom was from a large family – and had an educated mother. After briefly explaining I was the exception rather than the rule, the lesson continued.

Our first foreign holiday was worth the wait, even though I worried a little on arrival by the seeming quietness of the complex. Our size invited the familiar question of “are they all yours?” from strangers and so holiday friendships began.

We needed two taxis to take us to Peurto del Carmen on our last day. Our taxi driver didn’t speak English but my daughter speaks Spanish. As he chatted, she translated: “He’s asking are we all cousins,” she explained. “I’ve told him we’re brothers and sister.”

He laughed loudly and said something else.

“He asked if you and dad have a television,” she said.

Same chaos, same jokes, different location.

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