Tania & Mike Sullivan with some – but not all – of their large brood

Thirteen and Counting

2nd October 2015

Heather Harris discovers what it’s like living in a large family...

1.92 is a key number in modern life. It’s not the amount of calories Victoria Beckham consumes in a day, the hours the sun shone this summer or the average number of goals England score in a World Cup campaign…

Sadly, it is even more depressing. It is the latest statistic on British family size down from an average of 2.42 children to this new shrunken figure. Between us we no longer produce even enough offspring to replace ourselves. Many would see this as a positive step forward, certainly given the way the global population is exploding; at least we can’t be criticised for not doing our bit.

But personally, it seems a shame. Coming from a family of three children – which growing up in the 70s seemed the norm – I watched with envy as John Boy and Mary Ellen and the rest of the Walton family whose names escape me (along with those of the Nolan sisters and the Osmonds) bid each other a cheery ‘night, night’ on our TV screens.

I remember the headlines when the real Waltons – all six of them – arrived at once to the most ordinary of couples from Merseyside. Every step of these sextuplets’ lives was then charted in the media, with suitably gorgeous photos depicting first days at school, teenage years and most recently their 30th birthdays with their parents – still smiling – looking on.

The accompanying stories focused on the joy, not the exhaustion, and questions about how they coped were met with a practical response. “On trips out we’d each push a double buggy, and we’d each have a baby in a papoose,” Graham Walton recalls, while Janet adds “As the children got older, one of the hardest events to negotiate was parents’ evening at school. I’d take a notebook to write everything down in, because we might be having as many as 36 conversations and it was impossible to remember everything.”

Contrast this with the more recent headlines regarding large families. Usually in the tabloids and accompanied by a photo of the latest addition, the story is more likely to focus on benefits claimed or the number of fathers involved. “I can anticipate what questions I’m going to be asked when people hear I have so many children, so I respond in advance,” Julie Scott told me when I met to discuss her life as a happily married non-benefit claiming mother of eight. She reels off the answers in well rehearsed fashion!
1. Yes, they do all have the same father
2. No, there are no twins or triplets
3. No, I am not a Catholic
4. Five… and then I discovered champagne

“Oh and when they come to the house and see the children, tradesmen always say ‘Don’t you have a TV?’ “

In terms of parenthood, Julie and her husband, Ken, are about as laid back as Janet and Graham Walton, to the extent that most of my questions regarding practicalities are met by a bemused look. “We just get on with it. There’s no planning or secret methods we use; everybody just mucks in!”
Speaking to other parents of large families, it becomes apparent that the age difference between the siblings is clearly a significant factor. For me, as a mother of twins, anything above triplets seemed a challenge – and a nappy – too far.

The Scott children range in age from 31 years down to 13 years – and Julie also helps looks after her toddler grandson most days.
“But there is always someone to help out and three of them can drive and two are living away. It’s not like having all of them at the same age – although I did have 22 years of sleepless nights!”
Ironically, speaking to James (No 7, aged 15) about the advantages of having so many siblings, his response is typically practical, “It’s great because there’s more people to give me lifts and pick me up from parties!”

“And if you fall out with one of them, there’s always someone else to talk to!”

Like his parents, he also seemed perplexed by my interest, saying, “It’s really not as hard work as everyone thinks” – although that did draw a knowing look from his mum.
Interestingly, when James gained a sports scholarship to a boarding school and the older two went off to university, all struggled to settle.
“They were just not used to their own company and being in a room on their own. They are so used to the constant comings and goings in this house – I always laugh that it’s like running student accommodation, but clearly I was wrong!” Julie explained.

In fact, so strong was the pull of the family that James and one of his older brothers have since returned home. Incredibly, the Scotts have never had any help with childcare – except a lady who has been with them for 17 years to tackle the weekly ironing mountain.

Alex James, singer with British band, Blur, spoke recently about his life with wife Clare and their five children under six years old. “Clare works as well, so we need help, but the last nanny we hired started at breakfast and left at lunchtime: a record, even for us. What you really need with a brood this size is a cook, two or three drivers and a Laundromat business.”

Working parents, Tania and Mike Sullivan from Kent disagree. They have 13 children ranging in age from 22 years to 15 months and have never had any paid help despite currently having 10 under the age of 12 – with the two oldest living away. “We work from home and the children are home educated so we do have quite a routine to our mornings but our flexibility means we can go with the flow. If things don’t go to plan, we don’t need to worry about being late for school runs and commutes,” said Tania when describing her typical morning which involves using 10-12 pints of milk to drink and in the children’s vat of porridge. Despite my insistence that they must have detailed lists and wall charts all over the house, the Scotts refute it and declare themselves not at all organised, “The only time the children all look smart for school is a Monday as this is the only time I manage to lay all their clothes out the night before!”

However, for the James and the Sullivan families – scheduling is everything. As Alex explains, “I am in charge of teeth, the cooking and the washing up. Supervising their tooth brushing drives me mad – with four different kinds of toothpaste!” That’s an indulgence which Tania finds amusing. As well as strict routines for mealtimes and bedtimes – “The youngest four go at 6pm, the next three at 7pm and the older three at 9pm” – they also have a firm grip on their spending.

“We don’t buy things unnecessarily, and pay for things with cash not credit. We do a large shop every 10-14 days and spend in the region of £1,000 a month in Lidl, but we eat extremely well. Making our own bread saves around £30 a week and we also make our own pasta. We rarely have fast food and make everything from scratch.”

Ken meanwhile does do a regular financial spreadsheet detailing the Scott’s daily spending, “But we still seem to spend hundreds on groceries especially now they’re all growing up so bring friends home for meals.” (I quickly learned that with a large family you always tend to be the host).

Unlike, hands-on dads, Alex and Mike, Ken travels with his work a lot and has never changed one of his eight children’s nappies. “He is great at playing with the children though – just not the practical stuff!” Julie was quick to explain seeing my incredulity.

It was fascinating to see that in this era when families are becoming increasingly detached, even at home, the large families I spoke to all seemed very much a unit. As Tania said, “We certainly do argue but not as much as we could. Generally we get on. Travel is part of their education. There was an eight-week road trip around France and Italy this year.” That makes the achievement of getting my three down the M1 with only one back seat brawl seem not so impressive. “We have an eight seater van and we make a point of all going out together as much as possible,” said Alex, whilst Julie still hosts a family Sunday roast for ten or more every week.

Ironically, none of these parents came from large families themselves and none of them made a conscious, pre-planned decision how many children to have. Conversely my own sister-in-law was brought up in a large Catholic family of seven, and has strong views on the subject of large families. “I had a brilliant childhood but with having just two children myself I do enjoy the fact I can focus more on them as individuals,” she admits.

While we remain a 1.92 nation, large families will remain a fascination but certainly all those I spoke to seemed incredibly ‘normal’. And when asked their one tip to other parents who are contemplating pushing up our national average, their advice was universal, “All you really need is a great sense of humour!”

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