Oh Boy(s)!

Meredith Martin explains that you know you’re alive with five.

You-Know-You're-Alive-With-FiveA recent visit to the GP left me bemused. Our usual doctor was booked out, so we saw another. The appointment was for my son, not me, and yet the doctor launched into a series of very personal questions addressed to me. What contraception was I on? How did I cope with so many children? (I have five boys aged eight, seven, five, four and two, and am expecting child number six.) Did I have friends with children? (I thought this was hilarious since I’m 34 and have a broad network of friends with and without children.)

Her manner was very negative. She clearly disapproved of my life choices, and admitted later in the appointment she’d assumed I was a lot younger than I am. I think she believed I was a teenage mum (I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or annoyed). My experience of the other doctors and staff at the clinic has been great, so I feel almost guilty retelling the one negative experience.

Big families inspire varied reactions, from tales of happy childhoods with lots of siblings to offers of referrals to psychologists. I’ve been stopped on the street by a complete stranger and told I was like Mother Hubbard and had “too many children”, within earshot of my sons. I’ve been told many times that I need to buy my husband a television, to which I sweetly reply that we have one, but my husband thinks I’m better looking. I was recently asked by a shop assistant if all the boys were from the one father. I was tempted to say I couldn’t remember but thought better of it and simply replied, “Yes’’.

My favourite day of the year is Mother’s Day.

I mentioned to a friend that I was writing this article. She and her husband want to start a family and at times feel the frustration and grief of delayed conception. I appreciated her honesty when she said that seeing someone with so many children was confronting as if they were flaunting a type of wealth or excess. I’d never thought of having a big family that way, but am aware that for one of my sisters it’s been painful when friends and family members (including me) have announced pregnancies. It struck me that we often interpret or react to the lives of others based on our own life experiences.

I felt sad recently when my second son, after overhearing comments about the size of our family and that they are all boys, asked, “Is it hard for you having five boys, Mummy?” So let me try to answer that question – not for my son, and not to speak in defence of big families, but perhaps to shed some light on my experience and share some of the joys and challenges.

Some moments I would describe as pure joy. My favourite day of the year is Mother’s Day. My husband always cooks a delicious breakfast, and the boys sit around the table trying to outdo each other saying nice things about me. The older boys buy gifts from the school Mother’s Day stall and carefully wrap them (the more sticky tape the better). And preschool Mother’s Day sessions have left cherished memories, such as ‘beauty treatments’ lovingly administered by my son, brightly coloured ‘dancing shoes’ painted onto my feet and shimmying cheek to cheek in my new ‘shoes’ to ‘You Are So Beautiful’.

Now that I’m expecting baby number six.

One of the wonderful things about having a big family is seeing how much the older children love their younger siblings and the friendships that develop between them. When our youngest was born, he became a prized show-and-tell item. When the boys came to the hospital to see him, I could hear them running down the corridor like a herd of baby elephants shouting, “Where is he? Where is he?” They had brought their favourite toys as presents for him. Each new milestone – crawling, walking, and talking – was celebrated by his personal cheer squad.

Now that I’m expecting baby number six, my growing tummy is a topic of much excitement and conversation with the boys. They love hugging, singing and talking to my tummy and poking my belly button, which is now a permanent outie (it never went back in after number five).

Parenting a large family is definitely a team effort. My husband is wonderful with the boys. When I was working one day a week, it was their special day with Dad. He is involved in every aspect of parenting and doesn’t blink at taking the five boys plus friends out by himself.

The house is never as clean as I would like, and the washing is endless.

In the absence of grandparents and close family nearby, we are thankful for the local families and friends we have grown to know and love through school and church for being part of a team effort to raise our boys. Yes, life is busy in a big family.

There are nights when sleep is replaced by musical beds – visits from all five at different times; one wet, one with a fever, one wanting a feed, one sleep-walking, and one just not tired and intent on sitting on my head. Sickness can be challenging too. A virus or tummy bug can take two weeks to go through the household. There is always lots of mess, noise and laughter. The house is never as clean as I would like, and the washing is endless.

Two of my three sisters live overseas. For a long time, we’d planned to meet up to celebrate my youngest sister’s thirtieth birthday. So last year I spent three fantastic weeks away with my sisters, visiting Rome, Tunisia and London. I took our youngest boy, then 15 months, with me since three weeks was too long to leave him. My time away was amazing, but nothing came close to the thrill of returning to my men. It was long past the boys’ bedtime when I finally came through the arrivals gate, but there they were, patiently waiting for me, each little boy holding a single long-stem red rose, and my husband a whole bunch. The oldest two boys climbed through the barrier and ran into my arms. The next two had fallen asleep in the double pram, still holding their roses.

My time away reminded me that of all the beauty and inspiration I saw overseas, nothing came close to the joy of being back with my boys and husband. I was reminded of how thankful I am for them, and to take time in the business of life to truly delight in each of them. Soon enough it will be my sons going away, and it’s always harder to be the one left behind.

Illustration by Penny Lovelock