Monday, 22 June 2009

Big family blues

Yesterday, my sister-in-law (who is a Russian, six-foot, stunningly beautiful ex-model, a whole other story, but not the ideal person to sit opposite as you chow down at a family barbeque), told me about a dream she had had. She said that she had dreamt she was pregnant and that the baby was a girl (she has two boys and longed for a daughter), in the dream she had to choose between going ahead with the pregnancy or aborting in order to pay for her sons to go to private school. With a smile curving her gorgeous lips she said that she had chosen to pay the school fees rather than have the baby. 

It hit my like a kick in the stomach, firstly she was saying she would rather get rid of a child than subject her sons to the same education that my boys are having, and secondly the implication was that instead of having lots of kids, you should think about the prospects of the ones you already have. Oops, what a bad parent I clearly am for spreading our (altogether more meagre) resources in wafter thin portions between my four boys, and secondly for abandoning them to the tender mercies of the state education system. 

I had a bit of an esprit d'escalier moment as I wished I had taken her up on the premise of her dream, but it wasn't until I got home that I realised just how bloody annoyed I was about it, and the general assumption that by having more than the standard two children you are somehow doing all of your offspring down. 

When I think back to my own childhood, I hardly recall the material things my parents bought for me (with the notable exception of the Girls' World disembodied head, which will stay with me forever). Instead I remember the things we did together as a family, the trips out (always budget and usually involving sleeping in the back of my dad's Luton van), the cake baking, gardening and doughnut eating competitions. I also remember longing for more siblings to share the fun. I had just one sister who was eight years older and left home almost as soon as I became aware of her existence. 

I have never met a single person from a big family who wished they had had less brothers and sisters, or indeed a mum of many who wishes she had stuck at two. So why do throwaway comments like my sister-in-law's rankle so much? I suspect it's because it's always hard to challenge the norm, and particularly so in the privileged enclave of London we inhabit (just so long as we can keep up the mortgage payments), where amongst certain mummies anything less than private school all the way, with a good dose of expensive extra curricular activities thrown in for good measure, is virtually tantamount to child abuse. 

Still when I woke up this morning enveloped in a fog of gloom about my poor life choices, the storm clouds were chased away by the five adorable men I have foolishly chosen to share my life with. My husband gave me the one gift he knows will always cheer me up when he handed me one of my four-month-old twins to hold. As I looked into his sapphire eyes and stroked his perfect pink cheek, I knew I wouldn't swap him for all the school fees in the world, and nor would his brothers who get far more pleasure from each other than they could from any classroom, however rarified the other pupils. 

My older son bounced in, resplendent in his school uniform, raring for another day at school. He has never been happier than when he left his posh private nursery with its tiny classes and hothouse academic atmosphere and entered the rough and tumble of his school's huge nursery. As he thrilled at the babies' gummy smiles and shouted 'Only another year to go until we can really play with the babies', I knew that I  had enriched rather than deprived his life by providing even more playmates to join our own private madhouse. 

A big family is never easy, and not just because of all the washing, cooking, tidying and organisation it requires, other people's judgement of our choices, however inadvertent or innocent, can make it even  harder to cope. Still next time someone makes me feel like I have made the wrong choice for my boys, I will just have to come back an re-read this post to remind me just how wrong they are. 


  1. Poor you - when will people learn that everyone makes their own choices that are right for them? Because they choose to do (or not to do)something doesn't mean it would be the right decision for someone else.

    I was once told, in seriousness, that not having a DVD in the back of the cars for the kids was tantamount to child abuse.... my eyebrows nearly shot off the top of my head.

    You have such a lovely group of boys (yay boys!), you definitely made the right decision for you. :-)))

  2. Advice is free to give - you have to chose to accept it 'though!

    Do you really have such awful ambitions for your children as to make them politicians or bankers - if not then a high-achieving state school and non-red-brick University will get them everything else in life which they need?

    Is this a cultural difference 'though? Certainly in the US the attitude to free education (and free healthcare) reflects the Victorian attitude to workhouses.

    Finally, a quick flick round the "interpretation of dreams" sites says that women dreaming of abortion are actually worrying about a health issue. Maybe she has something completely different to discuss with you ... ?

  3. That woman sounds seriously screwed-up.

    I was one of 4, and loved it. We felt sorry for other families. I think a sibling (or 2 or 3) is the greatest gift you can give a child. I really do. Both for the childhood years, and also for when they are adults. Thank what fun Christmas is going to be for you all when you have 16 grandchildren running around.

    Here in the Midwest, because large houses aand large cars are relatively cheap (compared to the UK, for example), people have more kids. I know lots of families of 4, some of 5, and even some of 6. The norm on this kind of thing is very narrowly set by the culture you are in - there's no absolute about it at all.

    I was talking to my kids yesterday about the strange fact that when people say hurtful things, YOU end up feeling upset, although it is clearly THEY who have the insecurities and problems. It is a puzzle why silly things said by silly people cause us so much woe, but it is hard to let such comments slide. Looking into those 4-month-old eyes sounds like a good strategy.

  4. Aww, I am feeling much better now. Though still a bit cross at her thoughtlessness. I wouldn't change my family for the world, but it is hard when everyone around you thinks you are some kind of freak for daring to have more than two children.

  5. She probably didn't mean to aim it at you. She had the dream and it was thoughtless to mention it, but it's unlikely to have been a criticism of your lovely family.

  6. You're so right, you never hear people say they are sorry they came from a big family. Obviously it's up to each individual how many children they want to have, but financial reasons don't seem a good reason not to have another one. People always find a way and a big, happy family will be worth so much more than expensive kids' clothes and poncey schools.

  7. I have never understood the big deal about Private school , why spend all that money for something you can get for free (well if you have the money i guess its diffrent)
    We only have 3 kids but get comments on how will we support them all the time, and why is it anyones business?

  8. This is a lovely post and has made me smile, your right i think siblings are the greatest gift of all - even if they don't all appreciate each other right now. What a crank your sis in law is, i also get tired of feeling like a freak for having more children than the normal two but i wouldn't change them for the world.

  9. There are so many ways to look at this:

    Was she saying it to provoke a reaction? Would she really have made that decision in real life? Does the dream actually show that she feels trapped into having only two children, when really she would like another? Have you interpreted her words as a judgement on your choices?

    Too complicated!

    I would ignore her and revel in the fact that you are happy with your choices(whereas she appears not to be). Also, you are quite correct that it is not the material things that children remember, it is quality time with their parents. (I'm sure your boys will remember CentreParcs with great fondness!)

  10. I am a fellow mum-of-four (only my 4th turned out pink), and often read your blog nodding in recognition. This one made my hackles rise for you - 6ft beautiful ex-model? Not fair!
    Seriously this had me nodding all the way through. How is it that some people feel that having more children makes you less of a mum?
    If it makes you feel any better, I felt for you so much I made you my Blog Love post of the week!