The sheer hell of life in a big family


Last updated at 10:06 01 March 2007

This week a Mail writer urged women to have more children. Martin Newland, one of six children, begs to differ:

Back in 1959, in Venezuela, my mother gave birth to her first child, Irene. The next year, Mark was born in Surrey. Then, the year after that, I arrived, in the local hospital in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

My father was working for Shell and so the Newland family's breeding pattern tended to be dictated by global oil reserves.

Nicholas was born in 1964, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was followed by Francesca (1968), Marina (1970) and finally Dominic (1972) - all delivered by the nuns at Mount Alvernia Hospital, Surrey.

My mother suffered two miscarriages after Marina. The doctor, in the course of treating her after the second miscarriage, announced she was pregnant again. 'Bloody Catholics,' he said, shaking his head in wonder.

Thus I grew up as one of six children (my older brother, Mark, had died, aged two, of whooping cough).

When I asked my mother why she'd had so many children, she replied: 'Then, it was normal to have children.

It was strange not to have them if you could. It was sometimes very difficult because we had no money. But it was also great fun.' This week, the historian Amanda Foreman wrote in the Mail that large families are best, and criticised the middle classes for limiting themselves to two children.

But her story of love and sacrifice is only half-told. Amanda was one of two children and was commenting on the business of raising a large family. I have something to say about being part of a posse. I do not regret one minute of my childhood, which was underpinned by the unconditional love of my parents.

But I can tell you that growing up as part of a brood is not entirely in keeping with the soft focus scenes from The Railway Children, Swallows And Amazons or The Waltons.

Large families live on the brink of behavioural and fiscal chaos.

I respect Amanda's sentiments, but note that she is a successful author, her husband is a banker and they have a nanny.

I do not doubt the worth of her sacrifice, but I envy her capacity, through her and her husband's success, to make choices about having a large family.

The state pounces on large families, transforming children into 'debits' instead of assets, with a taxation system that has introduced inventive fiscal liabilities to the business of marriage, home ownership and parenthood.

If you want a large family, you have to be rich or, as my parents were, ready to make sacrifices.

Today, for the vast majority, those sacrifices are seen as too great.

I remember the heroism of my mother, as she bent, heavily pregnant, over the crank handle of our home generator in a bid to get the thing started. We had no electricity, and water for our baths was drawn by means of a hand pump.

My father always seemed to be working abroad, and one of my mother's revenue-raising schemes

was to cram all the children into our camper van so the family could pocket part of his travel allowance by fetching him from the airport.

The reality for a child with many siblings is that you get less attention from your parents, less money, less time to express yourself and certainly less in the way of new clothes.

It was possible for a pair of trousers bought second-hand for the eldest child to emerge years later, patched and frayed, adorning the youngest.

A well-to-do family friend once commented on the dress four-year-old Marina was wearing. My sister did a little pirouette, before announcing proudly: 'Oxfam.' We were lined up at least twice a year and lectured by my father about how little money we had, and that we must not expect 'treats'. I simply do not know how he managed to feed and school us.

We attended private schools, but we had no central heating - just hot water fuelled by a Rayburn cooker. In this way, as in so many others, our parents learned to prioritise their expenditure.

For our part, we children would cram ourselves into the airing cupboard every winter's morning so we could get dressed next to the hot water tank.

Parents of large families learn swiftly that they are not capable of tailor-made care for each child.

They have to opt instead for strong discipline, backed occasionally by a sweeping backhander to the side of the head - rather like a collie shepherding a flock of clueless sheep into a pen.

Mother, surrounded by a blur of rioting children, frequently found herself incapable of remembering our names. We learned to live with whatever name she chose to give us in the heat of the moment, or face the consequences.

Sometimes she would give one of us a composite label made up of bits of all our names, such as 'NicMarFranzDom'.

And although the lack of individual nannying benefited us by making us think more for ourselves, there were drawbacks.

I remember finding a weapons cache of real pistols wrapped in polythene and hidden under a bridge in the woods near our house. I showed the bundle to my father who, distracted as usual, said something like: 'That's nice, now go outside and play.'

And so I did, luring my brother into a game of 'war', and allocating him a real Remington automatic while keeping the 9mm Luger for myself. The game ended when a neighbour persuaded my father to call the police.

As children, we did play together a lot - but we fought each other more. We were always ratting on each other, and rows would dissolve into frightening violence.

I remember sitting on a sofa with my brother Nicholas, watching TV, and suddenly exploding in rage at something he had said, in the process landing a blow to the side of his head which rendered him unconscious.

I could hear mother coming, so I propped him up to make him appear lifelike as she passed through the room. It worked.

As for my sister Irene, it was quite possible for a year to pass without us talking - she was a girl, for God's sake! I think that perhaps the benefits of being part of a large family become more apparent as you get older - but when you are a child, it can be a kind of hell.

Later in life, responsibility, ageing and infirmity are far better met head-on by an extended family that has, from birth, learned there is strength in numbers.

But if you'd suggested to me when I was a teenager that all the siblings cluttering up the house were a Good Thing, I'd probably have aimed that revolver at you.

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