Why these families have so many children and how they cope

The Thompson family. Picture: Nigel Hallett
The Thompson family. Picture: Nigel Hallett

HANNAH Thomson is used to the dropping jaws and wide­ning eyes. When she tells people she has 10 children, the ­reaction is standard.

Thomson, 43, of Mudgeeraba in the Gold Coast hinterland, has spent seven-and-a-half years of her life pregnant and eight-and-a-half-years breastfeeding. Apart from a brief three-month ­reprieve, she's been changing nappies for the past 22 years.

For that Herculean effort, Thomson and her husband Grant, 52, a financial adviser, have produced 10 children ranging in age from two to 22.

Their brood of three sons and seven daughters - Josiah, 22, Rosie, 19, Truly, 18, ­Shekinah, 16, Elisha, 14, Summer-Rose, 12, Faith, 9, ­Heavenly, 7, Judah, 5, and Boaz, 2 - all live at home in a five-bedroom rental house.

The eldest children have their own bedroom while the five youngest girls share a con­verted double garage. Baby Boaz sleeps in a large wardrobe off his parents' bedroom.

"When people find out I have 10 kids, their jaws really do drop," Thomson says.

"I have two brothers and a sister while Grant is one of three boys. Grant always knew I wanted five kids. He thought four might be enough but then I found out I was pregnant with our fifth, and we just went on from there.

"We are a Christian family, and I also wanted one more boy. Amazingly, we did have Boaz and I knew I was complete. After five, six kids … another child kind of just slots in. I'm used to having so many."

The family, who moved from New Zealand in 2007, fit into a 12-seater Toyota HiAce van and manage to limit their weekly grocery bill to about $450. They can munch through a 10kg box of apples in just a few days.

Thomson has had natural, drug-free births for all the children (the heaviest was 4.7kg, or 10 pounds, 6 ounces). She has also homeschooled all the kids on and off over the years, with support from the Faith Christian School of ­Distance Education. Six of the children are being homeschooled at present.

"Grant and I love having 10 kids. I wouldn't change anything, but it's a tough road and a lot of hard work," Thomson says.

"I get up about 6am. We're all up by 7am and into breakfast and by 8am they begin homeschooling at the kitchen table. They have morning tea and a lunch break and finish by 3pm, or earlier if they finish their work.

"Everyone is expected to pitch in and everyone has jobs. The older three are now working, so more responsibility is going down to the younger ones. Shekinah and Summer-Rose cook a lot of the dinners, which is often when I'm dropping off or picking up someone at netball training or church activities, so I'm not always at home for dinner.

"They all do youth group on Friday nights, they all serve at church (Glow Church, Gold Coast) on Sunday mornings. Each day is very busy, and that's not adding in the ­(occasional) doctor's visit, the food shopping, or whatever else that has to be done. Some days, it's just insane."

Thomson says the family has gone through different "seasons" financially, with times of more than enough money and ­others when they've had to tighten their belts.

"Electricity, water and the internet are expensive and our food bill is pretty tight at the moment," she says.

"Every ­Friday I have a massive bake-up when I might make two ­banana cakes, a double batch of muffins, a four-times batch of cookies and slices, which means we don't need to buy any biscuits or chocolates or snacks.

"With a big family, it's really expensive to go somewhere like Movie World and they can miss out on things like that but they have a lot of fun in other ways. For one-on-one time, I'll take one child with me when I do the food shopping and there's a roster of who goes. With the older ones, we might go for coffee or a pedicure.

"The most special moment for me is sitting back on the couch when everyone is home - which is not very often - and I look over at the older ones laughing and joking ­together. The younger ones are snuggled up to them and Boaz waltzes into the room and everyone lights up and starts chatting to him. It's just special. On Mother's Day, all I ask for is just to sit down and do nothing."

Australians are having fewer children than past generations. The 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics ­Census figures show the average Australian is a 38-year-old female who is married and has two children.

Australian Institute of Family Studies figures show that while two-child families are the most common in Australia, families with only one child are growing at a faster rate than those with multiple children. Latest AIFS figures reveal 14 per cent of women aged 40-44 have one child, compared to three decades earlier when less than 8 per cent of women in the same age bracket had solitary children.

AIFS demographer Lixia Qu says the past few decades have seen a massive decrease in the number of families with four children or more.

"In the past 30 years, there's been a huge drop in the number of really large families … from around 30 per cent in the early '80s to now just 10 per cent. Families are getting smaller, more people have two children, but a sizeable proportion have one."

Qu says the shift to more one-child families is due to ­factors including men and women staying in school for longer, attending university, doing postgraduate studies, travelling and delaying having children.

"We also know that relationships are more unstable now than they once were. People are choosing to live together initially but then if a relationship breaks down it can take a while to re-­partner and to even begin to consider having children," Qu says.

"So all that takes time, and we know that most children are still born to couples who are married."

The 2015 ABS report, Household and Family Projection Australia 2011 to 2036, shows the proportion of people ­cohabiting as partners in families without children ­increased from 19 per cent in 1996 to 21 per cent in 2011, which is ­attributed to an ageing population with more "empty ­nesters" and couples who are deferring having children or not having children at all. Couple-only households are ­projected to experience the largest increase of all types of families over the next 25 years, increasing up to 64 per cent from 2011 to reach 3.8 million families by 2036.

Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer in economics, Dr Dipanwita Sarkar, says declining rates of child-bearing could be explained by changes in women's workforce participation.

"Women are earning much more, so taking time off work and the loss of wages is a bigger consideration," she says.

"Women are more qualified and have better labour force participation - they have more full-time jobs with higher wages - so there is more to lose economically. Children have become costly in that sense.

"There is a quality-quantity trade-off - nowadays people are opting for fewer children and investing more in the quality of those children in terms of education and health. The cost of child-rearing has also gone up. The rising cost of education and healthcare is another reason people make that trade-off - having fewer children - and explains that downward trend in numbers of children."

A 2013 report by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, at the University of Canberra, found the cost of raising two children in a typical middle-income family in Australia was $812,000, almost double the cost in 2002 ($448,000).

Since 2007, the cost of raising children has risen about 50 per cent, while household incomes over the same period grew 25 per cent - meaning the growth in the cost of raising children has doubled income growth.

The report shows the costs of raising two children in 2012 varied from $474,000 for a lower-income family to $1,097,000 for higher-income families. The lifetime shopping bill for two children included costs in education, health, transport, food, recreation, housing, childcare, clothing, furnishings and equipment. Middle-income ­couples add another $143,000 to their grocery bill and an extra $159,000 on transport as they raise two children. Older children are significantly more expensive than ­younger children, with a child aged 15-17 about three times more expensive than a child aged 0-4.

The McCarthy family of seven at home in Gaythorne. Picture: Mark Cranitch
The McCarthy family of seven at home in Gaythorne. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Having a big family was second nature for Monica McCarthy, who grew up in Winton, in Central West Queensland, as the ninth of 10 siblings. McCarthy, 49, and her husband of almost 18 years, Jon, 43, have five children - Maurice, 15, Hycie, 13, Maya, 11, Matilda, 8, and Edwin, 5.

The family lives in a three-bedroom house at Gaythorne, in Brisbane's northwest, and are used to sharing everything from bedrooms to technology and food.

"I loved being part of a big family growing up," McCarthy says. "I was always surrounded by people; it was always a busy house with six girls and four boys. I had a great childhood.

"We grew up in Winton where Dad (Vince, who died in 1998 aged 65) ran the outdoor picture theatre and later did opal mining. It wasn't uncommon to have big families, and five kids would have been considered a small family in those days. Now people are usually surprised to find out we have five. It has changed a lot.

"Coming from that background of lots of siblings, I ­suppose I always wanted a bigger family. Jon was one of four and we always thought we'd have four or five kids."

With her youngest child now in prep, McCarthy has ­recently re-registered as a qualified early childhood ­teacher and plans to take up some relief teaching work. When the kids were younger, she ran a family daycare business from her home for three years.

"I really love children," she says. "I've always liked ­working with children and we've always tried to look at the financial side of raising a lot of kids in a positive light. Jon (who has his own business, gCenseo, providing contract ­research for agricultural chemical companies) pushed ­himself to support the family. I had the family daycare ­business, which was a win-win ­because I had kids (at home) playing with my kids. We've just ­problem-solved the ­financial side of things.

"The kids share bedrooms - the three girls share and the two boys share - and they love it. I grew up sharing and it didn't do me any harm. You don't need a huge house - we just make it work. Having said that, as they get older, we might look at renovating, but it's working at this stage.

"Having a lot of siblings, they learn from an early age to share and be considerate and how to compromise. Everything is divided by seven and they don't expect anything else. In a lot of respects, I find it easier having five in that they have playmates and have each other for company. They all get along and like each other.

"It's good for me also in that I've made a big network of friends through the kids at school and sport.

"On Mother's Day, the kids will usually cook me something nice for breakfast and then it's my choice … I love the outdoors, so we might go for a bushwalk and a picnic or a swim in the surf. People generally think it must be really hard work. It is, but I don't look at it that way. I just think we're really lucky to have five happy, healthy kids. It's ­wonderful. I enjoy being a mother and everything that comes with it, even the washing."

Jade and David Kearney with their five children. Even when Mrs Kearney is at work she’s looking after children. Picture: David Kelly
Jade and David Kearney with their five children. Even when Mrs Kearney is at work she’s looking after children. Picture: David Kelly

Gold Coast mother of five Jade Kearney is regularly asked the same question: "Don't you own a TV?"

Kearney, 33, has a disarmingly simple response.

"I just love children," she says. "A lot of people will ask: 'Why have you got so many? or 'How do you cope?' I just brush it off and have a laugh. I enjoy kids' company and they're fun to be around. Every child is different. You're never going to get two the same. Children have such innocence and they're generally happy. Listening to children laugh brightens my whole day."

Kearney and husband David, 34, a diesel mechanic, have five children: Miah, 14, Stephanie, 11, Blaze, 10, and twins Sibellah and Nixon, 6.

Kearney is also a qualified childcare educator who works two days a week as a nanny. While her own children are at school, she looks after two-year-old twins on one day and four-year-old twins and a baby on another day.

"Even when I'm at work, I'm looking after children," she says. "I love teaching them, watching them grow and learn and seeing their little faces light up with excitement when I show them something new.

"It was always in my mind to be the mother of a larger family. My husband took a little bit of convincing, so it was a big surprise when we found out we were having a bonus child with the twins. I'm lucky he's such a devoted dad."

The Kearneys are self-renovating their hinterland Highland Park home to give each of the children their own bedroom. They all currently share one bathroom. The ­family spends about $400 a week on groceries and the ­electricity bill is kept high with "a bottomless pit of washing" and an extra fridge and freezer on the go.

The children attend local state schools and the family face additional challenges as the four youngest have ­autism.

"They are all on medication and considered high-functioning," Kearney says. "I've got an extremely supp­ortive husband. We have a great support system with the medical professionals. We just take one day at a time. We're a busy family. We both work and we are probably a bit ambitious with what we take on.

"People are always surprised we have five kids. There's a financial challenge because in this day and age we have an average wage and it is expensive to have so many children. Having a big family is not for everybody. It's very busy and it can be challenging at times. But there's always lots of fun and laughter. The kids have a live-in friend here at all times. There are plenty of siblings to do things with - games like tiggy, hide-and-seek and board games.

"The house is never quiet and there's always someone to talk to. We all sit down and have dinner together at night and share our day with each other. It's hard for us to get one-on-one time with the children but we do try to take each one out and do something special with them. It's ­important to give them individual time.

"On Mother's Day, David usually surprises me by taking me somewhere with the kids for a picnic - sometimes the beach, sometimes the hinterland. I don't usually know until the morning. It's really special. Yes, it's been challenging but I couldn't imagine my life without our children. We're very lucky." 

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