This morning I got up at 6 o'clock with the baby. I then went straight to the kitchen to begin preparing food for my eight children for the day ahead.
Firstly school lunches had to be made for the five older ones. A loaf of bread, a block of cheese and a bumper pack of crisps later I finally got the chance to get myself, the two year old, the four year old and baby dressed, before making sure the school goers had uniforms on, bags packed and breakfasts ready. Darling husband left the house at 8, the older kids were waved off to school at 9, and I began the never-ending uphill struggle of looking after three under-fives whilst trying to clear up the remains of what looked like a tornado that had run through the house. Oh, and did I mention the cooking, shopping, and washing of nappies? And that I don't have a car or a washer\dryer, or a dishwasher for that matter?
Actually (happily) the above is not strictly true. At last count I only had three children, and although it's still a struggle, as a modern day mother I have plenty of mod cons to help me out. But if we cast our minds back, only a generation ago three children was considered to be a small family, and 'necessities' such as a dishwasher were fairly rare. Most of the people I knew when I was growing up had at least five in their family and my two closest friends had eight, but at the time this didn't seem peculiar or even hectic, just normal family life.
One of the most recent and in depth reports on family trends in Ireland which was carried out by UCD and funded by the Department of Social and Family Affairs found that families living in Ireland today are much more likely to consist of one or two children compared to previous decades. The report highlighted the decline of the traditional larger family and pointed out that in 1981, 38% of children were living in households with four, five or six children, but by 2006, this figure had fallen to 13%.
So how on earth did our parents cope so seemingly effortlessly with so many kids and so little help, when my gadget rich generation struggle to manage with two or three?
Who better to turn to for answers than the mother of one of my childhood best friends, Rita Gahan from who had eight children. By the time Patrick the youngest was born the other children were - are you ready for it? - Maureen 1, Grainne 3, Roisin 5, Conor 7, Kevin 10, Eamon 12, and Sheila 14. Now I don't know about you but my mind is in meltdown just thinking about actually visiting that house, let alone looking after all of them. Rita however barely blinks an eye as she recalls the daily routine
"Well we were all up early of course, and it was a bit of a madhouse trying to get everyone out of the door for school, but the older ones were well able to get themselves washed and dressed, and then they helped out with the younger ones. And of course nobody drove to school in those days, it was just a walk to the local primary or secondary, which the kids could generally do on their own.'
But what about cooking for them all - how do you sit ten people down to dinner every night? "We usually took it in shifts" recalls Rita, "first the younger ones, then a quick clear up before the turn of the older lot". To me that seems like an all day mammoth task, even before you factor in the amount of washing up that must have stacked up, And no dishwasher! It really doesn't bear thinking about.
"It really wasn't that bad" says Rita, still smiling, "we didn't have a dishwasher but we had plenty of dish washers - we stuck to a rota of two kids each night - one to wash and one to dry".
I'm beginning to see a pattern here. It seems that once each child passed a certain age they became a helping pair of hands. Yes in some areas they need to be looked after themselves, but it was more a case of all the family pulling together, working as a team to ensure the household and everyone in it was taken care of, rather than all of the duties falling to the lone stay at home parent. Rita agrees, "It's true that the younger children just followed their older brothers and sisters around and were in a lot of respects entertained by them, which freed my time up to get on with all the household chores".
So the older children helping out were one way in which our own mothers coped with so many kids, but what else eased the pressure? "Well of course there was more freedom in those days" says Rita, "all the children were able to go exploring and visiting friends on their own from a very young age. More freedom for them meant more freedom for me". Ah yes, our cotton wool kids. We all know that children today are living in a very different world to that which we grew up in, but it would seem that our need for play-dates, ballet, drama, hockey and music classes is just contributing to our own workload. Whether it is through guilt or peer pressure, we have become our own worst enemies.
Of course in my parent's era most mothers stayed at home whilst their husband brought home the salary. Indeed, as Rita explained, when you got married in 1960 you weren't actually allowed to go back to work. Now there's a thought. Nowadays of course the majority of mothers juggle both work and family life which leaves them struggling to cope with all the demands each world places on them. However all of the stay at home mothers I spoke to agreed that they too generally struggle through each day - taking care of the children, the housework, the shopping, the cooking, the paperwork, the taxiing, and everything else that goes with being the 'homemaker'. So the fact that more women are working doesn't really come into the equation.
Louise Kelly, one stay at home mother I spoke to agrees "I only have two children, aged 4 and 2, whilst my mother had five. Even so there are some days I just don't know how I am going to get through. The washing is never-ending, the meals a chore, the cleaning constant and the children demand so much attention that I am forever chasing my tail. And don't even mention what it's like when one of them is sick!'
Perhaps it's more about expectations than anything else. Whilst nowadays we expect some 'me time' to get our hair done, have a bath, go out for dinner, many of our parents thought they were lucky if they got to get out for a drink on their birthday. One of the major gripes from mothers I talk to is the fact that they don't get to go out much. Having been used to having the freedom and income to spend Friday and Saturday nights out on the town, we are resentful at having to beg, borrow or steal a night off once in a blue moon. Louise agrees, "Living away from both sets of parents means that we don't have a babysitter on-hand so that when we do go out it's almost never as a couple, we have to take it in turns". She goes on to say "Whilst I find myself feeling hard done by, I suppose my own mother was in the same situation, though I don't remember her ever complaining!'
Siobhan Freegard from the parenting website Netmums believes that whilst modern day mums have the benefits of the extra technology, they are lacking something much more important. "What we have gained in mod cons we have largely lost in our sense of community, belonging and of course the all important extended family" she states. She goes on to say that "loneliness, isolation and a lack of emotional support are perhaps the hardest parts of modern day motherhood".
So maybe it is the fact that our parents had better support networks, or that the older children helped Mum out, or that in the 'good ol' days' you could push your five year old out the front door and tell them to come home when they were hungry, or that mothers simply didn't have such high hopes of what they deserved, or possibly even all of those factors. However, from talking to mothers old and young on the subject I have started to suspect that the last generation may have just forgotten how hard it actually was. After a bit of digging my own mother recalled "being so tired I didn't think I would be able to push the pram home". I know that feeling, and I'm sure the majority of mothers from every other generation do too, they've just forgotten it. Motherhood is exhausting, challenging, boring, wonderful and rewarding - whatever era you happen to be in.
At least now I know what it is that I need to coast through the early years like our parents seemed to - just 20 years to cushion the memories. Oh, and an empty dishwasher.Suggest a correction