Julie Cole: The Baby Machine


I Have Six, but My Great-Grandmother Had 21

Do Big Families Run in Families?

When people learn that I have six kids, I first administer the smelling salts then respond to the question they always ask: did I come from a big family myself.

My mother had four children, her mother gave birth to nine, and her mother to twenty-one. Yes, my great-grandmother had 21 children, 17 of them surviving infancy. Did that just make your uterus flip? Let’s just say, I come by this big family thing honestly.

My Great-Uncle Brendan was recently over from Ireland to visit his big sister (my grandma) who is 95. During his time here, we celebrated his 81st birthday. Of the original children, there are only three still alive. When I was a child (and still today), I love hearing the stories about life in Ireland for my grandmother’s family. The most remarkable thing about having such a large family is that often the older children have their own babies before their mother has stopped. There is the famous story of Uncle Brendan as a baby being pushed in a stroller by 8-yr-old Seamus, who was asked by a passerby if the baby was his brother. The response was “No ma’am, he’s me uncle”. Incidentally, Uncle Brendan always called his oldest sister “Mrs. Keenan” because she was married and having children before he came along.

I was surprised to learn that after every birth, my great-grandmother went into Dublin and bought herself a beautiful new suit – with matching shoes, purse, gloves and hat. It was like a push present to herself. I’m not sure when she wore these suits, and it’s certainly a far cry from the “mommy uniform” I wear every day. She was a very entrepreneurial woman – when her husband died, she continued to run the family farm and pub, and by all accounts knew how to take care of business. Perhaps she saved her suits for widowhood.

I remember my grandma telling me that her sister, Philomena, got a very special present on her 21st birthday from their mother. Apparently not every mother has the opportunity to celebrate a 21st birthday with her 21st child, and that was worthy of celebration.

There are many stories, but it is interesting to consider if there is a pattern of having big families. I know people who are the eldest in big families and they went on to have only one or two children because they felt like they already raised a family before having their own.

What size family do you come from and what size family did you or do you imagine having?