Didn’t your parents have a television?

Posted by in June's Magazine

Whenever people heard I had six sisters and two brothers, they tended to react in one of three ways. The first was to snigger and say, “So, your parents were Catholics, then?” Being a non-confrontational sort of person I would smile weakly at the remark and pretend to be slightly amused by it. Inside however I was thinking, really, THAT OLD CHESTNUT? I never asked my parents why they had so many kids, but if you had known them, you would know that they were remarkable individuals.

Not mindless robots producing nine children, one after the other, purely because a man in Rome told them to. Others would chuckle when they heard about my numerous siblings and say, “Didn’t your parents have a television?” As if watching a repeat on the telly is somehow way preferable to having sex. Seriously? And for the record, we did have a telly, in fact we had two: one sat on a coffee table facing into the room, the other sat on the floor next to it at a right angle.


Despite its size, it was not immediately apparent that the second telly was there. Why two tellys? Well, the TV on the coffee table had pictures but no sound and the one on the floor had sound but no pictures. Alone they were useless but together they did the job. We used to have great fun confusing friends who were not-in-the-know, by asking them to turn the sound up on the picture-only telly.

And this brings me nicely to the other thing people used to say on hearing about my family: “Oh dear, so you were poor?” The insinuation was that being poor was bad and by association being part of a big family was bad. As it happens we didn’t have a lot of money, hence the two broken tellys, but it wasn’t bad, not at all.

Nowadays reactions have changed. Either people frown and mutter something about huge carbon footprints and the Earth’s resources being finite. P-L-E-A-S-E! Having multiple siblings isn’t the cause of global warming, it’s carbon dioxide emissions from cars and lorries and jet planes and fossil fuel burning power plants, and deforestation and methane emissions and sociopolitical economics… do I really need to continue? Or, people look sad, shake their heads and say, “You were unloved, huh?” Perhaps this is not a surprising reaction in a society where people are becoming more and more obsessed with themselves. However, contrary to popular opinion, research shows that love, like creativity, isn’t finite. The more love you have the more there is and big families have it in spades.

However, the most surprising recent reaction to finding out I have a bunch of siblings is dewy-eyed awe. People just aren’t having as many children as they used to. This means big families are very unusual, if not rather exotic, hence the wonderstruck gaze. So, what is it like being part of a rare anomaly?

Well, for me, growing up with lots of sisters and brothers was a bit like living in my own soap opera. I had eight friends but also eight enemies. There were fallings in and out, secrets and lies, jealousies and lots of slamming of doors and tears, so may tears – but no murders. Xmas was the best and the worst time of year. So many presents and so much excitement followed by disappointment because we all thought the other had got the better present. Think sibling rivalry with bells on. There was also no privacy – oh, how I longed for my own bedroom!

But these things were nothing compared to the rush of excitement at keeping watch while my little sister pinched a biscuit from the biscuit tin or my brother sneaked out after dark to buy sweeties, or the thrill of telling each other spooky stories by torchlight, or the fun of making up a dance routine to the latest song on Top of The Pops, or the exhilaration of swinging over the Water of Leith on a rope swing, or the fun of putting on our very own plays, or the terror of holding séances in the dark or the kick from playing hide and seek in the local graveyard. But for me the very best thing about being part of a large family was the getting together and catching up after we’d left home and gone our separate ways.

The stories, the things we did or did not do, the people we met, our ups and downs, shaped my world and influenced my decisions. It still does. I am very lucky to have a bunch of siblings. Being part of a large family is life affirming. But it can also be exhausting. People in big families tend to have big personalities; at least they do in my family. This means the highs can be really high and the lows can be really low. It’s a bit like being on a roller coaster. It’s not for the faint-hearted but if you can hang on, it’s the ride of your life.

Twitter: @MWheelaghan

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