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Things I Wish I’d Known Before Raising a Large Family

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Vanessa Quigley is the co-founder of Chatbooks and writes about the challenges of being a mom of 7 kids in her new book, Real Moms, Real Hacks: 107 Parent-Tested Tips + Tricks to Save You Time, Money, and Sanity.

I grew up the oldest of 12 kids — me, 6 boys, 4 girls, and one last boy. Although I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything — we certainly had some epic adventures — I never believed I’d have so many kids myself! And until I had my first baby, I honestly never wondered how my mother did it all. As the oldest, I’d spent plenty of time helping with my siblings, but having a family of your own is a totally different experience. After having seven kids -- Calvin - 22, Laken - 19, Henry - 18, Aidan - 16, Claire - 13, Isabelle - 11, and Declan - 9 -- I’ve learned some valuable lessons. As I raise my own large family, I’m writing these lessons down, and a bunch from other moms, so that one day when my kids ask, “How did you do it all?” I’ll have answers slightly more helpful than my own mother’s, “I have no idea!”

1) Bless this mess. Motherhood is messy, especially with multiple kids. Nobody’s perfect and accepting that fact can be very liberating. Every mother feels pressure to have her children dressed nicely, groomed, and well behaved. But there are things you just can’t control. My baby once ate a green marker and stained his entire face, my son went through a phase of only wearing his sister’s shiny red boots, and my other son once pulled the fire alarm at the airport. I’d been wasting so much energy trying to make things perfect, but realized I had to accept the obvious: mess happens. And it turns out it’s all the mess that makes life so memorable!

2) Rely on your live-in help. Sometimes having more than one kid pays off. As crazy as it sounds, a large family can make certain things easier as time goes on. As kids grow, they can learn simple yet helpful chores such as making an easy breakfast, unloading the dishwasher, and matching socks. As the oldest sibling, I was Mom’s go-to sous chef, laundry helper, babysitter, chauffeur, along with many other roles. (Sometimes I wondered if her reason for having kids was so we could do all the work!) The truth is that older siblings can be a HUGE help, no matter the size of your family! When my oldest learned how to tie shoes at age 6, he was put in charge of tying/teaching his three younger siblings. Also, it was a truly glorious day when we didn’t have to hire a babysitter for date night, but rather just “hire” our eldest child.

3) Hand-me-downs are the new black. Can you even imagine buying Christmas presents for 12 kids?! One year my mom found all of our presents at garage sales — and we loved it! (She also included clever gift tags like “To Vanessa, from Saks Secondhand Avenue.”) While some kids might fuss over having new things, I absolutely loved my secondhand Jordache jeans. And maybe that love is genetic considering my kids have happily spent their lives in hand-me-downs from older siblings before passing them onto younger cousins. It’s the OshKosh circle of life!

4) Supermom is a myth. A big family means a very packed schedule. There are days when we juggle 2 soccer games, a cello lesson, and a track meet, all at same time. It is physically impossible for me to be at every one of their activities, but my kids understand that. And I think they’ve become more independent because of it. My parents certainly weren’t able to attend all of my activities when I was a kid, but when they were present it was such a treat! My husband and I have learned to divide and conquer so there’s always one of us present to support our kids as best as we can. And if one of us can’t make it, the kids have learned to understand. They know we love and support them, but sometimes that has to happen from afar. And when it does, there’s always a helpful parent friend who can photograph or video in our absence.

5) There’s strength in numbers. Our family grew faster than our income, and in the beginning we had all 3 kids sharing one bedroom. When we finally bought our first house with 4 bedrooms, we gave each kid their own room and suddenly everything went to pot! They became territorial, competitive, and there was so much fighting. After a couple of tortuous weeks, we moved them all back into one bedroom. Slowly but surely, things got better as they had to learned how to work and live together again.

Our kids are all pretty close in age, each of them about 2 years apart, and my greatest joy has been seeing them play and laugh together. They've always had built-in playmates for a game of speed Uno or the trampoline. Sometimes all that proximity and familiarity results in impatience, frustration, and wishing they were an only child (as the oldest of 12 I may have daydreamed of that myself!). But despite it all, they love each other have each other's backs. There is a 14 year gap between our oldest and youngest, but they are bonded by the fact that they’re practically clones of each other. It's fun for Calvin to experience in real life what he was like as a baby, and he’s become quite protective of Declan (whom we all can’t help but spoil as the youngest of the family).

We have a Quigley Creed that we created together: “Quigleys are Respectful, Responsible, Considerate, and Kind.” We recite it often and have it displayed in our family room as a constant reminder of how we expect each other to behave. We keep each other in check, and on more than one occasion I have heard my kids calling each other out for not living the creed.

6) Keep Mama happy. I believe the most important gift we can give our kids is a strong home base — and that starts with Mom. As they say, “If Mama ain’t happy, no one is!” It’s not easy, but making time for your own happiness is essential to that of your children. A house full of kids, especially teenagers and their activities, can take a terrible toll on your intimate life. My husband and I have learned to protect our alone time ferociously! After all, that’s how this whole things started. The first real getaway my husband and I took was for our 10th anniversary. We had 5 kids by then and it was the most glorious week of our lives! We had been pretty good about sticking to a regular date night, but those quick dinners were never enough for me to turn off my mom-programmed fretting and just relax. But when we took that week away, the chaos faded and we reconnected with the two well-rested people we were when we first fell in love.

We’ve learned little ways to connect when dates and trips aren’t possible. We recently watched Battlestar Galactica and Stranger Things on the trampoline late at night, just the two of us, and felt like giddy teenagers again. We have a habit of sharing funny memes and videos with each other before going to bed. There's nothing better than ending a stressful day with laughter. Working together has brought a whole new amazing aspect to our marriage. With so many things to talk about, it’s given me new insight and respect for the career my husband has been building all these years. We work hard to rediscover each other everyday. We’ve learned to team up, and are now stronger and more understanding than ever. Although the demands of a large family can put a strain on two people trying to connect, the reality is that these amazing, beautiful, funny people are our creation and greatest accomplishment. My husband and I have many moments of awe where we think, "We made this together!" Even though the kids greatly outnumber us, our "couple" is the most important thing. We let the kids know how strong our bond is with regular date nights, consistent compliments, and even the occasional PDA in front of them.

No one could have prepared me for raising 7 kids, not even my own mother of 12. While it hasn’t been easy, it certainly has been worth it. When every day brings a new lesson, I can’t help but feel gratitude to my large family for keeping me on my toes and making me a better mom.

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