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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

All in the Family

What’s it like growing up in a family of twelve? Busy.

Or so I’d guess. I grew up with one sister, so how would I know? Today’s post is a Q and A with someone who knows exactly what it’s like to grow up in a big family. My friend Diane is one of ten siblings. When I discovered this fact, questions instantly ricocheted around my brain. I had to know more, so I announced to Diane that I was going to interview her, and sweetheart that she is, she agreed.

Sarah: You grew up in a family of ten siblings. Where were you in the lineup?

Diane: I am one of three girls, and we have seven brothers. I was born seventh.

S: Your parents married young, and started their family the following year. Tell me about their early years.

D: My parents, Robert and Norma, married soon after my mom’s high school graduation. Mom was still seventeen and Dad was twenty. Their first child arrived when Mom and Dad were eighteen and twenty-one. In the next seventeen years they had a total of ten kids. The closest siblings in age are my older brother and me, and we are thirteen months apart, to the day.

S: When did your parents move into the house in which you grew up?

D: When my oldest brothers were small, my parents moved into their house in Paradise Hills, a neighborhood in southeast San Diego. My dad was a mechanical engineer at Rohr. My mom worked when her first kids were young. Once the family became larger she stopped working outside the home until we were much older. Although my parents didn’t come from big families, large families were not unusual in Paradise Hills in the 1960s and 70s. We knew families in our area with thirteen or sixteen kids or more. To us, a family with only five or six kids was small!

S: What was your neighborhood like when you were a child?

D: When I was very small, the neighborhood was mostly Caucasian, but as I grew a little older there was a lot of cultural diversity. We kids had friends of various nationalities, and we liked the diversity. My parents lived in the same house for more than thirty years, and they were quite friendly with their neighbors throughout the time there. Although our family does not own that house anymore, one of my sisters lives two doors away from our childhood home.

S: The house you grew up in was approximately 1,000 square feet, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Who slept where?

D: My two sisters and I always shared a bedroom. My parents had a room, and some of my brothers shared another room. Eventually we needed another bedroom so the garage was converted into a fourth bedroom, where four of my brothers slept in two sets of bunk beds.

S: Your neighbors helped convert the garage into a bedroom.

D: Yes, one neighbor was an architect, and drew up the plans to convert the garage. Another neighbor was an engineer, like my dad, and they worked together to turn the garage into a new bedroom. Many neighbors helped. It was that kind of neighborhood. Neighbors always helped one another.

S: Still, even with an additional bedroom, it was a full house. One man I met from a family of fourteen said they ate dinner in shifts. How did all of you manage mealtimes, and all the ins and outs of daily life?

D: Breakfast was usually a quick meal. We each packed our own lunches for school. All of us had chores, mostly driven by our ages. Before dinner, the younger kids peeled potatoes and carrots. Older siblings were allowed to cut vegetables. Mom delegated and she did the cooking, and as we became older she taught us to cook. Dad cooked, too. Whoever was home at dinner time sat and ate. We had a big horseshoe-shaped booth and whoever was home sat there for dinner. My older siblings reheated dinner when they came back from sports practice.

S: What about other chores?

D: In our house, when you turned twelve, you entered into the dish-washing rotation. I hated washing dishes! There were always so many dishes, and big pots, too. You could trade which day you did dishes, but no one got out of doing dishes. Eventually we got a dishwasher, which made a difference.

S: Speaking of cooking, grocery shopping must have been a frequent activity. Your family grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and Costco didn’t open in San Diego until 1983. Bulk buying wasn’t the option that is today. Did your mom shop daily?

D: We did go to the store regularly, and we always went in teams of at least two, since we needed two shopping carts. Sometimes my parents went grocery shopping together at night, as kind of a date night. But we were fortunate to have my grandparents nearby, and they had a huge garden at home, so we got a lot of vegetables from them. We considered ourselves lower-middle class—we weren’t wealthy—but we always had enough to eat. Occasionally we’d go to a restaurant, and I remember the Mexican restaurant near our house. To this day I measure all Mexican food against that place.

S: Did your family have a washer/dryer at home? Were these machines running 24/7?

D: Yes! Once you were in high school you were expected to do your own laundry.

S: Not only did your parents raise their ten kids, but at times there were also friends living with your family.

D: Yes, there often was an extra boy or two living with us. If a friend was going through a rough patch at home, my parents opened up our house to our friends.

S: Wow. They had big hearts. They died young but they made an impact while they were living.

D: My dad died at age forty-five, when I was thirteen. He’d had heart problems. Mom died at fifty-two. Both were amazing. They had tons of patience, and they had great senses of humor.

S: You are an involved, patient mom of two. Do you approach parenting in some of the ways your parents did?

D: My parents were more patient than I am. I guess they had to be! But yes, the two biggest lessons I learned from them were to be patient, and to try to find a way to laugh about the tough things in life. They were encouraging and always supportive. Even when they were mad at us, we always felt loved.

S: With ten kids, how did your family celebrate birthdays?

D: Growing up, we celebrated each child’s birthday, sometimes with a party, sometimes with a family dinner at home with cake. Once we were older we started gathering monthly to celebrate all birthdays in that month.

S: Do any of your siblings have their own large families now?

D: The most any of us has is four kids.

S: How many of the ten siblings still live in this area?

D: Seven of us do. Some of us get together regularly to play low-stakes poker. We play nickel-dime-quarter. I actually learned to play when I was a child, so this is not only fun, but it’s also a connection to the family in which I was raised.

S: Are there other special items or traditions that have been passed down through the family?

D: Two stories come to mind. The first is funny. When I was small Mom made meatloaf a lot, but it wasn’t something I liked. Oddly, my sister makes meatloaf now, using the very same recipe Mom used--and I love my sister’s meatloaf! The second story is about my mom’s china. She had service for twelve, which my parents spent years collecting. When Mom passed away my older sister inherited the china and she enjoyed using it for years. But she recently gave it to me. I’m looking forward to using it for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and one day I’ll pass on my mom’s china to my daughter.

S: It’s a common belief that the youngest child gets away with more than the oldest, or that rules became more relaxed over time. Did this seem true in your family?

D: My older brothers remember our parents being stricter with them, although my parents believed they parented each of us the same way!

S: I’m interested in birth order and how it shapes each person’s personality. But birth order stereotypes only go so far when there are eight middle children.

D: Yes. Middle kids are often peacemakers. Sometimes I fit the peacemaker role but other times it wasn’t me. The dynamic shifted a lot as we grew. 

S: Were all the kids expected to share toys and clothes with siblings? Were there items that clearly were yours—ones that you were not urged to share?

D: Most things were shared but we each had some things that were our own. You learned to find a safe spot to put something special. When we were teens, my sisters and I shared clothes and shoes. We each had our own but sharing was an affordable way to triple our wardrobe.

S: What were the biggest challenges in a family of twelve? Was getting individual attention hard?

D: Actually, my parents somehow found a way to give each of us regular one-on-one attention. I never felt lost in the shuffle. All of us kids did sports, and at least one of our parents made a point to watch at least part of each of our games. The biggest challenges in a family of our size were practical issues like getting shower time, or a ride to practice, or access to the washing machine.

S: How does a family of twelve keep things organized? I misplace things regularly and I have three kids—not ten! Were you parents really tidy?

D: Certain things needed to be put back exactly in their place—like Dad’s tools. With a lot of other things we just did what we could. You were responsible for your own things, but there were plenty of mornings when someone couldn’t find their shoes!

S: Getting a lot of kids out the door to school each morning must have been a challenge. Was your school walking-distance?

D: Yes. We walked a lot. School was nearby. Baseball practice was walking-distance. High school wasn’t close enough to walk to but as kids we walked a lot or rode bikes.
S: I did a little research about large families (defined as having six or more children). Online, there are a lot of theories about kids from large families being at a disadvantage (especially as far as parents’ attention and finances). But one article online pointed out that children in large families have notable advantages. They learn cooperation at an early age (as compared with children in smaller families) because they must learn to get along with many siblings. Children in large families learn responsibility for themselves and often for younger brothers and sisters. These children also tend to have an easier time adapting to change. ( Do you think you are flexible in terms of change?

D: Yes. I do think I’m adaptable to change and I know it’s because we had to be flexible. From the very beginning we learned to compromise, to share and to get along.

S: What are other advantages of being part of a large family?

D: We always had a playmate around. There was always someone to help you if you needed it. Sometimes the disadvantages annoyed me: like my older siblings making me play games they wanted to play. But the advantages far outweighed the challenges. There was a lot of camaraderie. My brothers also taught us girls to play sports and we became good because we were practicing with bigger, more experienced kids.

S: What is your favorite memory of growing up in your family?

D: Christmas holds happy, funny memories. Our extended family always came to our house, and everyone piled in. Our dad came up with a tradition for opening Christmas gifts. He’s start with the youngest child, who was required to sing a few lines from a Christmas song before being allowed to open a present. Then, the second youngest would sing part of a different Christmas song before getting to open a gift. And so on. Everyone had to sing a different Christmas song, and this became funnier with each child as we tried to think of a song that hadn’t been sung yet. I think Dad devised this plan to slow things down on Christmas, so that it wasn’t just complete chaos. His tradition forced us to focus on one thing at a time and while it took ages to get through the gifts, there was something fun and special about the system, too. Life was hectic at times, absolutely. But I have many happy memories of growing up in my family….



  1. Okay, no lie: My dad was one of 10 (then 1 of 15 when my grandpa remarried after his wife passed - my dad was 9 at the time). He's #7 of 10 and there are 3 boys and 7 girls...a complete inverse. One thing not mentioned that happens with the age difference of first child to say, #7? At least for us, we had first cousins that were my dad's age. Their children used to call me "tia" (instead of's a small-town-Mexico thing I think, keeps you from marrying too close, maybe to call someone "auntie" I guess...) This was great to read.

    1. Hi Mary, I'm so happy that this piece had a special meaning for you, given your dad's family. The coincidence with the numbers is amazing! And yes, the generations do get stretched when siblings span many years. Fascinating!

  2. This is, far and away, my favorite blog entry yet, Sar! You write so well... you just transport the reader right into that large family in San Diego, the U-shaped booth for meals, walking to baseball practice, playing games in the front yard with your built-in play buddy. Especially the Christmas tradition of a Christmas carol before each gift is opened! Revel in each gift, one at a time. What a great idea :-)

    1. Thanks! So glad you liked this piece. Diane shared some wonderful stories and I hope that others found them as intriguing as I did...

  3. I LOVED this! I feel as if I got to know Diane and her family. You really covered a lot with your questions, and she shared so beautifully what it was like to grow up in a large family. I especially liked the Christmas present-opening tradition of having to sing part of a Christmas carol!!

    1. Thank you, Debby! I'm always happy to know when something I write resonates with someone. It was fascinating to talk with Diane about her childhood...

  4. What a delightful "intro" to A LARGE AND LOVING FAMILY. I was just one of two so do not have any of the experiences that were so generously shared. Thank you for opening my eyes and warming my heart.

    1. Hi Lenore, thank you! So happy that you enjoyed the story of Diane's childhood. For those of us from smaller families, these details are a peek into a different world...

  5. Hi Sarah! I loved this story because it transported me back to my childhood. I was one of (only) 6, but my best friend's family had 10 kids. They adopted their youngest one and usually had a foster kid or two. I loved this family, because it seemed like a constant party. The door was always open and there were always friends over. The mom even would drive me and other neighborhood kids to school in their big van. There was never a dull moment in that house!

    1. Margarita,

      Thanks for sharing your memories. So glad this post stirred up something happy from your past.