'For every profession in life there are procedures to follow.'
So begins mother of nine Jocelyn Owens' advice to young mothers today. When I contacted her asking for her to share a few thoughts regarding rasing such a big family, I expected a tale of woe but with a happy ending. I wanted a story about the immense struggles she overcame and how gratifying it has all been. Instead I am faced with something completely different. Jocelyn is clearly an immensely practical woman - she mostly shares useful procedures, hoping they will help new mothers learning the job of parenting: how to be calm, how to communicate effectively, with step-by-step instructions rather than vague undefined notions. Having nine children clearly limits the time you have for wishy-washy parenting advice.
But what really comes across, beyond Jocelyn's pragmatic manner, is her selflessness. She doesn't spend a second talking about the hardships she's undergone raising her family. I figure perhaps it was always her dream to have a big family, maybe it was such a joy for her ambition to be realised that she didn't mind the difficult parts. But when I ask her, she says 'I didn't ever desire a big family as I was growing up but I had always thought that if I had one I may as well have many.' As simple as that, 'I thought I may as well.'
She talks about the 'opportunity of necessity,' saying her children have all been able to develop selfless personalities in one way or another, because they had to. At breakfast, she explains, dad puts out all the cereals, and mum's job is to clear them away - while 'each person is responsible for placing their own dishes in the dishwasher.' I think of her daughter, the eldest of nine, who volunteers regularly and is always the first, not just to offer help but to see what task need doing, quietly getting on with it without being asked. Then I think of myself, wanting a round of applause if I go a whole week without falling behind on laundry.
These days many of us think of having a family of nine as an impossible feat. The few times I've encountered mothers expecting a fourth child, people's reaction tends to be 'you're brave!' and I've yet to meet someone expecting a fifth. But talking to Jocelyn got me thinking - do we have a skewed vision of what parenting ought to entail? How many families with two children can say their children are always responsible for putting their dishes away? How often do they help mum and dad or brother or sister out with day-to-day tasks? And how much more difficult is it to cultivate these healthy habits, these 'selfless personalities' without the opportunity of necessity? Does it become harder to answer the question 'why should I' when there's no real urgency to help one another, when there's no great shortage of time or resources in our home?
When I ask Jocelyn what eventually brought her to raise such a numerous family, she tells me, 'I thought that I would like to be someone who accepted life in a more radical way, in contrast to the world around me, that prized self-comfort rather than self-giving.' Her words stay with me for days and weeks.