A closer look at big families

Parents of big families are used to getting all kinds of comments. But what is it really like to raise three or more kids? Couples reveal the remarks they hear most often and discuss the ups and downs of having a full household.


The joys and challenges of having a big family

Parents of big families are used to getting all kinds of comments. But what is it really like to raise three or more kids? Couples reveal the remarks they hear most often and discuss the ups and downs of having a full household.

By Nathalie Côté

Parents of big families are used to getting all kinds of comments. But what is it really like to raise three or more kids? Couples reveal the remarks they hear most often and discuss the ups and downs of having a full household.

“Your life must be pretty busy!”

It’s true: the parents we interviewed all agreed that the house is never quiet when you’ve got three or four kids! In their eyes, however, that’s nothing to complain about. “It’s boring when things are too quiet,” says Véronique GrégoireLacombe, mom to a six-month-old, two-year-old, and three-year-old. Philippe Gendron, whose kids are aged six months, three, five, and seven, holds a similar view: “We’re an active bunch, so we don’t mind.”

Of course, as with any family, it’s not always smooth sailing. “Come evening, both our girls are tired, so they tend to bicker more,” says Véronique. The silver lining, however, is that arguing helps children learn to resolve conflicts. “Often all we have to do is give them a nudge in the right direction for our kids to work out their differences,” says Philippe.

Several parents also noted that their kids are developing a strong sibling bond. “The three oldest ones are really close,” says Sonia Vallée, Philippe’s wife. In concrete terms, they enjoy playing with one another and help each other out when needed.

Still, there’s no denying that having a big family can be a challenge. Landlords, for instance, are sometimes reluctant to rent to families with more than two kids because they are worried about getting noise complaints from the neighbours. “We came across that quite a few times,” recalls Yves Fouometio, who is originally from Cameroon. Fouometio moved to Quebec five months ago with his wife, Christiane, and their four kids, aged one, four, nine, and eleven. “It took us a month to find a place to live.”

“I don’t know how you do it!”

With a big family, divvying up chores and getting help from friends and relatives is essential to getting everything done. “We all pitch in by doing the chores we like most,” explains Véronique. “For example, I like folding the laundry in front of the TV. It’s relaxing. We also try to get the kids to be more independent, and we encourage them to pick up after themselves.” That includes having her kids put away their toys and help set and clear the table.

“There are certain chores, like preparing meals, that take the same amount of time regardless of how many kids you have,” says Christiane. “You also slowly get used to having to make more,” notes Véronique. “We didn’t have all of our kids at once!”

Another way to reduce stress is to cut yourself some slack when it comes to chores and other responsibilities. “You have to accept that you won’t get as much done,” says Sonia. “It’s important to appreciate all the positives to get from one day to the next.”

Of course, you’re bound to run out of steam now and again. “We have a sign at the entrance to the house: ‘Exhausted parents, happy kids,’” says Philippe, laughing. “The trickiest part is finding time for your spouse. Once a year, my mom comes to watch the kids for a week so that my wife and I can spend time alone.” The two have planned a little getaway this year, though with Sonia still breastfeeding, their youngest will be along for the trip.

Family can indeed be a great source of support, but they are not always close by. “In Cameroon, we had cousins, aunts, grandmothers we could turn to,” says Yves. “It’s different here; we have no family and are just starting to build a support system.” Sonia, on the other hand, is fortunate enough to have her parents nearby. They live next door in an intergenerational home. “It’s not that often that they look after the kids, but they’re always there if we need a hand,” she says.

Blended families account for 19 percent of all families with three or more children.

Is it still possible to have a social life when you have a large family? The answer appears be a resounding yes! “Most of our friends are also parents, so they understand and it’s not an issue,” says Sonia. “But if we’re coming over, get ready to pull out the table extender!” Benoît Dussault explained that friends and family come over to watch the kids so that he and his wife, Véronique, can get out of the house. “But we sometimes have to take turns going out to see our friends,” he notes.

“How do you make time for everyone?”

In a family that is growing fast, it can seem like a challenge to give attention to every child. “I try to find moments where I spend time with all of my kids,” says Sonia. “I’ll organize games that we all play together, for example.” In Christiane’s view, “Every child has different needs. The key is adapting to each child rather than trying a one-size-fits-all approach.” Despite not always having a chance to spend quality time with each of their kids, the parents we spoke with don’t feel their children lack attention.

As a matter of fact, the biggest advantage to having a large family is that the kids always have someone to play with. “Plus, the younger ones are learning to talk and do all kinds of things earlier,” says Christiane. Philippe agrees: “My youngest daughter just started kindergarten. She already knows the alphabet and how to write because she plays school with our eldest,” he explains.

Another bonus is that the kids become very resourceful. “If one of our girls sees that I’m busy, she’ll ask her sisters for help or just find a solution on her own,” says Sonia.

“How do you afford it all?”

Yes, having a big family is more expensive. But four kids don’t amount to four times the cost! “We have our workarounds,” says Christiane Fouometio. “For instance, things get passed down from the older kids to the youngest.”

“Child benefits from the government are helpful too,” notes Philippe. He and his wife, Sonia, both have jobs, but they keep an eye on their spending. “We shop at secondhand stores and do clothing swaps with other parents, plus the girls share their toys and my wife does a lot of cooking,” he adds. “It’s toughest having to cut back on trips and paid activities.”

Immigrant families tend to be larger, with one in four comprising three or more children.

The family car, however, is one expense that is hard to avoid. “We’re still managing with the car we have now,” says Benoît, “but if we have a fourth child, we’ll have to get a seven-seater.” The house needs to be big enough for everyone too. “Our son has his own room, but the girls share a room. They’re still too young to sleep in the basement,” says Véronique. “If we decide to have a fourth kid, we’ll have to think about moving somewhere bigger.”

At the time of our interview, the Fouometios were looking for work. Naturally, their budget is a little tighter. The couple is hoping that one of them will be able to work fulltime while the other works parttime; that would allow them to look after their family’s needs as well as buy a car!

Two adults, two kids
In some respects, today’s society is not well adapted to the needs of large families. Sonia Vallée, mother of four, speaks from experience. “Family packages are often for two adults and two kids,” she explains. “At restaurants, most tables are meant to seat four. As for hotels, a standard room consists of two double beds.” Véronique GrégoireLacombe, who has three children, feels the same. “More people would need to start having more kids to reverse the trend and show that there’s a demand for deals meant for big families,” she says.

Hopes vs. reality

While you might happen to know several families with three or four children, large families are statistically quite rare. Those with three or more kids make up only 15 percent of all families in Quebec.

And yet, people often start out thinking they want more kids than they wind up having. In 2011, 32 percent of women in Quebec claimed that they wanted at least three children.

The discrepancy between how many children people want and how many they actually have may be related to household chores. After having their first or second child, parents realize how much work it takes to raise a family, in addition to holding down a job. “If the mom is taking on more chores than her partner, that can also affect whether she wants to have more kids,” says Laurence Charton, a researcher at the National Institute of Scientific Research.

The challenge of balancing work and family life can also lead parents to stop at one or two children. “I work as a nurse and have flexible hours, and my husband is selfemployed. That makes things easier,” says Sonia Vallée, mother of four. “When I think about big families where both parents work nine-to-five jobs, I don’t know how they do it!”

The times, they are a-changin’ . . .

The reality is, a lot has changed over the past century. In early1900s Quebec, large households were the norm. Families were encouraged—notably by the Church—to have children; one in five families had over 10 kids! Gradually, however, that number diminished. The period between 1970 and 1995 is of particular note, as women who became mothers during this time ultimately had the fewest children. “This was the generation that was confronted with divorce, the pill, and the economic crisis just as they were entering the job market,” explains Chantal Girard, a demographer at the Institut de la statistique du Québec. “These women were around 30 years old by the late 1980s. It wasn’t an easy time.” The result? More women chose not to have children, and those who did chose not to have as many.

It was slightly more common among women of the next generation to have three or more children. “This probably had something to do with the rebounding economy,” says Girard. A more manageable worklife balance, made possible by the introduction of subsidized childcare services, may also have been a factor. “As far as I know, there are no studies to prove this,” notes Girard, “but we can assume there’s a connection.”

Indigenous families
Big families are more prevalent among First Nations and Inuit communities. In Quebec, 26 percent of Indigenous families have three or more children, compared to 15 percent of nonIndigenous households. The primarily Indigenous Nord-du-Québec region boasts the highest proportion of big families, which account for 34 percent of all households. “It’s very much a part of their culture,” explains sociologist Laurence Charton. In Indigenous communities, family is a matter of societal preference. As a result, Indigenous children are twice as likely as nonIndigenous children to live with at least one grandparent.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, April 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Côté
Scientific review: Claudine Parent, Professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology, Université Laval


Photos : Maxim Morin