New Zealanders like to think of their country as a great place to bring up children. It is, with a nice climate, plenty of green spaces and comparatively good health, education and welfare systems for starters. And if you were looking for a vote of confidence in the place you could hardly go past Sam and Jane McAllister who have raised no less than 14 children in a pleasant part of Auckland where suburbia blends with bush-clad hills.
Now barely into their fifties but with most of their children grown up, the couple preside over a clan which includes several in-laws and 12 grandchildren, with two more on the way. All are within easy visiting distance.
Christmas, I observe in a conversation with Jane, must be quite a production at her house. “It’s huge,” she says calmly. “At normal times we only need to have half the family around for dinner and it’s like, huge. I have to think hard about who is actually missing. But I think it’s lovely. There is always someone you can get on with — they all do get on — and if you are not in the conversation at any point it doesn’t matter because there are always so many to keep it going.”
Passionate about babies
Born in the 1950s, Jane and Sam are dramatic exceptions to the baby boom generation who, having swelled New Zealand’s birth rate to over four children per woman, generally declined to follow their parents’ example and led the downhill trend to just two today. Jane was a mere 16 when she married Sam, who was 18, and they did not delay having their first child. It’s enough to give the family planning brigade nightmares. Jane’s parents were not terribly thrilled, either, about the early marriage and they tended to worry about the children coming every year or two.
But Jane, one of only two children, simply loved babies. It started when she was a pre-schooler hanging around her mother as she did hair cutting at home, and longing for the turn of the Karitane nurse (a branch of the profession dedicated to mother and infant care) who would always be accompanied by a baby. “I think that’s where my love of babies, my absolute passion for babies came from.”
She also loved home-making and always found time for sewing, hand embroidery and other interests. “It all just suited me down to the ground.”
With the optimism of youth, she took each pregnancy in her stride. “I wouldn’t say I thought about the consequences at all,” Jane reflects, “apart from occasionally thinking, ‘Far out, that’s going to be seven kids, or eight kids — gosh that’s a lot!’”
Sam was happy to go along with his wife’s instincts — “very tolerant”, is how Jane describes him, and yes, very helpful on the domestic front. Having lost his own father at a young age, he liked the security of a well-populated home. Jane’s parents helped them to buy their first home and also helped “enormously” with the children, and relaxed as they saw the young couple coping well with their expanding family.
Couples with such an exceptional openness to children and the sacrifices it entails are often religiously motivated, but that is not the case with the McAllisters. They were very clear, however, about what raising children involved. “Our aim was to bring up children with good morals, high standards of behaviour and respect for other people,” says Jane. “We were committed to each other and very dedicated to the children and we’ve certainly brought up very well-mannered, very caring children, very caring males.” “They are very good to their wives,” daughter Emma chips in.
All that, and a business too
One of the things Jane imbibed from her own upbringing was the entrepreneurial spirit of her father, a successful businessman. At a certain point, then, it was natural for her to look at the sewing she had always done for her family as a business opportunity. And, with the help of her husband (who continued his own work as a legal agent) and her older children, that is exactly what it became.
In 1992 she launched her Dimples baby wear label and after a few years began exporting the high-quality garments with their trademark hand-embroidered bee and other distinctive motifs. The Dimples brand is now sold in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, France, Australia and the United States. A deal was secured with Harrods, the exclusive London-based retailer in 2006.
It is a family business in every sense of the word, with major involvement by the eldest daughter Felicity and at least three other adult children, but help from others as the need arises. It is run from the family home where professional tasks and child care are shared and interwoven in a marvellous way. (All but one of the beautiful babies/toddlers in the stylish Dimples catalogue is a McAllister grandchild.) There is also a shop in the city which currently is managed by Jane’s 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth at the weekends. Sam gave up his city office and now works from home too, which makes everything easier.
Everyone pitches in
All the same, how did she — how does she — do it?
“You know the saying, if you want something done, ask a busy person,” says Jane. She admits that at the peak of child-rearing demands, when she had probably nine children needing attention, her life was very, very busy. “I’d be cutting clothes for the business with a baby on my hip, rushing off to feed a toddler, there was never any time to spare. But the older ones pitched in; they would bath the little ones when I was cooking dinner, stir a pot while I did something else. They all learned to pull their weight, the older ones especially.”
She wonders whether the children of small families have too much done for them, and whether that is why today’s young women often find it so hard to cope with motherhood and running a home, even when they are not also trying to maintain a career.
“Perhaps they never learned to be self-motivated and to cope with the demands of life. I always feel I’ve succeeded when my children can do things for themselves, remember things, cook themselves something and not come to me for everything. For instance, I stop making school lunches when they reach intermediate (middle) school; they make their own. They have to learn to take care of some of their needs. We all help each other now, so it’s a two-way street. I don’t think anyone’s ever been slave-driven.”
They must have missed out on something…
Have the children missed out on anything — one-to-one time with their parents, for example?
“I always tried to give each of them some time. Perhaps I could have given more, but there was always some member of the family they could go to if they needed something, and they only had to say, ‘Mum, I need you,’ and I’d flick off everything else and give them my undivided attention. Perhaps I was more available to them than some mothers are to their smaller families because my main career was mothering. Do the mothers of small families give their children more individual attention, I wonder, or do they just get busy with something else?
“I think our children have gained more than they lost. They’ve developed great friendships within the family — not always with the one closest in age, either. Our eldest gets on with everyone, but then I think he has felt he has to be the one that sets the example, who upholds the good standard. It’s been good for their characters. They are very united and quite protective of one another, to an extent that is, perhaps, a bit overwhelming for in-laws at first.
“I think that they have all enjoyed the family life. Oh, there was one, my second eldest, who used to say he wished he was an only child — and perhaps he is less involved today than the others. But it takes all sorts. Some of them left home around 18 or so to get away from all this, but, funnily enough, they came back; they found it very lonely out there. In any case they always kept in touch.”
No regrets, only nostalgia
Jane is very content with her life.
“I’ve never felt I was missing out on anything. I’ve really loved what I’ve done and I am sometimes even a little sad to think those early days are gone. I fitted a lot into my life when the children were small… I always had other interests and managed my time so that I had an hour to myself in the afternoon when I could sew, embroider or read a book. It was very nice.
“Then the business became another big interest and one that has been really fulfilling. I would never have been satisfied with just doing the mother thing; I needed something else and this fitted in perfectly with the children.”
She is not bothered that none of her children are likely to embrace the large-family model; in fact, she wouldn’t advise them to. She certainly would not want any of them married in their teens. The greater risk now, of course, is a mismatch between childbearing and marriage, with one or the other delayed and complications arising. It happens in the best of families.
For her part, Jane believes that the old order of marriage, then sex, then children is the best for everyone involved. Anything else complicates life — sometimes seriously. It’s all about commitment, she says. “When you are married you do put more into it and that sees you through the ups and downs. And you do have the children to consider.”
After 34 years of marriage and 14 children you have to concede that this Kiwi mum knows what she is talking about.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.