The Perrottet family

Thriving and Surviving Raising Thirteen
by Anne Perrottet
Connor Court Publishing, 2022

As the mother of eight, largely grown-up children, I have read a fair share of books on family life and parenting. Though I have gained something from all of them, the “how to” variety tend to leave me feeling inadequate. Oh dear, this is what a perfect family looks like, I tell myself. This is what I should have done, but it’s too late for me.

So, I was a bit wary approaching Anne Perrottet’s book about raising 13 children. To live to write about it the woman must be a marvel, I thought, and I’ll be put to shame again. But Thriving and Surviving Raising Thirteen is not like that at all.

It’s short (100 pages) and light in tone, taking themes from family life and treating them as adventures of discovery rather than lessons in parenting. These are the different escapades we had, Anne tells us, and the scrapes my children got into. It’s more The Famous Five than Fifty Tips for Fainthearted Parents.

Which is not to say that life in this growing Sydney family was all fun. You laugh with them, but also feel their anxieties when faced with real challenges, such as another pregnancy when finances are very tight; mistakes – mum losing her temper and throwing son’s PlayStation into the swimming pool; heartbreaks – the stillbirth of an anencephalic baby; a hike that turned life-threatening…

When she takes all the other kids to school in the van and forgets the baby; when a four-year-old knocks off the contents of two half-glasses of wine he finds on the window ledge and has to have his stomach pumped out; when another boy nearly kills himself trying to win a cross-country run – I feel all her guilt, fear and helplessness: Why wasn’t I there? Why didn’t someone warn me about this? Will these kids make it to adulthood?

And I feel her fury when, coming home after an early morning appointment, she finds the kids gone to school and the house in a complete mess. When she phones the school and says she is coming to collect her six sons so they can do their chores, I think, Yes! I could (almost) have done that. (The school convinced her that one boy would be enough.)

Through these and many less dramatic examples, subtle lessons about raising happy and virtuous kids do emerge, but in a natural way, with refreshing candour and heaps of humour, complemented by charming illustrations by Jen Charlton.

Copyright. Jen Charlton

Anne and John Perrottet started their family in the 1980s when, arguably, the social environment was a little more family friendly than today’s. Post-smartphone, kids overdoing the PlayStation would be the least of a parent’s worries about technology.

The pressure for a second income is also much greater in the 2000s, raising the question of what Raising Thirteen has to say to couples aspiring to a generous family life today.

For myself, starting a family in the 1990s and moving countries (from the Philippines to New Zealand) has meant giving up my early dream of Little House on the Prairie-style motherhood. The vision of myself as a serene, stay-at-home mum had to give way to the reality of living with the financial challenges and chaos which eventually led to my taking on paid work.

For parents facing a similar, or any challenging reality, Anne’s message is clear: the spirit of cheerful sacrifice that comes with family unity – based, in this case, on a shared faith – brings resilience, the hope that things will work out in the end.

One might think that middleclass Australians like the Perrottets were just lucky in their own birth family backgrounds, and this helped them succeed in their own family life. The truth is that Anne was unlucky in a very contemporary way; her parents divorced when she was still at school and it made her unhappy. It was a school friend with 13 siblings who sowed the dream of a large, happy family in her. I think this gives hope to today’s young families: your background doesn’t have to define you.

I imagine people will pick up this little book out of curiosity and find it a fun read, but then they will begin to see that it’s possible to have a strong, happy family life with more children – certainly more than the current average, which is less than two in Australia, New Zealand and other developed countries – and what a blessing it actually is.

Responsible parents with good support systems, such as the Perottet’s Catholic faith, and backed by good schools, can buck the trend and give their children the gift of brothers and sisters who become their first friends.

These children also learn to value the work of the home, both boys and girls learning to look after their younger siblings and help with the housework. If we want equality in the work of the home, it needs to start in its natural setting. The Perrottet kids surely lived this.

Some years ago, a world leader remarked that educated women don’t have big families. Anne is a perfect example of how far from the truth his opinion is. She has degrees in Education, Psychology, Community Welfare and Counselling, is currently completing a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and runs her own private counselling practice.

And she needed all her intelligence, training and organisational skills to manage her household professionally, plus give each child personal attention, coach sports teams and help with school functions. One year, she and John organised the senior formal for her daughter’s school and hosted the pre-event drinks, during which he had a heart attack and was taken to hospital – while the party went on.

Frankly, I’m awed at what this mother achieved. Hats off to her. She has clearly shown that this work of raising children is a profession of equal, if not greater importance and dignity compared with any other.

Perhaps, after all, I should end this review with a practical tip from the author’s repertoire.

As the family grew, mealtimes threatened to become a nightmare. While Anne was serving there needed to be a focus at the table, especially when John was not there to regale them with stories from the classics or of exotic destinations he visited during his work for the World Bank.

Knowing her kids’ competitive spirit she hit upon the idea of general knowledge quizzes between courses, and, as they grew older, discussions sparked by one of the children choosing an article on current affairs or sports from the newspaper and presenting it to the others. Somehow they managed to eat as well.

This could be why they have a politician – Dominic is the premier of New South Wales – and a lawyer-journalist in the family, as well as many instances of generous service by the other children that I am aware of, some of them mentioned in the book.

In any case, it shows that even a very large, very busy family can be outward looking and learn to see world events in the light of the family’s values.

Read this book, and enjoy seeing those values at work.

Dina Ceniza is a wife and a mother of eight living in Auckland, New Zealand. She has a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science) and a Master of Education. She worked as a teacher and Assistant Principal...