Debbie Kelleher has spent seven and a half years of her life pregnant.
Debbie herself came from a family of five children. Her husband, Dennis, was one of eleven. They never discussed how many children they would have, and certainly never settled on the magical number of 10.
At 28, Debbie gave birth to her first child, Becky.
Next came Darcy. Then Abbey. Then Jack, Harry, Meg, Stacey, Brittany, Eliza and Lilly.
Over the course of 11 years, Debbie had become a mum to 10 children.
When I asked Debbie why she decided to stop at 10, she jokingly replied “Well…I don’t like odd numbers.”
My overwhelming question, which I asked approximately 12 times throughout the interview, was “BUT HOW!?” She laughed and insisted “…well, you just do.” Luckily, my questions became slightly more specific. I wanted to know about laundry. And cooking. And clothes. And weekend sport. And the fights. And her sanity. Indeed, Debbie appears to be an oddly sane mother of 10.
I was interested in how Debbie was able to attend to the needs of a newborn baby, while having so many other kids of varying ages to take care of. She explained that they were constantly stimulated by the noise and movement in a busy house; “The baby slept in the family room and whoever walked past would give them a toy or something to play with. That’s why they’re all such good sleepers!” Years later, the Kelleher kids possess the remarkable ability to sleep just about anywhere.
"Whoever walked past would give them a toy or something to play with." Image via iStock.
In terms of entertaining the children as they grew up, she reflected, "they were pretty easy kids". They would run off to the park for the day, or disappear on their bikes.
She laughed that the beauty of having so many, was that they could make up two armies.
On the subject of arguments, she said, "Oh they went through stages, someone would say 'I don't like them', but they always had someone else to play with. It wasn't nearly as severe as when you only had 2 or 3 kids. You always have someone."
Having a (literal) army of kids to play with meant that "they were never ever bored". The Kelleher's backyard always had a few rabbits, birds, a cat and a dog.
I asked Debbie about the concept of 'Me-time', assuming she had given up on it long ago. But she found moments between the busyness, reflecting, "You can always sit and have a cup of tea while they're playing."
Debbie also made sure she got up at 5am, almost everyday, and went for a swim. Sometimes she would go on her own before any of the children woke up. Other times she would take a few of the younger kids with her, and they would play in aquatic center while she swam laps.
As the kids grew up, all of them played sport. Most of them played multiple sports, from early morning swimming, to touch football, to soccer, to netball. Debbie not only encouraged their participation, but stood on the sideline. She took me through a typical afternoon with all the kids' training.
When they were all at school winter afternoons were the worst 'cause as you know they all played sport. So you just dropped them at different grounds for training, and then went past home to put dinner on....and then tell whoever was home when to turn it off...then negotiate the traffic for pick up from training. It was a bit like planning a military operation making it back to all the grounds on time. The girls would wait in a certain spot, and would do a kamikaze roll as I slowed down.
So, how does a mother of 10 even get her kids from place to place? Is there a car big enough?
Yes, well, Debbie drove a 14 seat mini bus.
10 parenting milestones that deserve a party with Those Two Girls. Post continues below.
As the kids made their way through school, they took on more responsibility around the house. They each had different coloured towels (I struggle to even think of 10 different colours) so that they would each look after their own.
As soon as they were old enough, Debbie insisted that they do their own laundry. They knew that if they didn't do it, they'd simply have to go to school with an unwashed uniform - and unsurprisingly they learnt pretty quickly. Every now and then Debbie would peer outside to an overflowing washing line and say within earshot of a few kids "well...looks like rain", before shrugging her shoulders and walking back inside.
I asked Debbie how she managed to acknowledge and foster all the kids' differences. She said "They were all brought up the same, but personalities are born in you."
She accepted each child on their own terms, and when it came to high school, she carefully considered what school would be the best for each of them. She sent one boy to a big high school with an emphasis on sport. The next boy, she explained "...needed the smaller school. He wasn't as sporty. He was a different sort of kid." That meant that the kids were spread across four different high schools.
When the youngest started preschool, Debbie started working one or two night duties a week. She then went to University and studied to be a registered nurse. She then moved into midwifery and began working full time. During the week, she would often get up at 4am just to catch up on folding the washing. After night shifts, she would go home and get the kids off to school, then sleep a few hours, before trying to get housework and cooking done in the afternoon.
The Kelleher's house was always full of food. Debbie would go to the fruit markets early on the weekend to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. After a big grocery shop, Debbie's shopping receipt appeared meters long. She would cook big servings of spaghetti bolognese, with enough for any friends of the kids' who might drop in.
I couldn't help but ask - how on earth does a family of 12 afford to live in Sydney? One of the most expensive cities in the world? Simply, they never considered living anywhere else. Debbie was clear that "they were never rich" but they made ends meet. They were given lots and lots of hand-me-downs from friends and family.
Their house went from a four bedroom, one storey house, to a two storey house, with two bedrooms built out the back. As Debbie said, "we adapted".
Now, their youngest child Lilly is nearly finished school. With most of the kids grown up, in recent years Debbie has done a great of travel.
She says it's also pretty useful having 2 plumbers, an electrician, a nurse, a paramedic and a counselor. She adds with a laugh "and I'm hoping the others marry someone useful!"
From speaking to Debbie, I think I uncovered the secret to surviving motherhood tens times over.
It requires a really, really good sense of humour.