Saturday 21 October 2017

'They call us the Brady Bunch' - Dublin's supermum on her hectic life with six children

Jamie Oliver says wife Jools would love a sixth baby. Would they cope? They could ask this Dublin supermum first

Handful: Debbie Harmon with her kids (from left) Jayden (2), Evan (11), Mason (4), Ellie (6), Lucy (8) and Alanna (15). Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Handful: Debbie Harmon with her kids (from left) Jayden (2), Evan (11), Mason (4), Ellie (6), Lucy (8) and Alanna (15). Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Jamie Oliver and his brood

Tanya Sweeney

He famously snapped up a 10-bedroom, three-kitchen home in leafy Hampstead a couple of years ago… and Jamie Oliver's wife appears hell-bent on filling it.

Evidently, Jools Oliver adores being pregnant (or picking out unusual baby names) because according to the chef, she's nowhere near done with expanding her brood.

The couple already have Poppy Honey Rosie (15) Daisy Boo Pamela (14); Petal Blossom Rainbow (8); Buddy Bear Maurice (6) and River Rocket Blue Dallas, who turned one earlier this month. And while Jools is raring to go when it comes to a potential baby number six, it appears Jamie is not overly enthused.

"It is a struggle with nappies all over the house and stair gates, we've got three sets of kids - we've got teenagers so that's revision, hormones, the whole thing," says Jamie.

Jamie Oliver and his brood
Jamie Oliver and his brood

"And they're girls, which is really hard and they're not interested in much I've got to offer. And then the others are six and eight and I'm pretty good at that. And then one is a baby and we're back to the beginning.

"I haven't got any more room in the car, so we'd have to buy a bus.

"But Jools would love me to say 'never say never'. She'd tell me not to rule it out."

If anyone can let them know about the ups and downs of having six children, it's Ballyfermot-based supermum Debbie Harmon.

Chaos: Debbie Harmon's Ballyfermot home is often filled with kids; her own six, and several of their friends.
Chaos: Debbie Harmon's Ballyfermot home is often filled with kids; her own six, and several of their friends. "When you cook for so many, one or two more don't make a difference."

At 21, and after suffering four miscarriages, Debbie gave birth to her first child Alanna (now 15). Five more children - Evan (11), Lucy (8), Ellie (6), Mason (4) and Jayden (2) - followed thereafter.

"A lot of people just call me The Brady Bunch," she smiles.

"Every time they see me I have a pram and some kids hanging off it.

"A lot of people tell me, 'I don't know how you cope with six, when I can barely deal with two'."

After she had Alanna, Debbie and her husband Joe said that they would put off having more children.

And after she gave birth to Mason without pain relief, she swore she would have no more children. Yet Debbie's love of pregnancy always won out in the end.

"I absolutely love it," she says. "I'm one of the lucky ones that glows. I'm always really healthy. In fact, I would have kept going if the Coombe hadn't told me that I couldn't have any more babies. After so many pregnancies [Debbie would endure two more miscarriages before Lucy was born], my stomach was a bit like a jumper that has been stretched too much."

From the outset, new motherhood, hard won though it was, didn't come easy.

"I'd been working for a pharmaceutical company before I had Alanna, and on a couple of occasions, the baby had stopped breathing and was put on a heart monitor," recalls Debbie (36). No crèche would take her so I had to give up work. And then," she adds with a smile, "all these kids ended up coming. And they're all blessings." In the thick of a hectic day, Debbie admits, it can feel like anything but.

"It does be hard, and I do be pulling my hair out with them sometimes," she says. "All you can ever hear in my house is 'Mam. Mam. Mam'. One spills a drink, the other wants a drink, another one falls off the chair. It's a miracle if I can ever talk on the phone.

"I don't get time to go to the hairdressers: in fact, a woman has to come to my place for that.

"Nothing comes easy," she adds. "People do ask, 'how can you cope with six?' but you just get on with it." Yet the chaos, Debbie says, suits her. "My house is always full with my kids and their friends," she explains. "All the other kids call me 'Mam' and I'm always feeding them. When you cook for so many, one or two doesn't make a difference."

Key to the smooth running of their Ballyfermot home, says Debbie, is a watertight regime. She does three loads of laundry a day ("I can't handle a basket of dirty washing lying around"), and has the pre-school routine down to the finest of arts.

"At night time, I get everyone's piles of clothes ready and, in the morning, I get everyone up for school," she explains. "Everyone sits down to breakfast while I make the lunches and then I say to one of the older ones to get the schoolbags.

"Alanna then gets off to the school beside me and I get everyone else into the car for school and the crèche. That's my time to clean the place, even though it gets upended in the day, then I start doing the collections at midday, 1.40pm and 2.40pm. When Alanna comes in at 4pm, I put on the dinners. The kids go to after-school clubs like swimming and horse riding. A few times a week, I throw the little ones into the bath.

"The funny thing is, I'm usually full of energy. It's only when I sit in the chair for a minute that I get tired. I'm better off not sitting down."

Chief among the main advantages of having a large brood is that each of Debbie's children is self-sufficient and sociable. "We were at swimming lessons a while ago and I watched how one mother was standing there, drying her son, helping him put talcum powder on. Mine were seven and drying themselves, laughing at the bigger kid."

Financially, having six children is expensive, but there are ways to make ends meet if you're smart, says Debbie.

Debbie's younger kids have long benefited from their older siblings' clothes, cots and buggies. Her older children, meanwhile, have acquired a taste for the finer things in life. Aside from that, the weekly shop for the family of 8 is around €230 a week. "They have to have the best on them, designer stuff," says Debbie of her teenagers. "Alanna's schoolbag was €70 this year, and Evan's was €75."

Last week, Debbie gave away Jayden's cot: the first time in 15 years there hasn't been a cot in the house. Certain that Jayden will be her youngest, she has also started looking at local training courses, with a view of working with the elderly in a caring capacity. "They will all be in crèche or school from September onwards," says Debbie. "I was even thinking, 'maybe I'll join a gym'. I'm dying to get out and mix with people again."

In the meantime, Debbie has some steadfast advice for the Olivers, or anyone with a brood of six in their crosshairs: "Never give the kids too much," she says. "It just makes them greedy. I'd give them jobs around the house and make sure they contribute. I wish I'd thought of it years ago… mine wouldn't lift the hoover for you."

Irish Independent

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