Primary school teacher and author Geraldine Meade from Furbo, Co Galway is facing the daunting task of home-schooling her large family – but, she says, with a bit of planning she still makes time for herself
“I grew up on a farm in Laois. There were nine kids in the family and I was slap-bang in the middle.
My parents lived from milk cheque to milk cheque but we never wanted for anything. We all worked on the farm and played with each other all the time. It was a pretty amazing upbringing and I think it’s one of the reasons why I chose to have a large family too.
My husband Johnny and I met in our early twenties and we were together for a good few years before we started a family. I knew I wanted a few kids and I knew I wanted them close together in age. Johnny was very much of the same mindset.
Having eight children — five boys and three girls — wasn’t a hugely conscious decision for us. We never sat down and said, ‘this is what we want and this is how we’re going to do it’.
In fact, after the birth of our first child, Aébfhinn (17), I thought, ‘maybe I don’t want a large family’. The pregnancy went really well and the delivery was only 30 or 40 minutes, but afterwards I thought, OK, I’m never doing that again!
But then mother nature helps you forget these things, and it was going so well, and the kids were getting on so well together and we were enjoying it so much.
The kids range in age from six to 17. The four oldest are the ‘biggies’ and the four younger ones are the ‘littlies’, although now it’s Caoimhe (11) and the three littlies. In a big family, the older kids learn to help out with the younger ones. It teaches them about empathy, caring for others and the impact of their actions.
There are lots of arguments, of course, and I always say Johnny and I would make the best mediators. But what we’re trying to teach them all the time is that you have to be self-aware. You have to be aware of how your actions and your mood is impacting somebody else, and you have to take responsibility for your actions.
We also want them to be conscientious. I like the idea of pocket money but I want to teach our kids that they have a responsibility to do work in the house without having to pay them for it.
Everybody does a job in the morning, whether it’s sweeping the floor or wiping down a table. In the evening, one of the kids will be on dinner duty, either by themselves or with me. Cormac (16) does a mean curry. Dylan (14) does spaghetti Bolognese. If they do dinner, then they’re off duty for the rest of the night and they don’t have to do any clean up.
Maybe I should be giving them pocket money but I think it’s important for them to know they are part of a family. I can’t do it all. Johnny can’t do it all. Everybody has to dig in and do their bit.
We go through a lot of food — easily 10 to 12 eggs a day or four packets of chicken if we’re making a curry. We don’t really buy biscuits or confectionery. One biscuit turns into half a pack and then half a pack is gone — and it adds up to a lot of money.
Instead, I buy all the essentials and if somebody wants a treat, they have to bake it.
When we had Caoilfhionn (6), we realised that we’d have to take two cars if the whole family was going somewhere. I knew from a cost and an environmental point of view that that was never going to work so I got a bus licence. It means all 10 of us can travel in a Mercedes Vito bus — and we get to use the bus lanes too!
We always have to ask ourselves ‘Do we really need this?’ I took a few years off for the younger kids and we were living entirely on Johnny’s salary. That was a huge responsibility for him and a lot on his shoulders.
Now myself and Johnny work full-time and we work really hard. Johnny is the Head of Consumer Health for a pharmaceutical company and I teach in a local school.
The next few weeks are going to be a whopper. I’m teaching 32 kids online and I have my own eight kids here. I also work with Cula 4 Ar Scoil and I write in my spare-time.
I’ll keep all the kids in the same room for home-schooling because you need to be able to micro-manage them, and you need to know if they’re on task.
At the same time, I’m not overly regimented. I don’t say, ‘Right, we do 10 minutes of this and 10 minutes of that’. If kids are enjoying what they’re doing then leave them at it.
A lot of people think a school day is sitting at a desk for five hours but your kid is still learning if they’re outside playing. They’re still learning if they’re out in nature and looking at the environment. They’re still learning if they’re playing an instrument.
All of the kids play an instrument. When they were five or six years old, we started them on the tin whistle. And then, after a year, they picked an instrument.
Aébfhinn plays the fiddle. Cormac plays the flute. Dylan and Fionn (14 and 13) started on the mandolin and then went on to the banjo. Caoimhe plays the concertina. Fiachra (10) plays the accordion and he just got a keyboard for Christmas. Cuán and Caoilfhionn are still on the tin whistle. Cuán is veering towards the fiddle but he’s after getting a digital drum kit for Christmas and Caoilfhionn is talking about the harp.
Creativity is important to us and writing is a huge part of my life. My debut novel, Flick, was shortlisted for Literacy Association of Ireland Awards in 2013… it definitely needs a sibling soon. When the kids were small, I’d wait until they were gone to bed and then I’d start. It’s taken me a long time to realise that I’m usually wrecked at that point.
So now I get up at 5.30am and I love it. I get a good hour of writing to myself. Then Johnny gets up a little later and we go out for a jog. It makes us feel like we’ve achieved something because sometimes, with kids, you can get to the end of the day and think, what have I actually done today?
Johnny has his space too — he loves fishing, golfing and rugby. We’ve learned over the years to give each other those chances.
Still, it’s pretty busy. We don’t get on a lot of holidays and we haven’t gone abroad in a long time. I barely watch TV or read magazines. I suppose we’ve made choices, but we’re glad about the choices we’ve made. It’s really hard work but I wouldn’t change it for a second.”