Monday, July 8, 2013

On the expansion of clans

I am the eldest of the cousins on my Dad's side; all told, my Dad and his three siblings had 12 children, who now range in age from myself at 40 down to my youngest cousin, who's 19. There are four of us bunched up together at the start of the birth order, myself and my late brother and two female cousins who are all within 3 years of each other. Then there's a bulge of boys, 6 of them all up, about 7-10 years younger than me, and the clan is tailed by two more female cousins who are a fair bit younger again.

Of this coterie, I was the first married by a long margin (the next wedding after mine was 7 years later); I had my three children at ages 30, 32 and 35.5, at a time when it seemed like I was going to be not only a trailblazer but possibly a lone ranger. No one else, including the close-age married cousins, showed any inclination to childbearing. So my girls, who were never realistically going to have close-aged first cousins (given that my surviving brother is 7 years my junior) were also looking unlikely to have close-age second cousins.

However, this trend was reversed with the birth of one of my close-age cousins' daughter, 3 years ago next month (she's 18 months younger than my youngest, C). As is often the way, a trickle has turned into a modest flood - as well as the soon-to-be-Miss 3, there is a Mr 2 (son of one of my Perth cousins), a Miss 14 months (daughter of my closest-age cousin, who's only 9 months my junior) and a brand new little boy, a brother to Miss 3. And I just heard from my Mum that at Christmastime there is going to be another new baby - my cousin who was married last year is expecting a child with his wife in December.

I wonder if our pattern is somewhat typical of changing family expansion these days, size and all. With the one anomaly of my Perth cousin, who was 27 when his son was born, we've all been in our 30s when beginning families, as compared with our parents, who were all in their 20s when having us.

We've all had sizeable gaps between marrying and reproducing, on average 5 years, whereas all of our parents had their firstborns within 2 years of marriage (in all but one case, within 18 months).

My Grandma (Dad's Mum) was one of three children, but was raised by her own grandparents in amongst their family of 9. My Dad, her second son, was one of a family of four. While each of my Dad and his siblings had 3 children, and at least two of them would have had more if medical circumstances had not precluded it, in my generation I am the only three-child parent (this, of course, may change, but of the 4 cousins who are thus far parents, all have expressed firm committments to stopping at one or two children. With the younger ones, who can say?)

For me, more than three children was not an option - 3 caesarean sections is all that one body should be asked to endure in a lifetime, and I would be frightened to go through another year like the one I had after the anesthetic accident at C's delivery. I am more than happy to be at this point where I can focus on parenting a preteen, an 8 year old and a preschooler (although I will admit to being a little melancholy at the idea that C will be a school kid next year). Especially as I am going back into fulltime work, another pregnancy now would devastate me - both of us, I think. So it's lucky that this will not happen, really!

I do think that I *think* about it - family planning, pregnancy, birth, childrearing - differently to how my parents and their siblings did. (I intentionally did not get into the family tree on my Mum's side - she of the 5 siblings with 20 combined offspring ...)  I get the sense, from listening to my Mum and aunties talk, that childbearing was not necessarily less intentional, but perhaps seen as less discretionary - if you could, you did, and that was that, for women and men of their background and interests, anyway. The painstaking planning that so many members of my own generation put into timing and number of children didn't seem as prevalent for them.

I am, of course, mindful of the privileges that my parents and my aunts and uncles had - they are all married, heterosexual, reasonably able bodied, fertile, white and Australian born. My Dad and his siblings were also from a well off home and had private school educations (my Mum's background is very different, and could fairly be described as wandering between  "working class" and "working poor"). Just as they were privileged, so too are we their children - we may have varying levels of financial stability and careers, but none of us are disadvantaged in any meaningful way.

I note this just to say that I am not trying to universalise our family's story or make sweeping sociological generalisations based on such a small sample. I do think it's an interesting vignette though, to observe how one particular family's approach has changed within three or four generations.

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