When people discover that Mark and Sandra De Hoogh have ten children, their reactions are varied. “Wow! You look so young!” “Are you Catholic?” “Don’t you have a TV?” or the most common “Have you worked out what’s causing it yet?”
With the characteristic sense of humour required to raise a large family, Sandra’s serene response is “Yeah, we have and I’m surprised you’ve given it up!”
Mark and Sandra have been married for 21 years, and have ten gorgeous children together. Eldest daughter Ashley is almost 19, Rowena 17, Jordan 15, Caleb 13, Naomi 11, Isaac 9, Gabrielle 7, Timothy 5, Brayden 3 and baby Kyler is 18 mths. The family live on a property outside of Dungog, and the kids are home-schooled. If that sounds incredibly saint-like and overwhelming, Sandra is quick to dispel any myths of super-mothering powers.
“I don’t want people to put me on a pedestal because I’ll just fall straight off it. But it is possible to have a bigger family than society says is ‘normal’. Breeding is easy. It’s the life you live after you have a family where the challenges are.”
Sandra says the biggest challenge of having such a large family is the realness and transparency. “There’s no-where to hide or pretend in a big family. I can’t be a hypocrite, or the wheels just fall off, and ‘if Mum ain’t happy, nobody’s happy’. A big part of it is being not too proud to admit that you don’t know what the heck you are doing sometimes.”
But the hardest thing is also the best reward. The family have a terrific ready-made community when someone needs a shoulder to cry on, someone to talk to or play with. “In a smaller family, if someone is busy, you might not be able to find the right time to be able to talk to somebody, but in a big family, there’s always someone available.”
Having ten children is something most people baulk at, but Mark and Sandra have been intentional about growing a large family. “We never found a good reason to stop. It’s not that we just love kids, although we do, but we love people. We just want to do life with our kids.”
And the De Hooghs hang out a lot. After some negative school experiences, the family decided that home-schooling was a better fit for them. Accidentally, they discovered that they enjoy learning together, and although the door has always been open for the kids to attend school, so far they have all chosen to be educated at home.
There are no school lunches to prepare in the morning, but feeding a family of twelve requires some planning. “We don’t use a microwave, because by the time you’ve heated the fifth dish, the first four are cold.” Two trolleys are required for the monthly ALDI run, and the family cruise the outlets for bulk foodstuffs, buying for up to six months at a time. Because they live on a property, Mark is able to raise beef cattle for the table, making meat considerably cheaper, and also has a dairy cow for milk. Buying in bulk at the Sandgate fruit and vegetable markets saves money too. Still, the monthly food bill is between $1000 and $1500.
Cooking could be a chore, but the De Hoogh family has an ‘everyone has something to contribute’ policy. “Rowena cooks 3 meals a week. All the big boys are ‘in training’ for one night a week and Naomi does one night too, so I’m almost out of the kitchen!” reveals Sandra gleefully. And she admits, she does enjoy cooking alone that one night.
But what is the cost of having such a large family? Though it doesn’t come cheap, Mark and Sandra have made it a priority and found ways to make it manageable. “We’ve learned to live more simply, without the things people feel are culturally necessary. We found a lot more substance in the things that were free, in doing things together and functioning as a family.”
With a family of a dozen people, there is a lot to do to make everything run smoothly. “I don’t have the energy or desire to be the big boss, standing over everyone to lay down the law. We had to start running our family based on relationships, instead of rules and regulations. Everybody is a valuable contributor. We praise them for whatever they do offer, and that praise inspires them to want to do more.”
“We had to outline the minimum things around the house that had to be done everyday, food, clothes, transport, and ‘stuffonomics’. We wrote it out and said ‘What do you want to contribute?’ I was blown away when Ashley said she’d do all the washing. She’s happy and feels no guilt. She does it because she wants to not because she has to. It’s so freeing, so liberating. I believe that’s the best thing I’ve learned as a mum. But it’s really hard to do it this way, and I’m only just getting it.”
“This season is one of living with anticipation of what people were going to offer, instead of expectation. It was a big bridge to cross and we are still walking it out!” You get the feeling that the journey is mostly a positive one. The children are well-mannered and considerate of others, their love for each other evident in the way they relate. The family exudes a sense of togetherness, their home a haven for all who enter.
Little Kyler toddles about with his gorgeous toothy grin, a picture of cherubic babyhood. With a precious family of twelve, are they planning to add to the joy and make a baker’s dozen?
Sandra smiles with a twinkle in her eye. “We never say never.”