We often play a little game in our house, my Mum always asks the question “who do you admire the most when it comes to……motherhood, work/life balance, fatherhood, teachers, celebrities etc”, it’s a great game to play and we all give our thoughts and opinions on whom we admire. For the last 19 years, whenever Mum has asked me, “Who’s the Mum you admire the most?”, I’ve always answered the same way, “apart from you Mum, it’s Jan O’Halloran”.
I walked into Jan’s kitchen at the ripe old age of 15, I was friends with two of her sons. She told me to call her Jan. She welcomed my girlfriends and I into her home as if we’d been friends for years. Not teenagers but friends. She confessed that she was craving female company and to feel free to pop in whenever we liked. Everyone felt at home in the O’Halloran household.
After tragically losing her first born girl, Caroline, at birth, Jan went on to become the mother of 5 boys. They’re all grown up now but back then it was bedlam and yet she always seemed in control! She was whipping up more food than I had seen in my life and baking a beautiful cake, I’ll never forget the fresh cakes that sat on Jan’s kitchen bench. As we sat and talked, her five sons ran in and out of the house with not a care in the world. The one thing that has never left me about the O’Halloran clan, her boys have always respected and loved their Mum (and Dad) to the end of the earth and back.
Jan is now the mother in law of one of my best friends (yep, one of my best friends married her eldest son!), she came to my own wedding and everytime I bring a new baby boy into the world, she’s literally the first person to congratulate me, see me in hospital and give me that secret little wink that says, “you are so clever, I’m proud of you, it will be challenging, wonderful and the ride of your life!”. Jan’s encouraging and constantly there to tell the men and women in her life how very clever they are. Jan’s my motherhood hero and whilst the ‘books’ can teach you the best time to toilet train a child, they can’t teach you the emotional and practical reality of parenthood. I asked Jan a plethora of questions on raising boys and her personal experiences because I think that the ups and downs of others who have raised families you admire can often be all the experience and advice you need.
An Interview with Jan O’Halloran – Mother of 5 boys.
Did you always want 5 children? Did it ever occur to you that you would have so many boys?
No I didn’t always want 5 children specifically – but always wanted a big family – being the eldest of three girls I always felt our family was way too small. I never in a million years dreamed I would have five boys, especially after my first born, Caroline arrived – my first son, Tim, was a total shock! My sister had had two girls so I was totally unprepared for a boy child.
How do people react when you tell them you have 5 sons?
People react differently when they find out I have five sons, in some ways I feel it has defined me as a person. Most people are aghast/amazed/shocked that I’m still sane (relatively) but it’s mostly a negative vibe which is sad.
Do you believe there is a difference in raising boys to girls? If so, what are the differences?
Absolute difference in raising boys – biggest of course is in activity levels. Boys (and bear in mind that this is a total generalization of my experience) are always on the go, their risk taking and physical activities never stop.
You have two grand daughters and two grandsons now, are there any things that have surprised you about little girls compared to boys?
My grand daughters are so different, happy to sit and play and colour in – this was never really a surprise as I was the eldest of three girls. Girls are always tuned into what the adults are saying, boys never are.
What are the key differences you saw in your boys to those of your friends who were raising girls?
Mostly I love mothers of lots of boys, to quote a saying that I live by – “they don’t sweat the small stuff”. My friends with girls often got bogged down in the politics of school – especially when girls fell out with friends – that was never an issue at our place. I was always fascinated that we lived next door to one of my sons closest friends, Julian – he lived in our house, came on lots of our holidays and became to this day, my sixth son – but he and out boys never had a cross word in all those years.
Being the only female in your household, how did you personally cope with so much testosterone in the house?
Being the only female was a tremendous responsibility and I felt I was the role model for our house. It was amazing how much my standards dropped – having a bath after footy became an option when they were off to training the next morning, how did I let that happen???? And language was always a problem – now I probably swear more than they do – that is not something I’m proud of either.
What’s the most difficult thing when it comes to raising boys?
I chose my battles carefully – who cared if they wore spiderman pyjamas to Mass instead of my perfectly matched petit bateau outfits (well I did of course) but it wasn’t worth the fight. Some things were non negotiable – good manners and kindness to each other among other things.
For me the most difficult thing about raising boys was the physicality – always wrestling, running around, jumping off bridges, driving too fast – the risk taking – I was always scared for their safety. You know when you read about some accident involving risk taking, it’s always a boy – never a girl.
What’s the easiest thing when it comes to raising boys?
The easiest thing about raising boys is their generosity, they never hold grudges and they always forgive you – no sulking! Coming from an all female household that was absolutely the best thing about men.
How important is the father’s role in raising boys? How involved was your husband in raising your boys? How important was this?
My husband was and is a wonderful husband and role model. He is loving and kind – he is a giver and has given his time over the years to take them trout fishing every year, country holidays and beach holidays at Christmas. He has raised them in his mold and now all boy boys are very kind and caring husbands and fathers – and uncles! Who would willingly take five little boys and numerous friends trout fishing and try to teach them all about fly fishing and being quiet- that man deserves a medal!
Did you make joint parenting decisions? Did one parent have a more dominant role than the other eg: one played good cop, the other played bad cop?
I can’t remember much about parenting decisions, it was all a bit of a blur, but we both had the same values – I certainly dished out more discipline because I was around more.
Do boys need role models?
I think boys need role models desperately – not necessarily fathers, but uncles, grandfathers or in laws – they need to see how to become a man because no matter how much people say gender doesn’t matter, it just does.
What are the most important values you believe boys should be taught?
I can’t think of any values that that are more important to boys than girls, the only thing that comes to mind is that you never ever hit a woman – (even a little annoying girl).
Did your boys fight? How did you cope with their fighting when you didn’t have the physical strength to match them?
Did my boys fight – of course they did but it was always over quickly – one wanted a toy, the other grabbed it – but with five I didn’t have the time to be a full time referee so they soon sorted themselves out. I was always surprised at how protective the bigger boys were of their younger siblings – still are.
At their peak, how much food were your boys consuming?
As for food – well it was always two legs of lamb – two chickens – and never less than 3kgs of baked potatoes – I could write a book on the stories about food. The time I baked a huge tray of baked potatoes when they had boarding school friends some over and when I went to get them they had eaten them out of the oven!
Do you believe your boys in particular benefitted specifically because they went to an all boys school?
I don’t think going to an all boys school benefitted the boys particularly – in fact I wish it had been co-ed sometimes, girls do have a marvelous civilizing effect on boys.
Can you recall any specific challenges when it came to raising boys that your girlfriends who had only girls didn’t have to face?
The specific challenges that I faced with boys were usually physical – they had friends with speed boats and they roared up and down the harbor (I became so friendly with the water police we used to send each other Christmas cards). They jumped off cliffs into unknown depths of water, they drove too fast, drank too much and generally pushed life to the limits – probably not totally male things but the girls were usually more circumspect and careful when it came to dangerous pursuits.
What age, in your opinion, is the most difficult age for boys? Babies, Toddlers, Primary School Age, Pre-Teen, Teen or Young Adult?
Every age is difficult, hence the old adage – little children little problems, big children, big problems. I think probably teens were worst – and that’s when the bigger boys were great, advising me on how to handle the younger ones with issues.
Mother’s of boys are generally more protective of their sons, how did you react when your boys starting bringing girlfriends home to meet Mum?
My daughter in law read this questions you sent and we didn’t think that all mothers were protective of their boys – I know I never have been I’ve welcomed their girlfriends – now wives with open arms. How could you not love someone who loved your son? I know that some mothers don’t think the wives measure up but most of my friends are like me and get on with their daughter in laws. I remember the most touching thing I ever heard was when my first son was getting married and he said to his fiancée “there are two things I want for the wedding, firstly nothing over the top and secondly I want you to include my Mum because she never had a daughter” I was so moved by his thoughtfulness.
Are there any times you can specifically recall thinking “how on earth am I going to cope?”, what were your coping mechanisms?
I thought how am I going to cope more times than you’ve had hot dinners. I can remember sitting up so many nights waiting for them to come home safely (while my husband snored his head off in bed). I had no tried and true safety mechanisms, just blind faith and hope that they just would be.
Have parenting techniques changed in the last 30 years? If so, how?
Parenting techniques have changed so much in the past 30 years they are unrecognizable.
Now that you work in obstetrics, what are the biggest differences you’ve seen in mothers approaching parenthood compared to when you were pregnant with your children?
Children need and crave boundaries – I see it in the doctors rooms where I work and I see grown adults trying to reason with a 2 year old??? You only have to recall The Slap to see how things have changed. The think most parents don’t get is that no one likes bratty children and you need to set boundaries on behavior for their good. The other thing I find sad is now everyone has to win – every child in the team gets a trophy? Why? The irony is that kids know who is good and who isn’t – what we should be teaching our children is that all kids are not good at all things – some are sporty, academic, adventurers, arty etc, academia is not the be all and end all of life at school. Give me common sense over a top UAI any day – it certainly takes you further in life. The helicopter parents are alive and well – children are never allowed to make mistakes and learn from them (that was the very hardest lesson I ever learnt – not to try and make everything right when I knew they were doing the wrong thing). And I don’t believe you should wish that your children be ‘happy’ – happiness is something that comes and goes and for people to assume it’s a permanent state is ridiculous. I feel that the counseling industry is thriving because young kids aren’t left to work problems out any more like we did – everything is done and organized for them so that when they grow up and face big problems they don’t have the ability to solve their problems. Don’t drive up to school with their school project, let them take responsibility for their own things and they will grow up trusting their ability to cope with life.
What’s your proudest parenting achievement?
My proudest parenting achievement is when I sit around the dinner table for a family meal (which I try to organize as often as possible) and see the closeness of our boys – they have become wonderful fathers (2) and husbands (nearly 3) and wonderful uncles to my 4 grandchildren, best of all they are good friends to each other. They are good members of society although each one is so different. I couldn’t have chosen better daughters in law – they, too are different but wonderful women who make my sons so happy – who could ask for more.
I don’t want to over glamourize raising five boys, it’s been tough at times with different issues that I’ve ages ten years over night but you just don’t give up – things don’t always work out like you plan. But you deal with things and try to let the unimportant stuff go. And that’s the advice I would give to any parent of girls or boys. Ahhhhh. If I only knew when what I know now, I would never have worried about homework or exams because boys do it their way – at least my boys have – and in their own time.
If you could give one piece of advice to a mother bringing up boys, what would it be?
There isn’t any real advice I could give anyone about bringing up good sons other than being a good role model – make sure you are kind to your partner and just put your trust in your children’s judgment – I was so lucky with my husband – no one could ask for a better role model for sons. He once said that the best thing you could do for your children was to love their mother and show it. It was funny when we first had sons – being the eldest of three girls I was constantly asking my husband “Is this normal?” I soon learnt that yes, it was all normal, sort off!!!
What has been the most delightful thing for you in raising your five boys?
The most delightful thing for me in raising boys – after living in a female world until I had my first son – is to realize what wonderful people men are – what you see is what you get and what could be better than that? They are open, honest, brave and generous and I think they have a very hard life at the moment – the gender lines are blurred but they do their best – I’m a huge man fan!!! Mind you, I would much prefer sitting next to a woman than a man for conversation – we can solve the world, they mostly do just sport!!