Editor’s note: For our 30th anniversary we’re reprinting some of our favorite past features. This one first ran on May 6, 1998.
An article in a daily Chicago newspaper in the late 1950s/early ’60s, reportedly, identified the Oak Park-River Forest area as “Fertile Acres.” And why not? Kids overflowed every block, it seemed, in the post-World War II population explosion, popularly termed “The Boom.”
Large families were almost commonplace-eight, 10, 13, even more. The procreation rate was practically unprecedented-and probably never to be repeated. Looking back, the offspring of the World War II generation frequently shakes its collective head and asks their parents in bewilderment, “How on earth did you do it?” By which they mean raising all those kids. Most of us have our hands full with one or three-even six seems unthinkable.
So how did they do it?
“I can’t put my finger on it,” shrugs Margaret Von Ebers, who, with her husband Paul, raised 11. However, they didn’t plan that many. “We hoped for a family,” she recalls, “but it was all so nebulous.”
Going in, Von Ebers says, she didn’t know a thing. She read Dr. Spock, but didn’t always follow his advice (which, ironically, was a big part of Spock’s advice).
“I learned from the kids, and sharing with Paul,” she says. “I’m still learning from the kids.”
Starting out, “I had only one prayer,” says Von Ebers, “that however many we had, they would remain friends.” And that prayer has been answered. She also made an agreement with her husband, a Loyola University psychology professor. “I would laugh at his jokes and he would leave psychology outside the door.”
The Von Ebers moved here in 1957 with seven kids in tow “because Oak Park was kind to large families.” They crammed into the house on Oak Park Avenue, put on an addition, and started consuming three gallons of milk a day. At one point they had five kids in St. Joseph Hospital at the same time for tonsillectomies. “They gave us our own ward,” she jokes. Margaret offered her husband the choice of doing the grocery shopping or staying home with the kids. “He opted for shopping,” she says.
They called their brood “the wrecking crew” and whenever appliances came up in conversation, the running gag was, “We used to have one of those.”
The kids, of course, didn’t always get along. Von Ebers recalls one awful day when the kids were playing “Pioneers” in the basement and she and her husband decided not to assume their usual role as “referees” when a dispute arose. The ensuing battle raged until 3 p.m. before they finally intervened. “We never did that again,” she says.
Having all those teen-agers-in the ’60s of all decades-was another shock to the system. At dinner there were plenty of arguments about politics and religion. “They all had independent ideas,” she says, “and I’m glad they did.”
Von Ebers describes it all as “a rollercoaster life,” but they had “lots of fun, lots of laughs. They’re a good bunch.”
It was exciting to see her kids grow, though she admits it happened “mainly when they had kids.” The family has experienced heartache. A family tragedy some years back, she says, “drew people together. They gained new strengths and found out more about each other.”
Though she was “terribly nervous” with the first few kids, Von Ebers became more relaxed as time went on. “You’re not so afraid that you’re doing ‘the right thing,'” she observes. “Your mistakes become part of their learning experience.”
To a certain extent, Von Ebers says, kids in large families raise themselves “with give and take.” It’s nearly impossible for the parents to give each child as much individual attention as they need, “so they gave each other a lot,” she observes, along with “a lot of grief, too.”
In many ways it was a unique historical window for large families. The economy was strong, there were lots of jobs, and the G.I. Bill helped make large families possible. “You don’t have that today,” she says. “It takes a lot to do it, but I have no regrets. I never did.”
Her kids are forever asking her, “How did you manage?” to which she laughs and replies, “You were there.”
She’s managing still. And her family continues to grow. Paul died a few years ago, and last month, Margaret married George Methe, an Oak Park widower with nine kids.
Go with the flow
Mary Ellen “Honey” O’Hara came from a family of four kids, which she says was large for the Depression era. When she and her husband married in 1948, they wanted children but had no specific number in mind. Nine is the specific number they ended up with.
What made it easier, she said, is that “we weren’t alone. We had a lot of company. Everybody was in the same boat.” That provided a built-in support system. In addition, “there was more support from society.”
The Catholic school system, for instance, was so inexpensive it was practically “a free ride.” Even college was relatively inexpensive, with plenty of work plans and family discounts available.
Because all her friends were having large families, “It was easier to do without. There was no keeping up with the Joneses,” she observes. Families shared maternity and baby clothes and helped with meals when someone was in the hospital giving birth.
They shared ideas and read Spock, but O’Hara agrees with Von Ebers that “the book only goes so far, then you have to wing it.”
Her mother-in-law wondered why they were having so many kids, but her mother was much more supportive-at least in practical matters. She wasn’t much on babysitting their small army, but helped pay for laundry services, etc., and only lived two blocks away, so she was available in a pinch.
O’Hara kept her sanity with “prayer and common sense.” A strong community at St. Giles Church in North Oak Park where they lived from 1952 until they moved to a River Forest condo four years ago, represented an “anchor” of values, which was crucial, she says, “especially when things were up for grabs in the ’60s and ’70s.”
O’Hara says one of her daughters described her parenting style as “permissive except for religion and sex.” Honey says they were allowed a fair amount of freedom to roam. “We weren’t anxious about the kids being out and about,” she says, unlike today’s parents who tend to be more protective. During summers in Grand Beach, Mich., the kids were gone dawn to dusk-and barefoot to boot. A couple of years ago, as she and a daughter stood hip deep in Lake Michigan, trying to protect the new generation of young swimmers from all the water craft zooming by, a daughter observed that when they were growing up, “We had so little, but we had so much more.”
The worst stretch was the summer her sixth child was born. While Honey was in the hospital, chicken pox broke out, then measles swept through the house. She remembers sleeping on the floor next to a variety of beds. “That summer I don’t remember much,” she says.
But while they didn’t have measles vaccines yet, society was more user friendly. Every morning, Honey would phone in her order to Liska’s Finer Foods, and if she wasn’t home, the delivery man would simply walk in and put all the cold food in the fridge and the freezer. The laundry man also found the door unlocked. “We took it for granted,” O’Hara says. “I appreciated the services far more than the new appliances.”
She forced herself not to be overly concerned about order and “went with the flow.” The older kids shepherded the younger ones. Her oldest daughter, for instance, ran backyard carnivals and a basement lending library for the neighborhood. Dinnertimes were chaotic with sports forcing her to resort to stews and casseroles that could be reheated. Bedtime was enforced, but everyone had a bedside lamp and reading was encouraged.
Now that the nest is empty, O’Hara doesn’t feel as if she “survived” an ordeal. On the contrary, she’s still on the job. “It’s a lifelong relationship,” she says of the crew that ranges from 48 to 32 years of age. “It’s a responsibility that never ends.”
When asked for advice on parenting, she tells her offspring to follow their gut feelings. “Don’t take other people’s advice,” she says, “even mine.”
A baker’s dozen
District 200 school board member Gerry Jacobs, one of 13 kids, described their River Forest household as “Grand Central Station.” At the center of all the chaos, however, he says his parents were “like rocks of granite.” His dad died in 1987, but his mom remains the center of the clan. He describes her as “a very thoughtful woman. When it comes to her principles, she’s very intense and uncompromising. She will go to the wall with any of her children who aren’t living up to their potential. She read me the riot act a few times.”
Mary Margaret Jacobs, like most of the other moms we interviewed, didn’t plan a big family. “We just embarked,” she says. But she firmly believes-and she believes everything she believes firmly-that when you get married, you should be prepared to have children.
And have them she did. When her kids ask how she survived, she credits the Lord first and her husband second. “Bill was enthusiastic and organized,” she says. He organized activities and drew kids into the pastimes many of them still enjoy today, such as sailing, swimming and tennis. “He was a lot of fun,” she says.
Jacobs came from a family of eight kids, of which she was the only girl, so she knew what she was getting into. But starting out, she says, “nobody knows how to do it. It’s a great learning experience.”
Her favorite part of parenting, says this former junior high level teacher, is “watching them grow intellectually, morally and spiritually,” and in general, “the more educated, the more interesting they are.” Nowadays she finds all her kids “fascinating.”
She was able to afford paid help, and her mother also lived with them until she died, but what got her through was saying a prayer every morning and taking it a day at a time.
And the kids were helpful too. “Siblings help you shape them. They create a lot of love and excitement, things to do and things to compete for. They’re cheerleaders and also cut each other down. They gave each other what needed to be given.”
Her parenting recipe includes “a lot of common sense and a sense of humor. Put a standard out there that you expect them to meet.” She also brought to bear “a good sense of who I was and where I needed to go.”
She contends she was born “in the most wonderful generation. There were safeguards for marriage, the expectations were happy ones” and most of those expectations came true. But no one’s epoch is easy. “I lived through the Depression. My husband was wounded in war. Everybody has something they have to live through.”
While the kids are at home, she says, “they have to be molded.” But once they’re out on their own, “I stay strictly out of my children’s lives. I pray for them, but I don’t tell them what to do.”
But she would never discourage anyone today from having a big family. While you don’t have much privacy, “I didn’t solicit my own company as much as my family’s. I didn’t think I was such great company. Believe me, it’s much better than being alone.”
And, she adds, don’t worry about quantity. “Each child is a person and each brings something to the table to enjoy.”
As Honey O’Hara tells her kids, “I won’t be around forever, but you’ll have your siblings to the grave.”
A great deal of love, ‘gallons of patience’
Like many mothers of large families, Rebecca Jennings, who was herself an only child, didn’t intend it. In fact, on the first go-round, she didn’t have a big family.
After raising four kids, now ages 34-38, she thought she was through. She entered Roosevelt University and planned to get her degree when fate intervened. Rebecca suddenly found herself in the position of having to raise her two grandchildren, and she eventually adopted them.
Then the adoption agency asked if she wanted more, and her grandchildren encouraged it because they wanted other siblings. Ten years after she emptied the nest, Rebecca and her mother find themselves living in a household with nine children.
The Oak Park resident, who gets assistance from DCFS, says there are times she asks herself, “What did I get myself into?” but she also contends, “there are a lot of rewards in it.” Those come in the form of “hugs, kisses, and I love yous” and the fact that “they’re always driving to be better.” She especially likes “the gleam in their eyes when they get things they’ve never had before.” Some of her charges came from pretty ugly situations, so Rebecca has to “work on what afflicts them mentally. You have to be their therapist to help them forget all that.” It requires “love and patience, gallons of patience.”
She rises at 6:30 each day and gets to bed around midnight. The kids hit the sack by 9 p.m., so she can have a little time to herself.
During the day she does a lot of laundry, shopping and cooking.
A lot of cooking.
The five boys and four girls go through 18 cans of vegetables per meal, three boxes of cereal per breakfast and two dozen eggs on the weekends. They consume three chickens at a sitting, or five rabbits, four packages of neckbones, two family packs of pork chops. Lunch means eight packages of lunch meat and six loaves of bread.
“They’re big eaters,” she says. “I shop quite often.”
The most difficult part logistically is whenever they have to go someplace as a group. “Can you imagine how people stare?” she says. But she calls her brood “a great group. I’m very proud of them. The only problem is having enough body for all of them to touch.”
She preserves her sanity by “praying a lot” and attending a Bible class at First Presbyterian Church in River Forest. “You have to deal with so many personalities and attitudes,” she says. “They take from you and you have to replenish, so I pray for strength.”
Her mother teaches them to sew and crochet, instructs them in the Bible and manners, makes quilts with them. “They’re being raised the old-fashioned way,” says Rebecca. “It’s fun. Everyday they do something that will make you laugh.”
They especially love to bake and decorate for holidays and birthdays. When Rebecca’s first generation of children came into town for Thanksgiving, they decided to condense the holiday season into one weekend, celebrating Christmas Eve on Friday, Christmas on Saturday and New Year’s Eve on Sunday.
“They had a ball,” Rebecca says.
‘Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full’
Sandy Troelstrup isn’t your average mom. Your average mom would have two or three children. She has eight, ages 6-18.
As the family grew, her friends would tease, “Don’t you know what causes that?” and “Are you Catholic?” Yes and no, respectively.
The first couple of kids were great, so they just decided to keep going, Troelstrup explains. “It’s not as hard as it looks,” she contends.
Maybe her military background helped. Her dad was in the Air Force, so she learned how to demand respect “in a really loud voice.”
Her mother couldn’t believe it. “I didn’t even like to babysit as a kid,” she says.
An indispensable organizational tool, Troelstrup says, is a really big calendar, so you can write down where everyone is or needs to be-and a place for all the notes.
When in doubt, she adds, “fill what’s empty and empty what’s full,” whether that be sink, garbage, hearts or plates.
She remembers the afternoon she was alone for an hour-and-a-half. Her husband, John, had taken the kids for a walk, so she didn’t know when they’d be back. “It was strange, quiet, creepy,” she recalls.
The worst and the best part of her day is laundry. She does four loads, which is the worst part, but the sound of the machines drowns out the rest of the noise. With four boys and four girls, it’s “phenomenal” the racket they can make.
The guideline for dinner is simple: fix enough for everyone in town because as often as not, they’re going to show up with friends. Actually the oldest just moved out into an apartment. He’s the independent, responsible type “which is what you hope for and the hardest to let go of.” But they’re all pretty independent. “They have to be or they’ll just get left.”
Trips are hairy. Packing all that underwear and fears of leaving someone at a restaurant. She would take headcounts at the door, “so we didn’t take more than ours.”
Her favorite stage is around 14 years of age when “they recognize mom isn’t the ogre they thought.” They also begin to realize that the house is a fun, safe place to bring their friends.
You have to keep laughing, she says, and treat them all as individuals. Troelstrup quotes the beginning of the book “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which is dedicated “To my father who only had 12 children and my mother who had 12 only children.”
She doesn’t try to block out the bad times, however. “I had to learn from them,” Troelstrup says, “because the younger ones will try to pull the same thing.”
This year she attended her last kindergarten orientation. The preschool phase is over. “Now it’s on to Phase II,” she says.