Could there be room in the Widdup/Porritt household for one more?

Ellen's children, and dog

Ellen's children, and dog - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 children

I wish I’d had children,” the woman said wistfully as she watched my two slurping hot chocolate and kicking each other under the table.

A pensioner. Probably in her late 70s and nursing a mug of tea at a table by the window.

“They are hard work,” I replied with a wry shrug as my eldest dug her elbow into the ribs of the youngest who let out an ear-splitting scream.

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” she said. “I would give anything for some grandchildren to keep me on my toes these days.”

I smiled politely and returned to wiping sticky hands and faces, clearing up the spilt milk and wrestling the pair into their coats. When we were ready to leave the café I looked for her to say goodbye but she had already gone.

Later, after pushing the kids on the swings, feeding the ducks and watching them splash in muddy puddles, I thought again about what she had said and it made me feel terribly sad.

Most Read

Did she have any relatives at all? People to check in on her, take her out for lunch, listen to her stories? Or was the highlight of her day that trip to the coffee shop to sit all alone and watch the rest of the world go by?

There was a report out last month which claimed loneliness could have a devastating impact on the quality of life and lifespan of older people.

Previous studies have linked loneliness to a range of health problems, from high blood pressure and a weakened immune system to a greater risk of depression, heart attack and strokes.

But this latest investigation suggested those without family were at a 14% greater risk of dying early than those who were well supported.

Now I come from a large family. My mother was one of four, my father one of three and I have two siblings and 13 cousins.

My husband too – although an only child brought up in a single parent family – was part of an extended jumble of relatives.

His mother was also one of four and he has nine cousins - all of which were together last weekend at their grandfather’s funeral.

The Scotsman, who passed away a fortnight ago, was very much the head of their clan.

And it was at his wake that it struck me just how much it must have meant to him to be the patriarch of that wonderful, chaotic and very loud family network.

During the service, the vicar spoke about how, as we make our way through life, we leave indelible marks on our children and children’s children – be that as part of the gene pool which determine the way they look or just through the experiences we share which shape the way they see the world.

And it struck me then that kids who grow up without a chain of aunts, uncles and cousins in tow really were at a massive disadvantage.

This is what growing up as part of a big family meant to me: I learnt to think fast, talk fast – and eat fast before anyone stole my chips.

I developed a ferocious survival instinct – to battle it out in a continual contest of strength, strategy and wit.

I would elbow my way to get a share of pocket money or sweets, kick out to get enough space in the backseat of the car and be quick with comebacks to prevent being the one that was teased. And I grew a thick skin.

But there was also laughter. Constant, uncontrollable, face-aching, tummy-crippling laughter.

And with a minimum of 23 rowdy guests – not to mention other waifs and strays which were always tagging along – our parties never failed. It was always a riot when we got together – and it still is.

These days, as a wife and mother, I am also part of my husband’s tribe.

And in both, I can see why blood really is thicker than water.

Yes, you fight with your relatives. Yes, many of them drive you insane. But they are also a safety net and comfort blanket unlike any other.

A privilege to belong to. Often a pain in the neck. But always there when you need them – and unconditionally.

They are linked to you with invisible threads, which if the recent funeral is anything to go by, don’t even break with death.

Instead they join that ancestral net that stretches on and out into the past.

Now they say when a person dies, another is born.

And of course, a big family can only continue to grow with new life.

Perhaps this is why my husband and I have started to embark again on that “shall we have another?” conversation.

It’s a big debate of course and with a son and a daughter already, the dog was supposed to complete our 2.4 set up.

And yet I’ve always believed that, where family is concerned, bigger is better.

My husband is still to be convinced but I think eventually he will come round.

You see, for all his moaning about returning to the world of smelly nappies, mushy carrot and bedtime tantrums, he is a real family man at heart. Just like his grandfather was.

You can find me tweeting @EllenWiddup.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter