‘Mum!” they would yell, the O’Reilly children, when they burst in the door of the old Victorian on Alpha Road in Dorchester. “Mum, where are you?”
And Constance O’Reilly would stop folding clothes long enough to call back, “Where do you think I am?”
With 15 kids, the O’Reillys had a lot of laundry. A lot of everything, really. Especially children. Lots of people did back then. Constance was the youngest of 12. She had a brother who had 18.
Now, such families are so rare they get reality shows. The total fertility rate for American women is 1.9, just below the “replacement level,” and half its high in the late 1950s before the popularization of birth control pills. And the megafamily, as it is sometimes called, has shrunk in its very definition. The Mega Families blog accepts families of seven children or more. “Your family should not be able to legally fit into a Yukon XL,” is the stated criteria.
In O’Reilly’s day in Dorchester, after World War II, seven children wouldn’t have garnered much attention. There were plenty of huge families in the Catholic parishes, and many of the legends are still counting grandchildren, including 87-year-old Eileen Baker, who became a teen mom the long way when she had her 13th child, completing the “Baker’s Dozen.”
Nearby in South Boston, Hon Rooney is a walking icon for having given birth to 11, all boys. Her youngest refereed the Bruins-Canadiens playoff game the other night.
Most of the mega-est of the megamoms in Massachusetts are, like O’Reilly, in their great-grandchildren years. And this Mother’s Day, they will get to sit and reap the rewards of that amazing mothering effort — in O’Reilly’s case, an endless parade featuring many of the 102 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren eligible to buy her a Mother Day card.
Similar scenes will play out for Eleanor Forzoco, who is 88 and has a plaque in her Roslindale yard with the names of her 17 children on it, and Anne Marino, 78, who had 17 children of her own in Winchester.
O’Reilly, it must be noted, raised 15 children with one hand, and partly because of it. When she was pregnant with her first son, O’Reilly, who was born without the lower half of her left arm, said she told God that if he gave her a healthy child, she’d have as many as he wanted.
“When I had the 10th, I said, ‘Dear God, when are you going to tell me to stop?’ ”
In Bedford, Frances Iovino said it was her husband who told her to keep having children. She wanted three. “My husband kept saying, ‘One more’s not going to hurt.’ ” He was one of 18. They stopped after 15.
Today, Iovino, who is 85, still works every morning doing prep work and making her meatballs in the family sub shop she has owned for 35 years in Bedford, Sun Valley Subs. On any given day, she might see 11 of her children pass through the door. On Mother’s Day, “they try to outdo each other until I have to say, ‘Stop. I don’t need anything.’ ”
Today, Iovino says there is no way she could see having a family as large as hers. “You couldn’t afford it,” she said. “And things are going too fast. Kids are too spoiled. My kids didn’t have a chance to be spoiled. Kids have the iPads and iPhones now. They’d all be in the house. They don’t play outside.”
She also says fundamentals are in the way. Women have careers, she said, and don’t get pregnant early. The average age when US women have their first child has risen from just over 21 in 1970 to just under 26 today, according to recently released federal data, with nine times as many first children born to women 35 and older.
In playgrounds today, parents commonly discuss the number three as a threshold, where you give up the ability to play man-to-man defense and put yourself deep into minivan territory. Jim Gaffigan, the comedian, kills his audiences with a bit about expanding his family from three children to four. “Imagine you’re drowning,” he says. “And someone hands you a baby.”
So 17, or 15, or 11 . . . they sound like numbers from another time, another America, and Iovino said people simply can’t comprehend how one woman could give birth to 15 children. She’s heard a million variations of the concept of “that poor woman.” She has never seen it that way.
O’Reilly, 93, said that people ask questions about how many potatoes she peeled, how many gallons of milk she would buy. The answer to all of them is “a lot.” But she always had help in the form of all those children. They did their part, she said, looked after the younger ones, were at the table for dinner. The cops never came to the door.
And when the day came when the oldest children left the nest and the remaining ones could have their own bedrooms, they chose to stay in the rooms where they were.
“They were still squished up on top of me,” said her daughter Debbie, who has moved back in with her mother in a small house on Rockne Avenue in Dorchester. Most nights, Debbie sleeps in the bed with her, squished up on her mum.