‘Just one more’: The women addicted to having children

Emily Watson and her children
Emily, (fourth from left) is embracing the next era of motherhood with her children Daisy, 17, Buddy, 10, Clover, six, Albie, eight, and Blossom, 11 - David Rose

When she was only a few days old, Emily Watson’s daughter Clover went to sleep in a flower delivery crate that had just delivered the bouquets to a wedding.

“The news that we were having her had been a shock,” laughs Emily, 34, a wedding florist from Cambridge. “I had wanted a fifth child but my husband was done at four, so he had a vasectomy.

“Six months later though, we found out I was pregnant. I already had a wedding booked in just after my due date so there was no choice: the baby came along to work.”

While many would be horrified at the plot twist of a post-vasectomy pregnancy, Emily was excited.

“I didn’t feel finished with having children when I had my fourth, Albie,” she admits. “I just knew it was ‘sensible’ to stop. If money and time were no factor though, I would have another baby now. I’m one of four myself and I thrive on the fullness.”

In a world of Instagram posts of big families in matching pyjamas next to alarmingly neat Christmas trees, the image of baby Clover snoozing in a flower crate while her postpartum mother gets back to work is a refreshingly realistic picture of life in a large family.

Celebrity couples such as Jamie and Jools Oliver, meanwhile, present a picture-perfect public image of life with a large brood of five. Jools Oliver, 47, who has been candid about not being able to conceive a sixth child, has decided to retrain as a midwife to express her passion for newborns.

After sharing the news of her career change on the podcast Postcards From Midlife, her move to midwifery has won praise from other celebrities including Cat Deeley and Giles Brandreth.

“I think I just want to hold newborn babies left, right and centre. It’s the dream job, catching newborn babies,” she said, explaining that, looking back, she wishes she had gone straight to college to train as a midwife.

Jools and Jamie Oliver with their five children in 2016: Daisy Boo Pamela, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Buddy Bear Maurice, Poppy Honey Rosie and the newborn River Rocket Blue Dallas
Jools and Jamie Oliver with their five children in 2016: Daisy Boo Pamela, Petal Blossom Rainbow, Buddy Bear Maurice, Poppy Honey Rosie and the newborn River Rocket Blue Dallas - John Stillwell

Other celebrity families like the Beckhams (four children), the Tennants (five children), and the Ramsays (six children), also project a romanticised version of life in a large family. And one that we are all gripped by.

Part of it is the status, surely. We are in an economic crisis and the average cost of raising a child in a two-parent family is £150,000, increasing to £200,000 for single parents. That’s nearly twice as much as putting a new Range Rover in the drive; arguably there is no better way to demonstrate that you’re financially solvent than raising half a dozen children.

In 2022, there were 1.247 million ‘big families’ in the UK (those with three or more dependent children) although 1.7 is the average number of children per family.

With a big family, you make other pronouncements too. You are organised enough that you can create costumes from Supertato to Cat In The Hat for World Book Day and you have the mental capacity to deal with a plethora of class WhatsApp groups. Quite a feat, for most working and juggling parents. For non-celebrities though, a big family means a lot of compromise.

“I knew I would have enough love for every child,” says Kelcey Kinter Folbaum, from Atlanta, Georgia, who has five children aged between 10 and 19. “But time and money are different things. You give up certain things when you have a big family. Fancy ski vacations are not in the cards.”

At points, Kelcey felt conflicted.

“There wasn’t enough of me to go around,” she admits. “But as they’ve got older and more independent, it’s become so much easier.”

For women like Emily and Kelcey, a gaggle of children is simply the family narrative. They opt for large families out of maternal instinct and a desire for a full, bustling home.

Emily Watson with her family
Emily Watson: 'It feels strange when they don't need you as much'

In other instances, though, experts argue that the reasons for pursuing a large family can be more complex and, often, worrying.

“When it’s not financially viable, it wasn’t the plan, all the existing children feel like they have a place and yet there is still this compulsive need to keep going and having more children, it may be time to question why,” says the clinical psychologist Dr Amber Johnston.

“From a neuropsychology perspective, that can be about trying to fulfil unmet needs that are normally based in childhood experiences, particularly involving attachment issues or love that has never quite been felt.”

When women give birth, their bodies are flooded with oxytocin, which is so closely aligned to that feeling of being loved that it is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle hormone’.

If love is something that has felt absent or limited in life, having a baby can feel like it is a way to fast-track to that state, especially when oxytocin hangs around in the body for a good 18 months to two years. In fact, the NHS recommends that you wait 18 months in between having babies, in order to allow your body to recover.

That also comes on the back of the dopamine that comes in pregnancy from “wanting and waiting for something special to happen,” says Johnston.

“These chemicals are our internal pharmacy,” she adds. “And yes, they can be addictive.”

Another part of parenthood that some women find hard to leave behind is the feeling of being ‘needed’ after years of running to hungry newborns and coughing toddlers. When children grow up and require their mother’s presence less, that can – for some – be deeply unsettling.

While most mothers will fill that gap by clawing back a little of their pre-baby life – returning to yoga or taking on more work – some will instead return repeatedly to the baby starting line to fend off the inevitable.

“As children need you less, you may find you have lost a sense of purpose,” says the family counsellor Matthew Adam. “Then there’s a thought: ‘I know how I can create that sense of purpose. By having another child.’”

“It’s the same in women who love being pregnant,” says Adam. “The identity of being a pregnant woman may stop you having to answer the question of who you are on the other side.”

It’s a concern as it suggests the loss of other parts of an identity, outside of being a mother.

“If we feel something is missing, we may try and find it by doing more of the same and having another baby,” says Dr Johnston. “In reality, it may be better to look at other parts of your identity. Making more connections with other women who you go out with may be a better way of filling that space than doing the same thing again and again with more children.”

Having newborn after newborn can also be a way of avoiding the complexities of a real world that can, in 2024, be overwhelming. That nightmare boss can fade away into the background along with war zones and election results, just as the tune to Five Little Ducks kicks in at Rhyme Time.

“There is a sort of grief as they grow,” Emily admits. ‘If you have another one, you know you can hold onto that phase for a bit longer. It’s addictive.”

Emily Watson: 'I didn't feel finished with having children when I had my fourth'
Emily Watson: 'I didn't feel finished with having children when I had my fourth' - David Rose

Now though, Emily is embracing the next era of motherhood with her husband David, 39, and children, Daisy, 17, Blossom, 11, Buddy, 10, Albie, eight, and Clover, six.

“It feels strange when they don’t need you as much, but I’m also excited about the things we can do together as they get older,” she says.

For those who find it harder to move on from the newborn years, Dr Johnston recommends shifting the focus.

“Instead of the ‘just one more’ thought of a future child, it’s about being mindful of what you have in front of you now,” she says.

“That involves shifting from the dopamine experience, which is about wanting and seeking, to oxytocin, vasopressin and serotonin, which are about being grateful and content with the attachment and love that are here in front of you now.

“It’s a different drug and it’s a different feeling. There is a skill involved in shifting that focus but that might be where, if this is something you’re struggling with, you look to get some help.”