I’m a mum of 14, and I found myself through motherhood
By Lisa Twang, May 10, 2020
When women become mothers, what changes within us? How do we remain true to ourselves, while giving our time, energy and love to our children?
In our three-part Mother’s Day series, ‘Who am I after motherhood?, we asked this question of three women: a mum of 14, respite carer, and Dayre writer and mum Lisa Twang. We wanted to know how their identities and their feelings about how they changed after kids — and how they balanced the roles of mum, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and worker, with being themselves.
Our first story is on Aussie expat Tammy Hitchens, a 46-year-old homeschooling mum with 14 kids, aged between four months and 29 years. On the outside, Tammy seems to have it all: a large, happy family with her loving husband Timothy, and a beautiful rental landed home in Singapore.
But Tammy has also struggled through motherhood at times, overcoming poverty, illness, exhaustion, and coping with her children’s special needs. Here, Tammy shares how she found peace within herself — even after 14 kids — and why she feels being a mum was her destiny all along.
When people hear I have 14 children, they look at me in disbelief, as if to say: “How are you even alive?” And I can relate to that, because I never, ever thought I’d manage such a big family.
I once told a friend: “It would be my worst nightmare to have 12 children. I don’t want to be one of those people.” I knew a mother with six kids, and I remember feeling physically ill at the thought of having so many.
While Timothy and I didn’t think I’d have such a large family at first, we’ve since opened ourselves to having as many kids as we’re blessed with. I love all my children deeply, and I can’t imagine not having any of them in my life.
My six oldest adult children live independently in Australia, and the other eight live with me here in Singapore. We moved here five and a half years ago, when my husband was posted here for work.
Our family doesn’t live the typical expat life. I homeschool my younger children full-time: some are dyslexic, so they need extra help. We don’t have a helper, and we don’t do fancy meals like champagne brunches, as we mostly cook at home.
Most people think my life has always been easy. But because I grew up in a dysfunctional home, I didn’t know who I was for a long time.
I was born the youngest of four children in rural Queensland, Australia (that’s me on the left), and we were very, very poor. My father was abusive, and we lived through domestic violence. Though my mother was loving and kind, things were hard for our family.
My dad had no tolerance for children, and I was always told that he definitely did not want to have me. Growing up, I often felt like I was an accident, and that I should not have been born.
Because I’d lived through abuse, my life felt like it was out of control, and I was determined that my own life would be different. I thought I’d plan my life and my children perfectly, and that my family and I would all lead perfect lives.
And then everything fell apart, completely.
At 16, I ran away from home with Timothy (who was my boyfriend at the time), because home wasn’t safe for me anymore. I lived in a women’s refuge while studying for my final year of high school. Though I was on contraception, I got pregnant and gave birth to my first child at 17. I remember feeling very broken, because I’d left home in crisis and life wasn’t turning out the way I wanted.
Timothy and I were married when I was 18. We planned for our second child, and I thought I’d stop at two and get childbearing “over with”. But our third was conceived even while I was on the Pill (most likely due to breakthrough ovulation, which occurs more frequently when you’ve been on hormonal birth control for a long time).
In those early years, Tim worked relentlessly to support us, so he didn’t help out a lot practically when our kids were young. However, he gave me his full trust and freedom to parent and manage our home, and would hunt high and low for second-hand items like kitchen appliances, to make my life easier.
While Timothy worked, I looked after our kids, and took on paid work from time to time as a seamstress.
To save as much as possible, we lived frugally: I sewed most of my childrens’ clothing from fabric scraps our friends gave us or used hand-me-downs, and cooked simple meals. I was good at managing money very carefully, because my own family had been poor.
I remember thinking, “This is not the life I imagined.” All I ever did was wash clothes, change nappies, and clean up messes, on repeat. At the time, I thought being a stay-home mum was a ‘loser’s’ job. It was like a consolation job for women who didn’t do very well in school.
In those early years of motherhood, I felt a deep tug-of-war between being a good mother, and following my dreams.
As a teenager, all I wanted was to be a doctor, and travel the world. I did well in school, especially for math and science. When I first had my kids, I thought I’d go to university and get my life back, but it never happened because some of my children had special needs when they were younger like dyslexia, attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). So I chose to home educate all my kids through distance learning courses with the help of the state government education body in Australia, which provided a basic syllabus and curriculum support.
Back then, though I loved my children, I didn’t love motherhood itself, and I saw my kids as a hindrance. I expected they would fit around my life, but they needed me so much and I was so overwhelmed.
At times, I thought my kids would never grow up, and I would never escape what felt like a prison of looking after children. I was so frustrated, and felt like my life was totally out of control. I asked God: “Why is this happening to me? What am I meant to be doing?”
It’s taken me years, but gradually, I realised my children were my destiny. They weren’t in the way of my life; they were my life.
I learned to count my children as blessings. I’d been so busy trying to control my life and my kids, but they had still been born to me. I asked myself: “If I hadn’t had my children, would I actually be better off?” And I wouldn’t, because even through everything, they’ve brought me so much joy.
I realised the ability to have children is a gift. I’ve known too many women who couldn’t conceive, or young kids who died too soon.
I started thinking of all the children I could have, and all their potential. I realised I wanted to be surrounded by a big, loving family in my old age, and I had to plan for that life while I was still young.
I had all these lofty goals for myself like being a doctor and travelling the world, but I realised I didn’t need a lot of money or a certain lifestyle to be content with my life, because I was rich in love thanks to my children.
I’ve raised my kids with the idea that we should be content with what we have: food and shelter. My third, Ebony, says money never crossed her mind growing up because we always had enough, and she and her siblings were taught to share and be generous. Because of this, she grew to appreciate the value of memories over things.
I didn’t lose myself in motherhood; I found myself through it.
I reached a point where I felt my life had a purpose, and my children had a purpose.
As I spoke to God, I realised none of us are accidents. I started to accept that we were all knit together in our mother’s wombs for a reason. I felt a release within me, like I was no longer unsure about who I was, or why I was born.
I’ve chosen to invest in my children, and devote my time, money, and physical strength to them. I didn’t grow up in a loving, stable environment, but I want to provide that for my own kids, so they can thrive and grow into adults who are blessings to those around them.
From not wanting to feel burdened with more kids, Timothy and I gradually gave into the idea that we would have the children God intended for us. We chose to stop using contraception, which was very freeing for us. It’s not something I have to do, or tell people to do; it’s just something that works for our family.
People have judged us for having more kids when we couldn’t always afford them, but Timothy and I have both worked hard to achieve enough for our family. We decided we would make room in our hearts, and our lives, for as many children as we were blessed with.
We like hosting friends for dinner, picnicking outside with home baked goods, and going on educational excursions. I also enjoy our regular “love feasts” where we sit down together and give thanks for our blessings, which is inspired by the Jewish shabbat meal in Fiddler on the Roof. My husband and I praise each other in front of our children, and we bless each of them, telling them what we appreciate about them.
I’ve been asked if favouritism has been an issue in such a big family, but my kids have always felt there was enough love to go around. My sixth child, Abby, says it was normal for her to be in a large family, and that other kids often told her they were jealous she had so many siblings. She was never anything but excited when her younger siblings were being born, because she felt they belonged a little to her as well.
Through tragedy and crisis, I’ve been broken and rebuilt at different times in my life. I’ve accepted that I don’t need to be a perfect mother, and that I am enough.
When we had 10 children, Tim’s business suffered in the aftermath of the 2007 global financial crisis, and I worked four jobs to help make ends meet. I was tutoring students, working in ticket management for concerts, cleaning houses, homeschooling my kids, and cooking in whatever spare time I had. My older kids helped look after the younger ones while I worked. I had never been so physically exhausted in my life, but my character was being developed.
There were also times when my health failed; I’ve had surgery for a large tumour in my leg when Ariel was a newborn, stomach surgery because I was morbidly obese from childhood trauma, and also caught glandular fever and almost died from liver complications.
As I faced my mortality and struggled with our finances, I learned to let things go. Before, I thought I had to be the perfect mother, and do everything for my kids. I had no boundaries. But after these experiences, I stopped feeling guilt towards myself or children if I had to say no to them, or teach them to do things on their own.
I felt like I entered a process of metamorphosis, like how a caterpillar goes into its cocoon and completely disassembles to transform into a butterfly. To put that in a sentence seems trite, because it felt devastating at the time. But I started to embrace the moving roller coaster of life.
Now, I don’t see my children as being rivals to my needs. I know I need to be healthy to support them.
I’ve learned that I can’t give out of an empty cup, and need to invest in my own well-being. I’ve taught my children that I’m a person with needs, not a robot. I’m not there to cater to their every whim, and I also need rest and time to myself.
I’m always asked how I do it all (raising our family, homeschooling, taking care of our home), and the answer is that I don’t. Our family is a team, so our house runs like a well-oiled machine. It’s a lot quieter and cleaner than people expect, because I’ve got kids who are very willing helpers. People often comment on how good my kids are with younger children, because they’re so used to looking after them. And I’m very proud of my kids for being so helpful.
I don’t believe in ‘putting myself first’: I see myself, my husband and children as part of the same circle.
Putting someone first implies that someone else must get pushed down. Within our family circle, there is time for all of us.
When I’m with my children I’m fully present and connected, and when I’m out doing something else, like hosting a homeschool community event, I fully give to that. After so many children, I’ve learned to compartmentalise and transition more seamlessly, and not feel guilty about focusing on different tasks at a time.
When people look at me today, I know some of them might think: “Oh, you’re just a mother.” But just because I don’t do paid work, it doesn’t mean my life doesn’t have the same value.
If you ask me who I am, I’ll say I’m not only a mother, but a creative person, a teacher, a wife and a friend. I am all of these things at once, and motherhood doesn’t take centre stage for me.
I still work, though I’m not in paid employment now. I know I’m raising future adults, and training my kids to be assets to the people they meet, like their future partners and colleagues. I’m grateful that my children are turning out to be wonderful people who are thoughtful, mature, and loving.
On Mother’s Day, I remember my own mother, and how she was exceptionally kind, gentle, and everything a mother should be.
She was a compensatory parent in a terrible situation, and I think of her every single day. She’s my role model, and I want to give my kids a warm, loving environment to grow up in, just as my own mother did her best to.
People assume you lose your freedom when you have children, but to this day, I feel like I could do anything I want. I enjoy giving talks on parenting and educating children, and also run an Instagram account called Home Hawker (@homehawker), where I share dishes I make with my kids.
If there’s one thing I've learned, it’s to be open to anything the future holds. At the moment, my plans don’t include studying medicine as I once wanted to, but I’m not ruling anything out. Right now, I love facilitating my kids’ learning every day, and watching them grow up and lead their own lives. I thought I’d never travel after having so many children, but I’m now living overseas with them and enjoying this adventure in Singapore.
There’s a song I’m inspired by called Little Wonders, that talks about how life is built in “these little wonders... these twists and turns of fate.” And I’ve found myself in the big, tumultuous changes in my life, as well as the little moments I share every day with my kids.
Pictures provided by Tammy Hitchens and @homehawker on Instagram.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me on @lisatwang on the Dayre app. Like so many mothers, I’m always seeking the magical balance between myself, my daughter, and my husband, and enjoy sharing my successes and setbacks as a mum.
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