Mother of 12: I was pregnant for nine years
When news that a 48-year-old Melbourne mother of 12 was in hospital awaiting the arrival of five more precious babies last month, the story raced around the globe, and strangers unleashed abuse describing the mother as disgraceful, irresponsible, selfish and greedy. The tiny bubs were even called "potential dole bludgers."
With 12 children and 13 grandchildren of her own, 48-year-old Sandra Dodd is one of the few people who can truly understand the nappies, night feeds and nursery logistics required to raise such a family.
"My first thought was how wonderful for them. I was so happy for her and I could imagine those little babies nestled in her arms, but I also knew that not everyone would congratulate them," she says.
Sandra has been pregnant for nine years, changed over 30,000 nappies, lovingly made more than 26,000 school lunches and washed more clothes than anyone could dare to count.
Her husband Anthony had to get an endorsed truck licence to driver the kids around in their 14-seater family car, and they fill at least two trolleys on every grocery trip.
Sandra gives the family roll call without blinking. There's Rachelle, 31, Rebecca, 30, Nathaniel, 27, Vanessa, 26, Justin, 24, Kaitlyn, 22, Meghan, 21, Gabrielle, 18, Nicholas, 14, Matthew, 12, Liam, 11, and Jorja, six, and now 13 grandchildren making up the Dodd clan. The eldest have moved out and five children remain at the now "quiet" home.
The Dodds have certainly bucked the trend of smaller families and raising a family of such magnitude in modern-day Australia requires military precision, but there is a lot to be learned from this vibrant and loving family, which doesn’t just survive but thrives.
"The secret is simple," Sandra says.
"A lot of love, a lot of discipline and learning to say no.
"At dinner we have one meal and if you don't like it, bad luck. I won't cook different meals for different kids. If I can put something on the table that 99 per cent of them will eat, then I've done my job.
"We are consistent. If I say no, Anthony says no. The kids know the boundaries and as unpleasant as it can be saying no to kids sometimes, they live with it."
When all of the children were at home, the family would go through a staggering six loaves of bread and nine litres of milk a day, and so she quickly mastered the art of savvy shopping to balance the weekly budget.
Sandra doesn't go to the hairdresser, but now that Gabrielle is studying hairdressing, that is taken care of. The kids are home-schooled and in the days when all the children were at home they would bathe in shifts with five kids in the bath and once and the littlies would sleep top-to-toe in bunk beds.
And of course there are some rules.
"We have one TV in the living room and we watch TV as a family, so everything we watch must be PG and suitable for all ages, and we absolutely ban mobile phones until they are 18. Tony and I only got our first mobile phones this year and I can't stand seeing a group of teenagers in a room texting one another, not conversing," Sandra says.
A big family was probably always on the cards for the devoutly Catholic couple, who were 17 and 20 when they married. Sandra was one of eight kids and Anthony one of nine.
"I look at families with less children and I sometimes think they're missing out. I really like being with my kids. They are great and we have a lot of fun together. I enjoy doing things for them."
It's exhausting just thinking about it, yet she wouldn't rule out adding to the bustling Dodd brood. "You never say never," she says, smiling, "I love babies and if another was to come our way we'd be delighted, although I don't think the older children would be as thrilled!"
Read more of this story in the December issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.