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No ordinary Mother’s Day: Meet Burghead mum-of-12 Zoe

Ahead of Mother's Day, I spoke to Burghead mum-of-12 Zoe Sullivan on her life as the glue that holds together one of Britain's biggest families.
Calum Petrie
Zoe Sullivan with husband Ben and their 12 (twelve) children. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson
Zoe Sullivan with husband Ben and their 12 (twelve) children. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world.

So said Agatha Christie. But how do you share that love and attention between a dozen children?

That was one of many questions I put to Burghead mum-of-12 Zoe Sullivan as she looks forward to Mother’s Day.

She’ll be up at 4.45am as usual.

Studying the family albums with (from left) Eva, 12, Charlotte, 16, Leah, 8, and Erin, 8. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Zoe, 45, and husband Ben, 49, are both from the same part of Cornwall and grew up together. After moving away from the area separately as young adults, they got together when they both came back.

Almost exactly 19 years ago, they had their first child, Elisabeth, whose birthday is next month. Olivia, 17, was also born in Cornwall. Then Ben’s job as an aircraft engineer took them to RAF Valley in Wales, where twins Charlotte and Isabelle, now 16, came along.

Another move took the Sullivans to RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire, and their first boy Noah, now 14, arrived, followed by Evangeline (Eva), 12, and 11-year-old Tobias.

A shift to Lossiemouth followed. Twins Leah and Erin, now 8, were very premature. Agnes, 6, and Joseph, 5, were the babies of the family, until number 12 Florence arrived in April 2022.

All of which means Zoe has been pregnant for seven and a half years.

As for number 13, more on that later….

Burghead mum-of-12 says big family was never planned

With 18-month-old Florence, the youngest member of the 14-strong Sullivan family. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

I asked Zoe whether it was always the plan to have a big family.

“Do you know, it’s not something we ever really discussed. We never said we would have a certain number of children. We just sort of carried on.

“I think the more we had, the more we realised how much we love having a big family.

“And to be honest, the more you have the easier it gets in a weird sort of way.

“The older ones are as involved in the younger ones’ lives as much as me at times.

“They love to help out and do things with the little ones, most of the time at least. So it’s like you get extra help. And everyone loves the baby one, obviously.”

Isabelle, 16, helps Erin, 8, with her reading. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

It’s often said that you can get away with being disorganised with one child, but that changes when number two arrives. Not many of us can imagine what it’s like to run a family of 14.

“You do have to have a really good routine,” said Zoe. “We have to be pretty organised with everything, really.

“For example, we can’t just say ‘right, let’s go out for the day’, pack some things in a bag and go. We have to organise things a week in advance. ‘Right, on this day we’re going to be here, what do we need to take with us?’

“We can’t just drop in for a meal somewhere, we need to book because there’s so many of us. We normally have to pre-order our food before we go as well, because we get treated as a big party.”

Four hours sleep a night and morning bathroom chaos

Fitting in the demands of 12 kids means Zoe needs more hours in her day than most. She steals these extra hours by getting up at 4.45am.

“I can’t bear being late to anything, and I can’t bear being rushed. So if I get up early, I can have a shower, think about what I’m going to do for the day, and get ready.

“I like to get some of the chores in as well before the kids go to school, so I might do two loads of washing and those sorts of things. It does let me get more done.”

Charlotte, 16, helps Zoe prepare packed lunches. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Weekday mornings are chaotic.

“There’s varying stages of teenager using the bathroom, so I need to be in and out of there before anyone needs it.

“They’ve all worked out among themselves when their bathroom time is. Everyone has their slot.”

With such an early start (even Ben leaves for work at 6.30am), and a dozen kids to take care of, it begs the question: just how tired is Zoe by the end of the day?

“I fell asleep standing up next to the oven yesterday, that’s how tired I am.

“With Joseph, we’re just waiting for his assessment for autism, and he doesn’t sleep very well. He’ll wake up at 3am and come in with me and just toss and turn.

“I don’t get to bed until around midnight, so I probably average four or five hours’ sleep – on a good night. So yes, by about 8pm, 9pm, I’m done, I’ll be asleep on the sofa.”

Finding pockets of time for each child

So just how does Zoe share her love and attention between 12 children?

“I think that’s one of the things people ask us the most, to be honest.

“It’s not always easy, but you’ve got to remember that I’m here all the time. The older ones are at school during the day, so the younger ones get my attention then. And when the older ones come home, I’m here for them to talk to if they need it.

“Mind you, once they become teenagers they don’t necessarily want my attention all the time!

“It’s not always easy splitting my time, but we do things as a family a lot. It’s just those little things, like if we’re all out, having a one-to-one chat with one of the kids can be difficult.

With twins Leah and Erin, 8. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“Really it’s about using your time cleverly, whether it be chats in the car or what have you. Just those little pockets of time. Like when I go shopping, the kids take it in turns to come with me.

“But they’ve all got each other as well, which I think is important. They’ve always got a sibling somewhere in the house to talk to if they need to, which is quite nice. And most of the time they get on well with each other.”

The food shop and three trolley-loads

The parent in me was intrigued by the practical side of having so many kids.

In terms of finances, money is saved by the fact that Zoe and Ben gave up alcohol six years ago and neither smoke.

Each child has a budget for birthdays and Christmas, and everyone gets the same. If more money comes in then everyone’s budget will go up by the same amount. At the moment it’s £150 per child.

Food is a major expense, particularly with hungry teenagers in the house.

“The weekly budget used to be £300, but it’s more like £400 now because the cost of food has gone up enormously.

“And I don’t know what it is about teenage boys but they just eat all the time, just live in the fridge – I’ve never seen anything like it.

“So yes, the food shop’s…interesting. We go through endless amounts of milk and bread. It’s incredible. I dread going shopping sometimes, it’s three trolley-loads every week normally.”

Remembering 12 birthdays

Organising – and even remembering – 12 birthdays can be a challenge as well.

“This is where having teenagers is brilliant,” said Zoe. “They help out a lot because they love to organise birthday stuff, whether it be balloon displays or colour schemes. They help out a lot at Christmas as well.

“I’m pretty good at remembering everyone’s birthday, although if you ask me on the spot I do have to think for a bit. They’re all in there somewhere. I do sometimes get confused with the years. But Ben’s got them all written down.”

So much for practicalities. But I’ve often thought the key to parenthood is simply staying sane. I asked Zoe how she does so.

“I don’t think I ever was sane in the first place, to be honest – I think we must be a little bit nuts!

“We just love it, everything about it. Bringing up my kids is everything for me. I’ve got a little clothing business, and there’s the YouTube channel and stuff, but really the children are my life.

“Some people have a family alongside everything else, but if you’re going to have a lot of kids then you’ve got to put everything in. I guess some people would see that as a sacrifice, but for us, we love it. We love having them around, and the older ones are more like friends now.

“We must seem crazy to some people, but to us it’s just life. My whole life revolves around the children, but that’s how I want it to be.”

Homework time for Isabelle, 16, and Noah, 14. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Burghead mum-of-12 on mental toll and the need for more help for mums

With both Zoe and Ben’s families living at the opposite end of the UK, they don’t have the support network of grandparents to call on when times get tough.

She admits that her parenting journey hasn’t always been plain sailing, at times taking a mental toll.

But although her kids might be the source of her stress at times, they’re also the solution.

“I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for many years, but in a way, having 12 kids regulates that. It gives me purpose.

“They keep me sane in a weird sort of way, even though they drive me nuts sometimes.

“I did go through a really hard time after having the second set of twins, who were born very premature. There were lots of problems – one of them had sepsis and we very nearly lost her.

“It was a lot to deal with and I don’t think I really dealt with it at all, to be honest. I just kind of got through.

“But in a way that was a good thing – because we had seven other children at home, I had to get through.

“Now I look back and can see that I was just surviving. But I do wonder how I’d have coped if I didn’t have those other children to concentrate on and keep me levelled.

“I don’t think there’s enough help for mothers when it comes to things like post-natal depression. There’s still that stigma, you’re still made to feel as if you’re a little bit crazy, as if they’ll take your baby away.”

Too much pressure on mums

Indeed, Zoe feels there’s too much pressure on mums these days.

“I think there’s too much emphasis on ‘oh, you should have a child at this age, you should be working, you should be doing this’.

One of Zoe’s biggest challenges is dividing her time equally between her 12 children. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“You can’t do right for doing wrong.

“Working mothers are at fault because they’re working and leaving their kids in childcare. Stay-at-home mums are at fault because they’re not out working.

“Mums with only one child are called selfish because they haven’t got a big enough family. Mums with lots of kids are called selfish because they’ve got too many kids.

“You can’t win whatever you do in the eyes of some in society.

“It’s a personal thing, what works for you and your situation is the best thing. Juggling a career and childcare is not easy, certainly not now when the cost of childcare is so ridiculous.

“Nobody can tell you what you should and shouldn’t do.”

‘I still don’t know what I’m doing’

But surely she feels like an expert after so many kids?

“When Elisabeth, our first, was born, I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.

“I used to look at mums who had three or more kids and it always felt like they really knew what they were doing.

“But I’ve got a lot more confidence in myself as a parent than I did when I had one or two children.

“Now, I probably still don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel more confident about things.

“You hear people say ‘you should parent this way’, ‘you should parent that way’. But things still take me by surprise. Every age brings something new, I don’t think you’ve ever seen it all.”

And finally, and plans for child number 13?

“Never say never.

“It’s an open-ended question. Ben’s 49 now and I’m 45, so we’re getting to that point where we’d really have to think carefully.

“But I would never say no to another one.”