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‘I even get followed to the loo!’: how Britain’s biggest families are coping with lockdown | Life and style

As the coronavirus lockdown continues, many of us holed up at home with family will be wondering how much more of it we can take. But what is it like if you have 11 kids or live with your extended family? We asked some of Britain’s biggest families how they are coping.

Danielle Jackson, 36, is from Southend in Essex. She is a full-time parent to Allysha, 18, Mia, 16, Amelia, 14, Sophie, 13, Ruby, 10, and one-year-old twins Reid and Hunter

“I’m finding it hard,” admits Danielle Jackson. She is a single parent: space and money are tight. (One of her daughters has to sleep on a sofa in the living room.) Danielle is on employment and support allowance due to her mental health condition, and her children are eligible for free school meals. Since the schools closed, Danielle has been given Tesco vouchers to cover their lunches. However, the queue to get into Tesco is more than an hour long, and Danielle doesn’t want to leave the kids at home alone for that long.

“I’m having to ration our food,” Danielle says. “It’s difficult because, normally, the kids can just make themselves something to eat, but I have to be in control of all our meals now, to make sure we don’t run out. And the minute I go food shopping, the next day it’s all gone.” She has been issued food bank vouchers, but finding time to go is difficult.

With so many children cooped up at home, there can be occasional fireworks. “It’s the arguments between them,” Danielle sighs. “That’s what does me. Especially the older ones, because they’re teenagers now. Having them at home is hard. They haven’t got a computer or anything to keep them entertained.”

Danielle has stopped the children from watching the news. “I don’t want them to get scared,” she explains. “Not when it’s just me there to break it down to them and help them deal with it.” Normally Danielle’s mum and sister would help her with childcare, but due to the restrictions they have been unable to visit.

Being at home alone with the kids has been psychologically challenging. “I have felt suffocated, and I think the kids have, too,” she says. But when it all gets too much, Danielle goes for night-time walks. “It’s peaceful,” she says. “I love it. No cars. You can hear the foxes and all the other animals that come out at night. When the sky is clear, you can see the stars. It’s lovely.”

The Bhullar family (l to r): Inveer, Charan, Mohan, Tim, Ravinder and Harneet.

The Bhullar family (l to r): Inveer, Charan, Mohan, Tim, Ravinder and Harneet. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Tim Bhullar, 57, is a business owner from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. He lives with his wife, Ravinder, 53, daughter Harneet, 26, son Inveer, 23, mother Charan, 87, and father Mohn, 90. His niece Nimrata, 21, was also staying with the family until last week

Tim Bhullar usually wakes up at about 7am. But he doesn’t go downstairs until 11. “I just want to spend some time upstairs on my own,” he jokes. He usually listens to his daughter Harpreet’s radio show during this time – she lives in London, and presents the BBC Asian Network breakfast show.

TV has become a big issue in the Bhullar house. “One kid wants to watch American films and the other wants to watch Sky Sports and my parents want to watch the Asian channels,” he says. To resolve conflict, Tim installed a TV in a bedroom, so that the children could watch what they wanted. But Tim’s parents missed having the kids around, so they relinquished control of the remote. “Now my dad gives my son the remote and says: ‘Here, put on whatever you want, come sit with us,’” Tim says. “Dad doesn’t mind watching Sky Sports, as long as we’re all together.”

Due to their age, Tim’s parents are particularly at risk if they catchcoronavirus. “I looked out of the window recently and Dad was standing at the top of the drive,” Tim says. “I asked him what he was doing and he said he wanted to get some air. I said: ‘That’s the furthest you’re going!’” No one is leaving the house, apart from shopping. “My son says: ‘When will this be over? I want to see my friends,’” Tim says. “I say: ‘You can’t see your friends! You’re handcuffed here because of your grandparents.’ But he’s taken it well.”

Tim has imposed one crucial ground rule. “I don’t want my parents to get depressed, not at their age,” he says. “So I’ve told the kids: ‘If you want to be miserable, fine, but be miserable upstairs! When you come downstairs, be happy.’ I want everyone to take the lockdown in good spirits.”

Griping aside, lockdown has brought the family closer together. “The kids are spending much more time with their grandparents than they would normally,” he says. “They have a better bond now. And I’ve been having Zoom calls in the evening with all our relatives abroad. That would never have happened before coronavirus. So it’s been nice in a lot of ways.”

The Brett family: Corey, David (holding Rothagaith), Blake (holding mum’s hand), Alexis with Cameron, Campbell, Brodie, Harrison, Brahn, Hunter, Lachlan and Mack.

The Brett family: Corey, David (holding Rothagaith), Blake (holding mum’s hand), Alexis with Cameron, Campbell, Brodie, Harrison, Brahn, Hunter, Lachlan and Mack. Photograph: Caters News Agency

David Brett, 45, is a train driver from Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. He lives with his wife, Alexis, 40, and their children, Campbell, 18, Harrison, 16, Corey, 14, Lachlan, 11, Brodie, 10, Brahn, 8, Hunter, 7, Mack, 6, Blake, 4, Rothagaith, 3, and Cameron, seven months

“It has obviously been difficult,” shouts David Brett over the noise of his 11 children playing in the background. “Having them all in the house is a challenge. They start arguing over their toys or wanting to go on the laptop at the same time.”

David has Parkinson’s disease, which puts him in the at-risk group for coronavirus. He has been off work for the past 12 weeks and has to follow strict social distancing guidance. “It’s made things hard,” he says, “because I’m the one who drives. Now Alexis has to do the shopping on her own, and carry it back , as they don’t let more than one person into the shop. And we’re not talking one or two small bags – she’s buying eight pints of milk a day! Luckily, she’s quite fit.”

Being at home has given David a newfound respect for Alexis, who is a full-time parent. “I’ve always had enormous respect for her,” he says, “but it’s been an eye-opener as to what goes on when I’m at work.” Trying to manage the children’s screen time has been particularly difficult: David has been teaching them jiu-jitsu in their small garden, so the children get some exercise. When the family goes for a walk, they get funny looks. “People think we aren’t social distancing,” he says, “because there are so many of us together.”

David is trying to see the positives. “Having more quality time with the children has been really good.”

Zara Sehr (seated) with (l to r) Rubina, Arshad, Huraira, Imaan, Noor, Faisal and three of their cats.

Zara Sehr (seated) with (l to r) Rubina, Arshad, Huraira, Imaan, Noor, Faisal and three of their cats. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Zara Sehr Ashraf, 31, is a fashion programmer from Croydon, south London. She lives with her mother, Rubina, 59, her father, Arshad, 62, brother Faisal, 35, sister-in-law Huraira, 32, nieces Imaan, 4, and Noor, six months, and four cats, Babaganoush, Custard, Lana and Babby

Living with her family in a three-bedroom terraced house is proving challenging for Zara Ashraf, particularly as she is still working. “It’s been laughable sometimes, honestly,” Zara says. “You’re on a Zoom call and there are lullabies playing, toys everywhere, kids in the background. I’ll be talking to my boss and out of the corner of my eye, I’ll see my niece ripping my favourite book to shreds.” Zara created a workstation in the living room, surrounding a makeshift desk with plants and purchasing an office chair, but her nieces knocked over the plants and drew all over the beige chair. “They’re only little,” she says. “What can you do?”

In lieu of being able to escape her surroundings, headphones have become Zara’s best friend. But they don’t block out her dad’s friendly attempts at conversation. “He always wants to share a news story with me,” she says. “And he doesn’t really understand that I’m in a different headspace.” If her dad’s not nattering away, Zara’s mum is finding her something to do. “We’re not a hugely traditional family,” she says, “but we are south Asian, so there are gender roles there. I’ve not been furloughed, but I’m still being asked to help out in the kitchen with the cooking!”

Maintaining focus at work has been difficult given the circumstances. “I feel grateful that I still have work,” she says, “but I’ve really noticed the psychological effects of not being able to go into the office every day and have the commute to decompress.”

It’s not just work that is a challenge. “You’ll be lucky if you can steal a precious 20 minutes of sanctuary in the bathroom before the banging on the door begins,” Zara says. She proposed a bathroom rota to no avail. “It’s lawless in our household,” she laughs. “We don’t take well to rules.”

Being trapped at home with her family has led to some conflict. “Things that wouldn’t normally bother us are definitely building up in an unhealthy way,” she says. “And because my parents are older, it’s more dangerous for them to go outside. So their pressures and frustrations are building up even more, because they have less release.”

When everything gets too much, Zara retreats to her bedroom. “It’s my small paradise,” she says. Babaganoush sometimes joins her. “He’s my only ally in this house,” she jokes.

Tess Giddings with (l to r) Amiah, Jacob, Savannah, Hezekiah, Nevaeh (front), Chris, Zion and Levi.

Tess Giddings with (l to r) Amiah, Jacob, Savannah, Hezekiah, Nevaeh (front), Chris, Zion and Levi. Photograph: Image provided by Tess Giddings

Tess Giddings, 32, a homemaker from Bournemouth in Dorset, lives with her husband, Chris, an engineer, and their children, Jacob, 13, Savannah, 11, Amiah, 10, Zion, 8, Nevaeh, 4, and twins Levi and Hezekiah, 2

“When this first started, I was like, ‘This is my worst nightmare’,” says Tess Giddings. “Having all the kids home from school? I can’t do this.” She is speaking to me from the family’s minivan because the house is too loud.

Home schooling all seven children was her biggest worry. “The thought of it was overwhelming,” she says. Teachers advised Tess to take it day by day, and not put too much pressure on the kids, which helped her to feel more relaxed. Like many families, the Giddingses have been regulars at Joe Wicks’ morning PE sessions. “When there are so many kids to entertain, it is non-stop,” she says. “But every time I get stressed, I think that there are people in worse situations – people are dying. I have to be thankful we’re all healthy and together.”

Chris, who has been furloughed, came up with an innovative solution to keep the younger children entertained: he has converted their garage into a soft play centre. “He’s padded it all out and childproofed it using his martial arts mats,” Tess says. “While he was doing it, I was rolling my eyes. But it’s been really good.”

Buying enough food for her nine-person family exposes Tess to the ire of the British public. She was in Aldi doing a big shop when a man came up to her. “He said: ‘You better be having a party, because that takes the absolute mickey,’” Tess recalls. “He was smiling, but I could tell he meant it.”

Online commenters can also be critical. After Tess posted a picture on Instagram of her family on a walk by the seafront, she received negative comments. “People were saying: ‘Stay in, you’re so selfish,’” she says. “But I know the government guidelines – we’ve done nothing wrong. Everyone is allowed one walk a day.”

When it all gets too much, Tess hides in the van. “There is no escape in the house,” she sighs. “I even get followed to the toilet by the twins! Sometimes I go and sit in the van, for a bit of peace and quiet.”

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