All in the Family: Fifteen children, one household, one-and-a half bathrooms

For residents of the second and third floors of the Shoreland dorm of the University of Chicago, many would claim that the only person more recognizable as an ally and mentor during O-week beyond the Resident Heads and Assistants was Annette Roland. She was a first-year, but what she lacked in firsthand college experience she hid shockingly well with her exuberant, confident attitude and engagingly intrepid outlook on college life. Hers was the first room to open its door to random passersby in the hallway, and since that first week, room number 324 conjures in the minds of all who know it memories of wild parties, loud music, whacky stories of intoxication and the image of one girl who stood out from the rest with her loud voice and cheerful, vivacious personality.

But Annette Roland herself would be the first to tell you that there’s a deeper side to her personality than first meets the eye. Though some could hazard a guess and attribute her popularity and the ease with which she handles social situations to the idea that she was a magnet for attention all throughout high school, the truth lies in a more unusual fact: she is one of fifteen children born to the Roland family, and her personality is more a well-honed survival mechanism than anything else.

“My family situation helped me to become a very extroverted person. I had to be. Otherwise, I would never get heard,” said Roland.

How Roland’s unusually large family came to be is an interesting story of familial conflict and rebellion that is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet’s. Her mother’s side of the family hails from Ireland, and while Roland modestly refers to them as middle class in the United States, the regal family crest adorning the pressed and carefully kept copy of her mother’s family tree conveys the truth. Omera blood runs in the veins of all fifteen Roland children, and they are descended from Irish gentility.

On the other hand, her father lays claim to Italian lineage, which, when coupled with the fact that he spent his childhood in the predominantly Irish Chicago suburb of Mt. Greenwood where people of his heritage were few and far between, and the majority of the police force was comprised of Irishmen — basically boiled down to the reality that he lived a hard life as a minority. The future couple actually grew up across the street from each other, but love never blossomed until they met in high school. When it did, it was much to the dismay of both their families. Racial tension between the two clans escalated when the two youths announced their decision to marry even without their families’ consent, which resulted in lifelong repercussions.

“My mom can actually recall times when her family asked her to step out of pictures that they were sending back home [to Ireland], due to the disgrace she had caused them,” Roland said.

But by the time Roland’s mother had reached the age of nineteen and her father the age of twenty-one, the two were happily married. The first of a long line of fifteen children was born less than a year later, a girl named Elizabeth.

Today, the Roland children range from the ages of eleven to thirty-four, live in various places throughout the nation, and hold jobs that stretch from Air Force Major (Annette’s oldest sister Elizabeth) to cellular biology researcher (Annette’s third-born sibling Joey) to graphic designer (Annette’s second born sister Mary). With herself as the thirteenth child in the pecking order, Roland has seven older brothers and five older sisters, and one sibling of each gender bring up the rear behind her. She says that as more children came into the picture — the first two children were actually “Irish twins,” babies born less than a year apart — her mom quit her secretarial job to be able to stay at home full-time, while her father went from being an iron worker to an analytical chemist. Remarkably, despite the rapid growth of the family, the Rolands managed to consistently maintain their middle class standing, sticking together in times of financial hardship but generally managing to keep their heads above water.

“With fifteen children, you never really rise above middle class. We had only one-and-a-half bathrooms for all seventeen of us, and my dad built the basement himself, so that we could have a two-story house,” said Annette.

To keep order in the family, the first two house rules consisted of two words: be quiet. Furthermore, they ate in shifts-with boys going first because girls took a longer time in the bathroom-and shared rooms, boys always separate from girls. Annette shared her bedroom with three of her sisters.

Annette says that in her family, loyalty and respect were intrinsically ingrained traits. Despite the strife and dismay her parents may have caused their own families, they instilled in their own children the heavily emphasized notion of unity and allegiance. Such ideology not only helped maintain order but also provided each of the siblings with an irrevocable support system that they could turn to when in need.

“My family respect is very strong. You do what you’re told. If one of my older siblings told me to stand on my head, I’d do it until someone with more seniority told me I could stop,” said Annette.

Annette says that a few weeks ago, when she was questioning whether to drop a class, she did not trust anyone’s opinion but her older sister Stephanie’s, who she considers her best friend and closest buddy. Closer than buddies, however, is Annette’s relationship to Joe, who is at once her older brother and godfather, and Ryan, her five-month old nephew and godson. As we sat on her couch, Annette jokingly told me that when they said they “keep it in the family” they “kept it in the family.”

Pride in her family and the determination to not see her parents struggle with the battle of putting yet another child through both private high school and college gave Annette the zeal necessary for working all throughout her high school years in order to save up enough money that would in turn save her parents the effort. She succeeded in paying for her tuition for Maria High School in Chicago and received a plethora of scholarships that helped her pay for college independent of her parents.

“My parents don’t send a check, or anything that is like a check, or looks like a check. It’s not that they wouldn’t pay for me, it’s that I don’t want them to have to,” said Annette.
But aside from the financial readiness aspects, Annette’s background has helped her when it comes to dorm life. She admits that being raised in an environment where few things were exclusively her own helps her extensively when it comes to living with someone, sharing space and sharing things in the dorm environment, perhaps better than other students who have never experienced that sort of lifestyle.

“Relationships are give-and-take in my family. You give, give, give to your siblings and they take and don’t give anything back. It’s a lot like that in college and I think a lot of new students don’t understand that yet,” said Annette.

When asked if she would ever change her family situation for one with fewer siblings, more distribution of wealth, perhaps a bigger living space, Annette responds passionately in the negative. In her opinion, coming from a family with so many different individuals interested in such diverse preoccupations and headed in so many different directions is something that could never be compensated for with materialistic values or a quieter lifestyle.

“There are a good number of us spread out all over the country. I go home about every two weeks, and we all come back for reunions every once in a while. It’s kind of hard to coordinate it all, but it’s well worth the effort.”