Big is beautiful: Jeni and Ray Bonell with their 15-strong brood. Photo: Paul Harris
You know you have a large family when you need a truck licence to do the school run. Or when you pull up at the kerb to pick your kids up, only to have complete strangers jump on board as well, fare in hand, because they assume you are public transport. "They don't seem to notice there are child restraints on board," says Jeni Bonell, as she manoeuvres the 16-seat Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which actually used to be a school bus, around Toowoomba.
Fare or no fare, on a busy day with all of the Bonell children in transit, an extra commuter wouldn't find a seat anyway. Unless, of course, the family's "buddy system" has failed and one of the nine boys and six girls, who range in age from two to 23, has been left behind.
"It has happened more than once," Jeni confesses. "Now we have a roll-call, the older ones are supposed to keep an eye out for the young ones, and we keep a list at the front with the things they need to check as they get on and off. But things get left behind: hats, lunch boxes, sports equipment and, occasionally, a child. Sometimes, when you call their names, they will answer for each other. So no system is foolproof."
The federal government defines a "large family" as one with at least three children; eligible parents with more than two offspring are eligible for a "large-family allowance" of $12.04 extra per child per fortnight under the family tax benefit scheme. But after riding shotgun with Jeni on the 90-minute after-school trip to muster children from four different locations, it seems highly unlikely she and husband Ray produced one of the largest nuclear families in Australia for a fortnightly jackpot of $157. Not when you consider their most recent grocery bill, over a week of school holidays, included 63 litres of milk. Nor, for that matter, when you realise that 15 children equates to roughly 11-plus years of pregnancy and, in Jeni's case, a formidable 220 hours in labour.
The bus pulls up and the children surge into the house like a swiftly rising tide, tumbling over couches and clambering up bunks in their colour-coded bedrooms. Jeni has hand-painted wall murals to match themes such as "ocean room" and "fairy room" but there is commonsense behind the creativity. "The coding helps me keep track of which linen [also colour-coded] needs laundering next, and where things belong after they've come off the line." Similarly, clothes are sorted according to size and sex, rather than individual child, with socks kept in big communal tubs.
The family still lives at the same address that Jeni and Ray, an electrician, moved into as newly-marrieds, aged 19 and 26 respectively, although Ray has since added three more bedrooms to the original two-bedroom cottage. There is still only one toilet and one bathroom, however.
"It can be difficult if anyone gets sick," Jeni concedes. "We had a stomach bug go through the house recently and that was really awful. I had to do a chart in the kitchen with stick figures to keep track of who had been sick but got better, who hadn't had it yet and who was needing medicine. And I drew a bucket next to any of those who were down with it at the time."
Another chart - colour-coded, of course - outlines the chores roster. Once they turn eight, each child is expected to chip in, although they are initially paired with an older sibling who trains them to do everything from tidying the bathroom to preparing a Sunday roast. Beds have to be made before breakfast is eaten, the children make their own lunches and the little ones are helped into uniforms by their "buddies".
"We have a rule that if it's not broken, bleeding or on fire, Mum and Dad don't want to know about it," Jeni says. "I think it has encouraged them to sort things out for themselves and to take responsibility for each other. But it annoys me when people suggest the children mustn't get enough individual attention. In a big family, there's always someone who is available to help or play, and they all have very distinctive personalities."
In the lounge room, six-year-old Nate, whom Jeni calls "our perfectionist", sings along to Thomas the Tank Engine. On a couch, Eric, 3, "an engineer in the making", nestles contentedly into Sam, 15, who is introduced by his devoted younger brother as "best buddy" and by Mum as "the family organiser". Brandon and Tim, the eight-year-old "clown" and 10-year-old "mischief-maker" respectively, give each other piggybacks, while "the helper" Eve, 7, makes little sister Rachel giggle by swinging her upside down - until she drops the preschooler on her head, prompting loud tears from the family's "fairy girl". "She doesn't like it when you mess up her hair," Eve explains solemnly.
Through it all, Damian, the baby of the family, sleeps soundly, curled in a corner of the room like a possum. The Bonells' two-year-old "energiser" has run out of steam, temporarily at least.
How did a woman who accepted her boyfriend's proposal of marriage after two weeks of dating, but included a warning that she did not like children, end up with a rugby team of them?
"Ray comes from a family of six, so I compromised on having a couple of kids," says Jeni. "We had a pigeon pair - Jesse and Brooke ["the entrepreneur", 23, and "the manager", 22] - and I agreed we could try for one more. But then we had a girl [Claire, 20, "the gentle supervisor"], so Ray wanted to try for another boy, and instead we had Natalie [the 18-year-old "enforcer"]. So we kept trying, and really, once you get to six or eight kids, you just have a momentum. The lifestyle and the joy they bring just feels natural to you."
It seems the feeling is infectious. Jeni adds that the other reason head counts are important when the tribe is out is that they tend to attract other children. "You'll be walking around the supermarket and realise, 'Hang on, these ones aren't my children.' Kids just gravitate to us. They like joining the crowd."
There is a pause, while she checks whether Damian is still asleep. "You know those parents you see at the supermarket checkout? The ones whose children keep asking, 'Can I have a lolly? Can I have a lolly?' until they eventually give in?" Jeni continues, sounding as if she is about to dispense more commonsense parenting advice. "Well, I keep hoping God is a bit like that, and if I keep asking for another baby, He'll just give in and say, 'Oh, all right'. Maybe even twins. When you think about it, the odds are that I'm due for a set."