FAMILY- More is merrier: Nine's fine for local family


When Mike and Mary Deighan had their first child in 1986, they knew they were starting something big. But even they hadn't guessed just how big.

 "I figured we'd have maybe four or five," says Mary, whose petite frame and peaches-and-cream complexion belie her 49 years.

 She was right– they did have five. And then four more. Two decades later, the Deighans are the proud parents of nine children– ages 3 to 21.

With a crew that big, the Deighan parents and kids have grown accustomed to drawing incredulous looks from stranger.

"People ask, 'Do you live on a farm?' laughs 17-year-old Kathleen. In fact, the family– minus 21-year-old Justin and 19-year-old Mikaela, who both live away from home– resides in a duplex on St. Clair Avenue that's been modified to create one large living space. One side features a kitchen, dining room, and living room. The other side is used as a classroom (where the parents homeschool the children), a rec room, and a laundry room. Upstairs are six bedrooms, one side for the girls, the other for the boys and the parents. 

Another assumption: "They say, 'You must be Catholic or something,'" says the teenaged Kathleen, prompting a raised eyebrow and a smile from her father. "Is that wrong?" he asks.

Indeed, throughout the house subtle but obvious signs reveal the family's faith– a small crucifix hangs in the classroom, and a framed painting of the Last Supper graces the dining room.

In addition to leading the Deighans to "accept each child as a gift from God," their faith played a role in their decision to homeschool.

"Our life does revolve around the notion that God is always present in our lives," says Mike, 50, a computer programmer whose flexible schedule allows him to run the homeschool most mornings from 9am to 1pm while Mary works part time as a bookkeeper. She also teaches several mornings a week.

The rigors of home academics are intense and include studies in math, English, history, geography, and even Latin. Following his "graduation" at age 16, the oldest Deighan offspring, Justin, graduated from William & Mary in three years and is pursuing his Ph.D in engineering and physics at UVA. Nineteen-year-old Mikaela is in her second year at Christendom College in Front Royal. Along with Kathleen, 15-year-old Sean is already taking courses at Piedmont Virginia Community College– something that will allow them to enter college with significant college credits already under their belts.

Homeschooling, Mike says, also allows the family to stress religious values in a way that public school would not. "It gives us an opportunity that continues through schooling and through meals as well as on Sunday," when he takes several of the older children to a traditional Latin mass and Sunday school at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Richmond. 

Despite the importance of faith in their lives, "It's not something that we tend to make center stage," says Mike, who grew up in an even larger family as one of 11 children. "I like to think of it as the heart of the family."

In addition to juggling the educational needs of each of their children, the Deighans– who met in college when both were on an exchange year in Germany– make extracurricular activities a priority. The family rule is that each child must participate in some athletic endeavor throughout the year. Eight-year-old Colin plays soccer and baseball, while 12-year-old Madeleine and her younger sisters, 10-year-old Veronica participate in Irish and English country dance. 

Arts are also encouraged. Sean plays fiddle with the Blue Ridge Irish Music School's Traditional Ensemble, and much of the family, even six-year-old Erin, is active in local theater productions as well, making many of their own costumes.

Juggling so many interests and needs is a challenge and requires certain sacrifices, Mary concedes.

"I'll never have a clean house," she sighs with a smile, citing, among other things, the 21 loads of laundry the family generates each week. Other challenges: staying within a budget.

Mike, who does most of the family's grocery shopping, says he's always on the lookout for sales to stay within the food budget– $1,000 a month. Each day, the hungry clan goes through two gallons of milk, two loaves of bread, and two boxes of cereal.

But with two children out of the house and three others now teenagers, Mary says life is easier than when she had only four children under age 6.

"That was hard," she admits.

As for the most frequent question they get– "Are you having more?"– Mary says she has a humorous response.

"That's the middle child, right there," she'll say, pointing to 3-year-old Padraic, who is actually the youngest. In fact, Mary says, nature has probably made the decision for them, but if another comes along, they'd welcome him or her.

"We've always been open to children in our lives," she says. Understatement!