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21 kids and a problem or two

6 21 siblings
Phan Tien, who is the mother of 21 children, stands with her family at their home in Pursat province. Her husband died three years ago. Photograph: Sou Vuthy/Phnom Penh Post

She doesn’t hold the record. Then again, she didn’t have eight wives to help.

Unlike Thach Singasoseakk, the relatively well-to-do sire of 25 (and one of the Kingdom’s last men to have legally married multiple women), 50-year-old Phan Tien produced her burgeoning brood with only one spouse, her beloved Khan Khuob, now gone three years.

Over three decades of marriage, the Pursat town villager gave birth to a staggering 21 children. With her husband’s death, she was left the sole breadwinner for an already poor family, a fact that has left her unbowed.

“When it comes to producing children, not only in this village but even across the country, no one can produce as many children as I,” Tien told the Post in a recent interview.

“Whenever we had sex, we had a child,” she said, with a smile. “No one can produce children as well as I can, and I can feed them all, even though I am poor.”

Tien married in 1980, just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and the children came in quick succession. There are 11 daughters and 10 sons ranging in age from seven to 31. And though the family had eked by on the meagre salary of Khuob, all grew up healthy and strong.

“While [Khuob] was alive, his feet rarely touched the earth; almost every day he climbed up the palm trees for its juice in exchange for rice to feed our children,” she said.

The family earned about 10,000 to 20,000 riel each day, but frequently borrowed and dipped into savings to gather the 35,000 needed to feed their brood. Often, they would go through eight kilograms of rice each day.

After her husband died, many of Tien’s children had to seek additional work, but “the family expense is not the same as before. Everything is more expensive.”

Despite the travails, however, it has had little effect on Tien’s health. Always strong, she claims never to have suffered during or after pregnancy.

“I never had problems delivering them, and my health is also good. I never even had morning sickness,” she said. “As you know, we are poor, have many children. We have no time to sit or rest like a First Lady. Sometimes, 10 days after delivering, I did do work outside the house such as cutting wood, carrying water.”

Why so many children in the first place? Well, said Tien, her husband was enamored by them.

“He loved his children very much – whether they were old or young. Whatever they wanted to do, he would let them. He never laid a finger on them.”

After their third child, Tien said they should have no more. But her husband begged that they let the family grow.

“He asked again and again not to use birth control and not to abort, but, if they came, to let them live with us.

“He wanted us to have two dozen.”

All 21 of Tien’s sons and daughters were delivered by her mother, Tuom.

“She never went to find any midwife besides me. Sometimes, she gave birth alone, because I was late,” said Tuom. Tien’s hearty disposition likely comes from her mother, who says she has never been seriously ill and never received any medical treatment other than herbs.

“As far as I know, not one of my relatives has ever had as many children as she. Ten is the most anyone had. I could never imagine that Tien could produce 21 grandchildren,” said Tuom.

After the couple had their first three children in quick succession, village chief Sou Bunthoeun advised them “not to have so many children.”

But, he said, Khuob couldn’t bear having only a few sons and daughters.

“He told his wife to keep them all, and that’s why they have 21.”

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