The Family Mobile
First they have a few biological kids, then add some by adoption, from Korea, India, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe. Soon there are 17. For families like the Kayeses, a stable home life is an ever-evolving balancing act. By Melissa Fay Greene
The Kayes family, with its 17 children, has survived by two mottos, Nancy Kayes tells me. She is 57, friendly and relaxed, with soft motherly skin, a head of dark curls and the sort of wonderful laugh that sounds as if she is overcoming reluctance, as if she hadn’t meant to veer off a serious topic but finds something irresistibly funny.
The first motto is “Better Dead Than Camping.”
The second is “If It Will Fit in an Aquarium, You Can Have It.”
(The second fell under serious scrutiny the night the guinea pig was on an IV, had to have its calcium drops every two hours, and Nancy was the one walking the floor.)
Inside the family’s jumbo two-story house on a winding suburban street in Springfield Township, Ohio, airy vistas coexist with dark grottos. A dozen older kids mill around a vast, sunny family room with a wide bay of sectional sofas, a big-screen TV and a lit-up working jukebox. There are shelves of board games and a table for checkers, as in a mountain lodge. Long tables come poking out of the dining room so that everyone can dine more or less together, although teenage cliques grab seats near one another. But down the basement steps from the kitchen, teenage boys hibernate in cinder-block caves hung with Duke University basketball posters. They wash and stash their plates after dinner each night and clump down the dark stairs; a few minutes later, the subwoofers of their stereo systems begin thudding under the linoleum.
Nancy sits at the shellacked dining-room table in the late afternoon, enjoys a mug of hot tea and fields questions and requests from her children. Because nearly all her kids are teenagers or older now, the jockeying for a turn looks like the front office of a diverse public high school. Nancy alone knows where everything is: the bike pump, the restaurant uniform for work, the library book, cash for the video store, and the keys to the smaller vehicle, a Dodge Grand Caravan. “The trouble with my mother is that she thinks we’re normal,” says Rebecca Kayes Boerner, 33, the oldest Kayes child and the only biological daughter. She is the outstanding authority on the subject of her siblings, including knowing everyone’s birth dates and adoption dates.
“My mother gets ‘empty nest’ whenever we drop down to about eight,” Becky says.
“I met Mrs. DeBolt once,” Nancy says of the famous mother of 20 (14 adopted). “I tried to apologize to her for only having nine children.”
“I used to tell her, ‘Mom, you don’t know what it’s like to bring home a boyfriend to this house!”’ Becky says. “What am I supposed to tell him later? ‘Well, let’s see, five of my brothers and sisters thought you were O.K., but nine of them aren’t too excited about you?”’
“When only seven or eight of the kids are home for dinner,” Nancy says, “they look around and say: ‘Hey! This must be what life is like in a small family.”’
For family trips, Nancy designs seating charts for the van to minimize strife. “Once there were two kids in the way back fighting, they wouldn’t stop, we were on the highway and I yelled, from the front seat: ‘That’s IT. I’ve HAD it. I’m coming back!”’ She crawled and swam over the tops of her children’s heads like a teenager in a mosh pit. She made it almost all the way to the back row when she got a paralyzing cramp in her leg. The kids in the middle rows of seats had to manipulate their mother hand over hand back to the front, but at least she had gotten the attention of the squabbling pair in the back, who shut up, awestruck, to watch.
“A bathroom stop for us takes 45 minutes,” Mark says.
“You open the sliding door of the van, and half the stuff falls out,” Tom says.
“When we get out of the van, people always ask, ‘Oh, are you a school group?”’ Kira says. “We’ll say no, and they’ll ask, ‘Well, what kind of a group are you?”’
When Joe Kayes, a gangly, graying mechanical engineer for Procter & Gamble, comes in from work, Nancy hands him a typed sheet of paper with his marching orders for the next morning—in this case, taking a couple of kids to the pediatrician and asking particular questions. Joe does all the food shopping, Nancy all the cooking. “That engineering mind of his is fascinated by the challenge of coupons,” Nancy says. “Buy one, get one free’ really gets him going. Stores used to limit quantities per customer, so Joe would drive home, grab half a dozen kids, run back to the store and line them up: they would each stand there, even the little-bitties, with a wad of coupons and $1.78 tucked into their shorts, holding two cans of soup and two heads of lettuce. Joe will come home with 30 of some item when it’s on sale.”
“My record,” Joe brags, “was the time I bought $150 worth of groceries with 45 coupons and a $20 bill.”
Huge families are amused by what small families consider “urgent,” “chaotic,” “messy” or “running late.” As Nancy and Joe Kayes returned one night from dinner at a friend’s pristine house, Joe whispered, “Do you think they actually live over at the Holiday Inn?” Small families also seem to tear through money, clothing, toys, computers and bicycles much more rapidly than the Kayeses.
The Kayes family starts buying its Christmas gifts on sale in January each year, rarely dines out and monitors spending closely. The teenagers have jobs, and the top students rely on scholarships for college. The family singles out a few priorities. “Joe always wants the kids to have brand-name cereals and treats, not generics,” Nancy says. “And I want the kids always to look nice. I have this ‘Ma and Pa Kettle down on the farm’ phobia. I don’t want the kids to look like they come from a really large family, and Joe doesn’t want them to have to eat as if they do. I also realized several years ago that people have very low expectations for mothers of huge families. It is really wonderful. If my sweater is buttoned correctly and my shoes match, they’re in awe.”
Mothers of enormous families often consider the road not taken, muse about the fact that because they gave birth to or adopted many more children than their contemporaries, sometimes two or three at a time, looking forward to the empty-nest years isn’t a near-future fantasy they can entertain. It is an extended reverie of the sort every woman enjoys while on maternity leave—what if life were to go on and on like this, in this pastel twilight of never enough sleep, of pots steaming on the stove and a humid fog in the laundry room with the dryer jiggling day and night, of your dresser drawers overflowing with sweat clothes instead of slips and stockings and music boxes tinkling relentlessly in the baby’s room? For most American women, these years become sweet memories. After a few months or years, they return to jobs outside the house, leaving behind the soft, slightly blurry years of life with young children; framed photos of baby’s first year are bumped aside, little by little, by photos of baby in the fourth-grade play and of baby graduating from high school.
“Are you insane?’ That’s what everyone asked me when we told them we were planning to adopt from Russia,” says Mary-Jo Jackson of Lancaster, Pa., another mother of 17. “Of course, they already thought we were crazy for having 7 biological children. And now we’ve adopted 10, and we’ve completed the paperwork for 2 more. There are very few people our age with 19 children, even fewer who are highly educated and have 19 children. It’s sometimes hard to find someone to talk to.
“I’ve had six kids graduate from high school. Every senior year, I serve on one of the graduation committees. And every year, someone will say to me: ‘What? You still have small children at home?’ It always sounds like they’re saying: ‘What? You have ants in your house?”’
I wanted to interview mothers of dozens because, the older I get, the more I feel weirdly inclined that way myself. “Since when did you become the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe?” snapped a friend when I confided that we were thinking of adopting again, of adding a sixth child to our four by birth and one by way of Bulgaria. Even our fourth baby, nine years ago, provoked expressions of surprise from our family. When we adopted a fifth child, flabbergasted friends chalked it up to a mostly charitable impulse. But now, whispers of a sixth threatened to place me, in their minds, among the greats: the DeBolt family, Ethel Kennedy, Mia Farrow, Bobbi McCaughey, the von Trapp family singers and perhaps even Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, gave birth to 69 children in 18th-century Russia.
Of course, a project of such gargantuan proportions should have been initiated when my husband and I were in our 20’s, if not earlier; now in our 40’s, we would not approach record-breaking levels. Still, six children would put our family into the “Large Family” category, a taxonomy of falling subscription in 2001; more specifically, it would place us in the “Large Adoptive Family” class, for which I have no role models close at hand.
The largest families in the country, for obvious biological reasons, are made up either partly or entirely of adopted kids. I knew through the grapevine (the Internet) of parents of self-styled “mega-families” who added and added and added to their long-ago nuclei of birth children, adopting older kids, special-needs kids, foster-care kids and sibling groups, locally, transracially and internationally.
Years ago in college, I learned of rain-forest tribespeople about whom the textbook said, “Their numerical system stops at three; they display a look of bafflement and alarm when encountering greater numbers of items.” My friends and I howled over that absurd passage, trying to picture the “look of bafflement” on someone’s face as he encountered his own 10 fingers. I now think, however, that a similar “look of bafflement and alarm” must alter the features of federal census-takers who encounter mega-families. The Census Bureau places, in one category, “Family households with four or more children under 18.” In March 2000, that category accounted for 5.8 percent of all families with children.
Paula Dunham, publisher of the new magazine Joyfull Noise, for large families, says: “Last year, Joyfull Noise did a small survey. Out of 400 large families responding, 55 families had nine or more children. One had 23 children; one had 21; two had 17; one had 16; one had 15; three had 14; three had 13; two had 12. Of those families, all but three included adopted children in their numbers.
“With families of fewer than 11 children, 94 percent consisted of all biological children,” Dunham says. “We also noted that nine children seems to be a ‘cutoff’ point for many families; after that, the progression drops almost to half.”
I decided to approach parents outside religious communities who were rearing enormous families—many observant Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Mennonites or Amish, for example, have all-biological mega-families. I wanted to talk to those who made these choices from a sort of secular calling, though many, perhaps most, adoptive parents sense a spiritual dimension to their family-building. By the Yiddish word beshert, Jews describe the loved one, the soul mate, as the “intended” one, and adoptive parents of all faiths testify to the identical intuition about the children they are rearing: that the children were meant to be theirs.
I had questions I wanted to ask these “mega-parents.” Not about milk, eggs, income, bedtimes, carpools and socks (in my family, if they’re both socks, it’s a pair) but questions about the rippling effect on all the children each time a new one is added: how do the parents sense it is time to add another, and do they tend to be right? How do the birth children and older adopted children accept the newcomers? Have the parents suffered serious second thoughts about a child, fearing that this time they had gone too far?
And I wanted to ask them why. Since most parents in the world admit to longing, above all, for a little peace and quiet, why are these couples making choices certain to increase the noise level? Why are they shaping their families into such disproportionately large organisms that they flummox the designers of family vehicles, the architects of family houses, the authors of the tax code and the admissions staff of family attractions?
My husband and I wanted each of our five children to continue to enjoy the same standard of living—religious study and musical instruments, glow-in-the-dark sneakers and big birthday parties, soccer and summer camps, privacy and some time alone with Mom and Dad—even if we adopted again. Our oldest recently returned from her freshman year at Oberlin College and reported that she had found large, coed dorm life quieter and affording more privacy than our home life. She made this observation laughingly, and we didn’t take it as a criticism. But we didn’t want to err, to overtax ourselves or our children, by bringing in yet another child if it wasn’t the right thing for our family.
When we adopted our youngest son and people asked why, I replied, “Because we already own every Lego set.” My husband said: “Because the older ones are leaving home. We’re back-filling.” We still sort of feel that way.
In 1968, Nancy gave birth to Becky, the child of her first husband. Widowed young, she married Joe, and they had two sons, Greg in 1971 and Andy in 1973. When, with three healthy birth children in the home, Nancy and Joe wanted another child, adoption seemed the socially conscientious thing to do. They completed the paperwork for a Korean adoption. “They carried four beautiful babies off the plane and one very different looking baby,” Nancy says. “And I prayed, ‘Please don’t let that be ours.’ Of course, we fell in love with her.”
When their doctor eventually diagnosed cerebral palsy and recommended that they not finalize the adoption, Nancy says, she panicked: “How will we manage? What will we do? What about the other kids? How could this have happened to us?”
But Joe said, “You know, Nance, we were O.K. before we met with the doctor.”
Of course, they kept the toddler, whom they named Barbara, finalized the adoption and learned something about their ability to care for a child whose challenges were more than most children’s. They also learned about their ability as a team to weather rough times. They coached Barbara into reaching her developmental milestones and found her progress thrilling. Thus began two decades of adopting children, including many with severe physical challenges. They no longer mistook the disability for the child; they could see a spark, sense the child trapped within.
Lisa, a Korean baby, was adopted in 1977; Katie came from Korea in 1979, when she was 2; and Michael arrived from Korea in 1980 at 6 months. “I would fly round-trip to Seattle and back on the same day, staying just long enough to pick up the babies,” Nancy says.
In 1981, Matthew came from Korea when he was 2; in 1983, Mark from Hong Kong at age 4; and in 1984, Tom arrived from Korea at 2 1/2.
“Gosh, we ought to write this down somewhere,” Joe says, listening to Nancy’s recitation.
In 1987, Kira arrived from Hong Kong at age 7.
“We took a little break after Kira,” Nancy says. “Kira was a tough blend.”
In 1989, LeeAnn came from India at age 6. In 1992, Kristen, then 13 1/2, arrived from India; and Josh, originally from Korea, came from a disrupted adoption the same week as Kristen, at age 7.
Sarah arrived from Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity orphanage in 1995 at age 11.
“We kept the University School of Medicine busy for many years,” Joe says. “They were especially excited about malaria.”
Kristen, an orphan, had been employed in a sewing factory in India. When she was told she was being adopted, she was given a photo of the huge mismatched family grinning together in a sunny front yard in America. She and her friends concluded that the entire neighborhood had crowded in for a picture. When she arrived at the Kayeses’ house, all those neighbors, the ones from the photograph, showed up to welcome her; they stayed for dinner; as night fell, they bedded down all over the house; and the next morning, they showed up for breakfast. Aren’t these people ever going to go home? she wondered.
“Kristen was shellshocked for probably a year,” Nancy says. “She’d sit and look out the window for eight hours at a stretch. She’d been paralyzed in India from spinal tuberculosis—her spine was collapsing. She had major surgeries here, they opened up her chest, collapsed her lung and fused her spine.”
“Daddy gave me blood,” Kristen says, leaning into Joe for a hug. “I’m definitely related to my dad.”
“Yep,” Joe says, squeezing back. “We’re blood relatives.”
Michael, a toddler, was crazy about his slightly older brother Matthew, who was immobilized and rendered almost mute by severe cerebral palsy. Michael soon grew strong enough to drag Matt behind him, like a beloved stuffed animal. “I heard them laughing behind the sofa once,” Nancy says. “They’d raided the kitchen for cookies and milk and were having a secret picnic. Michael had done this and dragged Matt behind him the whole way. It allowed Matt to get into mischief too. Matt was thrilled to be ordered into timeout.”
Kira arrived from Hong Kong kicking, hitting, biting, fighting and trying desperately to relay a message to her new parents. Her Chinese was difficult to understand, being garbled somewhat by her cerebral palsy. Undaunted, she would tell them and tell them and tell them the same thing and tried pantomime and drew diagrams. When even her English as a second language tutor at school failed to comprehend her message, Kira bit her.
About two years later, when she had become a calm and bright and English-speaking 9-year-old, it occurred to Nancy to ask, “Hey, what was it you were trying so urgently to tell us those first few months?”
“I was trying to tell you,” Kira said, “I didn’t want to be adopted!”’
Family-systems theory offers the insight that fam-ilies respond to life, react to changes and milestones, as a unit. Mega-family parents describe the same phenomenon with the metaphor of the family mobile. I imagine a homely contraption of wire hangers and dangling threads with plastic dolls swinging at their ends; in times of tranquillity, the mobile is balanced, the dolls turning lightly, as in a breeze.
Family-systems therapists also know that when a new child arrives, through birth or adoption, the family is thrown into disequilibrium: the power structure of the family, the parent and sibling relationships, the individual identities and roles, all go up for grabs. In the family-mobile metaphor, the same concepts are understood: when you tie on another doll, or two, especially when they are already the size of schoolchildren or preteens, or maybe an already linked three-kid sibling group, or maybe a child who is cognitively or emotionally challenged, the thing goes haywire—the arms of the mobile tilt precariously, the threads tangle and knot, the figurines spin and crash together and some threaten to slip off. I imagine the sound our wind chime makes in the gales of a storm.
“It typically takes us a year to work in a new child, a year till he or she isn’t ‘new’ anymore, though we can usually make it to ‘reasonable’ in six months,” Nancy says. “At first, when a new one arrives, all the other kids are really nice and helpful and supportive. Then, slowly, there’s the realization: ‘Hey, this kid is kind of a pain.’ It’s an interesting dynamic, and it’s always the same.
“Kira had a particularly hard transition. She would scream and yell and was stubborn about everything. One day, she came in from school and for no reason refused to take off her coat. I stepped up into that foolish place parents go when they decide it’s time to prove who’s in charge. I told her to take off her coat. She refused. I said, ‘Let me help you.’ The next thing I knew, we were rolling around on the floor in the front hallway. She was screaming and clawing, and I was thrashing around on top of her, when Katie, who was about 9 years old, came walking in from school. Katie stepped around us like nothing was wrong and said, ‘Mom, don’t forget that I have to bring the snacks for Girl Scouts tomorrow.’ Whatever is normal in your house is normal for your kids.”
Barbara Tremitiere, the mother of 15 children (12 adopted), has worked in the field of adoption since 1967 and edited a large-family newsletter for 15 years. She subscribes to family-systems theory and questions whether parents of huge adoptive families always have the good of the whole uppermost when planning to adopt again. “Some of them are on their way to big trouble,” she says. “They engage in little introspection about why they are adding children and how the functioning of their family will be impacted.”
“During the formation of many large adoptive families, there is a prolonged period of disequilibrium,” she writes in her book “The Large Adoptive Family: A Special Kind of Normal.” “This happens when a family barely achieves, or doesn’t quite achieve, a state of comparative family balance following one placement before another occurs.”
What inspires such parents to push on, to add and add children even while the arms of their family mobile are swinging wildly unbalanced? Though most large-family parents have become masters at sustaining order and contentment with increasing numbers, a minority have resolved to exist in a state of anarchy. Haunted by images of orphans abroad or dispossessed children in the United States, these parents focus most of their energies on springing children from institutions and foster care. Their phone calls and computer-assisted searches for more children may be undertaken before their newest arrivals have learned English yet, or begun to grasp the rules of family life, or had their disabilities diagnosed. A mother of such a family, in her bathrobe, sitting up late at night leafing through waiting-child photo listings in magazines and newsletters, may have become slightly deaf to the real, live in-house children elbowing one another to capture her attention. The next child, such a mother fantasizes, for in most families it is the mother who occupies herself with recruiting new children, is the one who will magically restore balance, the missing link to the supersize-family happiness portrayed by mega-family Web sites. In the name of saving the world’s children one at a time, or dazzled by a vision of herself as the matriarch of a rowdy clan, this mother reels in extras, to the increasing disaffection of her older children and spouse.
Will children already in the home feel displaced? Of course, they may, particularly those displaced from a special niche as youngest, oldest or the only child of that age and grade level, and the unhappiness of a displaced child, experts say, will be as acute whether she joined the family by birth or by adoption. In such families, sibling rivalry is complicated by the collisions of subsystems of birth children, foster children, unrelated sibling groups, older kids, disabled kids.
“One of the pitfalls encountered by some parents was that they assumed that their own children would automatically adjust without any problems,” writes Lillian Ellis in a 1972 article, “Sharing Parents With Strangers.” The parents “concentrated on making things easier for the new child, expecting their own to act like children who had everything, at a time when they were wondering just what was theirs.”
But mothers of these more chaotic large families, intoxicated by the oxygen of constant additions and upheaval, may dismiss sibling rivalry, as if chaos and surliness are the stuff of life and the ability to rise above it or laugh it away is the essence of fortitude.
Tremitiere urges extraordinarily driven parents to slow down long enough to consider how the rapid family growth strikes the children already in the home: a child may be embarrassed by the large family and be the target of taunts from schoolmates about it; another child may be forced into a constant caretaking role; there may be bullying or abuse or scapegoating within the family; there may be children who are feeling completely overlooked. “Crowding problems intensify,” she says. “The children have no breathing space.”
In her book “Raising Adopted Children,” Lois Ruskai Melina writes: “Parents should remember that the reaction they get to being a large family is often different from the reaction the children get. Whereas the parents may be complimented for their courage, tenacity and altruism, the children may gain a group reputation that is based on the actions of the child with the worst behavior. The parents are known by name, while the children are asked, ‘Now, which one are you?”’
According to Barbara Holtan, executive director of adoption services for Tressler Lutheran Services and the mother of two birth children and three from Korea and Vietnam, enormous families had a heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s, before adoption personnel and adoptive parents knew what the endgame looked like.
“The 60’s generation in the adoption world had the motto ‘We’ll Just Put Up Another Bunk Bed—It’s Not a Big Deal,”’ she says. “People saw it as a way of changing the world. We saw people utterly caught up in the chase. ‘If she’s got 8, I’m going to adopt 12!’ We saw ‘collectors’: ‘We’ve got one heart problem, one limb anomaly, two Down syndrome and two C.P.’
“Clearly, there are individuals who thrive in a swirl of activities,” she notes. “There are women who simply run on adrenalin. A child who has grown up in the chaos of foster care may be well placed in the sort of big family where there is constant turnover; a child seeking peace and stability may be thrown by placement in such a family.
“There were no books in the 1960’s and 70’s. There weren’t any organizations for adoptive parents until 1972. We were flying blind. But as time passed, we all learned that it really was a big deal each time you added a child. As the kids got older, they took up more room, they got more expensive and the 2-year-olds who had emotional problems grew into 17-year-olds with emotional problems.”
Seconding Holtan’s observations, Tremitiere says: “During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, we celebrated new placements. We lived in the present. Now I have to wonder, Did any of us have realistic expectations for what the future held? The young handicapped children became older, heavier and often more difficult to handle. Supportive friends became rarer as our children’s ‘harmless childish behavior’ turned into ‘teenage aggression’ and ‘sexual acting out.’ The effects of lack of attachment, genetic background and problematic combinations of children caught up with us.” Her own marriage failed before the children had grown up.
“We’re more sophisticated now,” Holtan says. “In the 70’s and 80’s, if a family came in and said, ‘We’ll take three kids, and it’s O.K. if they have emotional problems,’ we’d be falling over ourselves to make a placement. We wouldn’t do that anymore. Now we’d say: ‘Let’s talk. What are your motivations? For whom are you doing this?”’
“I had a family come in not long ago, and their teenage son sat with his back to me, refusing to communicate or make eye contact,” Tremitiere says. “The parents wanted to adopt again—I think they had six kids at home—and they laughingly pointed to this kid and said, ‘He’s against it.’ And I said: ‘Look at this, look at your son. He can’t even turn around. I see a young man in a lot of pain here.’ I had to talk the parents out of adopting at that time.
“And yet, there are large families who do marvelously. I’d be the last person in the world to give a maximum number. I worked with an absolutely glorious family who adopted and adopted, including a bunch of children with Down syndrome. When they got up to 10, I thought, I love this family, but how can I place any more children with them? It seemed to me they were on the verge of no longer working like a family but becoming a group home. Then the mother came to me and said: ‘Barbara, it’s been great. We’re finished.’ They knew when to stop, without injuring what they had built.”
In the fall of 1999, Yanko’s gentle, frightened face appeared in a brochure of international waiting children circulated by an American adoption agency. The likelihood of an older Gypsy boy ever being adopted out of an orphanage was slight indeed in this former Soviet-bloc country, which the family prefers not to name, so his government had licensed an agency to present the child’s picture to American families. Yanko was 10, brown skinned, slight, in raggedy clothing. He lived in an orphanage for older boys in which a fierce jostling for power and abuse of the weakest were part of barracks life, as was corporal punishment by the staff. Yanko was transferred there from a home for younger children at the age of 9; he and his best friend, also 9, had slipped away and set out on foot to try to find their previous orphanage. They walked an entire day before being picked up by the orphanage staff, driven back and then pounded by the dormitory bullies. “They push me under bed,” Yanko would say later, “and kick, kick, kick, kick.” In his sad photo with the tremulous smile, the scars on his face from his latest beating were unhealed.
Yanko had been spoken for by an Italian family, but the adoption fell through. Yanko’s brief prestige at the orphanage, as a child singled out for adoption, was lost, and the abuse worsened. He announced that the Italian family was in fact still coming for him but was building a bigger house first. A year passed, and no family came for Yanko. He then explained to his barracks-mates that the snow was too deep for the Italian family to come, but when the snow melted they would surely be on their way.
Nati, a Gypsy boy of 12, lived in another town, another orphanage. Also abandoned at birth, also reared in institutions, he was a devilishly handsome, slim, agile fellow with sparkling black eyes living a charmed life compared with Yanko’s. He was sent to school in the village and some days actually chose to go to class; on other days, he roamed the town, making friends everywhere. When he needed a haircut, he checked in with his friend the barber, swept and mopped for a couple of hours, then seated himself in the best chair for a grand styling. He worked weddings for the photographer and receptions for the baker and was everyone’s favorite scamp. His photograph was also circulated by the American adoption agency. To what extent he finagled this marvelous chance is hard to say. He didn’t know what adoption was, really, or what a family was, but he knew his own prognosis was grim: at 17 or 18, he would be cut loose from government support and left to fend for himself, a poorly educated Gypsy, on streets where the Romany people were despised.
Yanko’s and Nati’s photographs were mailed out to a small number of families. Each boy had a brief chance about the size and weight of a lottery ticket to be seen and to be liked, to be liked so much that a family somewhere on earth would be willing to commit thousands of dollars, months of time and reams of paperwork to the ordeal of bringing him home.
“I don’t think it would be terribly accurate to say I just always really wanted to adopt a child from Eastern Europe,” Nancy Kayes says. “But in January 2000, Becky handed me Yanko’s photo.”
Becky interrupts: “I didn’t mean for you and Daddy to adopt him! I thought you would send the picture to one of your adoption friends!”
Nancy kept the picture for a few days and then showed it to Joe. He read the caption aloud: “Yanko has been in an orphanage all his life,” it said. “At 9, he was moved into the older children’s orphanage, and because of his kind and sweet nature, the move has been very difficult for him. The older children have stolen his shoes, boots and winter coat.”
Joe was 59, Nancy 55. They were the parents of 15 children. They said no more to each other about Yanko that night. They had thought they were finished. They had guided any number of children, including many with serious physical handicaps, into productive adolescent and adult lives, and they had a few more to go.
Becky, a former schoolteacher, and her husband lived nearby and had chosen to start their own family through adoption: first a little boy from the Marshall Islands, then a Korean baby born with one arm. Barbara, the Korean baby about whom the pediatrician had said, “Don’t finalize,” has an undergraduate degree in business administration. Mark, who arrived as a 4-year-old without arms, was popular and self-sufficient. He had been the manager of his high-school football team; on game nights, if Nancy or Joe were late picking him up from the stadium, they always found a football player or two standing around to wait with him, knowing he was too physically vulnerable to be left alone. During my visit, Mark was fixing himself a frozen pizza, removing it from the oven with a hot-mitt on his foot.
Matt, rigid and mute with cerebral palsy, who used to be dragged behind his younger brother Michael like a favorite teddy, has a lovely sense of humor and sparkling eyes; in a motorized wheelchair, he is an in-house courier for a big public hospital. Michael is a computer-science major at Miami University. LeeAnn, who arrived from India severely disfigured by burns and endured much painful surgery and skin replacement, is pretty and graceful and recently went to her high-school prom. Greg is an engineering graduate from Notre Dame. Lisa works for Dillon International Adoption Agency, leading homeland tours and teaching families about Korean culture and history. Kira is in a college business program, utilizing computer technology to offset her physical limitations. Kristen is majoring in medical technology in college. Katie attends college part time and works in a car dealership’s finance office. Andy, a graduate of Duke University and a recipient of numerous national scholarships, is a resident physician at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. Josh, Tom and Sarah are in high school.
“I will never be able to repay you for giving me a second chance at a better life,” Tom, 19, wrote to Nancy in a recent Mother’s Day letter. “I was like a tiny flower when you adopted me, growing through the cracks of a concrete sidewalk, and instead of walking past and thinking nothing of it, you watered me and loved me like your others. . . . You saw the potential nobody else saw. I love you Mom, and I know I don’t tell you that enough, but I truly do.”
“The kids have picked up our expressions, our mannerisms and what is important to us,” Joe says. “Mark is our Polish-Chinese son, he loves kielbasa and polkas. Mike calls it the result of ‘airborne genes.”’
“Joe and I have this running joke,” Nancy says. “It seems that very often through the years, when we are trying to decide about a child, we go to Mass, and that Sunday they play the hymn ‘Here I am, Lord/Is it I, Lord?/I have heard you calling in the night.’ Our eyes always meet, and we’ve always taken it to mean we ought to proceed. Anyway, that Sunday, when we were thinking about Yanko, as we came into the service, the choir began singing ‘Here I am, Lord’! We both started laughing, and Joe whispered, ‘Shall we run now?’ As we sat down, he said, ‘I guess that settles it.”’
Why rock the boat again? It’s the response to that question that most baffles the neighbors and friends of successful mega-families. You’ve brought in your 7th, or 14th, or 23rd, and things do seem to be working. Why, the minute you reach calm waters, do you insist on churning everything up again?
Parents of enormous families would reply that that stasis, that period of calm water, is unbearably brief, especially when the children are little. The children grow up, leave home, marry, even in small families. Parents may divorce, and serious illness may strike. The perfectly balanced family mobile is a delight to behold for a precious moment in time, and then this child hits a rocky adolescence, that one turns up with a learning disorder, another one wrecks the family car and now must be driven back and forth to work.
If we are to be buffeted about by time anyway, mega-families think, why not guarantee that a dozen or two dozen of the changes are happy ones, the adding-on of children? Why should midlife spell only diminution? There are thousands of happily married couples in America for whom fantasies of late middle age and old age include neither beaches nor Winnebagos nor even substantial portfolios but rather images of being surrounded by lively young people.
The most talented of the large-family parents simply have a taste for complicated dynamics. They relish activity over inactivity, unpredictability over predictability and too much to do over too little. They love efficiency-planning and the way of moving through the day now known as multitasking.
“A few years ago, Joe was traveling quite a bit for work,” Nancy says. “Three of the kids had soccer games on the same night, 6 o’clock, three different fields. I took a bunch of the older kids with me and installed a few at each game, in lawn chairs with their homework. I told them to look up every once in a while and yell something enthusiastic. I circled around and saw a bit of each game, but each soccer player had an older sibling or two cheering the entire time.”
Mega-parents like the Kayeses savor the tying-on of extras to their elaborate family mobiles, cling to each other when the thing tilts and spirals and rise to the challenge of restoring calm and satisfaction along all the arms of the contrivance. “I know everyone wonders why we want all these kids and all this responsibility,” Nancy says. “But I suspect that people who seek promotions at work, permitting them to manage more people, are not questioned in this way. Raising a family isn’t so different.”
The adoption process for Yanko required the prospective parent to travel to meet him before commencing the final paperwork, so Joe flew overseas in March 2000 and met the boy. He phoned Nancy. “This kid really needs us,” he said. “It’s freezing here, the windows of the orphanage don’t close and there’s no heat. I took him on an outing, and it was the third time in his life he’d been in a car. By the way, you can call the dentist and tell him to go ahead and order his new S.U.V.”
After Joe returned, he discovered that something was nagging at Nancy. “Everyone else has at least one other person from the same culture and language,” she said. “He’s going to be a lot younger, and he’s going to be alone.”
“You’ve been looking at the waiting-kids’ pictures again,” Joe accused. “Show me.”
They paged through the color photos of the orphanage children from Yanko’s country, and they saw Nati. He had his head thrown back in laughter under a clear blue sky, and his magnetism was unmistakable. They phoned the agency and learned that he was still waiting. In June 2000, Joe flew overseas again.
Where Joe had had to lead the timid Yanko by the hand to the waiting car for an outing, Nati grabbed his cap, hopped in the front seat and began pointing and shouting directions. The translator, behind the wheel, could hardly keep up with him. Joe sat in back, flabbergasted. Nati gave the older men a tour of the town like a native son, recommended a nice cafe for lunch, ordered from the menu and had a different idea, later in the day, of the perfect spot for dinner. There he ordered special desserts, off the menu. He introduced Joe to his barber. “I’m not positive we’re doing Nati a favor by taking him, to tell you the truth,” Joe told Nancy when he called home from his lodgings. “He’s king of the hill here.”
In November 2000, Yanko and Nati met each other for the first time on the steps of the courthouse in the capital city and learned they were to become brothers in America. Inside, they told the judge they consented to the adoption, and they strolled out and trotted down the courthouse steps arm in arm. On Dec. 15, they flew to New York and changed planes for Ohio.
This is what it looks like to add a pair of older, foreign-born, unrelated, postinstitutionalized boys to a previously well-balanced family mobile:
One of the first observations the Kayes kids made about the newcomers was that teenage boys sure wore their pants up a lot higher in rural Eastern Europe. These two, the humble one and the cool one, both yanked those pants up and belted them tightly just under their chests. In this hip-hop fashion era, they stood out as greenhorns.
A countervailing impulse soon dragged Yanko’s pants down, however, as he began hoarding batteries in his pockets. First he fished them out of drawers, and then he discovered where else they were to be found, as Kayes kids—in all stages of dress or undress—wandered out into the hall or up the basement steps with their vandalized clocks, radios, answering machines and beepers. Nancy found baggies full of batteries stashed under his bed.
Yanko ate and ate and ate. The others sometimes simply had to lay down their forks and watch him. “Very good, Mom, very good, Mom,” he said, head down, between bites. He gained 10 pounds in a month.
Nati was pickier, asked for special foods and put in his orders for a computer and a bicycle, requesting immediate delivery.
He was also light-fingered and a lot subtler than Yanko. “The sneakiest and the fastest wins,” Joe says. “That’s life in an orphanage. It doesn’t work that way in a family.”
The notion that the two unrelated and previously unacquainted boys could support each other through the transition to a new country bottomed out as each became the other’s fiercest competitor. With Yanko, the desire to behave, to fit in, to memorize the names of all the siblings, was heartfelt and earnest. When Nancy hugged Yanko, he melted into her. His willingness to be her little boy touched her deeply, and he began to feel like her son. To approach Nati for a hug was to have his arms thrown expansively about her shoulders and some air-kissing, all dramatically and cordially performed without much physical contact.
Yanko regressed toward babyish behavior, a normal adjustment for a motherless, postinstitutionalized kid. He was enchanted by the grandchildren’s toys: plastic shape-sorters and pop-up toys and little wooden trains absorbed his interest. Joe was in the backyard starting up the lawn mower one day when he glanced up and saw 12-year-old Yanko headed down the street pulling a toddler’s bright plastic quacking duck behind him on a string. Joe jumped up and steered the boy back toward their driveway: “Let’s keep this one in the backyard, O.K., kid?”
Nati had his eye on bigger game. “I good swimming,” he assured his older siblings, wanting to be taken along. “Very good, very good swimming.” He leapt into the deep end of the neighborhood pool and had to be fished out. He refused to be shown proper strokes, and with his towel draped jauntily across his shoulders, he retreated to a lawn chair to see and be seen.
“Nati’s the hardest one since Kira,” Nancy said one night to Joe. “I can’t tell if he has a conscience. He’s never had anything but surface relationships. He’s so damn manipulative, you can’t tell if he’s ever sincere. He’s so passive-aggressive. I tell him no, and he gives me that dazzling smile and says, ‘Yes, Mom,’ and then does as he pleases anyway. If we can’t break through that glass wall that’s around him, I don’t see how this can work. I’m not interested in being his friend. If he won’t let me be his mother, I just don’t know what to do with him.”
When publicly scolded, Nati sometimes threw himself to the floor screaming. He rolled around, gnashing his teeth and flailing his arms and emitting high-pitched shrieks that impressed nobody. Nancy noted that he cried without tears. When angered, Nati let loose with a barrage of newly learned American obscenities.
“What were we thinking?” she asked Joe one night. “Good Lord, this is the dumbest thing we’ve ever done.”
“Pull back,” Joe said. “I’m seeing some good stuff here. Let me step up and handle him. Let’s switch over. Take over some of the driving and give me Nati for a while.”
“Good,” Nancy said. “Here’s what you need to find out: is somebody living in there? Is there a kid in there?”
Even as she and Joe were chagrined by Nati’s brittle and fake exterior and refusal to obey family rules, even as they wondered why on earth they had done this to themselves at this time in their lives, they were aware that they had hit this wall before with other kids. “This is our history,” she says. “When Joe hits a wall, I’ll say: ‘Joe, you’re burned out. Go to the Y and work out. It’s my turn.”’
“I don’t think there’s any way around this stage,” Nancy would say later. “Anyone who says there is, is lying.”
She knew better than to examine herself to see if she loved Nati yet. “If you go into an adoption with a feeling of commitment and you can wait patiently, the love develops,” she says. “I don’t expect the child to be an instant son or daughter and love me unconditionally, and I don’t expect that from myself.”
The more Nati schemed, stole, lied, misbehaved at school and gallivanted about the township, the closer the watch and the tighter the rules Joe and Nancy installed around him. “It’s exhausting,” Nancy complained to Joe. “You can’t help but think, Did we take just one step too many?” Other kids thought they had. Yanko was blending in sweetly and was becoming a favorite. But by a roll of the eyes, or by shoving back from the dinner table, the others relayed their unspoken comments about Nati: Where’d you drag this one in from? At the same time, underlying the irritation of the older siblings was the knowledge of all but three of them that they had been orphanage kids once themselves.
Nati made lewd remarks about Sarah until Tom, Sarah’s protector, stepped in and was about to squash him. Kristen, to everyone’s surprise, kindly intervened: “That’s orphanage behavior,” she said. “Don’t kill him. Yet.”
“It has almost always happened that someone in the family will step forward to help the newcomer,” Nancy says. “Tom supported Josh when he came. Lisa was the only one who could talk Kristen into wearing shorts or a swimsuit—girls in India didn’t do that. Andy spent afternoons in the I.C.U. with Kristen after her surgery; she was on a ventilator, and the other older kids were kind of scared of it. Greg is taking time out to teach Yanko and Nati to swim. Lately, Kristen has been the one stepping forward to defend Nati; maybe it’s because she understands what it’s like to be 13, from an orphanage, entering this family; she’s teaching him to run cross-country.”
Nati got in the worst trouble yet by mimicking Matt. One evening, as Matt left the table after dinner, Nati hopped up and followed him for laughs. Matt, with severe cerebral palsy, has a tight, mincing, unbalanced walk, and his lips hang open. Nati twisted his legs around, stuck out his lower lip and did an imitation. In a split-second, he was intercepted by Michael, who came out of nowhere, picked him up by his shirt front and lifted him off the ground. Compared with the barbells Michael lifted in the basement, Nati was a rag doll. “I don’t ever want to see you do that again,” he said in a deep voice, slowly, so there would be no mistake. “Ever. I’m going to tell you something. Matt is my BROTHER. And you know what else? Matt is YOUR brother.” Michael then released his grip, dropping Nati in disgust. Nati was shaken, paler and quieter than usual all evening. The reminder that there was an in-house power structure was the type of thing he had had pounded into him all his life, but the lesson on filial relations was something completely new and baffling.
“It takes a very special person to be able to raise an enormous family,” Barbara Tremitiere says. “My own kids now have two or three children of their own, and they’re going nuts. They phone me and say, ‘Mom, how in the name of heaven did you ever do that?’ And I tell them honestly, ‘I really don’t know.”’
“I’ve always been inspired by the book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen,”’ says Mary-Jo Jackson in Lancaster, Pa. “The dedication says, ‘To Dad, who only reared 12 children, and to Mother who reared 12 only children.”
I think my husband and I are like the parents of huge families in that the things we like to do, we would just as soon do with children. Is travel really travel if it involves fewer than two taxis to the airport, three airport luggage carts, a rental van and several motel rooms? Can sleep be as sweet as when it is wrested from those who would interrupt it? I love the Atlanta Symphony, but it’s a sixth-grade band that moves me to tears when the children play the C-scale together for the first time. For us, as for the parents of enormous families, each day of life is most thickly felt, most densely present, when shared by plenty of kids. We will adopt another.
“We understand it’s really hard to live in a family,” Nancy told Nati. “There are different rules. Lying and stealing is what you did in an orphanage. Making fun of weaker kids was what you did. But you’re a family boy now.”
“You are taking 80 percent of my energy, my emotions and my time, you understand?” Nancy told him another day, seated across from him at the dining-room table. “Eighty percent. All the other kids, 20 percent. It’s not fair. I promise I will give you your part. But you can’t have everyone else’s part. You have to make a choice. Do you want to live in this family?”
Nati nodded, understanding. Little by little, he began to drop his guard.
One day, as Nancy was cleaning house, Nati stepped up and took the rubber gloves, bucket and sponges away from her and scrubbed her bathroom and shower on his hands and knees until it gleamed. She thanked him warmly and then tried to pay him. She didn’t give the kids allowances but thought it fair to pay them for work outside the line of duty. He looked at the money gleefully, with dancing eyes, then thought better of it. “No, no, no,” he said. “Family, family.”
He required extensive dental and root-canal work, and Nancy stayed by his side. “It’s new for him to learn that Mom’s there while you get the root canal,” she says. “Someone is there when you hurt.”
Nancy scolded him one afternoon for taking something out of one of the older boys’ rooms, and Nati wept. “I saw a tear,” she told Joe that night. “It’s the first time I thought he was sad not because he got caught, like usual, but because he was sorry he’d been bad.”
With new English awkward on his tongue, Nati gave Nancy a bit of autobiography: “One, 2, 3, no mother, cry cry cry cry. Four, 5, 6, 7, cry cry cry for mother. Eight, 9, 10, cry cry. Eleven, mother come orphanage, give money, no want mother then, finished mother. I throw coins in mother’s face.”
“I understand,” Nancy said. “But you’ve got a mother now.”
Melissa Fay Greene is the author of two works of nonfiction, Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing, both National Book Award finalists. Her new book, The Last Man Out, about survivors of the Springhill, Nova Scotia, coal mine disaster, will be published in the spring of 2003 by Harcourt. This article first appeared in the New York Times and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
Copyright 2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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