Recently, I had the great pleasure of having my four nieces and nephews for ten days. You may be saying, "So? What's the big deal about that?" Add my two into the mix and you get six kids. Six. SIX! Before even agreeing to let me have her kids, my sister-in-law repeatedly asked me, "You are sure about this? Ten days is a lot." I am a teacher to the core of my being and six kids were a fourth of an average class size-so of course I was game.
The first trip to the grocery store with six kids in tow was the best. I have a wonderful ability to tune out chatter (it's a teacher super power), so I shopped as the kids trailed behind me down the aisles, talking excitedly to each other. I kept getting weird looks from strangers: a raised eyebrows/I'm so sorry for you look. When the third or fourth person gave me the same look, I stopped, mid-aisle, and tuned into the noise around me. My quiet world was transformed into a beautiful symphony of happy chaos: laughter, at least four different loud conversations between all of them, and excited responses. The looks of pure happiness radiated from all six faces. "Keep it down a bit, guys," I said, half-heartedly. The volume went way down and back up in a matter of seconds. I turned back to my shopping, smiled, tuned out, and flashed a huge smile at every stranger who gave me "the look". They didn't know what they were missing! When we were checking out, the cashier asked with wide eyes, "Are they all yours?" This same question was on the lips of every cashier we encountered that day.
I asked the oldest nephew, "Does your mom get this when she is shopping?" He replied, shaking his head, "Every time."
Seeing this reaction from people, I reflected how much taboo our society has placed on having a big family. I, myself, was guilty of a similar response, though mine was more awe that pity, when I met a wonderful family last summer in Alaska. They had nine children, the oldest being 13, and the youngest only a toddler. The love from each of those kids to one another was inspiring. The older kids helped the younger kids. They all entertained one another, and I was able to have good, quality time to converse with my new mom-friend. I'm sure there were many moments that Mom tuned them out and probably countless times that strangers gave her looks. Thinking about this, I decided to make light of the question that was bound to come from strangers. I told my husband that every time someone asked me if "these kids were ALL mine," I would reply, "Yes," and shake my head sadly. "Each of their dad's couldn't handle the chaos, so it's all me." Can you imagine their faces?! Because, I mean, who has ever heard of a family of this size without the stereotypical single-mom situation?
The kids had three tents set up in the backyard-one for the girls, one for the older boys , and one for the younger boys. When my husband suggested this months before to all of the adults, all were thinking it would be a great idea. The first few nights, with two more older cousins (8 in total, but the two older were practically adults), there was not even a hesitation about going out into the dark to sleep with nature. I'm not exaggerating either, we live at the end of a dirt road, and the backyard is bordered by the forest. Our nearest neighbor is about a half mile away. Skunks, raccoons, possums, deer, porcupine, and the neighbor's dog and cat are a few visitors we've spotted after dark. After the older boys left for home, I was worried that I would have six giggling, tired beasts inside, interrupting my sleep. But to my happy surprise, the two remaining tents were used most nights (barring a thunderstorm & just needing some alone time).
I crept outside one night to see what they were up to. In the girls' tent, a flashlight was on, and giggling and whispers ensued. In the boys' tent, where the two youngest boys lodged, a lengthy discussion about a video game was the hot topic. When I returned to the living room, where the oldest nephew and my husband were, I found two peas in a pod, discussing four-wheelers, RC trucks, and fireworks. This scene especially warmed my heart, as I was worried my nephew, being in his mid-teens, would think staying with his aunt and uncle in Northern Michigan was the worst and that he should have stayed home and earned money from dog sitting.
It wasn't all glitter and rainbows, though. We still had a garden that needed to be maintained, chickens & turkeys that needed to be cared for, a never ending amount of dishes, and dog hair and dirt to be swept, but six kids and myself made those chores go fast. There was only one time that the youngest girls had to weed an extra row due to behavior. They got into an argument that I thought I had stopped, but it continued when they went outside to their tent. There was a worse moment had by the second oldest nephew, but unfortunately, because we were at the beach, my garden didn't benefit. The punishment of isolation from the rest of the "Olympic Water Gods" (they used an unheard of term in many children's vocabulary: imagination!) earned me dagger stares for a good five minutes, so it must have been good enough.
I have to give high kudos to my sister and brother-in-law. Their kids are respectful, hard working, and fun. They hope for privileges like electronic time, but don't expect it. These traits are not as common as you might think in the general mass of children. Let me give you some examples: 1. Leftovers? Most kids would frown on them. Not these ones. 2. They were eager to feed the chickens. It must be something others who don't own chickens love, because we have lots of company want to do the same thing. Let me tell you, I was ecstatic to hand over my chore of morning feeding! 3. They expected chores before fun activities. Here's the most amazing thing: THEY EACH DID THEIR OWN LAUNDRY!! Say what!! 4. I didn't have to entertain them. Between books and playing outside with each other, they were all happy.
Though they didn't expect it, we did go on adventures while they were here. Eric and I don't have a million dollars, and having four extra bodies makes things tighter, so I was all about the free entertainment. If I could entertain with a few snacks and a tank of gas, I was all in. We went to the beach at least twice. These kids couldn't get enough of the clean, fresh water of Lake Michigan. One day, I thought we were doing chores by returning the cans & bottles that were starting to overflow in the garage. Turns out, that when you give this task to kids who do not have it in the state they are from, it becomes entertainment! Bonus: Aunt Liz/Mom let the kids split the money they got from them AND I took them to the dollar store to spend their loot AND I let them eat the candy they all bought in the car on the way home! We had a campfire with s'mores most nights. One day we ate out. McDonalds was the vote. I also took them to the Petoskey Pier, where they jumped into the calm harbor as yachts sailed by. One day, we went to the east side of the state and swam in the Ocqueoc Falls. It was the first time my own kids and I had gone, too. If you haven't been, you are don't know what you are missing. You do need a state park pass though, and it lasts a year so $16 wasn't so bad. Last, of course, you don't come to Uncle Eric's house and not ride four-wheelers and race RC trucks. Though, that was not my department. I have no problem taking kids out with me driving and them riding in the side by side, but the kids all knew the fun riding was when Uncle Eric was home from work. As far as the RC trucks, Eric and his brother set up the track, the rules and responsibilities and played with the kids for four days before heading back to work. All the kids had permission to race them without the Uncles, as long as the oldest kid was there and they all followed rules. If you know my husband and his brother, you know that this responsibility is a biggie and not to take it lightly. The kids knew it, too, as they were extreme in caution.
A week has passed since my nieces & nephews went home. Things are mostly back to normal, though I came to my senses and started making my own kids care for the chickens in the morning. My kids, Eric and are are coming down from our sugar high. I had each kid make a list of the desert they wanted me to make while they were staying with us. Eric felt left out so he added to the list, too. We had six desserts and shrimp Alfredo (because "I like that better than any dessert."). The garden is no longer spotless-my kids and I aren't as efficient as the 7 we had!
Speaking of gardening, I got a text from my sister-in-law the day that they returned home, saying that the oldest was out weeding his garden that he hadn't touched in two years! I laughed and patted myself on the back. My obnoxious love for gardening took root in him. I picked seeds off of my chives and gave them to him for home. (Telling him to label the baggie, as he did not want his parents to find something that could be mistaken for drugs-that got a big laugh!) He spent some of the can & bottle money on clearance seeds and asked lots of questions, especially about the squash and pumpkins. I also found on the deck a small potted raspberry plant from our overflowing patch and a potted mini-maple tree that had been growing wild in my raised garden bed-both dead, of course, so I showed he and his other interested sister how to dig up the trees for transplanting, keeping the roots mostly intact instead of yanking it out like a weed and to keep it out of the blistering sun for a few days as it recovers. Needless to say, there was a pot with two new mini-maple trees that went home with the kids. Maybe by the time they have grandchildren it will be full grown! The raspberry plant was never replaced, though the kids each enjoyed picking and eating its fruit while they were here. They also enjoyed peas and lettuce. Though they really didn't enjoy it, they got to try a radish and onions and chives. I think that harvesting the things from the garden you work so hard on is very rewarding, and I hope that is the message all four kids got.
I have lots of great memories, a small box to send back to four eager kids, and a few tent imprints in the backyard. I'm looking forward to next summer, when my two go to stay with the other four, though I'll miss the great times we created.
P.S. I never used the "These kids are ALL mine" line. It was funny to think of using it, but so terribly insensitive, judgemental and rude, that there was no way I would utter it to a person just trying to make conversation. It's more my style to just smile and answer the question truthfully.
For all you people wondering, my brother in law is highly educated and has a good job. My sister in law works on wood: signs and restoring furniture and sells them, is going to school, and a full-time mom. My Alaskan Mom-friend is a full-time mom, and her husband has a good job. I know nothing of their education, but it doesn't matter. Both economic situations are totally different, but they are rocking it like it's nobody's business.