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Bootcamp Wisdom for Parents of Multiples

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Suzy Kellett: I didn't receive my parent basic training at Fort Bragg, although sometimes it felt that way. I received it at Fort Kellett.

quadruplets sitting in a field of flowers

My quadruplets were born in the stormy predawn dark of August 28, l975, at the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle. Lucas, Gwen, Abby, and Tyler were the first set of quads ever born at University Hospital, and the event was just this side of a circus. I would like to tell you I was blissed out by the event, but I wasn't. My husband wasn't there, I was 800 miles from home, due to being so high risk, I didn't know a soul, and I was just plain terrified. But, I had little time to feel sorry for myself. I went into labor seven weeks early, and was in labor for only three hours before being whisked into delivery, where I had my two sons and two daughters, naturally, in just 17 minutes. One minute, I was a very large pregnant mother-to-be, and the next, I was the mother of four.

In the mid-l970s, I was pretty much on my own in the multiple birth world. I had to dig up my own resources or make do with the information at hand. At the time the children were born, I was living off a dirt road up a canyon in Sun Valley, Idaho. Our pediatrician was 80 miles away in Twin Falls. On checkup day, I would pack the four babies, like little stuffed sausages, into the backseat of my VW bug and head 80 miles south to Twin Falls. Our house had a well, the pipes of which repeatedly froze solid the first winter. What saved me were the diapers bought by the Sun Valley Realtors Association, the Jolly Jumpers donated by Ducks Unlimited, and the clipboards at the ends of the kids' cribs that kept me on schedule for everything on a daily basis. But, by the late summer of 1976, all that was behind me as I separated from my husband and headed to Chicago with the children spread out through coach class to move in with my parents while I figured out what to do next. This is when the real work began.

Bewildered and overwhelmed by the turn of events, I would sit, exhausted, in a sea of laundry, toys, bottles, and crumbs, and ask my mom how in the world I was going to ever raise these kids by myself. I had managed to turn up another mother with quads six months older than mine who defined her life this way: "When most parents take their children out for a walk, they say things like, 'Honey, look at the pretty butterfly, see, over there is a bunny.' When multiple birth families go for a walk, we need a megaphone: 'Attention, attention, please if you will, look to your right and you will see a butterfly ...'" Taking multiples on an outing is nothing short of conducting military maneuvers. I realized by their sheer numbers that they could vote me out of office. But, over time, with help from my mom, a plan and philosophy began to emerge for how to manage this small nation of tiny-footed people. And, I knew for a fact, I did not want to live the life depicted on a T-shirt I once saw: "Being a mother is like being plucked to death by a duck!"

What I wanted were loving, kind, respectful, caring children. And 27 years later, I can say that is what I have.

How did that happen? It had a lot to do with consistency, safety, trust, laughter, and lots of love.

I know in the beginning I would have given anything to be able to talk to people who had raised this many children all at once. I am no expert, but I thought I might share some of the things that we did to manage our life together. I know that they played a key role in anchoring my children for the challenges of growing up, and provided us a loving and respectful household. These are only one mom's experiences and thoughts. Please feel free to take, adapt, dump, or maybe, just try a few of these and see what happens.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES:
• Always let children know ahead of time what to expect in new situations and what will be required of them. Taking a little time to explain up front prevents issues later.

• Avoid adult situations where there is nothing for kids to do. It is a setup for "no," "stop that," "be quiet" ... nothing but negative reinforcement.

• Think carefully before you speak and don't go back on a rule that you have set. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Avoid "If you do that one more time ..." Instead, set down rules, and when they are disobeyed, calmly deal with the issue right away.

Our patience can certainly reach the breaking point. Even in the worst of times, never let your level of love for a child be calculated by a child's actions. Punish the action, not the child.

Egg timer: Mom's best friend. Use it for everything -- toy sharing, nap time, mealtime, time before a departure, etc. Kids feel like they are getting something when you "give them time."

Read every night. And everywhere. Never leave home without a book. You never know when you will have to spend time waiting.

Let them guide you. Sleep in the closet? Your 5-year-old son wants to wear a dress to school? Whatever experimental thing they want to do that won't hurt them or anyone else ... let them do it.

Responsibility for their actions: Lay the groundwork early that children must be responsible for their actions. When it is necessary to address a consequence, there's no need to raise your voice, just calmly talk over what happened, then work with them about what the right thing to do is to make amends.

Take the time to "Make Things Big." Be silly, have tea parties, dress up, fingerpaint the kitchen, walk in a snowstorm at night. Create magic moments for them.

Family rituals: Nothing is quite as much fun to look forward to as family rituals. Create them together. Rituals ground us and make kids feel their families are special.

Food exchanges: Meals do not have to be a battleground. I didn't make my kids separate meals, but on occasion I would allow for one food exchange of equal value. I had a daughter who was born with a touchy gag reflex for things like rice, so she could do a food exchange of yogurt or fruit.

Restaurant etiquette: "No fusses in a public place." Remind your children ahead of time how you expect them to behave in public. Make restaurants "kid appropriate." Yes, if things fall apart, you may have to leave before the food comes until they get this figured out, but I guarantee if you hold firm, get up, and calmly walk out, it only takes a few times before you can take them to a five-star restaurant. OK, maybe Olive Garden.

Special one-on-one time. (1) Take a child to dinner alone once a week or do something else special. (2) Tea time -- when kids are older, have everyone stop what they are doing at 8 PM or 9 PM and sit together and just talk. No TV or music, just family members talking to one another. We would sit out in our field in the moonlight on summer evenings.

Respect for adults: This is non-negotiable. Disrespect must be halted immediately.

Stick with commitment to friends: If a child has made a commitment to go to a friend's house and later a better offer comes along, the child cannot switch plans. Someone is counting on them to keep their word.

Velcro job chart: Take a sheet of poster board and make horizontal boxes for each job. On the left side, leave space for the children's names. Instead of writing the names on the poster board, attach Velcro to the section in front of each chore, then make a poster board name tag for each child with Velcro on the back. That way, the poster board stays put but the names rotate each week.

House rules by committee: Starting in junior high, have family meetings and come to joint consensus on a set of reasonable rules. When children are part of the decision-making process and you have their buy-in, fewer issues will crop up.

And probably THE thing that kept me connected to my children:

Night talks: After your children have gone to bed, go in and sit at the end of the bed in the dark and quietly ask about their day ... It is amazing what will crop up under the wonderful safety of darkness. Start this early and they will grow to count on these special moments with you.

I wouldn't trade a minute of raising my four. Well, OK, you can have the teething, the chicken pox, and Guns N' Roses. Yes, it was incredibly tough sometimes. But in looking back, they have taught me more about living than I could ever teach them. They have been a wondrous gift and I am still reaping the benefits.

Where are they now? Luke is married and in New Mexico getting his doctorate in archaeology, Gwen is an agent in L.A., Abby is in graduate school in Seattle studying organizational design, and Tyler is a climbing ranger on Mt. Rainier in the summer and does ski patrols in the winter.

In Toni Morrison's book "Beloved" there is a wonderful passage where two slave brothers discuss their girlfriends. One brother says, "She is a friend to my mind. She takes all that I am and gives me back to myself in all the right order." With a little extra time and energy, this is the best gift we can give to our endearing cluster children.


2 comments so far | Post a comment now
Uly July 14, 2009, 12:13 PM

Negative reinforcement, despite what you think, does not mean that you say no a lot. It means that you take something away to reinforce a behavior you like - so you might brush away an ant off your kid’s sandwich because they said please.

Just Sayin' July 14, 2009, 7:55 PM

Great article and advice. Nowadays multiples are a dime a dozen so you had to create your own path.
And these rules work for one kid or 18 kids.
Great job.


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