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Kathy Bessmer warned me over the phone. “You better wear galoshes,” she said. “Or bring some kind of weapon.”
Her 16 children, nine chickens and one St. Bernard make for a certain kind of, shall we say, chaos. Was I ready to visit her home?
I decided to brave it on a sunny weekday wearing sandals, arming myself with a notebook and pen. I'm not the one in the trenches, after all. I'm here to observe the math. To compute the rarity of an 18-person household that includes 13 biological children and three adopted from Ethiopia. To calculate the economy of scale: feeding, clothing, sheltering that many.
To add up the education plan for the children, who range in age from 2 to 23. They are homeschooled until ninth grade. They all start music lessons at age 3. Many play a sport. Three attend private college in Michigan and one is at Creighton Prep.
But I found myself — like a math student gazing out the window — distracted by the milieu.
I pull up to a home in the Rolling Hills neighborhood, just east of Regency, where the evidence of children is everywhere. A 6-year-old will-o-the-wisp incongruously nicknamed “Chunk” is swinging an aluminum bat at a knotted rope tied to the front yard tree.
Two kids play on a toy-strewn front porch: Maya, age 4, and Annie, a neighbor.
I let myself in, holler my arrival and pass a living room strewn with a baby grand piano, violas, violins and cellos and a set of bongo drums.
Most everyone is working in a large, open room in the back of the house — part kitchen, part den and part dining room.
Here's Kathy the mom working with Leah, 8, at the dining room table.
Here's a pair of buzz-cut boys, Isaac, 11, and Gaby, 9, slathering peanut butter and jelly on 20 slices of bread for this rare treat: brown bag lunches.
Here's Ryne, 21, breezing through the room to stare into the fridge.
Here are Abbey, 16, and Mary Kate, 13, busy with boxes of Borax and Arm & Hammer, making laundry detergent.
Let me just repeat that: The Bessmers make their own laundry detergent.
Then 19-year-old Morgen, fresh off her freshman year at Hillsdale College, is cracking wise as she rolls wool yarn skeins into anti-static balls for the dryer.
A pair of busy toddlers, otherwise known as “the babies,” run around. Cecilia's got a turkey baster in her mouth. Levi is barefoot.
Louie the St. Bernard trots over, all slobber and hair.
The room is a whirl. I have counted 11 children so far. Where are the other five?
Luke, 20, is helping Gemma, 13, with her studies in the basement. Simon, 15, has disappeared somewhere. Cameron, 18, is at Prep. Kael, the oldest, is at her Boys Town teaching job but keeps texting her mom to ask if the family has scared off the reporter and photographer yet.
I'm mesmerized by this happy kitchen buzzing with delightful, productive children.
Someone is playing piano. Someone is practicing a violin. Someone is cleaning up the laundry detergent crumbs and setting out ingredients for homemade granola. A lot of someones are grabbing their brown bags and running to the mammoth sectional couch to picnic. When you go to school at home, a packed lunch that includes the usually off-limits junk food like bags of chips and juice boxes is quite novel.
“Have you ever lost any of them?” I ask Kathy, 45, the calm in this maelstrom of children.
She shrugs and her children answer.
Luke: “She left me at the library.”
Mary Kate: “You left me at the piano recital.”
Kathy herself: “We left Chunk home for Easter Vigil Mass this year.” (For the record, Joel, their father, rushed back to retrieve Chunk, whose given name is Elijah, after a neighbor alerted them.)
Things here are more buttoned up than they might appear.
Nobody gets lost-lost. Nobody — knock on wood — has been injured or seriously ill.
Kathy tries to be organized. She pulls out her “Bible”: laminated, color-coded schedules that break down the school day into half-hour increments for the nine children typically at home. It's an impressive who's-on-first, showing which child has piano or cello or math or reading at which time and who, including the occasional paid helper, is in charge of “the babies.”
Other paid helpers come occasionally to deep-clean the five-bedroom, four-bathroom home, though the kids themselves are plenty busy with chores.
Older children must do their own laundry. Kathy doesn't make anyone's bed but her own. All are responsible for the basement, with its mini-kitchen, professionally painted mural and shuffleboard and pingpong tables.
Kathy, a music teacher by trade, teaches all her children piano and strings and then hires private music teachers as the children grow older.
You may have seen some of them — an Omaha version of the Family Von Trapp — perform downtown at the Omaha Farmers Market.
The Bessmer home is in constant flux — more flux at this time of the year, as Kathy explains: Kids want to be outdoors. The big kids are home from college. Seven children in baseball.
“When baseball hits,” she said, “all bets are off. It's kind of fend for yourself.”
Kathy and Joel, a doctor, set out to have a big family.
This would not have been unusual, especially among Catholics, in the 1940s and 1950s, when my grandparents were in the throes of their own big-family-making-and-raising. My paternal grandparents had 12 kids. My own parents had five. I have three. We mirror the shrinking of family size over generations.
You see that trend mirrored in Census data. In 1976, 20 percent of American women in their early 40s had five or more children. In 2010, that percentage was down to 3.5 percent.
How many families have 10 or more? Just one-tenth of 1 percent of babies born in Nebraska in 2010 were the 10th child in their family.
Kathy and Joel come from big families. She's the ninth of 10 children. He's the youngest of six.
The pair met in junior high in Plainview, Neb., and have been together since. They married while she attended Kearney State College. After she graduated, they moved to Omaha. Joel went to medical school and Kathy pursued her master's in music education. Given their backgrounds and their desire for children, they settled on a big number early on: six.
Then came seven, and Kathy hated odd numbers. So they had eight. Then four more, bringing their total to 12.
At that point, Kathy was in her early 40s and turned her sights on adoption.
No, she wasn't addicted to children, as Ryne's college friends at Hillsdale asked. No, she wasn't out to be Omaha's Angelina Jolie.
There were children in need. The Bessmer family could provide. At a certain point, what's one more?
That's how they ended up halfway around the world in Ethiopia, bringing home a pair of siblings, Gemma and Maya, in 2011. Then last August they returned for Levi.
It was on a visit to Ethiopia for Levi (each adoption required two visits; Kathy has been to Ethiopia four times) that Kathy discovered she was pregnant.
When I asked if she's done adding to her family, Kathy shot back: “The last time I said I was done, Cecilia came.”
They're financially able to offer the care for so many children. Joel is a concierge doctor, which means he has fewer patients, who pay him more in exchange for 24-7 availability.
Still, Kathy put the family on a budget six months ago, after she realized that near-constant trips to Target and Costco were killing them.
“It was more than we were making,” she said.
Kathy realized she could start trimming $800 a month from the grocery bill and still buy organic produce. She reduced the monthly total to about $1,400.
Gone went boxes of cereal, which seemed to evaporate. The family began eating a lot more rice.
On rented land near 192nd Street and West Dodge Road, Kathy and Joel planted a huge vegetable garden. They collect nine eggs every other day from their backyard hens.
Let me repeat: backyard hens.
When a neighbor complained to the Douglas County Health Department, Kathy produced the permit: Chickens are legal in the city if you get permission.
“That satisfied them,” she said. “My plan was to share the eggs, but shockingly, we never have extra!”
Back to the budget. Kathy looked for other places to cut, such as detergent. She found a recipe online for a powdery mix she estimated would cost a penny a load, which saves when you consider seven loads of laundry a day.
The Bessmer budget is $12,000 a month, not counting mortgage.
That includes $800 a month the family socks away for an annual vacation and another $800 a month on private music lessons.
Teenage and older children work part-time jobs and buy their own clothes, some of them by shopping at Goodwill. The younger children are so close in size many can share. They don't have a lot of toys.
It takes more than finances to run a household this size.
You can't hire out energy, organization or happiness.
“People always tell me, 'I could never do it,' ” Kathy Bessmer said. “You CAN do it. I just enjoy it. I just like it. That's who I am.”
Kathy is typically the first to rise. She hits the gym at 5 a.m. and then Mass at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church.
Sometimes she and Joel sneak out early to tend to the garden at dawn, before he leaves for the office around 7.
The morning is a flurry during the school year. High school-age kids get themselves off to school. The rest help their younger brothers and sisters get the day started.
They launch breakfast and then “school” begins at 8 a.m. and wraps up around 2.
After eighth grade, they go to the Omaha high school of their choice.
The children certainly seem to like the noise and bustle of home. A constant theme the day I visited was how much they like having each other to play with. Abbey, age 16, said her Westside High bandmates call her “Mom” because she can bake, sew, keep a checkbook and generally is on top of things. She's surprised how helpless some of her peers seem to be.
Mary Kate acknowledged that the setup isn't perfect.
“It's hard sometimes. You're never alone,” said the 13-year-old, who shares a room with three sisters.
She quickly added: “But you're never lonely.”