Columns » Derek Jennings

Party of eight

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I've got six kids. By three different mommas. Now that would clear a room of any potential columnist groupies, if such existed. As those of you who've followed my writings know, my wife and I have three children by birth, one by adoption, and are foster parents. We're also advocates for adoption of foster children. We have a foster son who has been with us for over a year and a half, now. And unexpectedly, we ended up with custody of his biological sister a few months ago, bringing the Jennings' grand total up to aforementioned six children. Way back when Tricia and I were only contemplating marriage, we had a bit of an impasse on the topic of how many kids we wanted. I said "two," she said "four." "FOUR?!" I'd replied, wondering how or why anyone would want four children. Both of us having technical backgrounds (she majored in computer science, me in engineering), we took the average and decided on three.

We went on to be blessed with three children, biologically, but God has a sense of humor and, we believe, a purpose beyond our understanding. Once the adoption of our two foster children is finalized early next year, we'll officially have six. Or, as others usually express it, "SIX?!" Instead of the average of our proposed progeny, we got the sum.

Our family size makes for interesting times. As we walked into the Golden Corral one night, a man with a large family himself caught my eye and was just kinda smiling. He shook his head, and spoke, "Well, the Good Lord said, 'Be fruitful and multiply...'" trailing off into laughter at his quip. I responded, "Yeah, we multiplied, added and threw some logarithms and exponentials up in there for good measure."

Because of how their birthdays fall, there are a couple of weeks in October that I call "The Alignment," when all of our kids are two years apart in age. Those two weeks are the best time to go to the Chinese buffet, just to watch the server's reaction, after they ask us how old the children are: "12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2." They just look at us like, "Man, y'all are consistent," and smile.

Although we're used to a bit of gawking, it isn't always as good natured as that. On one occasion, my wife and the kids were walking out of a restaurant (I'd stayed behind to pay and get change for the tip) and two women were eyeing them up and down as they walked to the van. One of the women not only kept staring, disdainfully, but added commentary, saying something like, "Daaaaaaaaaaaaamn, are they all--"

"YES, they are all mine," my wife finished, for her. "Every one of them. And since we clothe and feed them, and not you, may I ask what business it is of yours?"

I came out of the restaurant just in time to hustle Tricia into the car and away from the stunned women on the bench.

Despite her almost flipping and turning into a supervillain that time, my wife is a superhero. She would have to be just for putting up with me. But she walked away from a lucrative (albeit high-stress) career as an accounting manager in corporate America to take care of our kids. At the time, there were only three, and our youngest was having a rough transition into kindergarten. After a couple months of drama, with us spending enough time in the school to be on salary there, my wife made her decision, tendered her resignation, and came home full time. It was three years ago in October when we made that leap of faith, and we're almost exactly three years from what turned out to be an even bigger one, in November 2001, when we attended a Foster Care orientation class.

A couple of weeks ago, we went, en masse, to see The Incredibles, Pixar's new animated movie about a family of superheroes forced to live undercover in society. This outing was notable because it was a great flick, and because it was the first movie we've gone to as an entire family since we started rolling eight deep. See, my youngest two girls (aged 3 and 4) generally don't have the, um, patience for movies, so for the last six months we've been accustomed to going to see them in shifts. I'd take two kids and see the 1:30 show, and my wife would take the remaining two older children and catch the later matinee showing. But we all went to The Incredibles and it worked out well.

There's a wonderful scene in the movie where this family of superheroes is sitting at the table, the kids' bickering is going critical, and the mother displays her superpowers (the ability to elasticize her body and streeeeetch like Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four), elongating her arms to snatch up two of her children and break up a fight. Tricia, my oldest kids and I all laughed at the appropriateness and usefulness of her "gift." Whoever scripted that sequence definitely has more than one child.

My wife's powers, however, extend beyond the ability to spread herself impossibly thin. With a daughter in middle school, three boys in elementary school, one preschool-aged girl and one who is FINALLY just ... about ... finished ... with potty training, Tricia's job titles now include Director of Operations and Logistics.

It's funny. When she still worked for corporate America, we'd occasionally clash over conflicting meetings, and yet her day (and night) timer is more full now than it ever was when she was responsible for millions of dollars of other people's money. This year she got "pirate volunteered" (when everybody else steps back and leaves you the sole person in line) to be PTA president at the boys' school, and I had no idea how much work that entailed. She also is active in, or leads, several ministries in our church, including the foster care and adoption ministry. On top of all that, and much more, she's also the one who makes sure everyone (including me) is where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be. Between school, sports and community events, we're always running somewhere, often in different directions, simultaneously.

Such is our life now, and although we could never have foreseen this years ago when bargaining with each other over how many children to have, we count it as a blessing. We've made a lot of adjustments. In particular, this year's jump from five to six has put us over a bit of a threshold. The kids have slept three to a room for a minute now, so we're having a new house with a full basement built to provide elbow room and lessen the statistical probability of anyone having to go upside anyone else's head. When that's done, I'm gonna have to break down and get an SUV, one of them big ol' behemoths that seats eight. We already tested one out via rental on a road trip to Maryland and I cried inside, visualizing myself pouring bucket after bucket of gasoline into the engine, like some 19th-century fireman.

It's all worth it, though. Especially when life offers up one of its unscripted masterpiece moments--receiving an unexpected hug or "I love you"; watching the kids take up for each other with complete disregard for blood or birthright; puzzling over my youngest son's weird expression on his class pictures, only to be floored when he points to a picture of my oldest son (complete with perennially goofy grin) on the wall and explains that he wanted to smile just like his big brother. Those gratifying affirmations that we are, even in advance of final legal status, a family, counter any stares and erase for us any awkwardness or short term troubles in parenting children who may have spent their first few years outside of our household.

Likewise, watching my "foster" son go from being below reading grade level in kindergarten to being at grade level at the end of year and above grade level as a first grader, confirms the often untapped potential that these children have. Having my "foster" daughter's therapist tell us that in her time with us she's made remarkable progress, and that there is unmistakable evidence that the emotional scars she's suffered at a tender age are healing and almost gone--that assures us that love and prayer and commitment and time can undo the damage done by others. And that my baby girl, whom we were told might have developmental delays and limited motor skills, is now a sharp-witted 3-year-old gymnastics prodigy who is quick to tell us "that's preposterous!" (thanks to the playful prompting of my eldest son)--that tells me that limits and labels and expectations exist to be overcome.

With November having been National Adoption Month (National Adoption Day was Saturday, Nov. 20), this is as good a time as any for these reflections. A newly released report, unprecedented in scope, commissioned by several companies and foundations that support National Adoption Day, informs us that there are currently over 100,000 children in foster care and eligible for adoption throughout the United States.

While some consider our family's commitment to children extraordinary (or Incredible, if you will), I assure you it's not. To us it is a very simple recognition of the needs of children coupled with our desire and capacity to meet those needs. When our adoption request is finalized next year, we will be done as far as taking in new children. But not in terms of advocacy for those that remain in need of homes and love. Some very good friends of ours recently adopted a brother and sister, bringing them to a total of three. Still other friends and acquaintances are in the process of getting licensed to be foster or adoptive parents, and my wife and I sincerely hope that our counsel and example has helped positively influence their decisions. The adoption rate for foster children has nearly doubled over the last 10 years, to almost 50,000 per year. Percentage-wise, if only a few more people can be convinced to open their hearts to these children, all of those 100,000 kids can be in permanent homes, permanent families, before the end of next year. I love it when people look at our family, oblivious to our non-traditional composition, struggling with resemblance before saying "This one looks more like you" to either me or my wife. We smile, content to leave it at that, drawing no distinction ... unless something makes us think that providing a bit more detail may somehow spark their interest in foster parenting or adoption.

If you are considering being a foster or adoptive parent (or would just like to know more), visit the following Web sites:

  • www.nationaladoptionday.org
  • www.adoptuskids.org/states/nc/
  • www.fosteringperspectives.org/fp_mainpage/fp_about_fp.htm
  • www.wakegov.com/county/adoptionsfostercare/adoptions/default.htm
  • www.co.durham.nc.us/common/db-dept.cfm?ID=28
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