The Family that Kept On Growing
With the release of Steve Martins film version of "Cheaper by the Dozen," GOOD HOUSEKEEPING asked Melissa Fay Greene to visit the Muhlesteins, a Utah family with one-fewer-than-a-dozen kids.
[authors original version]
"Small families are boring," offers Morgan, age 9.
"Yes," says Elisabeth,12. "Its like, whats the point?"
"There are two basic approaches to running big families," says Elaine Muhlestein from her post at the kitchen island. We are in the big common room of a brick ranch house in the foot-hills of Utah. Elaine shovels flour into a Mixmaster for dinner rolls, while two of her daughters funnel ingredients for a pound cake into a second Mixmaster. As a third daughter chops vegetables for dinner, small boys race into the room and along the counter with their hands out to snatch tidbits. "You can do it extremely structured, or you can do it extremely unstructured," Elaine says, but has to raise her voice a little to be heard as some sort of scuffle is erupting in front of two side-by-side computer terminals along a far wall. As the squabble at the computer turns into a brawl, involving fists and pulling of hair, Elaine scarcely needs to add, shouting above the noise, "We do it unstructured." Two bigger brothers pull the arguing two apart and steer them towards different activities, and Elaine calmly turns the page of her floury cookbook. An unflappably cheery woman with a practical haircut, Elaine Muhlestein reminds me of a toddlers roly-poly clown toy which rights itself, with a pleasant chime, whenever it is knocked sideways. She is the calm and happy center of this eleven-child family, bobbing just above the surface of pint-sized calamities and excitements.
"I dont know who has been putting away the dishes but they are all in weird places," Elaine is saying, surveying a kitchen cabinet with her hands on her hips in bewilderment. From nearby, a little kid calls, "It was Daddy."
Just too late to defend himself, Dr. Brent Muhlestein comes in through the garage door after work. Despite his high stature as in internationally known cardiologist and specialist in interventional cardiology he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Utah, Director of Research at LDS Hospital, and Visiting Professor of Cardiology at Xian National Medical University in Xian, China at home he is just the Tweedledum to Elaines Tweedledee, a second shortish, round, kind and reassuring presence. He staggers into the common area with any number of small bodies glued to his person in greeting. Like the famous father of 12, Frank Gilbreth, in the 1948 book, the TK movie, and the new Steve Martin release, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, Dr. Brent Muhlestein, 46, has an ebulliently happy manner when among his children. He savors the image of a smoothly-running operation, but enjoys even more the anarchy and hilarity of trying to manage so many kids. He is proud of his stature in the outside world, but feels his lifes greatest accomplishment is the rearing of his outsize and handsome family.
Elaine Muhlestein, like Lillian Gilbreth, is the practical, behind-the-scenes stage manager, taking Fathers wild ideas and putting them into play. She, like the mother of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN clan, was simply born to be a mother. She loved each and every pregnancy, mourned each and every miscarriage, doesnt mind the slow accumulation of softness and weight generated by child-rearing, is comfortable in jumpers and shifts, and says, "If my hearts fondest wish was to be thin, Id spend my life at the gym." She is close to her sisters, her friends, and her book group, and she sails out alone a couple of evenings a month to socialize or to volunteer, or goes out with Brent for a quiet dinner, but she is happiest, like he is, surrounded by their own moppets. Their children surely could describe them, as the sibling authors of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN describe their parents in the books inscription, as: "Dad, who only reared twelve children" and "Mother, who reared twelve only children."
"Are there times when everyone has demands and I feel like, What was I thinking? What have I done to myself?" asks Elaine Muhlestein. "Well, naturally. Brent and I joke that the two questions we hope the kids teachers wont ask them are: What did you eat for breakfast? (because sometimes the answer is pizza) and What time did you go to bed last night? But Ive learned to be more patient. So the kids wont always be perfectly well-dressed; their hair wont always be perfectly combed; the house wont be immaculate we can live with all that. Because we really have fun together. We laugh a lot and theres always plenty to talk about."
"I never dreamed Id be a father to so many children," says Brent Muhlestein. "We had our first child while I was in medical school and we had a great time with him. We designed our life around having Elaine at home. We lived frugally; we house-sat; Elaine set up a home daycare program. We had another baby, and we had a great time with that one, too. Every year or so, Elaine would say to me, You know, our babys not so little anymore That was my clue. I always felt that 80 percent of the decision was hers. But we liked each child, so we kept going."
Child-rearing trends in the rest of America were headed in the opposite direction. According to the U.S. Census, family size is dropping steadily. In 1976, 15.8 percent of U.S. families with children had four children in the home; by 2000, four-kid families represented just 7.2 percent. In 1976, 13.9 percent of families included five or six children; in 2000, those families made up 2.8 percent of families with children. And in 1976, 6.2 percent of families had seven or more children; in 2000, .05 percent of families with children had seven or more.
As Dr. Muhlesteins career took off, financial freedom enabled the couple to alter some of their early approaches to child-rearing, like Elaines babysitting for others during the day, and to retain others, like kids sharing bedrooms. "We could afford a large enough house for each child to have his or her own room," the doctor tells me. "But we think its valuable for them to share and to grow up together. Theyre very close."
Although it is true that summer days and winter vacation days ebb and flow without much structure kids with light brown hair still in their pajamas drifting through all the rooms, enjoying a late-morning breakfast at the kitchen island, playing board games on the floor of the common room -- and that even school days have a relaxed, make-shift feel, the childrens lives are structured indeed, built upon a bedrock of family love, religious faith, and high expectations. A timeline of graduated entitlements governs privileges and responsibilities from the large to the ridiculous.
"Youre not allowed to handle CDs until youre ten," the kids tell me.
"When youre in first grade, you can start a sport."
"You cant go to a PG-13 movie till youre 13, but you can see the appropriate ones at home on video with Father when youre ten," says Morgan, age nine, whos counting the days until hes old enough to rent Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
"Everybody can start piano lessons at eight," says Elaine Muhlestein; a little kid passing by whispers to me, "Everybody HAS to."
"You share a bedroom until youre a senior in high school," the kids explain.
"Thats OK, Id rather have lots of kids in the family than my own bedroom," says Elisabeth, 12.
"You have got to be kidding," remarks Kathryn, 14, one of her room-mates.
"Small families are boring," offers Morgan, age 9.
"Yes," says Elisabeth, "Its like, whats the point?"
"We have four in piano," says Elaine Muhlestein. "We all get up at six a.m. to read scripture; at 6:30 we start 30-minute sessions of piano practice. Michaels high school starts at 7:30; Elisabeths and Kathryns junior high starts at 8:00, and Christina, Morgan, Tanner, and Georges elementary school starts at 8:50. Mary is still home with me, but I go to the elementary school in the morning to volunteer (its the least I can do), and I take her with me. Some of the kids walk, some carpool, some take the bus. After school, we do homework first. Four kids are in soccer, with two to three days of practice and games apiece. Michael wrestles after school. This year Michael is 16, so that helps a lot."
Each child gets a special one-on-one trip with Elaine for back-to-school shopping each summer. Their names are drawn from a stack to establish the order. The outing includes lunch at a restaurant of the childs choosing.
"Back-to-school shopping is way fun," says Tanner, 7. "Last year I got to go to Burger King."
"Im going to pick Red Lobster next time, " says George dreamily. "May I pick Red Lobster, Mother?"
"Thats a great pick, George."
"Where do you like to shop?" I ask the trio of older girls, and the chorus replies, "Wal-Mart!"
Older kids are paired with younger kids to help get ready for school and church and to prepare for bedtime in the evenings. "Kathryn has Tanner because shes the only one who can handle him," Elisabeth tells me. "I have George. Christina has Mary. Michael has Morgan."
When both parents are out of the house, each older child has an assignment: either a younger child all evening or a single large project, like dinner. "With the kids as babysitters, the house is always royally trashed when we get home," says Dr. Brent Muhlestein. "But the basic criteria for success is that we should find everyone still alive when we get home."
"Even with that fairly relaxed standard," Jordan mutters to me, "weve had a few close calls."
"Do the big kids get paid for the babysitting?" I ask.
"Sometimes," says Elaine, but at the same moment the older girls at the kitchen counter yell, "NO!" Christina rolls her eyes and recites: "We get food, we get shelter " Clearly there is a good-natured spirit of insurrection always just under the surface here. You have the feeling that Mother and Father Muhlestein always win on the big issues, and find themselves amused to lose on the small ones.
There is a famous phenomenon among mothers of large families and it holds true for Elaine and it is this: what looks huge from the outside does not necessarily feel huge from the inside. 11 children may cause acquaintances and strangers to stagger backwards, hand-over-heart, in disbelief when they hear of it, and it does sound like quite a lot of children, Elaine will admit. Still, when she sets the table at night and lays place-settings for nine children instead of 11 because this one is in college and that one is one is abroad, her heart dips a little, missing those two. If the numbers occasionally drop, on a summer night, to only seven kids at dinner, she is positively on vacation; clean-up and bedtime are ridiculously easy, and she and Brent suddenly find themselves with so much free time it is practically a honeymoon.
Onlookers naturally wonder, "How does she manage?" "How does each child get enough attention?" But she is simply there, nearly all the time, nearly always calm and cheerfully accessible, and she has been there, like that, since each child was born. She gives each son or daughter her round-eyed undivided attention for as many minutes as the child requires; but since shes always been there, bobbing just offshore the kitchen island, the childrens needs are mostly very specific and brief. With Mother there all the time, there is no driven anxious or angry need on the part of any child to re-connect or to spar.
Elaine Muhelstein is not overwhelmed and her household is neither chaotic nor messy. Her day is neither longer nor shorter than the days of other mothers. She logs the same number of mothering hours as, say, an extremely attentive mother of a baby and a toddler. She logs the same number of dawn-to-dusk working hours as a mother both raising children and commuting to an outside job. Like mothers everywhere, she collapses into bed at night in grateful exhaustion. Still, there is one last task to do before sleep. She reviews her day. Is anyone unhappy? (She subscribes to the watchword among mothers, Youre only as happy as your unhappiest child.) Does anyone need something special? Is everyone getting along? Is anyone feeling left out? Is this one near the end of research for her history paper? Does that one need new running shoes yet? She shuffles the childrens faces in her mind like a professional card-player with a favorite and well-worn deck, placing face up on her mental table the one or two in need of something extra the following day. She and Brent chuckle over the days events. They endlessly marvel at how unique each child is, how varied are the sub-group dynamics, how kind and responsible the older ones are turning out to be.
In first grade, each child is assigned one night a week to prepare a side-dish for dinner, a task looked upon more as a privilege than a chore. Everyone has a dish-washing night except Mother, and except for high school graduates who have moved away and are home on vacation. Members of this elite may make a show of leaning back and enjoying a bit of political debate as the dishes are cleared away. The younger ones grumble about their menial labor, but do so rather cheerily as they know their time will come.
For Christmas shopping, trips are chaperoned by Brent Muhlestein. Each of the children uses his or her own money to buy a gift for each of ten siblings. "And you get to pick a box of your favorite cereal to eat on Christmas morning!" enthuses Morgan.
"It would cost us $50 a week just to buy everyones favorite brand of cereal," sighs Elaine, "so most of the year, we stick to Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. For Christmas morning, they get to pick the cereals.
"Im going to try Honeycombs this year," booms Morgan.
Small blonde Mary is too shy to announce her favorite aloud, so she whispers in Morgans ear. He frowns, listening closely, then announces: "Mary is going to try Froot Loops."
Like many families in the Salt Lake City area, the Muhlesteins belong to the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, though both parents aver that their large number of offspring has to do with personal inclination rather than religious custom. Their own is the largest family they know, other than Mothers: Elaine grew up in a family of 14 children. She was the 12th child and third girl. Brent was one of five. Their children have 15 first cousins on their dads side, and 112 first cousins on their moms side, for a total of 127 first cousins. For family reunions, entire campgrounds are rented.
The children arrived in natural groups: four boys Jordan, David, Joseph Michael; three girls Kathryn, Elisabeth, Christina; three boys Morgan, Tanner, George; and a girl. The three girls cried when Child No. 8 turned out to be Morgan rather than the anticipated fourth girl. Then he was followed by two more brothers. Finally Mary arrived, a feisty female caboose. The groups are easily identifiable: the big boys, the big girls, the little boys, and Mary.
The popular, engaging Muhlestein kids attend public school and count both Mormon and non-Mormon kids among their friends. They are church-goers who begin each day with family prayers; at 19, each child performs a year of church work in this country or overseas. David, 20, is currently in Italy on his mission. Of course, it is probably just luck that the Muhlesteins live in a township named Bountiful.
Birthdays are family affairs, with the birthday child choosing the dinner menu and sitting in the seat of honor at Mothers right. Each sibling, from youngest to oldest, presents the birthday child with a gift (many have been underwritten by their parents), then poses for a birthday snapshot with the honoree. Every child has a favorite type of animal "mine is dolphins," says Elisabeth so many gifts capitalize on that animal theme. "We each get three birthday parties sponsored by our parents," Elisabeth explains. "Once when youre little, once in elementary school, and once when youre a teenager. Im thinking of having one when I turn 14."
"You know, you do something with your first kid," chuckles Brent Muhlestein, "and the second kid wants it the same way as his older brother had it, and so does the third, and by the time you get down to the younger ones, theyve become inflexible family traditions. And dont try to bend the rules! Oh no! youll have a flock of the older ones breathing down your neck, demanding to know whats so special about that kid, why he gets it so easy when they had to do such-and-such; or youll have the little ones protesting, Hey! Jordan -- or David or Joseph did that when he was my age." In the background, I just happened to hear the high-pitched complaint of a tattle-tale, reporting, "Mother! Tanners handling a CD!"
At ten, a child takes his or her first solo trip with Dr. Muhlestein to a conference somewhere within the continental U.S. Kids have enjoyed New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, Anaheim, and Chicago. At 14, a child may travel with Father overseas. Joseph has been to Amsterdam; Jordan to Paris, followed by skiing in Switzerland; David to Spain; and Kathryn to Acapulco. Elisabeth is on deck: she and her father are planning their trip to China. Elaine Muhlestein gets first right of refusal on all trips, so she selects a couple each year for herself.
Brent Muhlestein was a high school wrestler in his day and enjoys teaching his sons basic wrestling moves. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his shirt, and gets down on the carpet of the common area to challenge all comers. Little boys fly through the air, eager for a tumble, and are easily defeated. Joseph and David also get on the ground and take on their little brothers. But when the doctor faces the broad-shouldered sons who have joined their high school wrestling teams, the matches are vigorous, competitive affairs. It seems to be an unspoken but understood rite of passage that eventually a Muhlestein son will pin Father on the floor of the common room, while some onlookers cheer for their dad and others egg on the brother. Brent Muhlestein gets up defeated, chagrinned, and discombobulated after one of these matches and says, "I was huffing and puffing so hard, I pinned myself."
"I love summer," Elaine told me. "I love winter vacation. I love having the kids home. I love it when the older ones live at home over the summer so they can work and save their money. I go through withdrawal when they go back to school in the fall. I really just cherish every child at every age; Im so grateful even for the challenges. I know Im lucky I get to stay home with them. I cry when I send them to kindergarten."
Dr. Muhlestein says, "After 11 children, I can make the following observations: Once the oldest kid turns eight, youre home free; youve got an ally and a helper. And the biggest difference in parenthood is going from two children to three. After three children, there just isnt that big a change when you add more."
Elaine Muhlestein, stirring pots at her kitchen counter, is content. There is nowhere on earth shed rather be than at her post at the kitchen island; there is no one shed rather be with than these funny, noisy, unpredictable, friendly children bouncing around her and off her like ping-pong balls.
"Elaine always reminds me you cant choose to have children, you can only choose not to have children," says Brent Muhlestein, meaning that Mary is the youngest not because of any decision made by her parents. "It looks like Mary is going to stay the youngest," he says.
"Unless we adopt," says Elaine, who confesses to half-thinking about it.
Every Sunday evening last summer, a "Tramp-Off" was held at the family trampoline high in the steep backyard. Above the house, above the city, eye-level with the circle of foot-hills, airborne kids pirouetted and somersaulted in two-minute routines while their dad stood on the top floor of the wooden climbing structure, red-faced with happiness. Joseph had recorded everyones musical selection. Once the kitchen was clean after dinner, children went running for costumes and props and then headed up the scratchy yellow high-desert backyard to the trampoline. Youngest first, so Mary climbed aboard, Joseph hit the tape, and the four-year-old coquettishly styled herself in the air and on the mat to the tune of "Winnie-the-Pooh." With her little hands curved in front of her, she mostly just bounced up and down. George let loose to a hit by the rapper, Vanilla Ice, and Tanner danced to Totos song "Africa," while Dr. Muhlestein exuberantly danced in place, clapping his hands in front of him and over his head on the top of the rickety climbing structure and Elaine Muhlestein stood smiling happily at the side of the trampoline as a spotter. Morgan danced to "Rollin Rollin Rollin Rawhide" as his father and siblings whistled and screamed. Christina, dressed as a spy, flung off her hat and sunglasses at the start of the Mission Impossible Theme. "Bravo!" screamed Dr. Muhlestein, frantically clapping when she took her bow. "Bravo!" He was like an opera buff applauding from his box seat the final chords of Die Fledermaus.
Elisabeth performed "A New Day has Come" by Celine Dion; after a flip, her father yelled, "She landed it!" Kathryn cavorted to "What about Now?" by Lone Star. Joseph break-danced, flipped, and did high strides and turns mid-air to the Tomb Raider theme. 24-year-old Jordan performed "I dont want to be told to grow up" by Simple Plan, but he crash-landed one of his flips, fell onto the springs, hurt his shoulder and tore a hole in the canvas. "I killed Tramp," he said sadly, climbing back down.
A cry then went up from the masses for Father to descend from the play structure and put on a show. To my amazement, the stocky balding cardiologist complied. He bounced up and down to Tanners music, "Africa," with a couple of seat-landings. "Do it, Father! Go crazy!" cried the oldest boys.
Then, when I thought I couldnt laugh any harder, I learned it was time for the awards ceremony. Huffing, Dr. Muhlestein scaled the play structure again; Joseph broadcast the trumpeting Olympic theme music from the cassette player; and Mary climbed up and stood center-stage. "The Award for Best Imitation of a Kangaroo," boomed the doctor above the cascading music, "goes to Mary Muhlestein."
"Go Kangaroo Mary!" hoarsely screamed Jordan while other kids whistled and clapped.
"Tanner wins ." began Brent Muhlestein, as the five-year-old climbed up and waited for the verdict, "the Total Reckless Abandon Award." More cheers and whistles.
"Most Rollin Performance" went to Morgan; "Most Athletic" to Christina; "Most Ballerina-esque" to Elisabeth; "Most Expressive" to Kathryn; "Most Crashing" to Jordan; and "Joseph re-takes the award for Best All-Around Performance."
"What award do you win, Father?" called a little kid.
"The Award for Lowest Expectations and Meeting Them goes to Father," announced Jordan.
"No, give Father Lifetime Most Improved," called one of the girls.
Red-faced and itchy from high dry heat, mosquitoes, and desert weeds, we descended, half-sliding down the steep yellow yard. Looking out across the quiet western landscape at dusk, I found myself thinking: there are Americans in the heartland who are having an extraordinarily good time just raising their families.