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Drill Sergeant or Loving Mom? Staying sane with 5 children and no money

The kid barrels off the soccer field with a red, puffy face frozen in an almost scream. “We losed!” he wails loudly, his shrill voice tearing through the sidelines. All eyes turn on him as his mother leans around his body. My son’s 2nd-grade team has been cleaning house, and each goal they’ve scored has driven this kid more insane. The game is still in full play behind him. Thick blond curls cling to the sides of the kid’s face as he screams on, hysteria growing to heights I haven’t seen since my children were in diapers.

Just minutes before I was admiring his parents. They were well groomed, expensively dressed, and completely focused on their one child; they were, in short, everything I am not. My boyfriend Stephen and I have five children between us, including a boy who is just hitting puberty and a pair of three-year-old twins whose scheming is relentless. We live in a minuscule home on a very limited budget, can’t all fit at our own dining room table, run school mornings like a drill team, and, because compromise is a constant necessity, say the words suck it up on an almost daily basis. Now, watching this kid holler into his mother’s neatly made-up face, I find myself somewhat glad for the things I don’t offer my kids.

As a nursing student who spent four years as a single mom, I’ve felt constant pressure about how little my children have. We live in an apartment with no private yard and a lid on how much noise we can produce. I leave for the hospital before my kids wake up and come home exhausted with homework to do. Our TV is an old CRT, we don’t own a video game system, and my boys still share a room even as my oldest son flies headlong into puberty. I’ve been embarrassed by the poverty of our surroundings during every play date for the last four years, and because I remember middle school vividly, it only feels worse as my son approaches 6th grade.

My oldest son’s friends, meanwhile, live in relative splendor. They have, between them, a pool and a neighboring golf course, a large backyard with a play structure and a friendly dog, brand new hardwood floors, and a movie screen as wide as my bedroom wall. All of them have their own rooms. None of his friends’ parents appear to have my stress-induced case of Tourette’s, nor do they answer the door in clothing that’s older than their children. And they seem to protect their children from the strife of adulthood more carefully than I do my own.

Both my and Stephen’s kids have been intimate witnesses to the stress and grief of divorce, and they’ve helped us bear our burdens over the years, even when we wished they wouldn’t. Now that we’ve joined forces, however, that intimacy has given way to a parenting approach that looks a lot like camp counselor duty right after the campers have eaten seven boxes of cookies. We pull at stragglers, direct traffic, and mediate fights every day, even as we attempt to salvage our careers from the wreckage. Amid the chaos our simple expectation is that everyone pitches in.

Together, we enforce a team mentality in which everyone has to contribute and no one has the right to derail the day by throwing a fit. We pack the car for trips in a parade of tiny people weighed down with bags, juice canisters, helmets, and gear. Everyone cleans at cleaning time, whether they’ve made the mess or not, and our three oldest have chores every week that include taking out the constant pile-up of recycling and garbage. When I go running, those same three boys come with me on their bikes, regardless of freezing conditions or cranky moods. When in doubt, the team comes first.

Of course, they do their best to resist our expectations. Stephen and I waver between delighted laughter and desperate breakdown as we face a daily barrage of blatant lies, territorialism, exaggerated injuries, and tearful excuses. Once genuine needs have been weeded out and carefully addressed, our policy comes down to one simple phrase: Suck it up. If they wrestle, they’re going to get hurt. If they want things all to themselves, their siblings will soon exclude them. And if they don’t want to plan ahead, they’re not going to get what they want. We make them go back outside, keep picking up, or do one more page of mind-bending homework even when they look at us with the grief of abused and downtrodden orphans.

I have sometimes been accused of being too strict; my kids, however, are always invited back for another play date. Our walks to school are proud and full of smiles because the crossing guard has fallen in love with our family. We’re out there every day, squeezing joy out of the cold winter sky and celebrating our freedom from the tiny apartment, no matter how rugged the morning has been. “Hello, favoritest family,” she says, as our youngest gives her morning scowl and the wind whips through Stephen’s and my pajamas. We grin happily back and wish her a wonderful day, then force our children on through another rain-or-shine adventure to the school doors.

I do worry that our strict rules are suppressing some fundamental part of their being. I fear, like many parents of my generation, that I’m setting my kids up for future therapy, but the truth is that they’re remarkably resilient.

I recently took my three-year-old daughter Kari to a play date with two of her friends. A drama ensued in which one friend, age 3, closed the door on another, who’s 4, and they both became hysterical. By the time I entered the room, the first girl was crying in the fetal position, and the other was shrieking with her head thrown back. Kari, meanwhile, sat placidly by the dollhouse with an expression of vague impatience and her fingers stuck in her ears.

And even better than the constant course in social survival is the fun we all have together. Our family life feels like a daily party. In summer we take trips to waterfalls and rivers, play ball out on the street, and crash the BMX track with a cooler full of yogurt tubes. The boys stage hour-long wrestling tournaments out on the grass for as long as the weather holds. Stephen and I can sit on our bed in the winter and watch a constant stream of activity pass by our door, the comedic value of which cannot be overstated. I once walked into the boys’ bedroom to find one of them scaling the closet buck naked, legs splayed out and back shaking with giggles.

In contrast, the soccer kid’s dad seems thoroughly deprived of this brand of fun. Jaw sternly set, shame printed on his face, he watches his son’s histrionics from a strained distance of twenty feet. I feel for them both. I’ve lived through my share of public meltdowns, and I remember living in such a small, focused world with my first child that I could feel my frustrated ambition burning through us both. I look at them and appreciate the chaos in my life, knowing just how happy my kid is on the same soccer field.

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