Maureen Shanklin is fine with you comparing her home to a beehive if, by beehive, you mean a marvel of sound (and loving) organization.

As evidence, she could provide this snapshot of her kitchen one fall afternoon: Six-year-old Alexis prattling about her emergency ear surgery, her brother Jay enacting a Power Ranger drama, Darien scribbling a letter, Mark doggedly sounding out words, a hermit crab on the table, the dogs snuffling, the plink, plink of Dante's piano lesson coming from the music room.

Yes, activity in every corner, and no, it's not exactly what Shanklin envisioned for herself when she was growing up. What rational person would ever imagine herself having 16 kids? And making such a household run so smoothly?

Well, it happened very gradually, as she describes it. Little by little -- without ever having a conscious goal -- she decided that, oh, maybe she wanted another child.

Other women experience the very same emotional tugs. Just in her case, she supposes, she got a bit carried away. And now, she is a 53-year-old single, working woman with graying hair, half-glasses and a passel of children ages 29, 26, 19, 18, 16, 16, 15, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 8, 8, 8 and 6. Three of her older children have moved out, but the others live with Maureen in a rural part of western Baltimore County in a 10-bedroom house with a big yard, a basketball court, a trampoline, two swing sets and an above-ground pool.

People, intimates and strangers alike, always wonder how she does it and -- though they are rarely rude about it -- why? Why so many? Just ... why?

"I know you have a story," a saccharine-voiced woman said to her at a campground last summer, after noticing a multiracial crowd of kids all calling her mom.

"Everyone has a story," Shanklin replied evasively.

Because really: The children need their privacy, and that sort of questioning can embarrass them, at least the older ones. Some strange woman at the pool doesn't really need to know that, yes, most of the kids were adopted. And yes, many of them were horribly abused and neglected by their birth families and still live with the inevitable after-effects of their early life experiences -- learning disabilities, emotional struggles, post-traumatic stress disorder.

And anyway, how could she easily answer those whys?

She's really not one to sentimentalize or linger over her own motives, but when she tries to explain, she says she is passionate about keeping siblings together. Taking in the kids was something she could do and maybe no one else could. She likes children and people seem to sense that.

She has actually had a couple of kids abandoned into her care. Could you babysit for me tomorrow? And then the parents never come back. Even now, an extra kid or two -- "I don't know where the hell they come from," her 84-year-old father says -- will often show up on weekends or tag along on family trips.

Society is so different now; communities are dispersed. But there always used to be somebody sort of like her on the block -- a mother whose house was the hangout, who made the cookies, whom neighbors would call for babysitting help when they had a problem at home.

Honestly, the 16 children -- it just sort of happened.

One by one by four

They came home to her in all different ways. Came home -- that's how she always puts it.

Kelly arrived first, in 1980, a product of brief marriage that Maureen had in her twenties. And then Levick came next. Unexpectedly. A single friend was staying with Maureen after giving birth and one day, she moved out and simply left Levick behind. Eventually, many conversations later, she asked Maureen, "Would you raise my son?" By then it was two bumpy months into it and, really, there was little to discuss: Maureen already felt that Levick was hers.

She thinks of Patrick as an unplanned gift, too. She had lymphatic cancer when Kelly was around five and though she fully recovered, doctors thought the radiation and chemotherapy had left her sterile. Plus, part of her uterus was removed during treatment.

Consequently, no one believed it when a pregnancy test came back positive, and she was well into her second term before doctors finally agreed that indeed, a baby was coming. They advised her to terminate the pregnancy for her health, but that was out of the question. While Maureen's politics generally run left, she is opposed to abortion. So, though Patrick's father was out of the picture by then, she went through with the pregnancy and, almost 19 years ago, gave birth to a healthy baby boy.