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.
Most of the others arrived via the social services departments in Baltimore and Kansas City, Mo., where workers were reaching out of state to find adoptive parents. Some were babies, some children. In one case, she expected a single child and instead ended up with three -- twins and their baby sister -- who had been so terribly starved they had distended bellies and doctors were confused about their ages. They thought the twins, who couldn't walk, talk or eat solid foods, were 7 months old, but the boys had already passed their second birthday. One had to go to occupational therapy later to learn how to chew because he had missed that stage of development.
Other kids came with multiple broken bones. Two had lived in a crack house. Maureen didn't know how any of them would fare. No one did. You can't predict that.
Though she met the children once, at most, before she took them in, a motherly feeling always set in almost immediately. It started as a surge of protectiveness. Because these children were just handed to her, like that, and they had no one else in the world to take care of them. And then quickly -- within hours, within days -- that feeling deepened and she felt like they were hers. She doesn't know how else to describe it.
Probably the most conscious decision she made was adopting four siblings in 2000. She was shopping around a little -- she admits it -- looking at a Web site with photographs of waiting children. All of them are cute, but certain ones grab her. She was not looking for four, truly. But she can't stand it when siblings are split up, and there was something about those faces. They just looked like her kids. She thought, you know, "They're the ones."
That probably would have been it for her. Foster kids had come through her household all along -- 14 maybe? -- but she stopped doing that. The loss when they left was too painful. For her. For the children. And anyway, her family was too large. A dozen kids was plenty. That was obvious.
But a couple years later, the same social worker from Missouri called about another group of four siblings that social services couldn't place. They had been terribly abused -- the toddler, who was almost two, had just had a body cast removed; the three-year-old wore a miniature helmet because of brain damage he suffered when one of his parents threw him into a wall. No one knew if those two would be able to walk or talk.
Maureen thought about it for a while. She looked at her finances, spoke to family and friends.
Can you really handle more? They asked her.
What about your health? Her parents said.
At some point, she set aside her apprehension and decided to leap. Whatever would be would be. She flew to Missouri to pick up the children. And then they were 16.
Just keep running
Keep moving until everything is done -- that's one of her mottos.
Wake up at 4:50 a.m., pour some cold barley tea, start the laundry, fix breakfast, drive the older twins to their bus stop, make more breakfast, put in more laundry, check for brushed teeth, inspect hair, feed the dogs, take a bath, stop at the grocery store, drive to work, sign checks.
Friends from church, work, school and the neighborhood are always amazed. They don't quite understand how, with all the demands on her, Maureen pulls it off day after day. With her managerial skills, she could run a huge corporation, her friend Linda Ryan says. "She could be Bill Gates."
Well, life can feel like a giant logic puzzle, but she's not being intentionally coy or modest when she says that it just takes organization. It takes a system. It also takes a sterling memory: She knows the color and shape of each kid's pills. She mentally keeps track of the food in the pantry. She remembers -- without labels, which seem too group-home-like -- who owns every last T-shirt and sock in the house.
She is not frenetic -- that's not her style -- but she rarely stops and kicks up her feet because she knows won't be able to make up that time later. Like those daily five loads of laundry; they absolutely have to be finished by the time she leaves in the morning or she will end up running up and down the stairs all night while she is trying to make dinner and look over homework.
If you fall during a marathon, everyone runs on top of you, Maureen says. It's the same kind of thing.
Family and friends pitch in, of course. They cart the kids to activities, attend recitals and dance performances, babysit in a clutch, braid hair. One friend from church used to regularly leave work early to cheer at Levick's baseball games. The music teacher is so devoted to the children that when he got engaged, he informed his fiancee, "Those kids are part of the package."
And she relies on the kids, too, to help their siblings with homework or do the dishes or take the dogs out. If she is, say, running late, she can recite a battery of directions over the phone to 16-year-old Laneisha. The babysitter is picking up the boys at the bus stop; if Jay didn't take his 1 o'clock medicine it's in the little white paper cup, don't let him take the orange pill because it keeps him up; Terrell said he would play with Jay, I don't mind if they play video games, just tell the babysitter to leave the pantry open because the PlayStation is in there; someone can watch a movie in my room if they want; bribe them with electronics -- that's my advice ...
As time goes on, Maureen finds she worries less. It takes a lot to fluster her. And she learned long ago to let go of a desire for perfection. After all, what matters: a clean house or spending time with the family? Anyway, she believes that even if you make a lot of mistakes as a parent -- and that's inevitable -- if you can make your children understand that you have their best interests at heart, they are forgiving.
Financially, she always manages to make ends meet. She earns $82,000 as executive director of Community Support Services for the Deaf, an agency for deaf adults with developmental disabilities that she has run for 20 years. Most of the kids get government medical assistance. Five qualify for a monthly stipend for adopted, disabled children. Missouri reimburses her for some babysitting expenses, an upscale grocery store donates produce, and clothes consistently roll in. Between state money, scholarships and sheer resourcefulness, she has found a way to send most of the kids to private school at one point or another, from Catholic school to a dance academy in New Jersey.
Nonetheless, she is not above a moneymaking scheme; this year, the idea was breeding English bulldogs. Their trendiness and ridiculous pricey-ness might ordinarily turn her off, but, hey, she has no problem profiting from the silliness in the world.
Unfortunately, she belatedly found out that bulldogs can only give birth via Caesarian section, because they have been bred to such odd proportions. And their dog Pumpkin, after lurching around the house like a ship for weeks, wound up being due on the day of Kelly's wedding.
The bulldog specialist is in Virginia, the wedding was in Baltimore, and the scene was insane -- even for Maureen. She pulled out everyone's party clothes the night before -- pinning socks and underwear to suits and dresses -- then a few of them awoke at dawn and sped across the state. They did not have an hour to spare, but as providence had it, the delivery went smoothly and they returned home with eight robust puppies the children named Panic, Snort, PJ, Einstein, Blackbeard, Nana, Mama Claus and Cookie Monster.
And they made it to the wedding on time.
In the end, the bulldog shenanigans were just another logic problem to solve. True, the puppies are difficult to care for at first -- they squeal like baby ducks and need Vaseline applied to their rumps every few hours to keep their tails from sticking to their haunches. But after the first few weeks, it really isn't that bad.
What can she say -- it's just her routine, and somehow it works. She doesn't ponder it, she simply does it. To be sure, she doesn't have room for much outside the kids, but this is her life and she has no regrets. Yes, occasionally she wishes she could just fly away, but usually, at the end of the day, she is content to simply drift off to sleep. Then, her alarm goes off at 4:50 the next morning and she does it again.
Maureen isn't usually a bragger, but she is awfully proud of her children. Dante skipped two grades, you know, and he's a whiz at the piano. Jay, a most pensive, spiritual kid, was born knowing how to play the drums. Eight-year-old Mark reminds her of Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh.
She could go on. They are all good kids; they really are.
But her family is different because of the children's pasts. That doesn't go away. The kids can't necessarily talk about it -- many were abused before they had language -- but their histories inexorably seep out.
Jay, who had 13 broken bones when he entered foster care as a baby, has always had sleeping troubles and grows fearful if Maureen raises her voice. "I'm afraid you're going to hurt me!" he'll wail.
She really tries not to holler because it can also set off Darien, and Kee too -- she'll take the house apart.
It's those two, Kee and Darien, who have the hardest time. "I just wish I was a better person," Kee sobbed to Maureen one day last year. She was 12 then. She has been hospitalized five times for depression.
And Darien. Oh Darien. He's a very bright 12-year-old who also struggles with severe emotional problems. When he's at home jabbering away or curled up with a book, it's not apparent at all. But school can be a minefield for him. When kids tease him -- and they do -- he explodes.
He had a major outburst in September at school. He banged on the walls, screaming that he was going to kill all the teachers, then kill himself. He was carted off to the hospital in handcuffs.
"I made some really bad choices," he said mournfully when Maureen arrived. He had calmed down by then. "I said some things I shouldn't have, and now I can't take them back." Now, Darien's in a private school for kids like him.
Her children have good days and bad days. That's how it is. She just throws in a little hope and a prayer and does the best she can.
Race and identity
When Ronda was around 6, she asked if she had been in Maureen's tummy. No, her brothers explained, she was in her first mother's tummy.
"Oooh," she said. "Granny?"
Ha! Maureen's mother was nearly an octogenarian then. And she and Poppy are white; Ronda is black.
But that's what little kids are like -- they have no clue about racial differences. Sometimes they insist they weren't adopted, and their siblings' protests -- "Mom is white!" -- don't sway them.
The older children, though, have a much sharper awareness of biological bonds and race. They see that Kelly, Levick and Patrick are white, Chris is Native American and the rest of the siblings are African-American. And that can be hard for them.
After all, no matter how happy, bright and talented her kids are, most of them have had significant loss in their lives. They lost their birth families. The racial differences are a blaring reminder of that, and all too often bring unwanted attention. Kids will sometimes taunt Darien. Is your real mother in jail?
Actually, his biological mother is in prison. So what can you do with that?
There's no doubt that the best situation is when children and parents are the same race, Maureen says. Absolutely. It helps develop self-esteem and identity -- and God knows adolescents are obsessed with figuring out who they are. On the other hand, kids shouldn't languish in foster care because the optimal placement isn't available. That's not the answer either. In any case, it's been illegal since the 1990s to use race as a factor in placing foster or adoptive kids.
So she simply faces head-on the complexities of being a white woman with a multiracial gaggle of children. They go to a black Catholic church in Baltimore. The kids have black role models in their lives. She learned long ago how to braid and do extensions -- it has been ages since anyone at church teased, What on earth did you do to that child's hair?
She's well aware that some African-Americans do not think white parents should adopt black kids, though she almost never gets direct comments to that effect. She also has heard the opposite view: People expressing disdain for white families who go to Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America to adopt when African-American children next door need homes.
She refuses to judge. Look: People should follow their hearts when they adopt. They shouldn't take in a child of a particular race out of a sense of duty. It takes away a kid's dignity. That's just her opinion. She really thinks every child has the right to be somebody's first choice.
When she thinks about what she wants for her kids, it's pretty simple. If they could all be self-sufficient and doing something that brings them happiness, she'd be fine with that. The whole world might be a nicer place if everybody had that goal for their children, wouldn't it?
Maureen doesn't waste much time with idle dreams, but sometimes, she fantasizes about sending the rest of the kids to private schools. Also, though this is out of the question unless she wins the lottery, she would like to be a stay-at-home mother. She could do such a better job.
She has some smaller wishes, too. It would be nice, just for once, to replace the rickety, hand-me-down bikes the kids ride with shiny, new ones. And she'd like to swim regularly, spend more one-on-one time with the children, go away by herself for a couple days each year. She used to do that but it's been harder recently: It's not fun vacationing for three days if she has to worry the whole time about who has the kids and whether they are OK.
Sometimes, she thinks about a spouse -- or, frankly, a clone -- but she doesn't seriously long for one because, really, who would take on her family?
She swears she's not adopting again -- for heaven's sake, on parents' night, it's getting harder to extract herself from the little chairs at the children's schools. Perhaps she will foster some kids after her own are grown, but she doubts it.
Or sort of doubts it.
What she really wants to do once her kids leave the nest is retire, sell the house, invest the money, buy a camper and move to the shore. When the holidays roll around, she'll just motor over to the home of whichever kid is having the party.
The rest of the time, her children and their families will have to find her parked next to the ocean on Assateague Island, where she will be trying out the life she deliberately opted out of the first time around. In her daydreams, she swims every day. She wiggles her toes in the sand. She takes long, aimless walks along the beach. She spends as much time as she wants watching the swallows and listening to the sea, and it is very, very peaceful.
A family of many, but not too many
Is 16 children too many? Not necessarily, some adoption experts say.
Though it is rare, a number of parents around the country have adopted 10, 20 or more children, said Richard Barth, the dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Often, when workers at child welfare agencies can't find a home for sibling groups or disabled kids or other hard-to-place children, they will return to families they already know are willing.
"Agencies may look for smaller homes," Barth said. "When they're not available, they go back to these larger homes. In a way, it's a second choice, but not necessarily an inferior one."
The public may have a skewed perception of mega-families because typically, these clans don't get much notice unless something goes terribly wrong, Barth said.
Though many states limit the number of foster children per family, similar caps don't typically exist for adoptions. It's not necessary, some adoption experts argue, because a properly conducted home study is sufficient for assessing whether parents have the resources to provide a safe, loving home.
"You don't willy-nilly want to place kids in large homes," said Adam Pertman, executive director of Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in Boston, "but clearly there are some people who can do it."
Members of the family
Natoshia Brunson, 29. Toshy, who is deaf, came home to Shanklin at the age of 12 after years in foster care. She graduated from a high school for the deaf and is the mother of a year-old son. Toshy is the only one of the children Shanklin never legally adopted.
Kelly Coble, 26. Shanklin gave birth to Kelly during a brief marriage in her twenties. A Goucher College graduate, Kelly has a master's degree in social and works at a therapeutic nursery. She married last fall and has a daughter who is 1. (Because Shanklin wanted her children to share a last name, they all have the surname Coble, from Kelly's father.)
Levick Coble, 19. Shanklin adopted Levick after a friend unexpectedly left him in her care as a newborn. Levick works as an aide to a deaf, blind man.
Patrick Coble, 18. Patrick, Maureen's other biological child, always loved dancing and last fall, began studying dance at the Ailey School in New York City.
Christopher Coble, 16. Chris was separated at birth from his developmentally disabled biological mother and placed with Shanklin . He didn't speak until he was 5, which is about when he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. He attends a private school for children with disabilities.
Laneisha Coble, 16. Laneisha and her younger brother Dante lived for years in a crack house. Later, she moved from one horrendous foster family to another. Ten years old when she came home, she's now a perceptive and social teenager. She is also the biological sister of Sean and Jay.
Terrance Coble, 15. Terrance and his twin, Terrell, were so malnourished when Shanklin took them in that doctors thought they were seven months old, though they were 2. Terrance is a good student who wants to be an electrician.
Terrell Coble, 15. A skinny, optimistic kid, Terrell is in the dance program at his magnet high school.
Rondalyn Coble, 14. Ronda (Terrence and Terrell's sister) had also been starved by their biological mother when she came to Shanklin at 10 months old. She is a talented singer and dancer. Last fall, she began attending a boarding school in New Jersey, where she studies dance.
Keeionna Coble, 13. Kee struggles with emotional problems and, last fall, went to a residential treatment center to receive intensive care. She has not returned home yet. She, Darien, Mark and Alexis are biological siblings.
Darien Coble, 12. Darien is a bright, earnest boy who likes reading and cars and is full of questions. He has emotional problems, but has been doing better since starting a new private school in the spring.
Dante Coble, 11. Dantewas a streetwise kid when he came to Shanklin at 4 years old. He's a charmer now - eager and talented. He skipped two grades and dances, sings and plays piano.
Jay Coble, 8. Jay is a pensive child with a gift for playing the drums. He and his twin, Sean, were placed in foster care at five and a half months, after doctors discovered that Jay had 13 broken bones.
Sean Coble, 8. Sean is a carefree kid who laughs a lot and likes to wear his Superman costume.
Mark Coble, 8. Mark suffered brain damage at 10 months when a parent crushed his skull. Doctors who thought he would never be able to talk were wrong. He recently got medals at school for reading 200 books.
Alexis Coble, 6. Alex had just had a body cast removed when Shanklin adopted her shortly before her second birthday. Doctors didn't know if she would walk or talk, but she quickly blossomed. She runs faster than the boys.