“You could say we ‘re charter members of Unplanned Parenthood, “jokes Don Reeder, 56. As the proud but pooped father of eight children—including three sets of twins—born in seven years, Reeder found that, what with constraints on money, living space and time, the only thing that wasn’t in chronic short supply was laughter. Over the years Reeder and his wife, Mary, 56 and herself a twin, have survived four children in diapers, eight in grade school and currently six in college at the same time.
Now that the children are grown—Andrew and Curtis are 25, Jeffrey and Michael are 23, Patricia is 21, Lynda is 20 and Susan and Catherine are 18—Reeder, director of operations for U.S. News & World Report, found time to meet with reporter Elizabeth Kramer in his Fairfax, Va. home and reflect on the challenges and rewards of being the father of eight.
Mary and I met in 1959 when I was covering the Indiana legislature for the Associated Press. I liked her right off, because she had a lot of spirit. One of the first things she said to me was, “I want you to know that I’m Catholic.” “That’s okay with me,” I said, “but I want you to know I’m not.” Now I am. I converted after the triplets in 1960.1 guess you could say I got drafted.
We went together for a few months and were married in August 1959. About six months later Mary got pregnant. She was anxious to have a baby. We were both 31, and we felt we didn’t have all that much time to start a family, although neither of us particularly thought about having a large one.
Though we had no indication that Mary was going to have a multiple birth, I was concerned because she looked so big. I asked the doctor about it, but he said he detected only one heartbeat. Mary went into labor six weeks early. It seemed like things were taking an awful long time in the delivery room, and I started to worry. Finally a doctor came over and told me I had three babies. I was stupefied.
The babies were very tiny; the heaviest weighed 3 pounds 3 ounces. They spent about a month in incubators. It was touch and go, and we didn’t know if they were going to make it. One didn’t. Brian died at 2 months of a heart defect. We had visions of the three of them growing up together, and it was hard to let go of that.
But life goes on, and we had Andrew and Curtis to take care of. The biggest adjustment was waking up three times a night to feed them. Because they were so small, they couldn’t hold much in their stomachs and they’d wake up every two hours. It was too much for one person, so we took turns. We were into double-parenting before anyone had thought up the term.
When Mary became pregnant again, the doctor was able to detect a second heartbeat and an X ray confirmed that she was going to have twins. Jeffrey and Michael were born in September 1962, which meant we had two kids in their terrible twos, two infants and four kids in diapers. Mary didn’t get much sleep for four years.
I sat up many nights worrying about how we could squeeze a nickel here and there. When the AP transferred me to Bismarck, N.Dak. in the fall of 1961, all we had in the way of “furniture” was a threadbare rug. It wasn’t exactly life at the Ritz. You’d get damn tired of it sometimes and start wondering how you’d ever get out of this. You’d daydream about living on Park Avenue and having a Mercedes. But those dreams didn’t last long. Kids put something in your life that furniture and fancy things can’t.
When Patricia was born in 1964,1 suppose we were relieved to have just one baby this time. Then Lynda arrived a year later. In a way, I think Pat and Lynda have always felt a bit left out because neither has a twin. Twins, after all, are the norm in our family. When Susan and Catherine were born in 1967, we were again surprised by the multiple birth. I got the news in the waiting room. An elderly woman was sitting there when the nurse told me I had twins. I didn’t exactly jump up and click my heels, and the lady was aghast that I wasn’t more joyful. “Well, it’s nothing new,” I told her.
With two new babies, the financial pressures were mounting. I looked into changing careers to public relations or advertising to make more money, but asking an employer to move you and eight kids gives you two strikes right there. Even at AP the size of my family had become an encumbrance because
transport costs were so high. I lost out on transfers to Washington, D.C. and Miami, both plum assignments, and I think the size of my family was a factor.
Subsequently, when I finally was transferred, we had a hard time finding a house that was big enough yet affordable. When we said we required a lot of bedrooms, people figured we meant a mansion. What we really needed was a dormitory. Sometimes when landlords found out about our kids, we couldn’t even get through the door. We also encountered a lot of flak from Planned Parenthood types who talked about not bringing kids into an already crowded world. One time when I took all the kids to a store, a woman said somewhat disapprovingly, “Are all those kids yours?” I got annoyed and snapped, “No, madam, some of them are rented.”
To some degree, we could understand people’s apprehension. Most kids are full of mischief, and with eight you have eight times that amount. The boys were always into something. Andy and Mike once went to play in a nearby house that was under construction, even though they had been told not to. Mike fell through a hole in the floor and knocked himself unconscious. Andy came home and said, “Don’t be upset, Ma, but I think Michael died.” Another time Mary heard the washing machine go on, but she didn’t recall putting a load in. Curt had climbed into the machine and Andy had turned it on. Thank God Mary was able to rescue him before the wash cycle got under way.
Whenever we went out, we generally kept track of the kids by taking periodic
head counts, but that didn’t always work. Once, at a picnic, we decided to change locations. We counted eight heads, but when we were settled again, we noticed that, although we had eight kids, two of them belonged to someone else.
The noise level in the house was deafening, and it went on all day and half the night. Sometimes you’d lose your temper or worry about kids getting lost in the shuffle. Mary thinks she overcompensated and was too strict, and I worried about whether I was treating them all equally. When the kids started school, home life got a bit easier, but there were still problems. When ball games and school plays coincided, Mary and I would split up and each go to one activity. Sometimes we didn’t get to go at all, but the kids learned to understand. Just like they had to share clothes and toys, they had to share our time.
We never treated the twins differently from other children. None of them looks alike, and we never dressed them alike. Each of our children is an individual and proud of it. Someone once asked Mike if he and Jeff were identical, and he said, “No, I have my own egg.” They fought, but no more than most brothers and sisters. Mary thinks twins are especially competitive, but they also have a special bond. With a twin you always have someone in your corner.
Although the kids are grown, we still lurch from one financial crisis to the next. This fall we will have six of them in college. They’re all going to state schools; private college is out. When it comes to scholarships, we’re caught in the middle—too poor to afford tuition and too rich to get it free. They don’t consider how many kids you have. We’ll get them through with the help of loans and part-time jobs for the kids. Five are still living with us, and when someone moves out we buy furniture for them at garage sales.
Mary and I are looking forward to retiring from parenting. Now we get to sit back and watch their lives unfold, see what careers they choose and who they marry. It’s like a massive soap opera.
Our kids may not realize it yet, but they have better values because they had to share. As for Mary and me, our large family cemented our relationship. Who’s going to take a walk on eight kids?