Living large: Big families have their advantages

"Several months into our relationship, the subject came up of the number of kids we wanted to have if we ever got married," says Priscilla Peterson of Mount Horeb. "Erik thought maybe two or three sounded good. When I said I'd like six, maybe eight, his jaw dropped."

In recent years, the media have made stars of Jon and Kate (plus their eight) Gosselin and the even more prodigious Duggar clan from 19 Kids and Counting. But these supersized families don't just exist on reality TV. While the average number of kids in a Dane County family is just over two (according to the 2010 census), there are some folks in the Madison area who could easily qualify for their own TLC series.

Being pretty far apart on the number of children desired didn't turn out to be a deal breaker for Priscilla and Erik, who married in 1994. Their first child, son Konur, was born in 1998 and was followed in quick succession by daughters Maja, now 12 and Annalis, 10. Erik, quite happily, was forced to revise his premarital offspring prediction upward when Priscilla became pregnant again in 2003 - this time with twins.

But even while driving sons Hakon and Erik home from the hospital, Priscilla still felt there was "someone not yet in the picture." Those "someones" became Thor, 6, Kajsa, 4, and baby Annika, now 2.

Priscilla, who works part-time as a group fitness trainer at the Princeton Club West, likes her version of motherhood. "Sure, nothing ever seems convenient," she says. "But every day is so full. There is so much happiness. I love watching the dynamics of how they interact when they don't know you're listening." She pauses. "They all have their moments, but within minutes, they're best friends again."

Dr. Peggy Scallon, of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency program at the UW School of Medicine, says there are definite advantages to growing up one of many. "In a big family," she says, "the good will of the group is very important. You can't be a prima donna. You realize quickly the world doesn't have to revolve around you."

And although Scallon doesn't see a lot of large families in her practice, she knows firsthand about some of the perks. "I am one of six kids and had a real sense of belonging growing up," she says. "Belonging to clan, a tribe, is very powerful."

Molly Tupta, an early childhood special education teacher, and husband Joe, a physical therapist, have also embraced the idea of a big family. The Madison couple have been parents to 22 kids, most through fostering, over the past 13 years.

"We fostered a sibling set first, and then a baby girl," says Molly. "We became totally hooked, and when they left there was a huge void. So when we got the call about 2-year-old Levi, and the Department of Human Services asked if we'd consider adopting, we said yes."

Around the same time, they also welcomed Tamika, 5 at the time (now 16), into their home. They adopted both children in 2002, less than a year after they gave birth to their first biological child, Jack, now 10. "We went from zero to three permanent kids in less than a year," says Molly. "And while we didn't say yes to every call, we kept on fostering."

Molly gave birth to child number four, Olivia, in 2005. And when she asked the family if they could rally to take on baby Evi, in need of foster respite care the summer of 2009, the answer was "of course." "We adopted her this past December," says Molly.

Their all-time household high was eight kids total in the summer of 2011. And although Molly admits it was stressful, she feels there are huge rewards to having a big family. "We just love all the activity in the house. There is always someone to play with. The kids keep asking when someone new will be coming into the picture."

Besides the obvious concerns about finances, where to house all the shoes, and what to drive (the Petersons have a 15-passenger van), there are even bigger challenges to parenting a small platoon.

"The hardest part," says Priscilla, "is juggling the multiple stages of life that are going on all at once. I have teens and their social issues at the same time that my youngest is in diapers. And we have every emotion in between."

And the fact that Erik, who is a full-time colonel and F-16 pilot with the Wisconsin National Guard, can be deployed overseas (as he was for six months in 2006, when they had six kids) keeps things interesting.

"In some ways you grow up faster being in a big family," Priscilla says. "Konur learned to change a diaper at 5. The two older kids are kind of like second parents, and they've only helped out more as time goes on. I rely on and trust them more than anyone else."

Molly concurs that older kids really pitch in. "Tamika is a huge help - an older girl who loves kids is great," she says. "She's known in our neighborhood as a great babysitter.

"Sure, we get comments and stares sometimes, especially last summer when we had eight, but you need to have a sense of humor and thicker skin. You can't worry about what other people think," says Molly.

Priscilla says that for every rude comment they've gotten ("outsiders really like to share their opinion on family size," she says), they've also gotten lots of positive feedback. "We don't go out to dinner often, but when we do, people remark how well behaved our kids are."

When asked how she finally decided eight was enough, Priscilla is careful to point out she never said that. "Eight feels good," she says. "I don't feel stressed, I don't feel overwhelmed. But I'm not ready to close any doors just yet."

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