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It was instinctual for Mary Jane to have a large family; she was raised in one herself (number nine out of ten). Her father's strong belief in family and the desire for having one herself was instilled at an early age. "We were my dad's life. People were the most important thing; life is the most valuable asset you can have and give. I believe if my parents didn't have the attitude they had, I wouldn't be here. Though they didn't have the means [financially], they felt they would take whatever God gave them." Mary Jane's will was strong to become pregnant immediately after getting married, which of course, she did, "so I've either been pregnant or nursing most of my married life." That would be her entire seventeen years of marriage.
From day one, Mike Milless was quite aware of his wife's longing to have a large family. However, neither of them was prepared to have nine children. Naturally, she says she's gone through moments of thinking, "Oh, I'm pregnant again?" But she has told God that "in a world that rejects life I will take all the babies you want to give me."
The modest split-level home has five bedrooms and three bathrooms, two people per room with the exception of three in the master bedroom (Mary Jane, Mike, and baby Marie). Mary Jane was very polite, attentive, and passionate about the subject at hand, and between offering me coffee and a sandwich, she nursed the baby. I was expecting a lot of commotion during my visit, but the only sight of kids in close range--other than the baby--was when Martin peered through the dining room sliding glass doors, from the outside deck, contorting his face inquisitively against the glass. Mike was on the road, working, and the others were either not at home or outside playing with friends.
A "typical day," if there really is such a thing, consists of packing lunches for the kids, getting them up and fed, getting a load of laundry in, and trying to get the beds made before she goes to church. "Laundry is kind of my central thing." Then she straightens up the house, thinks about what she's going to make for dinner, and bakes cookies for an after-school snack.
They spend about $350 every two weeks on groceries, and shop at an outlet store for bread (bread and milk are the two items they go through constantly). They buy their fruit and produce at Eisenberg's because she can always get a great deal there, she always breastfeeds, and doesn't spend much on formula (she'll keep a can around, just in case). Also, people are very generous with hand-me-downs and "garage-saling" is done often. "The statistics on raising a large family, financially, aren't necessarily true. I don't think they take bargain shopping into account."
One thing she would like to do is send Melissa and Melinda to St. Agnes, the best private Catholic school in the Twin Cities, according to Mary Jane. Because funds are tight, and the drive to and from the school- would be an hour and a half, she needed to confer with Mike. He decided that it wasn't viable. Because "I believe in being submissive," Mary Jane did not press the matter.
But what may be more strenuous than the money squeeze is the time crunch. Having dinner together doesn't happen as often as they'd like because the kids are involved in many activities outside the home: "There have been times when we'd have a schedule that would choke a horse," says Mary Jane. "It's either somebody's birthday, somebody's wedding, shower, first communion, baptism, there's always a festive mode." But when it is possible for them to spend time together, they go camping; the whole family enjoys doing that together.
Mary Jane admits there's a lot of work involved in raising her family and sometimes she can "totally go crazy because I'm human. I still like to have things perfect. Kids will not allow you to have things perfect; they'll quickly show you things aren't." But she declares, "there's never a dull moment, so you don't have to search far for entertainment."
With all the effort of bringing up nine children, naturally, there is some tension. How does she deal with the stress? "I call them my 'I can't have anything' fits, when I feel there's nothing sacred in this whole house. But my truest sense of 'how do I deal with everything' is going to Mass."
You would think there'd have to be moments when the children wish for "only childhood." "They really don't say they don't like it [family size]. I'm sure there are times they may escape it." Melissa will go to a friend's house where there is less activity, "but I don't know if she'd trade places with her friends who come from a smaller family," asserts Mary Jane.
What is most gratifying for Mary Jane is noticing the bonds forming and securing between the kids, watching them huddle together, whispering, not wanting anyone to hear their private sibling conversations. Even though there is obviously always going to be some fighting, "there's the love side, too." Her children are learning to take over some of the household roles, so they grow in different ways. "It teaches them to be less selfish, to learn to take care of their siblings."
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