Mom topics

Lots of love and a big budget: How to raise 16 children

July 17, 2013 at 8:03 AM ET

family
Courtesy Bessmer family
Meet the family: Dad Joel Bessmer, standing far left, holds Levi, 2. Mom Kathy Bessmer, standing far right, holds Cecelia, 2. In the back row: Ryne, 21; Morgen, 19; Cameron, 18; Luke, 20; and Kael, 23. Middle row: Abbey, 16; Simon, 15; Gemma, 13; and Mary Kate, 13. Front row: Maya, 4; Gabriel, 9; Elijah, 6; Leah, 8; and Isaac, 11.

When you have 16 kids -- 13 biological and three adopted -- losing track of a child can happen.

Years ago, when the Bessmer family of Omaha, Neb., visited the library, mom Kathy paired all the kids together in the buddy system. It’s the best way to keep the many siblings from getting lost.

Third child, Luke, was responsible for the youngest, Simon. After the kids filed into the car, Kathy saw Simon, now 15, buckled in his car seat, quickly counted the others, and headed home.

As the chaos of unpacking the car unfolded, the phone rang. It was Luke. He was at the library.

How did Simon get in the car if you’re still there, Kathy asked.

Someone else probably put him in the car, says Luke, now 20.

“You turn around and count. I just assumed that his tiny brother partner was there [so he was there],” she says more than a decade later.

Managing the driving arrangements is the least of the challenges facing the Bessmers. The school and activity calendar, for example, would put the most organized to shame.

calendar
Courtesy Kathy Bessmer
Kathy Bessmer keeps a color-coded calendar to keep track of her children's classes and activities.

Kathy, 45, met her husband Joel, 47, in junior high school. They married while she studied music education in college. After completing his undergraduate studies, Joel attended medical school and works as a concierge doctor. He sees fewer patients who pay more for him to be available 24/7.

The couple always talked about having a big family—Kathy is the ninth of 10 children and Joel is the youngest of six. He says they agreed on six children. She thought it was eight.

“It doesn’t matter because we passed that,” Kathy says, laughing. “Once you have three [having more is easy]. Three is very difficult. [As Joel says] you go from a man-to-man defense to a zone. You hone your parenting skills when you have three.”

When her son Isaac was a baby, Kathy felt that God called her to adopt children. She believes her calling in life is to be a mom and she wanted to help others in need.

Many agencies turned down the Bessmers, but they found one that placed children in large families.

In 2011, the agency had two Ethiopian sisters who needed a home, but the Bessmers weren’t ready—there was also another family willing to take the girls. But that family sent the girls back; then another family returned them.

Kathy knew that the girls were meant to be with them so Gemma, who was 11, and Maya, who was 2, joined the brood. When the Bessmers returned to Ethiopia to adopt now 2-year-old Levi, Kathy learned she was pregnant with Cecilia, also 2.

The family may remind you of the Duggars, stars of TLC's reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” but Kathy says she has never seen the show.

couple
Courtesy Kathy Bessmer
Kathy and Joel Bessmer always talked about having a big family.

The Bessmers have a $12,000 monthly budget, which includes spending $700 every two weeks on groceries. Joel's salary covers all their expenses, but the kids are expected to pay for college out of their own pocket.

When they're younger, the children play violin at Omaha's Old Market and keep all the money earned from busking. When they turn 15, they're expected to find jobs and save their money for college.

Many times, the children receive scholarships to supplement their savings and they work throughout school to pay expenses. Four of the Bessmer children will soon be leaving college without debt.

The brood lives in a five bedroom, five bathroom house, so everyone shares bedrooms.

It’s easy to clean the house because there are so many kids to tackle the chore, Kathy says. She never has to play games like Candyland because the children have one another.

“They are so self-sufficient,” she says. “It just makes my job easier.”

Her oldest daughter, Kael, 23 says that having a large family meant never being alone.

“We were home schooled so there was always someone to play with,” she says, adding she’d like to have eight or 10 kids herself.

The first time Kael lived alone was in college and she found that she disliked the quiet and privacy of her apartment.

Mom Kathy’s day starts at 5 a.m. with a trip to the gym and then Mass. She sometimes visits their garden, where they’re growing veggies to cut down on expenses.

Then, she returns to home school her grade school kids. When the children finish 8th grade, they select the local high school they wish to attend.

While home schooling might seem like an extra stress, Kathy says it makes her children mature and responsible.

“I feel like we have given them really good roots.”

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