Adoption Brings a Dozen Bundles of Joy
Published November 2006 in The Messenger,
The Newspaper of the Belleville Catholic Diocese
The telephone rings, and the front door slams as a teenager enters from school. An 8-year old runs through the kitchen with a superhero costume, complete with a cape. Mom opens her planner to discuss this week’s upcoming schedule. A cell phone rings, and dad asks one of the 12 children to remove a bookbag from the table. It may sound like chaos, but Ken and Mary Besse said it’s more like “organized chaos.”
Though recent movies like “Cheaper By the Dozen” and “Yours, Mine, and Ours” portray fictional families acting out everyday chaos with 12 or more children, the action within this Millstadt, Ill. family’s household is very real.
Children run from one end of their renovated farmhouse to the other. With six bedrooms and only two bathrooms, the daily schedule has to be organized.
“Ken and I had always talked about having a large family,” Mary Besse said. “It was what we were meant to do – our calling.”
Disagreements about who gets to use one of the four cell phones and who gets to drive one of the five vehicles are typical. However, conversations about birth parents are typical, too. Each one of the Besse children, ranging in age from 8 to 31, was adopted through Catholic Social Services, a diocesan agency.
When Ken and Mary Besse learned that a natural pregnancy was out of the question, they decided that it didn’t matter how they got their large family and chose to adopt.
When the couple, both teachers at Belleville West High School (Ken, 64, is retired, and Mary, 59, will retire at the end of this school year), began the adoption process in 1973, they were told the wait would be pretty long.
“We decided to refinish the kitchen in September 1975, and we got Brad the second week of November,” Ken Besse said. “We thought it would be much longer, so we always joke that we got Brad on the installment plan because we had spent most of our money on the kitchen.”
Brad, now 31, ran the household until Leah, now 28, arrived. Then Anna, now 24, came along, followed by Rachel, now 18. All four were adopted as infants through CSS.
The couple was thrilled to continue building the foundation of a large family, a tradition established within earlier generations of Besses.
However, after the first four children arrived, Ken and Mary Besse began to discuss the possibility of foster children. “After we adopted the first four, they (CSS) started calling us,” Mary Besse said with a smile.
Already established siblings, Brad, Leah, Anna and Rachel met Nick, Tabby and Kate for the first time in 1990. Tabby, now 19, Kate, now 18, and Nick, now 16, were siblings in need of a stable home environment.
The first night a new child enters the Besse home, and every night from then on, the entire family sits together for a meal. “I always try to make a special dinner the first night they are home,” Mary Besse said. “It’s usually something I hope they like, such as macaroni and hot dogs.”
Sharing a chair in the family kitchen, giggling, Tabby and Kate chime in that they remember digging into the meal with their fingers. A home cooked meal was something they rarely experienced before joining the Besse family.
Mary Besse said she remembers how each child adjusted differently to the stability they provided. When Robby, now 19, joined the Besse clan, he was amazed that all of the children in the home had the same last name and that they ate meals together as a family, Mary Besse said.
The family continued to grow a each foster child was available for adoption, and as more foster children needed homes through CSS. Jeffrey, now 13, joined the family as a foster child, followed by natural siblings Chris, now 12, and Luke, now 10. Chris and Luke’s sibling Doug, now 8, came to the Besses as soon as he was born.
Mary Besse said it was always a surprise when a new child arrived. “Leah used to joke that she was afraid to go back to college because every time she did, we had a new child when she returned,” Mary Besse said.
Each new child brought rewards and challenges for the entire family. Ken and Mary Besse said they are very open with each child about the birth parents, but that the questions are sometimes difficult to answer.
“There is a big difference between surrendered parental rights rather than rights that are taken away,” Ken Besse said. Some of the children have had supervised visits or even regular contact with their birth parents, but some are not allowed to see their parents because of drug or alcohol-filled environments.
When asked whether the children held resentment for Ken or Mary Besse, one of the children said his only fear is that by the time he is 18 and allowed to make contact with his mother, she may not be alive because of the lifestyle she lives. This is just one of the many issues that Ken and Mary Besse discuss regularly with their children.
“Negative attitudes are some of the most difficult aspects,” Mary Besse said. “Each child responds differently to their birth family.”
Each child also carries unique personality traits and in order to blend a 14-member family successfully, you have to recognize these differences, Mary Besse said.
As each child chimed in about his or her brothers and sisters’ “unique” traits, laughter filled the farmhouse kitchen. Though Brad was absent, his family deemed him a type “A” orderly individual and Leah as the artist. “She has never walked the straight and narrow,” Ken Besse said.
Anna is known as the quiet, down to earth, conscientious sister, and Robby as the tinker and class clown. “He used to take apart everyone’s bike,” Ken Besse said, “although he didn’t always know how to put them back together.”
Rachel is high strung, her sister Kate said. Tabby is quiet and down to earth, yet known as the procrastinator. Kate is the outgoing, boisterous one of the group, according to Tabby. “She’s the drama queen.”
Nick is the typical farm boy, Ken Besse said. Jeffrey is the sports fanatic, and Chris is the stubborn one, the wrestler. Luke is another artist in the family, complete with Leah-like red hair and Doug, equipped with his Harry Potter costume, is not your typical 8-year old, according to his sisters.
“He is so random,” Kate said as she acted out how his behavior is from one night to the next.
Many of the siblings show some similarities, though. Rachel and Brad are both high strung; Anna and Tabby are both quiet; and Luke and Leah could be twins, except that they are 18 years apart, Mary Besse said.
Even though the personality traits vary, the bond is very real, the family agreed. “They fight like cats and dogs,” Mary Besse said, “but they love each other completely.”
Each child brings something unique to the table, Ken and Mary Besse said. They are also willing to share their talents to enhance their faith.
Each one of the Besse children has served at St. James, Millstadt, in one capacity or another. Many are members of the newly-formed youth group. All have either served at Mass, coached grade school sports teams or helped out at parish events and picnics.
“Our faith is very strong, and we try to pass that on to each child,” Mary Besse said. “They are all a part of the church.”
When asked about the most rewarding aspects of adoption, Mary Besse said that moments like these, when the children are gathered around, sharing stories, make her very thankful. “They are our gifts,” she said.
Twelve gifts to be exact.
“As a young couple, we wanted to fill the pew at church,” Mary Besse said.
Now, with 12 adopted children – eight still living at home – the Besse family fills two pews at St. James in Millstadt, and this year’s summer vacation to Disneyworld prompted the need for two vehicles.
At the end of the day, amid the organized chaos of track and baseball games, beyond the daily challenges associated with broken curfews and vehicle arrangements, and looming questions about birth parents and stability, Ken and Mary Besse said they cherish each moment.
Sitting in the kitchen, with eight children surrounding the table and a cake box with the words “touch or die” marked on the top, the love and reality of a family is clear. “These children are dreams come true,” Mary Besse said.
– Shannon Philpott
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