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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 11 2013

Mothers to many: Big broods in F-M region say a packed house no problem

FARGO - When Karla Wiegrefe met her husband, Jeff, 22 years ago, he was her German tutor at Dana College in Blair, Neb.

They fell in love. He popped the question, and she said yes.

By the time the wedding rolled around, youthful enthusiasm had apparently taken hold. Karla says she was already pregnant with their first child.

She had just turned 20 a few days before they said their “I do’s.”

“When we got married, we told everyone as a joke that we were going to have 13 children. And we did not mean it in the least bit. I guess the joke is on us now. We have nine,” Karla said.

“If my 18-year-old self had seen I’d have this many kids, I’d have run screaming in the other direction,” the 41-year-old said.

In today’s America, where the average married couple has 1.94 kids (and maybe a dog, a cat and some goldfish under their roof), the Wiegrefes and others with big broods, represent a throwback to a time when the immigrants who farmed this frigid region had more luck raising kids than corn.

Lessons from each

Karla said her first couple pregnancies were rough, including a miscarriage.

“I was really, really, worried about having another pregnancy. That fear was overtaking my life,” she said. “I decided I’d rather die brave than live in fear. We stepped out in faith.”

The children range in age from 21 to 1 year old, Karla said.

“It’s been quite a journey, and quite an unexpected one,” she said.

Strangely, in some ways it’s gotten easier now than when the family was smaller. She has two more licensed drivers in the house. Four are old enough to baby-sit. She can divvy up the workload.

“In my family, every day is Mother’s Day,” Wiegrefe said.

“The kids are a gift to me, each one of them is. We have learned so much from them. I have some kids that have taught me patience. And some that have taught me to look at the little things and laugh. And some that have taught me not to focus on ‘self,’ ” she said.

Jeff is the wage-earner. He works at Wells Fargo Bank in Fargo, while Karla raises the children and home-schools them.

“My wife is amazing,” Jeff said.

The boys sleep in one big room and the girls in another, with the oldest child getting his own space, Karla said.

They have more than one vehicle, but they also know how to put the mass in mass transit.

They used to have an eight-seat station wagon, then a 15-passenger van. Now, when they venture out in force, they use a retired Head Start school bus purchased from a cousin of Jeff’s father, who used it for a canoe rental business in Wisconsin.

Karla was raised the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, he was raised Methodist, but years ago they converted to Catholicism, in part because they liked natural family planning.

Now, they take life one child at a time, he said.

“When I was 18, I never imagined having nine kids. I knew that I wanted more than two for sure. I guess I’ve fulfilled that requirement. Any more than that is a bonus,” Jeff said.

“We learned very early on that they’re (the children) all very different people. We’re curious about who the next person will be,” Karla said.

Eight is enough

For Kristen and Sean Brotherson, bigger is better when it comes to families.

“We both came from big families, and we decided then early on in the marriage that we’d have a lot of kids if that was something we could do,” Kristen said.

Sean, 45, and Kristen, 41, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Their religion encourages a family life, but at eight kids, their brood is twice the Mormon average, Kristen said.

They have children ranging in age from 20 years old to 2 months.

Using the bathrooms in the morning takes almost military precision. The oldest children have early seminary classes and hit the bathroom first, followed in shifts by the younger children.

Kristen and Sean agree that eight is enough, calling their youngest, Evan, “the caboose baby.”

“We feel very, very, very, very done,” Kristen said.

She has a master’s degree in humanities and art history and has taught college courses off and on in Oregon and in North Dakota, and she’s also done museum work, Sean said.

He is a professor of child development and family life at NDSU.

“So I have a natural interest in parenting. I told my wife we needed to create our own little family laboratory; would she help me out?” Sean said.

“Our faith encourages a family life. It doesn’t encourage a certain number of children. ... They are a blessing, not a burden. And we have accepted that unto our family life,” Sean said.

He said they recently had their baby blessed in their faith community.

It was a transcendent moment, reflecting on 20 years of marriage and eight children, he said.

“It’s when you realize that all those hard moments are worth it,” he said. “It was a great, joyous experience.”

‘I’m the lucky one!’

In the Jennifer and Kevin Wolsky clan, Jennifer is not only the chief financial officer, she’s the chief maternal officer.

The Carrington, N.D., 34-year-olds were married in 2000, and since then, they’ve had eight children, the oldest being 12, and the youngest is 3 weeks old.

He runs a large farming operation; she takes care of the books and the kids.

“I know truly that this is my calling,” said Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom. “I just think that I’m the one that’s getting blessed. I’m the lucky one!”

They’ve outgrown a Chevy Suburban SUV, and Jennifer then picked out a 15-passenger Chevy Express van.

“We actually had a guy in the Wal-Mart parking lot say it looked like a clown car” as the children got out, Kevin said.

They’ve also outgrown their rambler and its single bathroom.

They’ve built a new, larger home a couple miles from Carrington. It should be ready in June, Kevin said.

“It does help that we are Catholic,” Kevin says with a chuckle. “You know what you call someone on natural family planning, right? Pregnant!”

Kevin said that after they had five kids, he thought they were done with the baby stage of life.

“I thought, ‘Next time my wife gets baby fever, I’ll get her a dog,’ ” he said.

Five years later, they had another baby, and in short order added two more.

Will there be any more?

“We’re just going to put that in God’s hands,” Jennifer said.

“Looking back a year ago, I didn’t think I’d be sitting at Mother’s Day and holding a baby. It’s a pretty special Mother’s Day having her here.”

‘They’re my gold nugget’

It’s a good thing that Jan and Dick Riewer like children.

After all, the Frazee, Minn., couple had 13 of them.

“We felt very blessed that they were all healthy,” Jan said.

“They were good kids, they really were. The oldest kids would help me. Maybe that’s why it was so much fun,” the 65-year-old said.

Jan came from a family with three kids. Dick’s family had 14, though Jan jokes that they weren’t trying to catch up.

They both worked outside of the home. He ran a gas station. She worked in health care, first as a nurse at Frazee Care Center, and now as housing manager for Vergas and Frazee Assisted Living.

But the kids came first.

“That was my life. That was the most important thing in my life,” Jan said. “They’re my pride. They’re my gold nugget.”

As the family grew, they added bedrooms onto the house, Jan said. They now have 12 bedrooms, plus a 15-passenger van.

Their children are ages 43 to 22. They’ve also given Jan and Dick 17 grandchildren.

“It doesn’t get very lonely, I’ll tell you that,” Dick said.

One of their children died in 2007.

Their son, Greg, died in a roadside bombing while serving in the military in Iraq. He was 28.

“She deserves all the credit for raising them,” said Dick, who’s retired.

“I wasn’t home that much. I spent a lot of time at work,” the 76-year-old said.

Living the dream

Jared and Jessica Rivers are nosing up on an even dozen kids.

The Dilworth couple has had 10 children since they married in November 1998.

Baby No. 11 is due in October, Jessica said.

Their children range in age from 12 years to 9 months, she said.

“We don’t see putting a stop to that,” Jessica said. “We do feel like the Lord has given us peace about making this choice, but he could change this tomorrow.”

Jessica is a stay-at-home mother. Jared installs and repairs elevators.

They watch their money and try to pay for everything cash. They shop at Sam’s Club and Costco. A trip to a Hornbacher’s is a treat, she said.

They all do without some things. It’s character-building, she said.

The best thing about her big family is the laughter, the hugs and the unconditional love, Jessica said. At the same time, “some days you want to pull your hair out. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns.”

Jessica says she’s a perfectionist, but has forced herself to lighten up.

“If we get the headcount (correct after leaving a store or restaurant), if everyone is in the car and accounted for, that is a success,” she said.

Jared said that they each have favorite stages for their children. Jessica has enjoyed them as babies. He likes it when they’re big enough to play.

“There’s nothing better than being at home and walking in the door and hearing, ‘Dad’s home!’ and they come running up at you,” he said.

Jessica said their family’s love hasn’t been divided, but has multiplied with each child.

“I feel blessed beyond measure,” Jessica said. “Sometimes I look around and can’t believe this is my life. I am living the dream I had as a little girl.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583