How a D.C. area family with 11 children, ages 12 through 1, makes it work

Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said in a caption that the children were brushing their teeth in an upstairs bathroom in the family’s home. The bathroom shown is on the first floor. This version has been corrected.

Like other mothers, Jen Kilmer makes sure all her children are accounted for before pulling away in the car. Her routine begins with a cheer:

Mom: “Are we ready?”

Kids: “Yes, we are!”

Mom: “Kilmer family . . .”

All: “Rah, rah, rah!”

Then the roll call begins: Christina (“Here!”), Joe (“Here!”), Michelle (“Here!”), Julie (“Here!”), Tommy (“Here!”), Steven (“Here!”), Matthew (“Here!”), John Paul (“Here!”), Larry (“Here!”), Rosemary (“Here!”), Peter (with help from older siblings, “Here!”).

Yep, Jen Kilmer has 11 children. They range in age from 12 to 1. No twins or triplets, but six sets of children born less than a year apart.

With the average U.S. family household having less than one child, according to the 2010 Census, the Kilmer family is clearly an anomaly. And the family’s day-to-day life is one many of us would find unmanageable.

Yet Jen, 45, a stay-at-home mom, and husband Larry, 53, a high school teacher, make it work. And despite years of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, the Rockville family says they’re having fun.

“We’re laughing a lot,” says Jen. “And within minutes, we can have a family soccer game. Not many families can say that.”

Not many families can say they need a 15-passenger van to go places together either. Or that they get mistaken for a day-care group when they go to a restaurant. Or that they go through two gallons of milk and two loaves of bread each day. Or that they spent six years with four children simultaneously in diapers.

Despite the high potential for pandemonium, the Kilmer household is orderly and unchaotic. Beds are made, clothes are folded and the children help around the house.

There is no secret formula to their success, says Jen (and aside from an occasional hand from in-laws, no outside child-care help either). But clearly, keeping on top of a family this size requires superhuman doses of organization and patience. Not to mention a level of personal sacrifice beyond measure.

“People are always asking, ‘How do you have time for yourself?’ ” says Jen. “But when you realize there’s more to life than yourself . . . I think time to yourself is overrated.”

Jen and Larry met in 1994 when they were both teachers and soccer coaches at area Catholic high schools. Their soccer teams played each other; they married three years later.

Jen, who grew up on a small farm outside Boston with eight siblings, says she always wanted lots of kids. Larry, who was adopted and has one sibling, had no preconceived notions of family. The couple say they agreed to accept the children God sent them.

Nine-and-a-half months after their wedding, their first child was born. Eleven-and-a-half months later, a second arrived. Today, the Kilmers’ children are ages 12, 11, 10, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 4, 3 and 1.

A day in the life

During the school year, Jen’s days begin at 5 a.m.

She lays out the children’s uniforms, makes lunches, then attends 6:30 Mass at the Shrine at St. Jude.

After Mass, Larry and the oldest boys leave for school.

The remaining school-age children get dressed, eat breakfast, grab lunches and walk to school. The youngest stay home with Mom, who finishes up the morning routine: cleaning from breakfast, making beds and putting in a load of laundry. This fall, two of the three youngest will start preschool, adding a little wrinkle to the established morning routine.

Getting everyone off to school can be chaotic, says Jen, but she rarely feels overwhelmed by her daily to-do list.

“So many people are surprised when I say that,” she says. “Maybe after a while you just have coping techniques.”

One coping technique is routine. Once Jen establishes a system that works, she’s diligent about implementing it so nothing ever gets out of control, a necessity for a large family in a small house.

Family cleanup times come twice daily: right before 3 and after dinner. When mail comes through the door, it’s dealt with immediately. (“I never let it touch the table because it would stay there,” she says.) The children’s art projects are in constant rotation; artwork goes up on the fridge for a week, then gets filed away. When preparing for a family trip, she gives each child a large Ziploc bag and a detailed packing list.

She does four to five loads of laundry each day. Folded clothes get put in plastic drawers in the playroom labeled with each child’s name. Twice a week, the kids bring their clothes upstairs.

The Kilmer command center is a roll-top desk that sits in the kitchen, keeping things such as mail, bills, permission slips and the laptop within arm’s reach. “I need to be near the command center, so it needs to be downstairs,” says Jen. “When the kids were little, when I came downstairs I wouldn’t go back up until nighttime.”

Most of the children are home from school by 3. They have a snack and start homework while Jen begins dinner. As in many families, homework time can be stressful.

“Everyone has questions, and I only have so much patience,” says Jen. “The first- through fifth-graders need a lot of hand-holding.”

When things get to be too much, she goes outside and sits on the back porch swing. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just need a moment of peace.”

Family dinners take place around an eight-foot-long table with bench seating, recently given to them by a friend who no longer needed it. Previously, a second table had to be moved in and out of the kitchen every night.

Bedtime begins at 7:30, with the children taking shifts in their shared upstairs bathroom; some get ready for bed, others clean up downstairs.

By 9 p.m. all the children are in bed. It’s the first quiet moment Jen’s had since Mass more than 14 hours earlier.

“When the last one goes to bed, sometimes I sit down to relax,” she says. Some nights, she’ll take a 20-minute nap before tackling the rest of her work: cleaning the kitchen, more laundry and making sure uniforms are in order for the following day.

Jen credits her childhood as part of her preparation for being a mother to 11 children. “Everyone had chores,” she says. “I’ve been trained to work hard. God was preparing me.”

Challenges

Jen and Larry bought their four- (now five-) bedroom colonial when they had only one child. Moving into a bigger home now isn’t financially possible, so they’ve made adjustments.

They added a master bedroom suite with a bathroom and office space; the kids’ rooms all have bunk beds. They moved the playroom into the larger family room area to accommodate all the toys. A wall was erected in the new family room space to prevent sound from the TV from traveling upstairs.

But a cramped house is just one of the challenges for the Kilmer family.

“We can’t stay in a hotel because the ratio of children to adults is too high,” says Jen. “We’re considered a fire hazard.”

When one person gets sick, it could be a month before the virus leaves the house, she says, and one-on-one time between a parent and child, and between spouses, is limited.

The biggest challenge, however, is money.

The day-to-day expenses for a family of 13 can be staggering. The Kilmers’ grocery bills alone run about $300 per week. Add a mortgage, car payments, medical bills and home and auto repairs and the cost of Catholic school, and it’s not surprising that some months they find it difficult to make ends meet.

“We don’t have a college plan for tomorrow,” says Jen, “because we’re trying to pay for the groceries today.”

To supplement his teaching income during the summer, Larry runs week-long sports camps and paints houses.

Jen is careful about spending, cuts coupons and find ways to work with what they have.

“I recently learned [to make] soup,” she says. “The kids eat veggies and I can stretch my meat.”

The couple say the generosity of others also helps them get by. “We’ll get bags of clothing on the doorstep, and I don’t even know who they’re from,” says Jen.

People have given the family clothes, furniture, meals and grocery gift cards without being asked, says Larry.

“Every year it happens more and more,” he says. “And their generosity allows us to be generous to others.”

The Kilmers frequently pass along clothing they no longer use to other families. Another wonderful lesson, they say, for the children.

Once, when most of the family was ill, word spread in the community. Within hours, family, friends, neighbors and colleagues appeared at their door to cook, clean and watch the children. For two weeks, meals were left by the front door.

Constant companions

On a recent rainy Monday afternoon, Jen picks up the older children from soccer camp; the little ones, Larry, Rosemary (whom they call Rosie) and Peter, are with her. When she arrives at the camp, the oldest eight climb into the van, tousling the baby’s hair and giving their mom a play-by-play of the day. From their car seats, 3-year-old Rosie and 1-year-old Peter are holding hands.

Later, as Jen prepares dinner, the six older boys, ages 4 through 11, have a lively Wii competition while Julie, 10, helps Rosie practice writing her name at the kitchen table and the older girls play with Peter. When Peter has had enough indoor play, Joe, 11, takes him for a walk around the neighborhood in the stroller.

“You always have someone to play with,” says Michelle, 10, about the benefits of having many brothers and sisters.

“You’re never bored,” says Christina, 12. “When you’re close in age with someone, you have best friends.”

Besides having built-in buddies, Jen says having so many siblings teaches the children leadership, teamwork, waiting their turn and helping one another.

“I feel very strongly that the best gift you can give a child is a sibling,” she says.

The rock of Faith

Jen recalls the days when the family had seven children younger than 7.

“I had to do everything for them from tying everyone’s shoes to buckling them all into their car seats,” she says. “That’s when I just really felt exhausted.”

She admits to crying sometimes under the weight of it all. But those “pity parties” are short-lived.

“I can only feel sorry for myself for so long because there is work to be done,” she says.

In the midst of the stress and commotion, the constant chorus of “Mom!” and the backbreaking pace, Jen remains calm and cheerful. It’s evident that part of what gives her peace as well as the confidence of knowing it will all work out is her Catholic faith.

“Somehow God provides,” she often says, “in ways you don’t even know.”

That faith guides the children as well. When he grows up, Tommy, 9, says he wants to be “a professional basketball player and a priest.”

“If I am a professional basketball player,” he says, “I’ll do that, retire and then become a priest.”

When asked if more children are in their future, Jen mentions her age and says, “Probably not, but we would love to. We would accept whatever comes.”

Chat live: Wondering how Jen Kilmer does it? Ask her yourself when she chats with staff writer Terri Sapienza about what life is like with 11 kids. Submit your questions now and join us for the chat at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Photos: See a gallery of daily life in the Kilmer family home here.

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