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And Baby Makes 7

It's August in Tennessee, and it's very hot. Dave and Beth Ann Huston are sweating a little, pacing, keeping a close eye on the clock. They're about to become parents for the first time. "It's almost like waiting to walk down the aisle at your wedding," says Beth Ann. "You're nervous, but it's an excited kind of nervousness."

Their eager and anxious anticipation make the Hustons pretty typical first-time parents. But in most other ways, they're not typical at all: They're waiting in the driveway of their Murfreesboro home. And they're expecting not only a baby, but that baby's four siblings as well.

And instead of having nine months of pregnancy to prepare for parenthood, the Hustons have had just 10 days to get ready for a large new family  -- Michael, 5; Christopher, nearly 4; Dustin, almost 3; Kimberly, 22 months; and Drew, 3 months. These kids  -- foster children and victims of abuse and neglect in the home of their biological parents  -- are about to make Dave and Beth Ann parents, five times over.

Margaret Renkl's last article for Parenting was "Baby Love," in the May issue.

Against Great Odds

Dave and Beth Ann thought they were ready, too, until Wise and the children's foster-care worker drove up to deliver the children. "Our neighbors all had play gyms in their backyards," Beth Ann says, "and the minute the car doors opened and the four older kids got out, they took off for every swing set they could find. So we took off, too, trying to gather them all up."

That first night, the children were so eager for attention they were constantly climbing into and out of Dave and Beth Ann's laps, unable to settle down after three long months of being separated and bounced from foster home to foster home. "They were so excited to be all together, it took us a good two hours to get them to bed," Beth Ann remembers.

In the weeks that followed, the Hustons faced the enormous challenge of making a home for children who had been profoundly neglected, both physically and emotionally. Initially, the kids were constantly hungry. "They gorged themselves at every meal," Beth Ann recalls. And they weren't even sure how to play. "They'd just dump out Lego blocks and shuffle through them; they didn't understand the blocks were supposed to fit together," she says. But perhaps the greatest obstacle was the language barrier: Not one of the children could really talk. Even Michael, at 5, "could say maybe 10 words," says Beth Ann. "If they wanted something, they'd grunt and point." Though Wise is careful not to condemn the birth families of any children in her care ("They haven't learned themselves how to parent effectively and protect their children"), she does say that the five siblings were "severely traumatized and developmentally delayed."

Profound neglect does more than lead to hunger and developmental delays; it may also cause immense emotional need. One reason state workers try so hard to keep abused and neglected siblings together is that they desperately need each other for emotional support. Because they can't count on their parents, the sibling bond becomes the only thing that gives them a sense of belonging.

In the beginning, even brief separations caused panic for the five new Hustons. Two-year-old Dustin suffered every time the kids rode in separate cars. Because he'd been the only one placed in foster care without a sibling for company, he "bawled his eyes out," says Beth Ann, if she offered to take one of the children with her to run an errand while Dave stayed home with the others. "So we would just take everybody everywhere. They were so afraid of being split up again."

Living With Uncertainty

For nearly a year, the Hustons had to take the children to weekly court-chaperoned visits with their birth parents, usually at a fast-food restaurant. "Every visit was traumatic," says Beth Ann, "especially for Kimberly. When she came back, she just wanted me to hold her. I couldn't put her down."

Beth Ann and Dave worried about whether they'd even get to keep the children. "Fortunately, I was too busy most of the time to dwell on it," says Beth Ann, "but I vividly remember crying sometimes as I watched them sleep, imagining what it would be like if their foster-care worker pulled into the driveway one day and took them all away."

In the end, social workers conceded that the children's birth parents' ability to raise them wasn't improving. In February 1997, the state agency petitioned the court to terminate their parental rights and make the children available for adoption. The petition was granted in July, and the Hustons were told they could take the children out of Tennessee. In September, Dave accepted a position with a church in a different state, and the family moved.

The birth parents tried to appeal the termination decision all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In October 1998, that court refused to hear their case, and cleared the way for the Hustons to adopt the five children who had so completely won their hearts. They returned to Nashville to finalize the adoption on May 3, 1999. The new family celebrated by having dinner out, complete with ice cream for dessert.

Happily Ever After

Life these days in the Huston household is what you might expect from a family with two busy parents and five very energetic kids. "It's true they do their share of fussing," says Beth Ann, "and sometimes I get frustrated when the house is a mess and I can't seem to get all the laundry folded, but parenthood is a privilege I know I'll never take for granted. My children's hugs always bring me back to what really matters."

Perhaps because they were so young when they entered foster care, the children don't seem to think of their birth parents at all. Only Michael, now 9, has ever mentioned them  -- just once, before the adoption was final, he said, "I don't ever want to go back to those people."

One mark of how far the children have come is their growing independence. "They've started to have different interests and different friends," says Beth Ann. "They still play really well together, but now they're making their own choices and creating their own identities." And intellectually and developmentally, each of the Huston children is right on schedule.

It's still harrowing for Dave and Beth Ann to consider all that their children must have endured before they found their way into the Huston home. "I cry when I think of it," says Beth Ann, "but it's a mixed bag of emotions." Says Dave, "It breaks my heart that the kids weren't taken care of properly, but at the same time I feel so blessed because they're mine now. We couldn't love them any more if they'd been born into our family."