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Family of 19 Relies on Chore Lists, Laughter


S A R T E L L, Minn., Aug. 16 

Early morning at the Dunham family home, the coffee is brewing, and all is peaceful … but not for long. Soon, there is a bugle call to wake the kids up — all 17 of them.

The Dunhams, who live in Sartell, Minn., are what you might call a mega-family, and running a family this size is much like a military operation, with mom serving as the general. First, there is a wake-up call for the four littlest girls.

"OK — who wants Cocoa Puffs, and who wants Rice Krispies?" the mom, Paula Dunham asks.

Next, she rouses the five older girls, and then finally, all eight boys.

"When you have this many, you have to know what you're doing — otherwise you just sink," Dunham told Good Morning America.

The Dunhams are a minority in a country of mostly two-family kids, but they're not alone. An estimated 3.5 million U.S. families have four or more children. Like other extra-large families, the Dunham family came together through a combination of birth and adoption. They had eight biological children, adopted three and in May, they adopted six Filipino siblings who were already in the United States. They plan to adopt the seventh sibling in the fall. Other extra large families are blended families from two previous marriages.

Yet the organizational skills that the Dunhams have adopted can serve as an example for families of any size.

Big Family, Two Bathrooms

For the Dunhams, everyone — the eight biological kids and the nine adopted ones — has to pull their weight by completing chores that range from clearing the dishes, to mowing the lawn, to cleaning the bathrooms.

The latter duty is especially important: the house's 17 children and two adults have only two bathrooms to share. The space shortage means that mobilizing the troops can take some time. But once mobile, they travel in one or both of the family's two 15-passenger vans.

After attending church, the family heads to the supermarket, where they pick up four pounds of deli meat, three loaves of bread, countless bags of chips and three gallons of milk. It is enough for one lunch.

Back home — the frontline is the kitchen, where sandwiches are made for the seven youngest. The older ones must fend for themselves.

"Zach, Danny, you guys better get in here!" yelled the dad, Paul Dunham, summoning the boys to come in and prepare their lunches.

Meanwhile, the mom, Paula, is checking out the chore list.

"Romnick, you have dishes next," she called.

In addition to directing the chores, Paula home-schools nine of the children. Two are too young for school, and the other six go to school.

"It just depends what is best for them academically and emotionally," she said. "Some of them need the structure of school."

Developing a Sock System

Paula Dunham, aka "General Mom" has gotten used to four loads of laundry every single day.

"The simple fact remains that we just have hundreds of socks," she said. As the editor of large-family magazine, Joyfull Noise, Paula says she often hears from readers who have used varying techniques to deal with the sock dilemma.

Some use zipper pouches for each child's socks, others pin pairs together, some used different colored threads to differentiate the socks, and others just use a big laundry basket that allows all the family members to find their own matching socks.

Most of the time, everything runs smoothly. For the children, there's always a playmate, whether the kids shoot hoops, wrestle, play cards, or just lounge around on the couch together.

The Special Ingredient

Paula and Paul Dunham always knew they wanted a lot of kids, though they never imagined the number that they now have, and never thought their days would be a blur of skinned knees, hugs and runny noses and meals big enough to feed an army.

"We can go through a gallon of ketchup in a day's time," Paul Dunham said.

But the most important ingredient for the family doesn't come in a bottle.

"We laugh a lot, this whole family laughs a lot," Paula Dunham said.

They've found that laughter and love expand to fill the available space. And that the joy of toothbrushing and bedtime stories doesn't seem to pale — no matter how many tired foreheads they kiss.

Tomorrow they will sound the bugle again, as they rouse their special army of love.

2002 Aug 16