I am always on the lookout for good mothers.
I observe them from a distance and attempt to learn their secrets. Sometimes, if I'm feeling brave, I ask them questions like "How do you reconcile the Easter bunny tradition with the remembrance of the resurrection of Christ?" (I knew that I had found a truly great mother when someone actually answered that question.)
One Sunday, I observed truly great parenting in action. A local family has a brood of kids that number in the double digits. I don't try to keep an exact count because the number is always fluctuating depending upon how many foster children they have in their care at a given time.
While I was struggling to keep my four-year-old off the floor and my toddler from running up to the altar, I realized that the two rows of kids on the opposite side of the church were silent. They were listening, or at least appeared to be listening. They were not on the floor. They were not trying to run away. None of those children had a finger up a nose or a hair out of place.
It was an Alleluia moment for me. There had to be a good mother involved there.
After church, I peeled the toddler off my leg and made my way over to the mother of the family.
"What is your secret?" I brazenly asked. "How do you make them behave so well in church? I can't even handle four!"
I braced myself for the profound wisdom that was about to be shared. I just knew this would be a pivotal moment in my career of motherhood.
"Pipe cleaners," Mary said.
I looked at her quizically. Did she just say "pipe cleaners?"
"They're quiet, they're cheap, and they will entertain them all through church," she replied as she shuffled her kids out of the sanctuary.
Who knew? The secret to good mothering is pipe cleaners.
Actually, Mary has shared much more wisdom with me that that little trick. In the time I've known her, I have come to realize that good mothering means giving unconditional love, boundaries, high expectations, and safety. She is an inspiration, not because she has kids that number in the double digits, but because she loves every child she meets.
She also reads this blog, and now I'm probably going to be in trouble. But she is the one who reminded me that May is National Foster Care Month, and I'd be remiss if I didn't remind people of that fact. Besides, she recently shared her story at church and in the local newspaper, and I think she and her husband are an inspiration to other parents. Their story should be told far and wide. They have certainly taught me lessons that go far beyond pipe cleaners.
Here is the article from the local paper (they have removed it from their site):
Children from all walks of life have found a place to call home in the loving arms of the Wichman family of Winifred
by SUZY BENZINGwith Mary Wichman
Many little girls dream of being a mommy someday. Some want one child, some two and there are even some who desire a big family of five or six children. Few, if asked, would say they wanted to be the mother of 47. However, that’s just what has happened to Mary Wichman of Winifred.
Mary is number six of seven children born to Marian and the late George Carr. She has always had a love for children; friends fondly remember Mary packing someone’s baby around whenever she had the chance, and she spent much of her youth babysitting for friends and family. When Mary wed her high school sweetheart, Gordon, in the summer of 1986, her thoughts of motherhood were closer to average: have a couple of kids right away and spend the empty nest years while still young enough to enjoy them. Little did she know that a whole different future was in store.
Gordon and Mary were asked to share their story at their church about a month ago. This was not new to them; they’ve spoken at several events and don’t hesitate to share their story with those who are interested. However, a time limit was suggested so Mary decided to type their story out instead of speaking off the cuff, an effort that became harder than she expected. The story is endearing, entertaining, touching, sad and happy all at the same time and is best told in Mary’s own words:
“Gordon and I have been together for almost 27 years. We got married in 1986. We had our first son, Doug, in 1987 and second son, Zach in 1990. We thought we were smart having our children young and then by the time we would be in our early 40s the boys would be out of the house and we would be empty nesters! Well, God had other plans for us!
“In the spring of 1996 He showed us what He put us on earth for, the job of foster parenting. So we took on the calling and signed up for one to two children. Knowing we wanted me to be at home for the boys, it sounded like a great job. I could be at home and we would be able to help a couple of less fortunate children.
“Kenny was the first foster son we had. And, within four months our license went from two to five foster children. That was in addition to our own two boys. We had children coming and going, staying anywhere from overnight to around three months, for the next year. And then in the fall of 1997 the social worker for Kenny asked if we would be interested in adopting him. We always wanted our boys to be able to stay together if something was to happen to us, and we feel that siblings should always be together if it is best for them.
“So when we were asked about Kenny, we said we would if we could also have his sisters, who at the time were 11 and 12. So, we were blessed with Kayleigh and Jackie. Doug was then 10, and there went our theory of only taking foster children under the ages of our own two boys.
“At that time we also had LaTaya in our care. Once we agreed to take on Kenny and his sisters, they asked if we would be interested in keeping LaTaya also. And that is how we got the role of not only foster parents but also adoptive parents, adopting Kenny, Kayleigh and Jackie in the fall of 1998 and LaTaya in the summer of 1999.
“We have had many ups and downs with raising our children, as you do with raising any child. But with these children come hidden stories and monsters that you can only discover sometimes if they learn to trust, love and respect what you have to offer them. Once we have shown them what we have to give, most of them are very responsive in a good way. We have always said once they walk through our doors they are part of the family and will be treated that way. They are given the same support, stability and love from all of us. They know someone cares about them and they learn to care also.
“Not all of them respond well, that being the case of one girl. She had issues greater than we were able to help her with and she moved to Georgia in the spring of 2001 with her biological father. That was very hard on all of us, but we know it was for the best at that time and we hear she is doing well now. There is also another brother in that sibling group, but sometimes siblings just can’t be together. He stayed in a therapeutic boys’ ranch until he was 18. He is almost 20 now and will probably struggle with life for some time.
“We had moved to Big Timber from Bridger in the summer of 1998, thinking we could start a new life with what we thought would be the family we would always have. We were in the process of adopting our first four then, and along with the boys we would have six children. That was plenty, right? Wrong!
“After the adoptions, we started fostering again. We had children coming and going once again. They stayed anywhere from overnight to years, some leaving forever and some coming back to us for a second time. We had children from infants to 18, boys and girls. Some children came to us having been an only child in their home, and some from a sibling group that had four children. We learned to never say never, and we seldom say “no.” We took in teenagers that were high on drugs in the middle of the night, runaways, newborns, those with head lice, ear infections, and chicken pox and some that came with animals, but we always treated them the same.
Sometimes I had to convince Gordon for a couple of minutes, but we always took them in.
“The day the sibling group of four left, I was depressed. I was going shopping with a friend to Billings, and I made call to a social worker there. She said I could stop by the office to pick up a four-month-old boy if I wanted. So we made that our first stop! Gordon was out of town for the weekend, but he was getting used to me having more children at the house when he got back home than when he left. That little boy was Kasper. At that time we didn’t know his mom was pregnant again and when we discovered it she asked if we could take the newborn baby so they could be together. Well, we also didn’t realize how far along she was, because when Kasper was ten months old the Department of Family Services called and said come get the new baby girl. I was excited, because I love babies, but Gordon was a little apprehensive since right up until she was born her mom was testing positive for drugs. He quickly fell in love with her, as we all did. When Kasper was 15 months old and his sister, Jayda, was 5 months old, their mom asked me if we would adopt the two of them. So in the spring of 2003 they officially became ours.
“We continued to do care for other children. The following winter we took on two brothers. They were hard to place. They were African American, one was almost 10 and the other was 1 1/2, they both had allergies, the older one possibly ADHD, the younger one with asthma and they came with lots of medication. They had been in four foster homes in the past 10 months. And by now you know we didn’t say ‘no.’ Two days later, Daris and DJ moved in with us. Yes, they both have allergies, but they are minor and maybe a little stress-induced. Daris does not have ADHD, DJ does, and he also has asthma, and with proper medication taken only when needed, he does fine. Something else they both have is a forever family that loves them. We adopted them in 2005.
“We also moved to Winifred in the summer of 2005. I believe in divine intervention. We had come to talk to my brother Frank about moving to Winifred, and in the middle of our conversation the phone rang with Norman Asbjornson on the other end. He was looking for some new things to do for Winifred. Frank mentioned what we were there for. He also told him we did foster care and would be bringing at least eight children with us. Norman liked the idea of us bringing children to the community and believed in what we did from the start. So within four months our new home was being built in Winifred. I was able to move to Winifred with the eight children we had while Gordon stayed and taught one more year in Big Timber. I brought all of our children and one foster girl with me. Gordon kept one girl that we had guardianship of with him, since she was a senior at that time.
“Well, once again, when Gordon is gone I take in another boy. Actually he did go pick him up for me from Billings. And that is when we got Dan. We tried keeping his sister with him too, but then trouble started. We had them both removed from our home, because as much as we love all children, we have the responsibility of keeping our own children safe first. Dan went and got help for some of his problems, and six months later asked if he could come back to our home. After being back with us for a few months we discussed the possibility of guardianship or adoption with him. He chose adoption and last week, I’m proud to say, Dan became our son.
“We have had a few other foster children since we have been back here in Winifred also. One little girl came to stay for the week, a year and a half ago. And we are in the process of adopting her right now. We have a sibling group of three that came to us two years ago. We are not sure what is in their future. And one of the little boys we had was with us for 1 1/2 years and was able to go back home with his dad in December. It always hurts when they leave. It brings us such joy, watching them learn and live with us. And we learn so much from each one of them. God has truly blessed us in many ways.
“We have had 47 foster children with us these past 12 years. We have also helped in raising my brother, Larry, a niece of mine and a friend of ours.
“Gordon and I are very happy to be back home here in Winfred. In a way we were like foster children. We moved from Winifred and went out and learned a little, lived a little, grew a little, found out our purpose, and came back. We came back home, like all foster children want – they want to be home. Like we did when we lived elsewhere, people tried to make us at home, but we know what home feels like. It is a safe, secure, loving, comfortable place. That is what we provide for those who might not have had that, but always will in our home. We are fortunate to have had Winifred to always call home, because Winifred doesn’t judge any of us. It gives us, our whole family, a safe, secure, loving comfortable place. Thank you.
“And back to being empty nesters. That was supposed to start this fall. As it looks now we will probably only have 11 children to keep us from being lonely when Zach leaves us. And having adopted nine children in the past 12 years and one in the process, I’m still not sure what God has in his plans for us, but we may need to add on! They say He’ll never give us any more then we can handle, and I believe that. So time will tell, and in the meantime we’ll keep young doing it!”
As Mary mentioned, Norman Asbjornson encouraged their move to Winifred by offering to help build a home where they could raise their family. The Wichman family now dwells in a 12-bedroom, 4 1/2-bath home on the edge of town. There is room to run and room for their little stock farm of various animals that the children enjoy and for which they are responsible.
Since moving to Winifred, Gordon has been commuting daily to Lewistown for work, but recently he purchased Mid-State Signs. He intends to relocate the business to Winifred once the new shop building is finished, also funded by Asbjornson.
Mary has said adoption was never a part of their original plan. When the opportunity arose, they initially dragged their feet – not because they hadn’t fallen in love with that little boy, Kenny, for they had. What they feared was the effect it would have on their own children, in costs and time. Once they knew all the details and options and decided it was important for Kenny to be with as many of his siblings as possible, things fell into place. Mary also said they realized that these foster children had lost so much already, and without a stable home and family, another loss would occur. A big reason they decided to become adoptive parents was to help prevent more loss.
When asked how common it is for foster parents to also become adoptive parents, Mary said most foster families who adopt stop fostering. She said very few take on both tasks but she and Gordon enjoy the coming and going of kids through their home and also adding to their own family through adoption
As with the Wichmans, many other parents are concerned about the effects foster care or adoption might have on their biological children. Mary believes it is because she and Gordon became foster parents that their boys are the men they are today. She recalled a time when their oldest son, Doug, went with her to Billings to picked up two infant girls. The girls were dirty and unkempt and seeing their pitiful condition brought Doug to tears.
In addition, Mary believes having older, grounded kids in the home can be a benefit; sometimes a foster child will develop a connection with another kid rather than with an adult. She’s seen that many times in their home, and she knows her kids will help enforce the family rules and encourage right behavior. Doug and Zach, as well as Kayleigh and Daris, have all expressed a desire to become foster parents themselves. For the older boys, this desire indicates that their lives have been positive, and the adopted kids want to give back what’s been given to them.
The community of Winifred has been tremendously supportive of the Wichman family. Whether it is at church, a sporting event or other community gathering, the Wichman children, whether natural, adopted or foster, are supported, cheered on, hugged, packed around and otherwise loved.
Karen O’Brien, of the Child and Family Services office in Fergus County, said recently, “It takes both Mary and Gordon to do this – and it takes their community and their church. Most people couldn’t do what they do.
“Their home puts a smile on your face,” O’Brien added. “It takes very special people to do what they’re doing.”