The Joy of Six
It's 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and Jenny and Bryan Masche are frantically getting ready for church at 11. Jenny is pouring milk into sippy cups, holding one toddler in her arms while two others hang onto her pant legs. All three are whining for their "ba-bas." Meanwhile, the three other toddlers are raiding the kitchen cupboard, looking for pots and pans to bang.
Suddenly, there's a knock. It's Olivia, 11, and Reese, 6, neighborhood kids who drop by often to play with the children. But their timing is off today. As soon as Bryan opens the door, all six kids run past the young visitors and into the front yard, toward the street. "Stop!" Bryan yells, corralling them back into the house.
The clock is ticking, and everyone is still in pajamas. Jenny and Bryan have a shot at arriving before services begin, but based on their track record they'll probably walk in well after the sermon has started.
Their fellow congregation members at Calvary Chapel are willing to cut Jenny and Bryan some slack. They know it's difficult enough to run a household with one or two kids, let alone to raise walking, talking, willful sextuplets. The Masches, who live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, somehow maintain a sane (if exhausting) family life with Savannah, Bailey, Grant, Cole, Molli, and Blake, who turned 2 on June 11. "It's a challenge to keep things running smoothly," says Jenny. "But for every five bad moments, there's a good one that makes up for it. My kids give me joy and strength. I could not imagine my life without them all." She and Bryan agreed to give us a peek at the systems and tricks they use to minimize time struggles and chaos.
Keeping on Schedule
"When you've got sextuplets, sticking to a routine is the only way to stay sane," says Jenny. She spends weekdays with the kids, working two to three nights per week as an E.R. physician's assistant (Bryan has a 9-to-5 job as a sales rep). Jenny keeps the kids on a consistent, if achingly monotonous, daily schedule: up at 8 a.m., followed by breakfast, playtime, nap, lunch, storytime, more play, bathtime, dinner (with the kids in diapers -- "They get food on everything, so this saves me having to change their pajamas," Jenny says). Bedtime is 8 p.m.
Jenny seldom goes out during the day. "Ever since the kids learned to walk, I haven't been able to take them to the park because they're too hard to control," she says. "It's difficult because I'm an on-the-go person." Her lone daily respite is their naptime, when she showers, tidies up, or checks her e-mail.
It's at night (when she's not working) that Jenny goes into overdrive. "I savor that time because it's the longest stretch I get to myself," she says. She and Bryan usually begin by taking turns running (Jenny's completed two marathons -- one before having kids and one since). Then they mop, vacuum, pay bills, check the mail, do the dishes -- "The list goes on and on until we finally crash at 1 a.m.," she says. Jenny's an early riser, too, often hitting the pavement at 5 a.m. to beat the Arizona heat: "Luckily I don't need a lot of sleep to function," she says.
One thing Jenny hasn't found time to do is cook. She often whips up pancakes or eggs for breakfast before the sextuplets wake up, but lunches and dinners consist of microwaved chicken nuggets or hot dogs, plus some fruit. Jenny uses kitchen scissors to cut the kids' food into safe-size pieces. When they're done eating, she quickly washes their sippy cups, refills them with milk, and puts them in the fridge for later. She and Bryan hardly even think about their own meals. "We have so much to do at night that we just order takeout," Jenny says. "It's a really bad habit."
How to do it better: Jenny does a remarkable job of managing six toddlers, but needs to take better care of herself. "Moms require seven to nine hours of sleep to maintain their energy and get things done efficiently," says Jodi Mindell, PhD, Parents advisor and author of Sleep Deprived No More. "Moving the kids' bedtime to 7 p.m. would let her catch up at night and get an extra hour of sleep -- especially since she's up early anyway."
Dr. Mindell recommends, too, that instead of going to bed super late every night, Jenny can crash at, say, 10:30 p.m. every few days -- and use her midday break to grab some extra shut-eye. Jenny could also simplify her dual-dinner approach: Taking a few minutes to prepare a slow-cooker meal will enable her to serve a nutritious dinner instead of processed foods or takeout. "Homemade food has less sodium and fat and fewer preservatives, so the Masches and their children will all eat better that way," says Kaayla Daniel, PhD, a clinical nutritionist in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Getting anywhere on time is a huge battle for Jenny. "With sextuplets, it's easy to forget something or for one of the kids to need a last-minute diaper change," she says. "The unexpected always seems to happen."
Bryan and Jenny each use a daily planner, but the arrangement is far from foolproof. "I'm not perfect about entering appointments, and things sometimes slip through the cracks," Jenny admits. Recently, she forgot to record a time change for a pediatrician visit. "The office called, saying, 'You're 15 minutes late. Are you coming?'"
Jenny can't afford a slipup on the nights when she works: There's a three-hour gap between when she leaves and Bryan gets home. His aunt Barbara watches the kids during that time. Jenny calls Barbara every Saturday to review her childcare needs for the week. "It's a huge blessing that we have a lot of family nearby and that they enjoy helping out," she says.
How to do it better: With a work shift like Jenny's that varies from week to week, a shared online calendar (such as Google Calendar, a free application) is a better option. "That way, Jenny, Bryan, and other caregivers can add and view appointments simultaneously," says Tonia Tomlin, author of Chaos 2 Calm: The Moms-of-Multiples' Guide to an Organized Family. To get out the door faster, Jenny can lay out the kids' clothing the night before and keep a diaper bag packed and ready to go. It's also a good idea to aim to leave 15 minutes early; this builds in extra time for the inevitable departure delays.
Cutting Through the Clutter
"Messes drive me nuts!" says Bryan. "I need stuff to be put away, or I can't relax." Toward that goal, he and Jenny have placed baskets throughout the house that they stockpile with staples (such as diapers and wipes) and other baby gear. They bought three large toy containers to keep the living room neat and make a point of donating playthings to a church thrift store as soon as a bin starts to overflow.
Organizing the kids' clothing isn't so easy. They only have room for two dressers -- one for the girls, one for the boys -- and there's simply too much stuff to fit inside them. "I have to literally shove their clothing into the drawers," says Jenny, "and the dressers are so crowded it makes things tough to find." It's also hard to keep track of who wears what. Then there's her thrice-weekly laundry nightmare: sorting endless pairs of tiny toddler socks.
How to do it better: If they can't add another dresser, the Masches need to edit the amount of clothing they keep in the drawers. Tomlin suggests they keep a plastic container next to the dressers for storing items that are either getting small or aren't right for the season. Once it's full, they can give that pile away to charity.
Jenny and Bryan split up the essential maintenance tasks. He does the family's banking and post-office runs during his lunch hour, wolfing down a sandwich to fit it all in. She goes grocery shopping every couple of days (the kids go through 10 gallons of milk per week) and buys most of their clothing online.
But the couple hasn't figured out how to reduce the hassle of doctor visits. Jenny shuttles two toddlers at a time, leaving the other four with a sitter. "It's less hectic for me that way," she says, "and it's also easier for the office to keep track of their charts."
How to do it better: Several strategies could help the Masches get things done with less stress. "Bryan might find it easier to order stamps and do his banking at home, online," says Donna Smallin, author of Organizing Plain & Simple. Jenny could save time by organizing her shopping list based on the supermarket's layout; by creating a daily meal plan she could reduce her food runs to once or twice a week.
Jenny and Bryan definitely need to simplify trips to the pediatrician. One option is to call around and look into whether another physician has evening or weekend hours. They might also ask whether seeing six kids at once makes a house call worthwhile. "At the least, if Jenny can take three toddlers at a time and ask a nurse to help out, she'll cut out four wellness visits a year," says Tomlin.
Arranging to Have "Alone" Time
"With our schedule, we have to sneak in time together whenever we can," Bryan says. That's why Jenny tags along on his weekly four-hour round-trip to his MBA class in Las Vegas. They take one sextuplet with them to make sure each kid gets some extra attention. "Once he or she nods off, we get a chance to catch up," Jenny says.
The Masches try to set aside an hour every evening to watch an episode of 24 or American Idol that they've DVRed. When they do go out -- "We get one date night a month if we're lucky," says Jenny -- it's usually for a quick dinner after the sextuplets are asleep. "Almost all we talk about relates to the kids, which I think is normal for newish parents," Bryan says.
The couple plan a sanity-restoring solo weekend every few months, with each set of grandparents watching three of the kids. "It's crucial for us to recharge, even if we end up staying home and just sleeping in," Jenny explains. "We're very lucky to have such a strong support system. It really does take a village to raise sextuplets."
How to do it better: Jenny and Bryan could improve on their couple-time opportunities. "Instead of always taking a child in the car with them, they should ride solo every other time," says Scott M. Stanley, PhD, coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage.
To connect during TV time, they can cuddle on the couch with a glass of wine or massage each other's feet, since physical contact is a lot more intimate than simply sitting in the same room. And while it's natural to discuss the children on a date, Dr. Stanley stresses that they should stick to the positive aspects of parenthood. "Save the problems for another time," he says. Because when this harried couple gets a rare free moment, they should spend it recreating the happy, carefree, romantic times they used to share all the time -- before their six wonderful (and demanding) blessings arrived.
Taking a Break
Six kids take up most of their waking moments, but the Masches still find ways to chill.
Hitting the Road
Bryan often comes home for lunch so Jenny can take a head-clearing drive. She goes to a convenience store for her signature fountain treat -- Diet Coke with a splash of Dr Pepper. "It's like my daily coffee," she says.
Making a Date
Since Jenny can't safely watch six kids in public, she'll meet a friend for a stroll (each pushes three kids) or take them to someone else's house for a change of scenery.
Building a Fortress
Bryan converted his home office into a "moom" (man room), where he decompresses by watching baseball and reading political science books.
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Parents magazine.