At the beginning of the week, I wrote about the Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother, an archetype or DSM-IV diagnosis if I ever saw one. I wanted to use that post as a springboard for writing about family size: How large is too large for an adoptive family?

Before I go into how large is too large for an adoptive family, I’ll comment about biological families. Since reality television has now embraced the family life of large biologically-related families like the Duggars, a family of 19 members with their own television show, the fascination large families hold is obvious. Also obvious are the differences between biologically-related families and those built through adoption. The adopted child enters a family due to a trauma that separates the infant or child from her original parents. This is a trauma for the child, and about this there is no doubt and no lack of consensus, unless one wants to consider the starry-eyed prospective adoptive parents who imagine that love is enough, that all real connections are spiritual, and that biology and genetics have no influence on family life.

I don’t have an opinion yet on biological family size. I have opinions about American liberties and think that telling people how large their family size ought to be has constitutional implications that I’m not prepared to delve into. So what I have to say about adoptive family size, I’m limiting to adoptive families. Dear reader, please don’t construe anything I write about family size as applying to biologically-related families, too. That’s my disclaimer.

Now, on to what’s on my mind.

The Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother (for it is usually the mother driving the adoptive family engine) is able to build a huge family and to convince professionals to look the other way or even to enable her to build it, in spite of many research findings on optimum group size numbers. Computer scientist and entrepreneur Christopher Allen notes that the optimum large group size is around 150, while the optimum small group size is 5-8 people (I was taught eight people in undergrad small group communications class). At approximately 12+ people, the small group begins to break down and require specialization.

If we apply these findings to adoptive families, we could suggest that the optimum size for an adoptive family would be between 10-12 people of varying ages and temperaments; numbers might reasonably be decreased with the entrance of more disturbed or handicapped children. A child with severe emotional disturbance may need the parenting energy of two to four children, limiting the size of his adoptive family by that many members; the child with severe physical limitations who requires a great deal of care might account for even more time, and the number allowed into the family would be less.
However we don’t do this reasonable adoption-related accounting of human beings in the United States. The adoptive family, built on legal fictions and, once finalized, considered legally to be the exact equal of the biological family, is not to be tampered with or legislated to.

Nevertheless, we limit classroom sizes by law, we limit foster family size by law and by administrative rule. We do not limit adoptive family size because adoptive families are real families, just like step families and biological families, and as such the adoptive family is sacrosanct. Adoptive and step families have reproductive rights, too.

I disagree with this stance. I think that the court and professional involvement required for the establishment of adoptive families ought to look out for the best interests of the children in the family already, and those whose entrance and permanence is proposed. Social workers and psychologists specializing in adoptive families ought to be engaged and consulted, and their approval required before a family boasting 32 or 22 or 12 children is approved, much less lauded.
Some may disagree, pointing out that adoptive parents who are prone to collecting children addictively will just turn to another activity as a substance, and this is probably true. Even so, American adoption is driven by the “best interest of the child” standard, and I think that adoptive family size ought to be considered among the factors that either contributes to a child’s best interests, or not.

The burden of proof ought to be on the parents who want to convince us that having scads of children already will serve the new child’s interests–and vice-versa.

Art by Diego Rivera.

Goodbye, Winnie

Our mare just “up and died” today, as people say around these parts.

Her name was Winnie, and several cowboys who met her said she was the oldest horse they’d ever met.

My husband bought her one night at the horse auction, at a time when there had been a regional drought and ranchers found it difficult to feed all their livestock. Many had to sell off some of their unwanted horses or cattle, and that’s how Winnie found herself in the auction barn one night.

They brought her out into the tiny corral, and tobacco-spitting cowboys and matrons with teased hair appraised her with shrewd eyes. They turned away, talked about the weather. Nobody wanted her; she was skin and bones. The auctioneer reckoned she was about 90 years old in horse years, and she looked every bit of it.

Hubby brought her home anyway because he thought our girls would like her. I was appalled when I first met her, because she was ugly and old. Worse, she drooled when she ran; anyone who rode her dismounted with one leg wet from the knee down. She was a good ride, other than that: she was rein trained and responsive to the most subtle guidance.

It was love at first sight for our gelding, Taz. He took one look at Winnie, perked his ears up, and said, “Hubba, hubba!” He followed her everywhere, which made me laugh. It was obvious from nature which sex had the upper hand!

This year, Winnie changed. She was the one who followed Taz, not the other way around. Resting her nose alongside his flank and thigh, she followed him like a trail horse. The two were inseparable.

Then, a few days ago, one of my little girls said that Winnie wasn’t with Taz. She fretted that something had happened to her. We looked for her, and found her standing near the barn, looking a little disoriented but otherwise more-or-less herself. She seemed bony, though, and wasn’t interested in apples or carrots.

My husband came in to dinner last night and said that he thought Winnie was nearing her end. She hardly looked at the sweet feed he offered her, and the light had gone out of her eyes. We went out to look at her again, and she was standing near the water tank, head down, just staring at the water. It was as if she was thirsty, but too unbearably tired to drink it.

Taz approached, nudged her gently, and she drank. But most of the water ran out of her mouth into the dust underfoot.

This morning, Winnie was lying in the pasture near our barn. Taz grazed nearby. When we approached, she lifted her head to look at us, but didn’t want to make the effort to get up. She wasn’t suffering; she just seemed tired. We patted her and talked in her ear, and she let us know that she was glad we were there. We prayed for her, and thanked God that He was so good to give animals to the world, animals like Winnie who so faithfully served people and lived useful, productive lives. There’s no telling how many foals she had given to the ranchers who had owned her previously, how many trail rides she’d been on, how many children she had toted on her back.

One of our Dogs of Small Brain, not sensing the seriousness of the situation, decided to play “pounce on the horse tail,” which annoyed Winnie. She tried to get up, and did; that’s when we realized she wasn’t long for the world. She could barely stand. Her old matron’s legs barely held her. They wobbled; she wobbled. She seemed to want to follow Taz into the woods, where they often spent time in the shade, swatting flies away with their tails, heads on each other’s thighs.

But it was clear that she wasn’t herself. She didn’t know how to follow him, or how to go. One leg went this way; the other went that. She faltered, and then suddenly she was gripped with what looked like a gigantic seizure. At first I thought she was having a heart attack, but it became clear that she was having a seizure; her legs flailed, she groaned, she crashed to the ground. I knew she would never get back up: it was that final.

This was at 12:15 p.m. We stayed with her, put a sheet under her head, shielded her from the sun in her eyes. My husband called the vet, but we could both tell that by the time he got to the vet, got sedatives or painkillers or whatever he was going to get to put her down, and returned, she would already be dead. It just happened that fast.

We were both with our daughter when our daughter died, and she died with a recognizable pattern. I have midwifed numerous babies into this world, and midwifed a few people (and many animals) out of it: there’s a pattern. This pattern is recognizable if nothing unusual happens to interfere with it, nothing violent. The body is a system that has a way of shutting itself down, and it does its work. It’s almost like the mother who goes through the house at the end of the day, letting the dog out and back in, locking the doors, turning out the lights. It’s a process. She didn’t appear to be suffering, and didn’t sound like she was suffering. The suffering was done on our side, as we watched her body fight to die and fight to live at the same time.

By 12:30 p.m., Winnie had died. We covered her face so that the flies would leave her alone, and returned to the house. It was strange and surreal to look out the window and see her body lying there. Taz stood fretfully over her, whinnying mournfully from time to time. He didn’t want to leave her, which seemed even sadder than the fact of her death.

We called a man who buries animals on his farm, and asked him to come and get her. He buries one or two horses or cows a day, he said, for about $150 apiece. In the midst of the trauma, we learned that there’s an old guy with a flat bed trailer that makes $1,500 to $2,000 weekly hauling off dead livestock, and burying them on his farm.

When the man put Winnie on his trailer, Taz ran crazily around the trailer, tossing his head, neighing loudly, and stomping his feet. He protested loudly as the man pulled through the gate, and at one point my husband feared Taz might run through the fence, or leap over it, just to stay with Winnie. He didn’t, but it will pain all of us to watch him suffer without his lady.

At last report, Taz was hanging out with the cow, Bossie, and her young bull calf, T-Bone–sorry substitutes, I’m sure, for the love of his life.

We don’t know what sort of life Winnie had before she came to us. We think she must have led a pretty good life, because she wasn’t afraid of people and she was always willing to give a person a good ride. She worked and played well with people and animals.

She spent the last few years of her life here, and she was fed sweet feed daily. She had plenty of water and all the grass and hay she could eat. She had trees for shelter and shade, a dry barn, a devoted male friend, and numerous child groupies.

I’d say that she led a pretty good life in her retirement years, and I’m glad that we could give it to her.

Goodbye, Winnie.

Mother, Mother Thyself

Have you ever met a mother who lives only for her children because she has no life in herself? Long after the time when self-denial is a job requirement for parenting a baby or toddler, Mother continues to deny and abandon herself, living vicariously through her children, forgetting that she ever had a self.

It’s a handy trick that keeps women from doing anything about their own development, and allows them to “thrust their ‘best’ down their children’s throats,” as Carl Jung wrote. This best, he said, turns out to be the very things that parents have most badly neglected in themselves. Thus, children are goaded on to achieve their parents’ most dismal failures, and are loaded with ambitions that are never fulfilled (The Development of Personality).

I’ve written already about the Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother, but I think that all mothers need periodic checkups for self-abandonment, lest they give up their lives to the detriment of their children. Yes, mothering has, by its nature, fuzzy boundaries. We’re enmeshed with these tiny beings who came from us, whether from our wombs or our hearts doesn’t matter. They are part and parcel of our souls.

But there’s a danger of becoming possessed by our children, to the point that a mother’s feelings and thoughts are so dictated by her children that she becomes immune to her own, real self. Perhaps that self was only half formed when she became a mother, and she gave what little she did have into the tasks of mothering. People will prod her and say, “You need to take care of yourself, do something for yourself,” and she thinks it means to take up knitting or go out to the movies occasionally with friends. And it can mean that. There’s no doubt that mothering is tiring and doesn’t end when the child turns 18 or moves out. We mature mothers know that mothering lasts a lifetime; we mother until we die or until we are no longer aware that we are still mothers.

But I’m not writing about the things we do to get relief from the piles of laundry, demands of educating our children, the cooking, the menu planning, the shopping, the cantankerous children, the children clamoring for a playmate, the child who needs to go to the doctor, the teenager who needs a pair of gym shorts now.

I’m writing about the “me” you were when you were younger, when you had time to daydream, when you wrote poetry, painted pictures, danced madly in your room, tried new hairstyles and outrageous makeup, talked for hours on the phone. That you. Do you take her in hand and coach her with the same enthusiasm that you use with your own children? Do you educate her as you would your son? Do you listen to her with as much rapt attention as you give your toddler? Are you as breathless over her beauty as you are over your own daughter, sometimes? Can you still hear her voice? Are you still reading her stories, giving her good literature, and making sure she eats balanced meals?

Are you attending to the moral development of your Me? Chiding her when she is unkind? Asking her what she’s contributing to the universe, rather than merely being a vampire who sucks life out of the universe? Do you teach her right from wrong, as you teach the toddlers clinging to your knees? Are you requiring her to share–not merely to act nice, but to be nice? Does your Me have anything to offer, still?

Mothers, are you alive in there? Are you still awake?

I hope so. I hope you’re remembering to take care of your best friend, your Me. Because, consider this:

The child is helplessly exposed to the psychic influence of the parents and is bound to copy their self-deception, their insincerity, hypocrisy, cowardice, self-righteousness, and selfish regard for their own comfort. . . The only thing that can save the child. . . is the efforts of the parents not to shirk the psychic difficulties of life by deceitful manoeuvres or by remaining artificially unconscious, but rather to accept them as tasks, to be as honest with themselves as possible, and to shed a beam of light into the darkest corners of their souls (Carl Jung, The Development of Personality).

What have you done for your Me this week that develops her soul? What deed have you done to point her in the direction of True North? What has she said to you that you’ve needed to hear, and that you took to heart? What did you do for your Me that will water seeds that, once grown, will make your children proud that you’re their Mom?

I’ve discovered what I think ought to be a bona-fide Jungian archetype: the Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother. She is so way much better than the merely Good Mother or the Good Adoptive Mother. Good Mothers and Good Adoptive Mothers, you see, are still human. But the Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother archetype, or UGAM, as we’ll call her, is the mother archetype to beat all mother archetypes. While I haven’t figured out what function she serves in the collective and personal unconscious, I have at least identified her unique characteristics.

You can recognize her by her halo and her martyr’s crown, to begin with. Sure, they have to fight for position on her demure head, but so what? She’s as radiant as a pageant queen, as proud as a ship setting sail: she’s an Unbelievably Good Adoptive Mother.

Although the UGAM criteria may read more like a DSM-IV diagnosis than the description of an archetype, her particular problem is not diagnosable and is, in fact, supported by social workers, psychologists, attorneys, judges, teachers, the community, and almost everyone else who knows her. They are the ones who continue to place numerous children with her, even when the numbers of children in her home reach the double digits, and even when they number in the scores. Even when the children are severely emotionally disturbed, endanger themselves and others, and even when reasonable people become critical or the husband packs his bags and leaves: all continue to believe in the UGAM.

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Happy in the Present

Some days I am sick of my own cooking. I’ve been cooking dinner for people for well over a quarter of a century, which makes me old, and makes my recipes old.

Which is why I love receiving cookbooks as gifts. Love, love, love it. In translation, this means that I supremely enjoy cookbooks. This is why I read blogs like Tea and Cookies. Tea makes me feel that there’s beauty in food and, thus, in life. She takes beautiful photographs and I wish I knew her in real life. But, still, her blog makes me smile. So I read it every day she writes. She makes me hopeful about food, even though I’m cooking for umpteen people.

There’s beauty in food.

Only. . . I don’t perceive a lot of beauty when I am multiplying the “serves four” so many times. The meal grows so cumbersome that I can understand why Michelle Duggar wants to make tatertot casseroles. But casseroles, as French and historic as they may be, do not inspire me.

So I cook, and I think about how I wish I could be Oprah and have my own personal chef. I think it’s not very fair that Oprah, a single woman with no husband and no children, has her own personal chef, while I, with umpteen children and my terrible, awful, horrible no-good life (haha! I love that book. . . and I’m only being melodramatic; my life is good), do not have my own personal chef.

I would grow downright sullen and possibly throw food or food process the carrots onto the ceiling if it were not for my iPhone. My iPhone, how I love thee! For thou has iTunes inside thee, and inside iTunes, verily, are many and varied free Podcasts. Aye, podcasts!

I listen to Zencast because I love Buddha. I’m an enlightened Prote-Catholic (which means my life is probably realistically much like yours—you begin with whatever your parents’ religion was, and you go through life from there. . . I’ll explain it all in a different post, but this one is about cooking, so . . . not now); I love Buddhism. What can I say to explain it?

This fellow, Gil, is teaching us “being alive is enough.” And, since I had just read something about WhyMommy, who has a toddler and a baby and also has a very aggressive type of breast cancer, I had just been feeling tearful about people who are suffering like that. And then I listened to Gil teaching “being alive is enough” while I scrubbed potatoes.

There’s nothing to bring a person into the present like good teaching. I need it all the time. I need to remember every minute that real suffering is going on in the world; I forget this, even though I had a daughter die of a terminal illness when she was only 12 years old.

You’d think that, after that grief and loss, I would remember all the time that people are suffering. I’ve spent many an hour in the hospital. But life and memory are short. I’m not always mindful of suffering.

But, then I read about WhyMommy and her struggles, and (like just about everyone who reads her), I love her. My heart goes out to her. Why? Because great suffering reminds me that being alive really is enough. It is enough.

My life goes by, day after day, in mundane tasks: scrubbing potatoes, emptying the trash, organizing drawers, finding the missing sock. I’m educated; I imagine a different life, lived in the “real world,” maybe an ivory tower. Yet I scrub potatoes, empty the trash, organize drawers, find the missing sock. I do it because I value staying at home with my children. Not all the time (I’m no slave); but enough. Enough time to give them a childhood. Enough time so that their childhood isn’t a stress-filled blur. Enough time so that they know they have a Real Mother. Just enough.

And I forget that life is enough, being alive is enough. Being alive and in the present moment really is enough. It’s enough to smell my son’s cologne. It’s enough to feel my other son’s hair under my hand. It’s enough to see the wind blowing the first kamikaze leaves from the trees. It’s enough to howl with the dogs (don’t ask). It’s enough, to see my grandchild and to make her laugh. It’s enough, to see the woman my daughter is.

But if I died today, I would have lived a good life, because I’ve spent more time scrubbing potatoes in the present than I’ve spent scrubbing them and wishing I weren’t scrubbing potatoes.

Yes, Gil, it really is enough to be alive.

Letters to College

Dear Son,

Can you believe that you’re in your last year of college already? Where has time gone? It seems that just yesterday you were graduating from high school. And riding your first bike without training wheels. And cutting your first tooth. What a marvelous baby and boy you were, and what a marvelous man you’re becoming.

Ah, don’t blush. I know you’re thinking about all the things you think I don’t know–things that you think would make you less “marvelous” and merely mediocre or, worse, a disappointment to your Dad and me. But I do know the things you think I don’t know, because I was once your age, and we’re not so very different. Of course, you think we’re quite different because when you met me I was different: I was a grownup and a new mother, having left my college years behind.

Some day, son, you too will be a grownup with a wife and new baby, and that baby will grow into a young adult and he’ll hide things from you, thinking you’d be ashamed of him if you knew. But, of course, you’ll know what he’s up to because you’ll have done it all, too. You’re doing it now, all the things you’ll later be ashamed of, and in fact are already ashamed of, because you hide them from your parents and from that good parent within you.

But no matter. You won’t be a college kid, or a young man acting like a college kid, forever. Unless, that is, you plan to party your way through life. Later, you’ll look back on these years and you’ll wish you had spent more of them sober, enjoying that walk across campus in the brisk, fall air with leaves pirouetting around you. You’ll wish you had walked more slowly, with your head up, and that you’d been more awake for the lectures of professors who really loved their subject.

You’ll be surprised some day, when you look back, at how many friends you had and how many friends you lost, and how many friends weren’t really friends at all. You’ll be surprised that your parents, siblings, grandparents, and childhood friends kept trying to stay in touch while you were too busy for them, too rushed, too self-centered in your self-indulgent world. You’ll consider their constancy a blessing some day, and you’ll be grateful. It will make you able to be constant and there for your kid in college, because you’ll remember how developmentally self-centered people in their late ‘teens and even halfway through their 20s are. When you learn that, in Greek society, a man wasn’t considered a real adult until he was over 40, you’ll understand it. You’ll probably agree with the Greeks, because it takes about 20 years of growing up, 5-10 years of goofing off, and another 10 years of correcting the errors of your first 30 years (whether done to you or done by you matters not) to grow you up. Most people really aren’t grown up until they’re at least 40.

Your father and I are no exceptions. We grew up by 40, but we had children in our 20s. Babies raising babies, so we thought we knew so much more than our parents did, and we often told them so. That was OK, too, because it was our job to try and do a better job. That’s what makes the human race run: the promise of improvement.

Son, I hope that you’ll be able to receive it when I tell you that your parents are among your most precious resources, and ought to be treated that way. We considered you a treasure in our lives, and we cared for you as one would care for a treasure of incalculable worth. It paid off, for now you’re a young man intent on running your own life. This is good: it comforts us to know that you can fend for yourself, stand on your own two feet.

But, when your heart is broken, or you’re in dire straits, or it’s the middle of the night and you wake up with fear about the future in your gut, you know you can always rely on us to be there for you. When you have my vantage point, you’ll be surprised at how few people you can really count on when things go very bad for you, or when things are really dark. Since things in real life don’t often go very badly or become really dark, it’s easy to forget this–or even to be unaware of it.

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Lofty Thoughts and Donuts

They say that “great minds think alike,” but I think that like minds think alike. Bubandpie commented on one of my posts here, and what she said was something I’d been thinking about in my spare time.

“Spare time” for the purposes of my thought garden is the time when I’m not thinking:

  • Wow! Look at what the kids did to the hallway again. Are those chairs a train, a barricade against the barbarians, or the aftermath of a barroom brawl?
  • I hope I put enough water in the rice cooker, or else the rice is going to be brown and hard around the edges again. Ugh, I hate it when I do that. Why do I keep doing that? Seems that writing with permanent marker on the back of the rice cooker didn’t help me.
  • Too bad we don’t have rice cookers like the ones in Japan and Korea. Remember that pink and white one we saw in downtown Seoul at a department store? That was pretty cool. My daughter would like that one.
  • Humph, we have at least three daughters who would like that one.
  • You better pick up that toothpick on the floor.
  • Why? I always pick them up.
  • That’s right, and remember what happened when you walked past that toothpick in the hallway in the old house? Not 30 seconds later, Son walked over it and it plunged halfway into the meat of his bare foot, and then Hubby had to pull it out with pliers. Once it became infected and the doctoring was overwith, that unpicked-up toothpick cost you about $280.00.
  • Fine, I’ll pick it up. [Sigh]. Again.
  • Shooooh! That dog stinks! What has she been rolling in?
  • Good Lord, the bull calf is trying to make love to his mother again! Note to self: REMIND HUBBY TO GET BULL CALF FIXED ASAP!
  • I just hope that none of the kids go running across the pasture wearing red while that bull calf is feeling so frisky…
  • It doesn’t matter if they wear red; remember that Myth Busters segment about bulls? They proved beyond doubt that bulls charge movement, not color.
  • Note to self: remind children to STOP running if the bull charges.
  • Maybe they could stand very still and throw some sort of an object away from them that the bull could charge.
  • What sort of an object would they have on the way to the barn?
  • Oh, heck, I don’t know! Just… something! Gosh, you’re always so hard on me!
  • Hehe, well, think about it: you want them to throw a decoy, but what child is going to run around with a decoy?
  • We could hang some sort of decoys along the fence on the way to the barn, maybe crash test dummies.
  • Oh, nice idea: that would work. A line of crash test dummies would look great from the house, and impress the neighbors.
  • Look, I’m just trying to protect the children from the bull.
  • Maybe you should remind Hubby about why he named the bull calf “T-bone” in the first place . . .
  • Check.


  • Why didn’t Hubby buy donuts this morning?
  • He hasn’t bought donuts for several weeks now.
  • Is he on a diet?
  • Haha, no way, judging from how much he ate at dinner last night!
  • Hahaha, hilarious!
  • Hahahahahaha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
  • What’s so funny?
  • At least we’re both getting fat!
  • I’m not fat! I wear a size 6-8!
  • Pshaw, 8 used to be a 10, silly. Or more like a 14. Everybody knows that.
  • Why hasn’t he bought donuts? He shouldn’t just stop buying donuts like that. We all depend on his reliability, and now he’s gone and quit buying donuts without explanation. Children need explanations about this sort of thing; it’s thoughtless of him.
  • What you mean is you want donuts today. Mmmm, donuts with hot tea.
  • Coffee would be even better.
  • Not if you have to clean out the coffee pot from when College Son used it and exploded the coffee grinds.
  • What the heck was he doing, anyway?
  • Lord only knows that he’d be burned alive in his home if it weren’t for the grace of God and watchful angels.
  • Haha, he probably needs at least five of his own personal guardian angels.
  • Hahahaha, funny.
  • Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
  • Seriously, though, Hubby ought to let the children know about changes such as donut shortages.
  • Why? You don’t let them know.
  • Yes, I do!
  • Lies, think about the Sunday paper.
  • [Shifty Eyes] Huh?
  • Yes, you stopped the newspaper delivery, and today your 4th Grader was nearly in tears because she couldn’t read the Sunday comics because YOU ended the subscription without asking or telling anyone! Yet here you stand, accusing Hubby of acts of ommission.
  • More like acts of deletion. Is that a sin?
  • Doubtful. I think the sin is in ragging on Hubby for something you just did yourself.
  • Hey, I never said anything to Hubby!
  • Hmph, only because I stopped you!
  • Fine, I admit that I was wrong.
  • You should apologize.
  • What?! To Hubby?! I didn’t even say anything to Hubby!
  • No, to God.
  • Whatever. I don’t think God was paying attention. He was busy with church today.
  • [Raises Eyebrows]. WOW, look at what you just thought. You can be so proud.
  • FINE. [mumbles] GodI’msorryamen.
  • What did you say? [Smiles Sweetly]
  • Sheesh, you don’t have to yell at me! So touchy.
  • It’s because of the donuts. I’d feel a lot better if I’d had donuts, but Hubby . . .