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Gale Storm: “My Baby’s Four Fathers”

It’s small wonder that my two-and-a-half year old daughter, Susan, thinks she has four fathers. In a way, she has.

There was a nine-year interval between Susan’s arrival and the birth of Peter, the youngest of my three boys. My husband, Lee Bonnell, and I simply were exultant about having another baby after all that time. The only thing that gave us even momentary pause was the natural anxiety about how the three boys would react to the belated addition to the family.

We realized that resentment and jealousy were all too common under such circumstances. But we were hopeful that somehow we might spare the older children such emotional turmoil—or at least soften it.

I’d heard them talk about friends of theirs whose parents were going to have children, and it seemed to me that boys that age are sometimes embarrassed by this situation. They find it awkward. They consider themselves so big and grownup, and suddenly they’re going to have a baby in the family!

I’m hardly taking credit for any amazing new formula, but our situation did work out almost magically. The battle—if it can be called anything that dramatic—was won, I am thoroughly convinced, during the time of my pregnancy.

Naturally, I had my apprehensions. We had no way of knowing how the boys would react to the news, and we delayed telling them. For one thing, I’d just started my new television series, and I didn’t want my sponsor to worry about whether I’d be able to perform in my condition. I was supposed to keep it a deep, dark secret, and Lee and I were just bursting to shout it from the rooftops.

So it was quite a dilemma. On the one hand, I hesitated to tell the boys because they might talk about it, and word would get out: On the other hand, I was afraid the report of our impending blessed event might leak from another source, and if the boys didn’t learn it from us they’d feel left out and hurt. Added to that, we had a certain amount of selfish qualms about telling them.

We finally decided that the reality couldn’t be as bad as uncertainty, and we met the situation head-on at dinner. I casually made the announcement, and steeled myself for the reaction.

Phillip, our oldest, who’s now 16 but was 13 at the time, was stunned. But in a nice way. Pete, who usually is less demonstrative than the others, had tears pouring down his face. You can’t imagine how touching this was unless you realize that ordinarily you have to put your knees on his chest if you want to give him just a tiny kiss.

“Mother, you’re not kidding me, are you?” he pleaded. “You mean it, don’t you? It’s the truth?”

Paul, who is 14 months younger than Peter, was equally joyful. The first hurdle was scaled beautifully. I couldn’t have been more rewarding.

Their warm spontaneous response set the tone of the whole baby-having experience. It wasn’t, “Isn’t it great that Mom’s having a baby!” It was, “Isn’t it great that we’re having a baby!” It was like the whole family was going to have the baby, not just me.

While I was pregnant, I thought I had four husbands! Every evening Phillip would meet me at the car and help me carry everything to the house. He and the other boys looked after me as if I was a fragile flower—which is so nice for any girl who likes attention, and I don’t know any girl who doesn’t.

It was so touching to see the boys go out of their way to be considerate. They were kinder than usual. They’d scold me if I lifted anything. They checked me to make sure I visited the doctor regularly. Occasionally they’d even go with me to the obstetrician. They helped me get everything ready—the layette, the bassinet, The baby was theirs right from the beginning, even before she was born.

My boys even displayed a cheerful willingness to baby me and make allowances for my irritability, just as Lee did. While I was carrying the baby, I was working hard on filming my show, and there were times I just didn’t feel well. Lee took the boys aside and explained why mother wasn’t always cheery. He told them they would have to be very understanding and patient. He cautioned that they would have to appreciate that there was a good reason if I didn’t react with great gayety and enthusiasm to all the things they wanted to do. This made sense to my three solemn young men, and they were equal to the occasion. Far from being put out, they actually seemed to welcome the opportunity to do without. Somehow it made them feel that they were making tangible contributions to the safe birth of their baby.

Perhaps the greatest single sacrifice evolved one evening at dinner. I have to admit that it came about in the devout hope that just such an instinct would be aroused in them.

“Isn’t it a pity,” I mused, “that our home was built with the idea that our family was complete. Now we really have a problem. I just don’t know how we’re going to figure out a place to put the new baby that’s coming.”

Peter and Paul immediately exchanged glances. Each had a large bedroom separated only by a folding partition which they were able to open or close as they wished. Since they were only 14 months apart, they were—and still are—very close. Often, in fact, they would end up in the same bed at night. If a sacrifice was to come, that would have to be the source. I knew it, and Lee knew it. The question was—would they know it without being asked outright?

While in general the boys had been acting very mature, we realized that they still were children underneath. We didn’t want to come right out and take a room away from one of them. Then they might feel deprived and act resentful.

“I have a darling place for the baby’s bassinet, right in my own room,” I continued to consider ways of meeting the problem. “But of course,” I added with a frown, “I haven’t worked out yet where we can put her crib. But we’ll manage somehow, I’m sure.”

No pun intended, honestly, but there followed a moment’s pregnant silence. Then Peter and Paul chorused:

“Put the baby in my room!”

“We don’t need all that space for just the two of us,” Peter said.

“We have enough room for an ice rink,” Paul agreed, although I must say his enthusiasm seemed a trifle forced, and therefore somewhat heroic.

Thus Peter and Paul both offered to give up their sides of the partitioned bedroom. And the nice part was that they did it as if it were entirely their own idea. Paul made the offer a little more reluctantly, but in the end he made the supreme sacrifice of his own volition, and he felt more than repaid with all the pats on the back he got.

The boys were part of it all the way. When I went to the hospital to have the baby, they visited me regularly. When Susie was born, they boasted that she was the most beautiful baby they had ever seen. They were thrilled to pieces to have a little girl in the bargain. This was something terribly special to them because they never had been around little girls.

I know it seems incredible, but I don’t believe there was one moment when the boys felt that Susie was a threat to their own security—either when she was expected, or after she was born. If they felt that way, I’m sure I’d have been able to sense it.

Nor do I think that blessing was entirely accidental. Lee and I both always have been very loving to the boys. Lee and I were careful to give them just as much love and attention as before. Very likely we showed them more affection than we would ordinarily.

Sometimes parents think that children, as they get older, don’t want to be shown love by kissing or hugging. I was no exception. I used to think that Phil, my oldest, would be embarrassed for me to kiss him or baby him. Nonsense. He just loves it. Sometimes he’ll tease me and say, “Mother, you’re so immature.”

Not too long ago Phil had about 16 boys from his YMCA Club, The Spartans, over to spend the night in sleeping bags. All of them, mind you, were big hulks of young men. But that didn’t make any difference. I’d go in and say, “Is mother’s baby all right?”

They all laughed at my teasing of him, and Phil, responding to my display of affection, enjoyed it, too.

Phillip—and Peter and Paul as well—never have stopped responding to parental love. I believe in telling your children that you love them every day until they grow old. I don’t think you ever should stop telling them. I think older children are embarrassed by affection only when they receive it infrequently.

So Susie’s coming hasn’t imposed any restrictions on the lives of the boys. It has been the same as ever, only enlarged, with the result that there simply has been no soil for feelings of resentment and jealousy to take root.

When I came home from the hospital with the baby, the boys immediately slipped into the role of little fathers. They weren’t the least bit awed by the baby—chiefly, I suspect, because of Lee’s example. Lee always could do everything for the baby that I could do. And he loved doing it, which was so important for the boys to see. Lee would change diapers no matter what their condition, feed the baby, burp her, know how to handle her when he played with her.

To the boys, these were no privileges reserved especially for their dad. They were wild about Susie from the minute she got home, and they too showered her with every attention from diaper changing to cuddling. Not as if these ministrations were chores—but as though they were their rights! Susie just thrived on the bountiful love. Everyone said she was just going to be spoiled to death, and I would laugh at their fears.

“You mean she’s not spoiled? She doesn’t cry?” Such would be the reactions.

“Of course not,” I’d retort. “We never put her down.”

In the beginning, I thought the boy’s enthusiasm for their baby sister was just a novelty. I was sure the newness would wear off. But they never have gotten over it. Anytime anything has to be done for her, it is, “Let me! You know I wanted to do it, too.”

The funny thing is that of all the family I was the only one who ever felt left out. With the boys always taking over, I was reluctant to give Susie up. I wanted to do for her. I got to thinking that pretty soon I’d have to return to work, and I wanted to get enough of her. Sometimes I had to force myself to give her up to them.

That was just about the only thing I had to watch. Those boys wanted her all the time, and there was only one baby. I kept thinking I should have had triplets. When they came home from school, the first thing they wanted to see was the baby. Fortunately they didn’t all come home at the same time or I don’t know what would have happened. I really had to be careful. Susie was being held all the time, and she needed to rest a little from all that love.

Their pride simply knew no bounds. They always were wanting to take her next door and show her off. They couldn’t wait to display their new sister at Sunday School, so we started taking her there when she was only three months old. There was a constant battle to see which one would take her to the nursery. After services, they would tear out to see which one would pick her up.

“I had her first!” the battle cries became familiar. “You took her last time.”

As Susie got older, her three little extra fathers began to furrow their young brows. They were worried about us being too easy with her. They never neglected an opportunity to remind us when they thought we were remiss in scolding Susie, Sometimes they just threw up their hands and sighed, “What’s the use!”

That has been the one area in which we’ve had to check their zeal. They are so anxious that Susie remain unspoiled, and have good character that they all want to discipline her. Whichever one happens to be with her at the time acts like her father. They are constantly keeping her in line—either with harsh words or a slap on the hand. I had to have a talk with them about this and explain that no one should have too many bosses, and that therefore it would be wiser to leave the discipline to Lee and me.

“What do you want us to do?” would be their exasperated cry. “Just let her do those things?”

Of course the wonderful thing is that having “four fathers” hasn’t spoiled Susie at all. She is the most pliable and best adjusted child I’ve ever been around. I’ve never seen a child easier to manage, who felt more secure or more serene. I can and have taken her just about everywhere. I’ve taken her on a steamship ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and on a plane trip, and she was thrilled and delighted with every minute of it.

For the very reason that she has been treated like a person, her eyes are just open to the world. She’s never afraid of new people, new things or new places. She loves everyone—because, obviously, she has reason to feel that everyone loves her, too.

Occasionally, even I am surprised at the extent of her self-assurance. Once, after the Christmas holidays, I had to go to the hospital for treatment of a slipped disc. Some friends offered to care for Susie while I was away.

“You mean you want to take her overnight?” I asked. “Well, it’s all right with me, but she may be a lot of trouble.”

Susie offered no resistance to the adventure. She was thrilled to have her little suit case packed and to be picked up. She just had a picnic with my friends. She didn’t object to anything they wanted to do with her.

They have a child of their own, six months older than Susie, and they were astounded at her behavior. They’re still amazed. They can’t get over it.

I may not be quite as mystified, but I never stop being enthralled. I’m sure that Susie’s happy accommodation to life is the end product of all the affection she’s been receiving.

She is living, radiant proof of what comes from having “four fathers”.





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