Her fifth pregnancy felt different. Not only because this one - unlike some of the "whoops" conceptions that came before - was precisely planned. And not only because of her uncharacteristic cravings and aversions; she couldn't get enough of sweet/salty foods like potato chips, peanut butter, and SweeTarts candy, but felt repulsed by the smell of coffee.

It was also different because Michelle was 37, of "advanced maternal age" in obstetrics lingo. The doctor ordered an ultrasound within the first couple of weeks.

The tech at Holy Redeemer Hospital did a quick swipe with the wand, and Michelle thought she glimpsed twin grayish pulses on the screen. "That looks like two," she said. "That's because it is," the tech replied.

"I started laughing and crying at the same time," Michelle recalls. "The tech was chuckling along with me. Then I said, 'I already have four kids,' and she said, 'Oh, my God.'"

When she called Mark, an IT specialist for the Navy with a propensity for practical jokes, he figured it was her turn to tease him. "Stop joking around," he said.

"I'm not joking. I have proof."

"Are you serious?"

"Yes," Michelle said. "I'm serious."

It was game-changing news. They would need a different house; the three-bedroom in Rockledge was already a tight fit, with their daughters in one room and their son in another, toys and clothes and kids spilling everywhere. Their Toyota Sienna minivan could hold only seven.

And there was a constant barrage of questions - from relatives, friends, and strangers in the supermarket: How are you going to feed six kids? Where are they going to sleep?

"There were a lot of what-ifs," Mark says. "We didn't really have the answers. But who does? There's no book of parenting."

Michelle's sister kept asking, "What's your plan?"

"I was just winging it," Michelle says. "I was going to have to adapt."

She'd had plenty of practice. While pregnant with their oldest child, Nicholas, she developed edema, swelling so much that her rings and shoes no longer fit. And when Nicholas was just 8 months old, Mark, a Navy reservist, was deployed to Afghanistan.

For months, the couple sent letters - the old-fashioned, paper kind - and talked occasionally by phone. Once, Michelle bought an apple dumpling, Mark's favorite, from the Dutch Eating Place in the Reading Terminal Market, swathed it in layers of Saran and foil and shipped it overseas.

He came home on leave for Nicholas' first birthday. "We celebrated a little too much, and I ended up getting pregnant," Michelle says. In all, Mark was away for almost two years; he missed Isabella's birth and met his daughter for the first time when she was nearly a month old.

Alyssa was next - a baby conceived in another celebratory moment when Mark had just recovered from a full-body case of poison ivy. The baby arrived in a rush, two hours after the couple checked into Holy Redeemer Hospital and before nurses had even prepped the delivery room. "She just squirted right out on the bed," Michelle says.

She and Mark fantasized about a family of four, a symmetry of boy-girl-girl-boy. And Nicholas kept asking for a brother. Four didn't strike them as excessive - just one more than the number of siblings in each of their birth families.

But No. 4 turned out to be Amelia. And after some discussion, they decided to try one final time.

They got their wish; a second ultrasound showed Michelle was carrying a boy and a girl. As the months passed, her hips and back ached from the twins' weight. By the time the family packed up the Rockledge house and moved to a four-bedroom in Collegeville, she wasn't able to do much more than supervise as her sister and brother-in-law painted bedrooms, unpacked boxes, and arranged the furniture.

By that point, Michelle had experienced nearly every variety of labor and delivery: one natural birth, two with epidurals, one that was induced. But the twins brought her into new territory: they were both breech and were born by C-section at 38 weeks, just one week after the family had settled in the new house.

Now home full time with the kids - Mark works long hours and reports for Navy reserve drills a few times a month - Michelle says a successful trip to Target can feel like a heroic afternoon. "When we go out, if there's limited fighting and I accomplish what I wanted to get done, I feel like Superwoman."

The unsolicited comments keep coming. One stranger blurted, "You don't look crazy," and another gushed, "Six kids! But you look so small!"

"If we had a dollar for every time someone says, 'Boy, you sure have your hands full,' we'd be rich," Mark says.

But there are other kinds of abundance: the hectic, noisy fullness of the everyday. Mark relishes the startled look on a restaurant server's face when he says, "Table for eight, please." He savors the rare morning when no one has a meltdown before the school bus arrives, the evenings when the girls stampede into his arms, shouting, "I want Daddy!"

And even though the family tears through a box of cereal in a day and several gallons of milk a week, even though Mark and Michelle aren't sure how they're going to put six kids through college, they cling to immediate pleasures: A trip to the mall for Chick-fil-A. The sight of Nicholas or Isabella snapping a younger sibling's seat belt or helping to tie her shoes. Or the astonishing moment at a Christmas party, everyone decked out in holiday red, white, and black, when no one was crying or fighting or jostling to be heard. Someone snapped a picture of the whole clan with a costumed Santa and Mrs. Claus.

"Later, I looked at the photo and thought, 'Yes, this is crazy,' " Michelle says. "But look at us. We look so perfect together."

The Parent Trip

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Giving birth, adopting, or becoming a stepparent or guardian all count.

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