Public recognition for one kind of mom's private work

Helen Bean, who raised 10 children of her own and seven more, shares what's behind a national mother of the year.

In between the endless loads of laundry, the preparation for and cleanup after supper, the caravaning from gymnastics meets to piano lessons and baseball practice, Helen Bean bore 11 children, took in seven foster children, and cared for her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law's spinster aunt.

It was a full-time career, without vacation.

But now she's being recognized for her efforts - and not with just a card or flowers. Last week American Mothers Inc. honored Mrs. Bean by naming her the 2005 National Mother of the Year at its annual conference in Houston. Bean, for her part, isn't so sure she deserves the recognition. After all, insists the woman who can add "grandmother of 39" to her list of titles, "I just did the best I could do."

As "mother of the year," the modest Mrs. Bean will deliver dozens of speeches and act as political liaison for the nonprofit, interfaith organization, whose top priority is "to strengthen the moral and spiritual foundations of the family and home." Having devoted most of her life to the art of homemaking, Bean knows she faces a steep learning curve.

"I didn't want to win," she admits in her home in this quiet Portland suburb, her soft voice interrupted by the excited giggles of her youngest son, an adult with Down syndrome, watching TV in the next room.

But she believes so strongly in the organization's mission that she is willing to accept the drastic changes that are about to take over her life. She considers her new role as part of a larger service - both to her God (Bean and her husband Jim are devout Mormons) and to her country. As a woman who decided at a young age "to have as many children as God planned for me," and to raise seven more beyond her own, the idea of sacrifice is nothing new.

"Moms need to be honored, they need to be recognized for all the good things they do," says Raelene Hill, the organization's first vice president who organized the awards ceremony in Houston. "Helen is very low-key and unassuming; she sees herself as a mom who loves and supports her children. She's not dynamic or a great public speaker, but a good, solid woman."

It is a description Bean takes pride in. The qualities she has worked to cultivate in her family are integrity, discipline, and thriftiness. Siding with American Mothers' controversial stance that women should abandon the career path altogether when they become mothers (her four daughters are all full-time mothers), Bean wrote in her application: "The rise and fall of nations are determined by the teaching of mothers and fathers.... Education and success are important, but even more important is integrity and honesty."

Dedicating their lives to upholding those qualities hasn't been without challenges. When the couple married in California in 1958, Jim was still earning his undergraduate degree and Helen, a Brigham Young graduate, pulled in the money as an elementary school teacher. But within three years they'd had three children, and the fourth, Barbara May, didn't survive past three months. By the time Jim graduated from law school and began his job hunt, the young couple was expecting their seventh child.

"It wasn't easy," Jim, now a prominent attorney, recalls. "But she never complained or blamed anybody."

To this day Helen's most cherished memories are of rocking her babies in the pale blue of morning. "You get to know them as people in those moments," she says. "I would just schedule the first three months around holding that baby. I planned my total day around it. There is nothing like it."

Charlotte Laughlin, the Beans' oldest daughter who now has eight children of her own, describes her mother as one of the strongest and most giving women she knows. "There are moments when things get totally haywire [in our house]," she says, "but I always think, 'Mom did it. She didn't complain.' I think that's why I can do it."

Many of the things the Bean family did - such as having a family dinner every day and reserving Monday nights for family catch-up and games (Jim once canceled a meeting with then-governor Victor Atiyeh because it fell on a Monday) - the children themselves do today as parents.

"One of my fondest memories is she always had homemade bread for us after school," Laughlin says. "We'd walk into the house and have that homemade bread smell, and she always had honey and butter, and never complained when we ate it all."

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