Attention, all mothers, Donna Traefald has some good news: You don't have to be perfect.
Traefald would know. She raised nine adopted children and fostered more than 100, much of that time as a single mother working full time.
She did not always meet society's exalted ideal of motherly perfection, she said. But her kids grew up to be "kind and good" adults. She's still in touch with some of her former foster children, who call her regularly for life advice.
"Was I always perfect and made all the greatest choices? Of course not," said Traefald, who is 55 and lives in Lakeville. "We learn as we go, and we make mistakes, and that's OK — it's OK."
That said, Traefald is clearly a darned good mother.
For years, she welcomed new children into her home whenever asked. "If there's room in the heart, there's room in the home" was her motto. Five of her adopted kids presented the extra challenges of disabilities, including autism, cognitive disability and behavioral disability. When she learned that one child had a hearing impairment, Traefald wasn't daunted; she learned American Sign Language so they could communicate.
"I was just open to whoever needed me," she said.
She calls the family atmosphere "chaotic and fun." Her home decor did not feature fragile knickknacks that she knew would get broken sooner or later. But she made sure everyone got to their occupational therapy, physical therapy and swimming lessons. When three sons played football simultaneously on three different teams, she'd run to three fields in one day. But she never missed a game.
"When you're in it, you just do it," she said. "I didn't feel like it was anything big or special, it was just what I did. When people would ask me how did you do this, I would say, 'If I died today and in my will I left these nine children in your care, you'd figure out a way to do it.'"
Hmm ... well, maybe.
"I don't remember an epiphany like 'Oh, this is what I'm supposed to do for my life,''' Traefald said. "It just is what it is."
A young caregiver
Traefald became a caregiver at an early age.
She lived mostly with her divorced mother, who had mental health issues as well as a learning disability that made reading and writing a struggle. Traefald would help her with finances and write her own notes to school that her mother would sign with an "X."
"I never felt like, 'I have to do this'; it was never a chore to have to help," she said. "It's just what you do."
Traefald herself spent time in foster care at age 15. That, too, she describes as a good experience — she was placed with a "wonderful" foster family with whom she's still in contact.
By age 16, she was living on her own. She graduated from high school in Platteville, Wis., and was married at 18.
She and her husband cared for a nephew for a while and became licensed as foster parents. When he left, they began taking in other foster children — sometimes multiple siblings at once, anywhere from a few days to a few years. Altogether, she counts more than 100.
"I wanted to be able to provide for children what my foster family had provided for me: perspective, a different kind of life, safety," she said.
But it was hard, getting attached to children and then seeing them leave. So the couple began adopting children. They adopted Chase in 1993, Kellie, Patti and Kaitlyn in 1994, twins Alyssa and Austin in 1995, Jacob in 1998, Jenna in 1999 and Michelle in 2003. Some of their adopted kids had come to live with them as foster children.
"Our family vehicle was a 15-passenger van," Traefald said. "We'd pile them in, plus all their friends, go off to church and then unload it like a clown car."
Traefald had a part-time evening job but was home days so, as if she weren't busy enough, she homeschooled some of her children. She met her best friend, Ulrike Ross, who has seven children, in church. They would gather their kids together for lessons.
Traefald taught science, art and history, subjects she loves, while Ulrike took care of reading, writing and arithmetic.
"I know it seems like a little fairy tale, but it really was pretty cool," Ross said, describing Traefald as "fun, kind, helpful, energetic — just a joy to be around."
'You've got this'
Traefald and her husband divorced in 2006, and in 2008 she moved with the children — her youngest was 5 — to the Twin Cities. She began working full time.
In 2010, she suffered the first of four heart attacks, which led to several heart surgeries. In 2017, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery for that. How does a single mother manage serious health problems while also caring for nine kids?
"I think they were my driving force," she said. "When I was down in the dumps, my kids were the ones pulling me up, saying, 'You've got this' and 'We're going to do this together.'"
In 2016 she began working at CVS Pharmacy, where she is manager of the Farmington, Minn., store. There she extends her caregiving for co-workers and customers, greeting people who stop in just to say hi, comforting those struggling with illness, going to their family funerals. She also volunteers in the community at every opportunity,
"My personality is being a caretaker, and that permeates every aspect of my life," she said. "At home I'm still a caretaker, at work my co-workers are my family. We care for each other, we help each other."
Last year, CVS gave her the Paragon Award, a national award honoring "the best of the best" among CVS Health employees.
"Her energy is contagious, her positivity and willingness to bring everyone with her," said Lisa Marsh, a CVS district leader in southern Minnesota. "Donna makes the impossible possible. I've never heard her say no, we can't do that."
Well, there's one thing Traefald hasn't tried to do: try to shape her children to fit her own vision. Parents who'd been hoping for a football star may have to learn to encourage a child who'd rather play the piano. Let them become whoever they are meant to be, she advised.
"We all have this preconceived notion of what we want our family to be and what it will look like — stepping back and recognizing who they are is hard sometimes," she said.
"I think if we teach our children to be kind and caring and open and accepting, everything else will fall into place. It just will."