Like most working couples with a rambunctious toddler, The Little Couple’s Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein are quickly mastering division of duties. Parental duties. Work/home duties. And on the day I interview them, all of the above plus the obligations that come with starring in their beloved unscripted series that boasts a devoted following of fans who consider the Arnold-Klein family a part of their own.
So Bill and Jen talk to me in shifts. While Arnold works as a pediatrician and neonatologist at Houston’s Texas Children’s Hospital and the couple’s son Will hangs out with his nanny, businessman Bill takes time out of a busy afternoon to talk about his boy, his expanding family and the journey to parenthood that made The Little Couple our runaway winner in the Best Family Values category of Channel Guide’s Viewers Voice Awards.
And though he’s calling from his office in the couple’s lovely Houston home, it sounds like Klein is in the middle of the street. And a potential emergency.
“If you hear sirens in the background, that’s Will’s new fire truck that he’s obsessed with,” Klein laughs. “It’s not me getting arrested or pulled over — so good news there!”
It has been a year of good news for Klein and Arnold (who will call later that evening, with Will chuckling and jabbering beside her). As viewers know, after a long and frequently heartrending battle with their own fertility issues and a surrogate pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, the pair adopted their adorable 3-year-old son from a Chinese orphanage in the spring and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of daughter Zoey, adopted from India.
“He’s still as happy, if not happier, than the day that we met him and brought him home,” Klein says of his boy, who like his parents (and soon-to-be sister) has dwarfism that hasn’t slowed him down a bit. “It’s a new challenge every day just to try to keep up with him — he’s making us work for it for sure.”
Of course Klein uses the word “work” lightly, since he and Arnold are both clearly over the moon about the extraordinary circumstances that allowed them to become parents to the beaming little boy, who called them Baba and Mama (mandarin for dad and mom) from first glance, and his sister in a single year.
“We were just so fortunate — and things seemed to be aligned so properly — that we found Will in a country of a billion people, on the other side of the world, with different values on everything, and we connected,” Klein marvels. “And at the right time. We had gone through our own fertility issues and we had a tough time making that ultimate decision to cease pursuing that and focus our attention solely on adoption. I don’t know how much we actually explained it on television, but Zoey came from a referral that we had been on the list for for almost four years. William came to us out of the blue from a separate agency and it just happened to work out that way.”
With The Little Couple more popular than ever in the midst of its sixth season, we asked Klein about being a dad, what he learned from his own folks and what the future holds for his family (American Girl doll collectors, he’s looking at you.)
Channel Guide Magazine: Your fans knocked our socks off with their devotion to making sure The Little Couple won the Best Family Values title. Was there ever a time when you and Jen doubted your decision to have the cameras following you during some really emotional rollercoaster stuff, or have you always understood your fans love and respect you for everything you are sharing?
Bill Klein: Our show started of as an education on a type of disability and a type of lifestyle that wasn’t as exposed as it may have been in the past, and we were able to shed some positive light in that regard with respect to our relationship and our careers and all that fun stuff. Then it just morphed into our pursuit of having a family, and all of a sudden it turned into something that touched on people’s lives more directly. So instead of it being, for lack of a better word, voyeuristic in the sense that there was no way that viewers could relate directly to our circumstance — now the audience, by and large, has a bunch of things that they can see themselves in when they watch the program.
And it turns out that many, many of my friends have gone through the same sorts of things and we didn’t even know it. And Jennifer’s friends and people that we’ve run into in the supermarket or shopping mall … so I think a lot of those things resonate with people on a different level than understanding people with a disability and the struggle to not be noticed except for the good things.
CGM: Were you as astounded as viewers were at how instantly Will took to you and Jen? It was almost as though he already knew you. Tell me about that, and about taking a few weeks away from the cameras afterward to bond as a family.
BK: It definitely was a question mark in our minds. When we went to China, we had never met William before and we had never spoken to the people at the orphanage about his temperament or whether he was a happy boy or not. We had heard rumors that he was a photogenic kid who liked to play with other kids and take more of a caretaker position with really young kids, say, an infant or a 1-year-old. He would be like a big brother to those kids and watch out for them. So that was about all we had to go on. And of course then we show up and wham! You’re signing a couple of pieces of paper and you’re parents! We were petrified that we would do something wrong to start off with, cameras or no cameras.
So I took it very seriously and Jen took it very seriously and the cameras became, like they often do, something we don’t even notice. But after that first couple of weeks of us traveling throughout all of China and getting to know each other, we finally got to the part where we were able to go home. At that point, we wanted to reinforce that the cameraman is not Uncle Cameraman and our field producer is not Aunt Field Producer, so we wanted to separate that and start forging that bond, which is critical. And, of course, it’s been noted to us multiple times in that process leading up to us going to get him that that was very important. So the very, very much-welcomed vacation from cameras was also very much a requirement on everybody’s part. And I think it was the best thing, because it gave us time so spend with our son without having to worry about a call time or people showing up and turning on the cameras and watching what you do and all that fun stuff. It was quite nice.
And at the same time, my son has made it very, very easy. You couldn’t ask for a more pleasurable participant in the parent-child bonding relationship. He clung to us from the moment that we met and it’s been that way ever since!
CGM: You and Jen seemed to settle into your parental roles pretty instantly, where she’s the one who thinks about broccoli on the dinner plate and fresh-air activities, and you’re the guy on the floor with Will and a dog on your back and a crayon in your ear …
BK [laughing]: I think Jen gets a little too much credit for the broccoli and I get a little too much credit for the amusement park behavior — but yeah, we did settle into our parental roles pretty quickly.
You know, Jen, I’ll give her all the credit for being the brains of the operation. She definitely has her eyes on small picture and big picture. She enjoys every minute that she has with him — and she’s also thinking about his future all at the same time. She doesn’t sacrifice one in favor of the other and I don’t know how she does that. Me, I’m probably a little too much in the moment. I could probably tickle him for a half hour straight and forget about dinner all together. I’d tickle him till it’s time to go to bed!
But when I do dinner on my own — which does happen, because Jen does leave me alone with him from time to time and it’s not like two boys babysitting each other, per se — when Jennifer has to work late or whatever, I make sure he gets his broccoli also. And we’ve done veggie night, believe it or not. We did a little veggie burger and peas and rice and carrots — I was very proud of myself!
Actually, I think we ruined him a little bit, because when we started off, he had no opinion of food at all — just ‘give me more.’ And we learned through the adoption process that you can’t say no to an adopted child at first. There are a bunch of different rules that you have to follow and that is one of them, because they may not have had much food in the past. So it could turn into one of those things where a lot of kids in orphanages wind up eating as much as they possibly can in the time that they are afforded to clear their plate, and by saying no or taking something away or limiting it, they are under they impression that they need to continue to do that.
We need to allow him to figure out that food is abundant and you don’t have to gorge yourself in order to be satiated for the day. You don’t have to ‘stock up for the winter.’ And over time, we’ve been able to curb that, so now he doesn’t always clear his plate all the time and we don’t give him as big of portions. He knows that we’re always going to be there for the next meal and for tomorrow and all of that fun stuff. And the more comfortable he gets, the more he’s learning to not want as much.
CGM: Except where Goldfish crackers are concerned …
BK: The Goldfish crackers are definitely an issue [laughs]. We all have our vices, and that’s definitely one of his. The trick here is that we have to learn to parse it out a little differently, so we give him fewer at a time. We don’t give him the bag. But of course he figured out where we keep them, so I should say all this stuff with a grain of salt, because my son definitely is apparently brilliant. He knows more things that I’d like to admit, and I’m fearful that once his speech does catch up — which it’s steadily moving in the right direction — that all the things that I said and tossed out with the idea that he wasn’t listening, he probably was!
CGM: Will is having his first ever surgery in Tuesday night’s episode. Does the fact that you and Jen have already walked some of the path that Will is walking make you more confident in guiding him through stuff like this?
BK: The reality is I thought that having 30 surgeries and basically living in a hospital for months at a time throughout my entire childhood would give me some level of competence above and beyond the wisdom that my parents seemingly had without having gone through anything like that themselves. That I had some street cred, you know? [laughs]
And it turns out that, no, being a parent of a child with a disability is completely different than being a person with a disability yourself, in the sense that emotionally, I’m just as fragile as anyone else. And my wife is, too, although she probably doesn’t worry as much because she knows exactly what is happening when your son or daughter is going through something in the ER or in the OR.
That said, though, I can anticipate the things are going to happen more readily and I can prepare my children from a more realistic perspective that may hopefully be something that helps them gain a bit of resolve with respect to the issue. Maybe that enlightenment or that experience that we can bestow on our kids can help them keep it in check and not let it rule their lives. They get to rule the situation instead. So hopefully, that’s something that we do bring to the table.
But it’s tough. Even if I have the resources for fixing that issue or making it go away, I don’t want it to happen in the first place. I don’t want my kid to be bullied. I don’t want them to feel like they’re excluded or anything like that. And the fact that I can give them some advice afterward that can help them continue to move on, I’m glad to have that perspective. I didn’t necessarily let it eat me away.
CGM: How much help have your own parents been in that regard?
BK: I think that we’ll take all of the things that they were able to do get us through our tougher times and all the things that made them great parents for us and hopefully we remember it and in turn, bestow it on our own children and behave that way.
Jen was very fortunate to have the parents that she had and I was very fortunate to have the parents that I have, and I think it speaks volumes when you take a look at some of the things that we’ve gone through and the attitude we’ve had going through those things as children and young adults and eventually as full-grown people. It certainly isn’t a path we blazed alone as children; it was our parents that deserve all the credit. And that’s pretty amazing considering that we grew up in the ’70s when medicine wasn’t “you cut off the leg because you had a cut,” but it wasn’t quite where we’re at today, either.
So I think that it was pretty remarkable that they were able to be as strong and as wise as they were in their younger years. And I can only hope that we’re able to do as good a job with our kids as they were able to do getting us through our tough times.
CGM: They must be thrilled to watch you parent your own kids now …
BK: My folks, of course, have told me their thoughts, and my mom is pretty convinced that I was born to be a dad. My dad is very proud of how I’ve gone from being a snotty little kid like every other kid to graduating school and becoming successful and managing to find the love of my life — and to keep her and to put a ring on her finger and eventually have a family and a nice house and a good job and all that stuff. So I think that he’s proud of me, as well.
That’s all you want for your parents — you want them to live forever and be proud of what you do, and on occasion, spoil them, which is what we continue to try to do. So we’re very fortunate to have the family that we have.
CGM: Talk about the bane of every new parent’s existence — the day you have to go back to work.
BK: It was tough at first to let go and to not have the ability to just hang out with our son whenever we wanted. Having William on tap is wonderful — it’s an amazing experience day and night.
But what we’ve done is — and I think it’s rather clever and I’ll take credit for it if anyone agrees with me — is we hired a nanny who has experience as a child life specialist and is formally educated in that, and she also has a lot of experience working with children who have orthopedic disabilities. We thought that was apropos, because we do have careers and we have a lifestyle that requires for us to continue with our careers.
And from a realistic perspective, our bodies will not want us to continue the daily grind into our sixties. We will want to — and will probably need to — retire before then. But we can’t do single-income until we’re 52 and then retire. We need to do this during what my old CEO used to call ’the earning years’ and grind out as much as we can while we have the time to.
And that’s good and bad. It’s good in that it keeps you fresh and it keeps your mind agile to be able to go back to work. At the same time, I want to spend every waking moment with my son. I don’t mind if he sleeps on me; I don’t care! I just want to spend time around him.
CGM: We’ve seen some of it on the series, but describe for me the workday routine in Klein-Arnold household.
BK: We’ve figured out a nice way to work it out, which is I keep him in the morning until about 10 o’clock until our nanny shows up to help us out during the day. So I get to wake him up and I bring him down — sometimes in time for Jennifer to catch him, sometimes she’s out the door earlier. But we eat breakfast together, we read books together, we play on the floor together, we sometimes watch Thomas the Train together. And I get a couple of quality hours with him where I can hang out with him on my own.
Then the nanny comes and we do our exchange — you know, ‘He had Cheerios and a yogurt, and here’s the things he did over the past 24 hours, and he’s in a good mood or he’s in a bad mood or he slept well and blah blah blah. ’ And we figure out the plan is for the day. Then I go off to work.
Normally she’s here for 8 hours a day, five days a week. And I work both at the shop and at home — so, while it sounds like I’m leaving for the day, really I can hear him for most of the day from my office downstairs. When they’re hanging out at the house, I get to hear him laugh. I get to hear him make cow sounds. When he says ‘Moo!’ it just melts your heart. I’ll be sitting in a conference call like this and I start laughing inexplicably because my son is making these sounds that no one can hear on the other end. I’m very fortunate to have the situation that I have.
And it’s in part by design. We created my office space so I could be home and work and frankly, Judy, my mother in law, runs the shop [the couple’s pet boutique, Rocky and Maggie’s, named for their beloved dogs] and she doesn’t really need me there. I probably cause more trouble than good there, anyway. So it’s better for me to do most of my work from home.
Jennifer is a physician, and there’s just no two ways around it — it’s a tough job, it’s very heady and she has a lot of responsibility. But what she has learned more of late is to turn that off when she gets home. That’s tough for her to do — as you might imagine, having a profession where you’ve trained for years and singularly focused on exceling at, it’s hard to turn it off at any point — but she’s able to turn it off when she comes home and gets to hang out with William. And even though I’m not a very good cook, I try to cook dinner for us so that she has time to spend with him rather than spending time around the stove and having an eye on him.
So we’ve kind of figured out this balance that normally works [laughs]. It’s not always perfect. But sometimes I don’t ‘come home from the office’ so to speak until 6:30 or 7 at night and that means she’s doing double duty with getting in the door, making the dinner over the stove and playing with Will at the same time. But I think it’s a good balance and it will afford us to be able to continue to pursue our career goals and achieve some of them and hopefully allow us to retire — hopefully before we are in a hospital bed.
CGM: Is that something you would consider touching on in future episodes of The Little Couple?
BK: We don’t cover a lot of those issues on television any more because the show has mostly morphed into our personal situation with a touch of our careers and stuff like that. It doesn’t touch on the future and the forward thinking that you need to have when you have a disability to make sure that you can provide for your family if and when — and normally it’s when — you get to the point where your body can’t keep up with your mind anymore.
Maybe if we come up to the 14th season it will become apropos to start picking up that conversation, and that this last five years of glorious run and careers will hopefully allow us to have an early retirement!
CGM: Before I let you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you the single question that is on every The Little Couple fan’s mind — when do we get to meet Zoey?
BK: Ohhhhhh! Yeaaaaaahhhhh! [laughs] I can tell you that we are so close to going to India — and our crew is coming with us. And of course, we are very excited. And I can tell you this: You won’t see her until the adoption is finalized — and the only reason why is, until it’s final, it’s not final, and we respect that the Indian government requested that we don’t disclose any information about her. You might see some of her body parts I think in one of the photos that we received in an email, but we blurred out her face because we wanted to keep her a secret.
But here’s what else I can tell you. There’s going to be a competition, probably next year, about which one of my children takes the Cutest Child in the Entire Free World award. I don’t know who is going to win. It’s going to be very, very tough. Zoey is adorable — her eyes are like two little round globes. She’s so cute — but she does look a little angry in her passport photo, I’ll tell ya! We got her passport picture, and, like William, I don’t think she was pleased to be up on a perch taking her photo for the folks at the government.
But she’s absolutely gorgeous, and Jennifer is already shopping for dolls. Jennifer informed me that American Girl apparently doesn’t have Indian dolls right now. You know how they change them out and make them collectables all the time? So I’m on the hunt. I have a mission.
CGM: Oh, just wait till you discover the extent to which you will go to keep your kids happy …
BK: I’ve already made mention that I would do anything for my son, so I can’t imagine the lengths that I will go through to please my daughter. I’m afraid. I am definitely afraid.
CGM: I look forward to seeing you in pigtails and nail polish someday soon, Bill.
BK: Well I did go to college in New York, so it wouldn’t be the first time…
New episodes of The Little Couple air Tuesday nights at 10/9CT on TLC.