Before I even ask a question, Dr. Jennifer Arnold cheerfully warns me that she is going try to pay unfailing attention during our interview, but she can make no guarantees. I can’t exactly blame her. As a longtime fan of The Little Couple, the TLC series in which Arnold stars with her businessman husband Bill Klein, I’m almost as smitten with the couple’s recently adopted 3-year-old son Will as they are.
And Will’s mom is on Mom Duty.
“If I get a little distracted that’s because I’m watching Will right now because the nanny just left,” Arnold chuckles, and I tell her that the soundtrack for a portion of my earlier talk with Klein was the siren from their boy’s new fire truck. “Well, now we’re creating our parking lot, and my very smart friend here has determined that crayons make great curbs or whatever those things are called — those parking lot little curbs for the cars to come up to,” she explains.
That devotion to each other and to expanding their family has kept legions of fans flocking to The Little Couple each week for an hour of consistently warm, intelligent and highly relatable subject matter culminating in this season’s arrival of adorable Will from China, and the impending arrival of baby daughter Zoey from India.
“It’s been all good things,” Arnold says. “Crazy things. But good things. We feel so fortunate to have such awesome fans. We get so much good advice from other moms and dads out there, and everybody has just been so positive in supporting us in the journey to become parents. I feel awful sometimes having dragged everyone through so much of our struggle, but I also have to say that it’s just been great to hear from other people who went through similar challenges, and to get the support of folks who have struggled in various ways to become parents.
“And of course, now that we have Will home — oh my gosh! He’s just awesome! He’s just an awesome dude! We’re so in love with him and can’t stop raving about him, so it just tickles me pink to hear other people say how awesome he is, too. I don’t want to be a biased mom — as I’m sure all moms are — in thinking that he’s just the bomb, but everyone else seems to agree!”
Told that their fans turned out in full force to make sure that The Little Couple won the Best Family Values category in Channel Guide Magazine’s Viewers Voice Awards by a landslide, Arnold is tickled again.
“When we started this show, Bill and I wanted to raise awareness for people of short stature and what it is like to be a little person and to get rid of some of the negative thoughts or the biases that may be out there,” she says. “We never expected that the more personal things in the family would also bring awareness to fertility and adoption and all of these things that we’ve been going through. It’s been a great journey. We’ve loved doing it.”
As her little construction worker contentedly plays beside her, Arnold tells us more about how motherhood has affected the way she relates to her patients and their parents, what surprises her most about Bill and herself as parents, and how she makes working motherhood work.
Channel Guide Magazine: Bill and I talked about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed you two to become parents in a single year after so much heartache and struggle, and how the two of you and Will seemed like you’d known each other all along. Can you give me your take on that, as well?
Jennifer Arnold: It’s incredible! I am one of those people who do believe that everything happens for a reason, so I think the journey that we went through as parents was the journey that was meant for us — and it led us directly to Will and to Zoey. I’m convinced that after we adopted Will that Will was meant to be ours from the moment he was born. It just took us a while to get to him. And with Zoey, I’m sure we will feel the same way once we get to know her personality. Now that I’ve gotten to know Will’s personality and how awesome it is, I can only imagine what a blessing our daughter is going to be, too. We’re so fortunate to be able to have two amazing kids, one of which I haven’t even met yet. I can’t wait.
CGM: Can you talk a little bit, too, about the experience of discovering this little fellow in the pictures and descriptions actually turned out to be an incredibly happy, adaptable, hilarious little man who has embraced his parents and his new life with open arms?
JA: When Bill and I were first preparing to go to China to get him, we were so nervous about whether he would like us — never mind would he love us — and is he going to be happy that we adopted him and what’s his personality going to be like? Is he going to transition well? Is it going to be hard because he had already turned 3 and you keep hearing all these stories about how the older a child gets, the harder it could be for them to transition into your family or have trouble with attachment or bonding. But it hasn’t been anything but the opposite of what our fears were.
Sometimes I think it was almost too easy, because he was so well prepared and it is as if he knew us. I mean literally from the first time he saw us, he called us Mama and Baba. Talk about bringing tears to your eyes! It’s uncanny. It’s almost eerie how immediate that connection was. I don’t know how we got so blessed, but somehow we were meant to be together.
CGM: Can you also give me your take on what having the three weeks without the cameras rolling meant to you?
JA: That was really, really important, because having that bonding period and establishing that, no matter what, we are his parents, we love him unconditionally and we aren’t going anywhere is so important. He needed to get to know us without the stress of other people.
One of the things that we learned about adoption is that it is important in general not to have a lot of other people around in the initial bonding period, because for kids — particularly children that are a little bit older and knew their caretakers and had developed relationships with the people taking care of them — he needed to know that we weren’t just another set of caregivers who might come in or come out and might not be there till the end. And that we’re his parents. We’re not going anywhere. We chose him to be with us forever.
CGM: I read another interview in which Bill said that you were by far more convinced that everything would work out fine with Will’s adoption and he was more cautious. Has that translated into day-to-day parenthood, too — he’s more worried about what this phase or that phase will bring, and you’re more “Bring it on because it’s going to be great”?
JA: That’s funny! You know, I never really thought about that! He definitely is the more cautious one, I think, and I’m nervous in a different way. Bill has certain things that he’s definitely going to be nervous about, and he was definitely nervous about the adoption and wanted to make sure that all the logistics were in order — that we had dotted all our I’s and crossed our T’s and there was no chance of something bad happening. I knew that Bill was on top of those things, and that if anyone would make sure that it was done perfectly, it would be him. So that is why through the adoption process, I was a little more relaxed — because I knew who was in charge, and it’s really him, in making sure that everything went smoothly.
But when it comes to raising Will, it’s interesting, because there are probably things where I get stressed about that he doesn’t, and there are things that he stresses more about that I don’t — and he definitely gets nervous about the things that he’s not familiar with. So I think with me being a pediatrician and a neonatologist, I have some experience taking care of kids and don’t worry as much about the small stuff. Sometimes I’ll hear pediatricians, like my colleagues, say, “Oh, my kid fell off the couch and got a big bump on his head, but he’s not throwing up and he didn’t lose consciousness, so I’m not going to take him to the ER” — you know what I mean? So I have a feeling I’ll be a little more relaxed, but I hope I don’t get too relaxed when it comes to those things, just because I’m used to seeing the worst-case scenarios that come into the ER type of thing [laughs].
CGM: On the flip side of that, has becoming a parent changed your perspective on what the parents of the children you treat at the hospital are going through?
JA: You know, that’s interesting. I think in some respects, yes. But it’s a little weird, because before I was a parent, I was really cautious with my families and wouldn’t say “I understand where you are coming from,” because no matter what, you never know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes and dealing with the situation that they’re dealing with — particularly when it comes to having a critically ill child. I don’t think that’s changed. But I do think it has helped in that, now when I see them suffering and I see them in pain and stressed — before I had empathy as a care provider and I had empathy as having been a patient before — but now I have a different kind of empathy in that I know what it is like to be a parent and to feel out of control. Especially since Will had his first surgery and some medical issues — albeit issues that especially in my medical mind were all issues that we can deal with.
But when you’re in that moment and see your kid going into the operating room, your heart just sinks. Because I, all of a sudden, realize I am no longer in control. And so I think that sense of being a parent and feeling ultimately responsible for the life of your child and the worries that come with that does change my perspective toward the parents of my patients that are headed for surgery or have medical issues. Because now I have a glimpse of what they are probably feeling and it’s more than just the stress of a loved one. That’s their child and they’re not in control and I know that that lack-of-control feeling is just extraordinarily hard as a parent. At least it was for me and the little bit of experience I have.
CGM: I’m guessing your mom is a source of good advice in that regard, as well?
JA: Oh, yes. My mom told me that she was worried for me going through the first medical stuff with Will just because she knew how hard it was for her, just being in that position. She worried about me and she was like, “Call me if you need me because it’s the hardest thing ever! It’s the hardest thing to see your child have to have surgery or go through any type of medical issue!” and …
[She’s interrupted by very loud, very indignant shrieking]
Will is screaming right now because the dog just attacked the flyin’ lion, which is his favorite stuffed animal, so we had to stage a rescue. Sorry!
CGM: Children have a way of commanding your attention, even when they’re the furry kind …
JA [laughing]: They really do! We really do have three children and a fourth on the way. Not one and a second on the way.
CGM: To that end, what has been the biggest adjustment that you and Bill have had to make in your marriage since you became parents?
JA: For us, I think the biggest adjustment has just been finding time to talk and catch up and connect with each other a little bit. I’m sure many parents say that, because, you spend your days running around … work … Will. You know, you come home after working all day and now you have to have dinner and some play time and then books and then bath and bed — and by the time that’s all said and done and he’s in bed, you’re like, ‘Agggh! I’m exhausted! ’ You fall asleep before you have a chance to say goodnight to each other.
So I think the biggest challenge has been trying to make sure that we make time for each other. But it’s good. We’re having a blast with it. We just try to spend a lot of good time all together on the weekend. And my parents will watch Will on occasion so we can go out to dinner, so that works well!
CGM: What has most surprised you about Bill as a dad?
JA: Oh my goodness! [laughs] It wasn’t a surprise, because I knew Bill was going to be an awesome dad — but I think what really just thrills me to pieces is just how much he loves being a dad. I mean, he just embraces every moment of it! And what I am probably jealous of is his ability to turn any situation into fun. I mean, I love to have fun, too, but he can just take any little moment and make it fun and make Will giggle and laugh. The two of them are like two peas in a pod with their sense of humor and so it just astounds me how he can take two seconds sitting on the sofa and turn it into an all-out giggle-fest.
He has a young, fun personality and he enjoys being a dad so much, but he’s always just tickling me — Will physically and me emotionally — with how much he has fun with being a dad. He was born to be the fun dad. His nickname is Fun Dad.
CGM: And what is yours?
JA [laughing]: Mine is Maintenance Mom!
CGM: So, Maintenance Mom, what has surprised you most about yourself as a mother?
JA: That’s a great question. That’s a tough one! [thinks it over for a moment]
I honestly always knew I wanted to be a mom, but I was so worried and we waited so long and tried so hard to become parents and I thought, “What if after all this work and all is said and done, I am horrible at being a mom?” Granted the verdict may still be out, there. But I think that I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’ve been able to make things work — and I guess what I am trying to say there is I’ve developed a really strong bond with Will and a relationship where, even though I am still working full time and even though we have a nanny, I was so worried that our relationship would suffer because of it.
I wasn’t worried about making sure we took care of medical issues and health issues and eating — well, I was a little worried about eating, because I am not a good cook, so that was probably my biggest stress on a daily basis. [laughs] But in terms of the big picture, I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to work and make it all work and still have a good relationship with my son. But it really has worked out really well.
Now, I’ve had to work at it. We have Mommy Sundays — things just he and I do, because he sees Bill more often because Bill works a lot of the time from home. So even though we have a nanny, he can pop in for lunch and random things, and I’m at work all day. So I have to make time for having dedicated, quality activities for Will. But so far it’s working really well and we have a special bond that is continuing to grow, and I’m pleasantly surprised by that, because that was one of my biggest fears is being able to make it all work. Not that I’ve found the perfect recipe yet. But so far, no major catastrophes! Nine days out of 10, it’s working out very well!
CGM: That’s what Bill said, too. Is it helpful to you knowing when you head off to work, even though Bill is working, too, he’s still in the home?
JA: It absolutely does. He does have to go to the shop and back and forth to other meetings, but the fact that he does do the majority of his work from home is great, because he is there in emergencies.
Like today, Will had his first swim lesson — actually, his second swim lesson, but his first one without me [laughs] — and our nanny was prepared to go out there with the swim teacher and with Will. But it was here, so I think if Bill hadn’t been here, I would have probably figured out a way to come home from work and be here because I would have been paranoid the first time. You know what I mean? And of course, as soon as it was over, I called Bill and asked him how it went. [laughs]
CGM: How are swimming lessons going, because Will’s first reaction to the beach was pretty hilarious. Has he become a fan of water?
JA: He is a fan of the water. Actually, once you get him to the water, he loves being in the ocean and he unfortunately has no fear of the water — which is why we are doing swim lessons. Because he absolutely loves anything water. Just not sand. He’s more of a pool guy than he is a beach guy!
CGM: What are you most looking forward to viewers seeing in the rest of the season?
JA: Well, I’m most excited about them meeting Zoey of course! That’s something we’re excited about more than anyone, but I’m really excited that our viewers, who have been so supportive, are finally going to get to meet her, because that’s been one of the most frequent questions I get now is when is Zoey coming home.
And the other thing that I’m excited about viewers finally getting to see is — and this is kind of a long-term thing — is just how far Will has progressed. Because another thing our faithful fans ask us is how is his speech developing and his English, and so I’m excited that hopefully over the course of the rest of the season, you’ll see how he just blossoms in terms of his personality and his verbal language. He’s definitely not where he needs to be, but if I look at the first episode when we brought him home, and even just the most recent one that aired, and what he’s doing now, it’s a continual progression. So I’m glad viewers are going to see more and more of his awesome personality as he’s able to speak more English and communicate better.
CGM: Given what we talked about earlier, what was it like learning that pretty typical kid-stuff procedures like removing his tonsils and adenoids would help him out to that end?
JA: We’re hoping that he doesn’t even need CPAP forever — that’s the goal — and getting his tonsils and adenoids out, which is a very common thing, hopefully will make a big difference for him. And hopefully a lot of other families can relate to some of the things that we’re going through!
CGM: Before I let you get back to building parking lots and saving flyin’ lions, I’d be remiss in not telling you that our readers would really love to know when we get to meet Miss Zoey…
JA: Oh, I know! Everybody wants to know — including us [laughs]. We’re very, very close!
New episodes of The Little Couple premiere Tuesday nights at 10/9CT on TLC.