Mom Of 11 Children Reveals Tiny Secret To Raising Happy Kids

An amazing mother with love that knows no limits.

Last updated on Apr 11, 2024

Elaine Deprince and her 12 children Youtube 

Elaine DePrince thought her family was done with adopting. She and her husband, Charles, had five boys: two biological sons and three special-needs sons adopted from overseas. Despite the adopted boys’ hemophilia, the family was an active bunch, backpacking and camping all over the US and Canada. Elaine was a doting mother. She carried clotting factor, a hemophilia treatment, wherever they traveled. They might be in a campground in the middle of nowhere and there she would be, infusing the treatment in the predawn hours, in a tent. The boys all lived very normal lives. That is until HIV affected their blood product, and the three youngest boys contracted the disease. Elaine braced herself for the worst.


Devastation hit when her baby, Cubby, died first on June 9, 1993. Nine months later, Michael, her 15-yr-old, passed. They knew that Teddy would not live much longer; the drugs available in the mid-'90s didn’t make HIV very manageable. She had to face the fact that she would soon lose a third child. It was a succession of tragedies that might break even the strongest among us. So what did Elaine do? She mourned — and then she adopted six more orphans in need. Her capacity for love (and, apparently, her threshold for pain) is astonishing.

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YourTango first became acquainted with Elaine at the 2013 Women In the World (WITW) summit hosted by Newsweek and The Daily Beast, where she accompanied her 18-year-old daughter Michaela DePrince, who was being honored. Michaela — whom Elaine rescued from a war-torn orphanage in Sierra Leone — has the distinction of being the youngest member of the acclaimed Dance Theater of Harlem. Originally, only Michaela was to speak at WITW, but it seemed a natural and fair progression to also honor the woman responsible for rescuing this child and setting her life on a whole new and amazing course. And so, Elaine DePrince took her place among esteemed speakers such as Oprah Winfrey and Hilary Clinton. She told the tale of traveling to the Sierra Leone orphanage to adopt one little girl and leaving with a second — a girl born with vitiligo, a skin pigment condition that left her with "spots" and stigmatized as a "demon child" whom no one wanted. That little girl was Michaela.



Elaine told a story of calling her husband, who was away on a business trip, in the middle of the night to tell him she'd adopted a second girl. He called her the next day, recalling "a dream" in which Elaine told him she was coming home with an extra daughter. "Um, that wasn't a dream," she interjected. "It was real. I signed the papers. She's ours." But when Elaine came back to the States with two little girls instead of one, it wasn’t that much of a surprise to anyone else — or it shouldn't have been to those who knew her well.  

At 10 years old, Elaine had already decided that she was going to have a large family, one made up of many adopted kids who desperately needed families. Inspired by Scholastic’s featured reading for 5th graders, Elaine focused on one book in particular: The Family That Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss. The book tells the tale of a mid-century family who ended up adopting 12 children, each from a different corner of the world. What struck Elaine most at the time was the fact that the children chosen were considered less-than-desirable candidates for adoption — meaning non-white or having special needs. Elaine was devoted to turning that story into her reality.


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But first, she’d have to find the right guy to share her dream with. So when her husband asked her to marry him, she spoke of a future that included two biological children and a great yearning to adopt more. Charles DePrince was up to the challenge. "Now, I don't know if it was because he was in love with me or if he sincerely meant it," she says, "but he did come through for me on this." In that auditorium at Lincoln Center, the warm, articulate, and soft-spoken Elaine made sure to interrupt her WITW interviewer to point out that she has not one, but "eleven amazing children," all precocious and accomplished in their rights.



So how does a mother not only open her heart and home to nine orphaned children but also imbue them with such confidence and drive? How does a mom take in a toddler and raise her to become — quite possibly — the world’s first black classical ballerina? Elaine says, "Charles and I share this philosophy that every child has a talent and that parents should be alert as to what those talents might be. So we simply kept our eyes and ears open and responded to the cues from our children. When Michaela was four years old, she wanted to dance ballet. So we gave her ballet lessons.


Our responsibility was to pay for her and get her there, but her responsibility was to behave in ballet class, to maintain her interest, and if should she not be interested, she needed to tell us and then we would help her find another love. But she was just so impassioned by ballet that it was an easy call." When I asked Elaine if the dance world was as racially charged as Michaela reported, she confirmed that this problem was indeed the truth. "Yes, it is. People would say to Michaela, 'Everybody knows a black girl can’t dance classical ballet,' or 'When you’re older, you probably can join Alvin Ailey or The Dance Theater of Harlem.' Michaela wanted to be a classical ballerina, and those are not classical companies.”

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There are very few black girls in classical ballet. In the top five companies, worldwide, there are presently none. Michaela will be the first in a long time. She joined the Dutch National Ballet and she will begin dancing with them in July. Elaine believes that you have to be a strong mother if you're to have strong daughters. She raised her daughters to be strong, to stand up for themselves, and to make a change in the world — not just change in the world of ballet. She wants them to face the injustices of the world, or they won’t feel fulfilled. They were very lucky and so much was given to them; they needed to give back. 

Today, the family — minus those who have left the nest — live in a New York City apartment. How do they do it, or even more to the point, how do they afford to do it? Well, they work. Elaine is a prolific writer who works on several books at a time. Her first published work, Cry Bloody Murder — A Tale of Tainted Blood, has opened the doors to new opportunities, and at the moment both Elaine and Michaela have been working on Michaela’s memoirs. Of course, the DePrinces’ retirement fund isn’t what it used to be either. But, as Elaine believes, if you can earn the money when you're in the city, it balances out in the long run.


When I asked Elaine what her deepest wish for her children is, she told me that she wishes happiness for them, more than anything. For this woman who sees light, life, and possibility in all of her beautiful, black, white, deaf, cognitively impaired, Hispanic, talented, heroic, and most of all, inspirational children — Elaine, your motherhood is to be praised and respected.

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Dori Hartley is primarily a portrait artist. As an essayist and a journalist, she can be read in The Huffington Post, ParentDish, YourTango, The Daily Beast, Psychology Today, More Magazine, XOJane, MyDaily, and The Stir.