She’s Not the Popular Mom
Abigail Klemsz is a pediatrician and mother of six. Her motto at home: “Safety first.”
Abigail Klemsz’ daughter recently sent her a picture. It showed the teenager ready for a bike ride. Her helmet was safely strapped under her chin. No words were needed to convey the message behind the picture. Her daughter knew what Klemsz knew: Safety comes first.
“My kids tell me I don’t let them do anything fun because they don’t ride bikes without helmets and they definitely don’t go near trampolines,” said Klemsz, a staff physician in developmental pediatrics at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
She’s also the mother of six children ranging in ages from 15 to 22.
“It’s just one of those things where it’s a joke at our house – mom’s the pediatrician so we don’t get to have fun,” said Klemsz, a graduate of the IU School of Medicine.
Her oldest child, Nicholas was born when she was an intern. “People said ‘how can you be pregnant as an intern?’ I said, ‘I’ve never been pregnant before and I’ve never been an intern so I don’t know any different.” Two years after Nicholas was born, along came Eleanor. A year later Benjamin joined the family and a year after that, Margaret came along. Two years later, Lillian was born and 15 years ago Klemsz and her husband Michael, a researcher in microbiology and immunology, completed their family with Annabelle.
“When we only had two kids we weren’t that organized with bedtime and mealtime, but when my oldest was two he was diagnosed with diabetes. Our life quickly became structured,” said Klemsz. Her second son was also diagnosed with diabetes.
“I’m a mom, so I worry about my kids and I worry about their safety. I’m also a pediatrician so I worry more because I see what can happen to kids. I’m not popular but that’s ok.”
Her concerns are the foundation for expectations – expectations with no room for compromise.
Beginning when her offspring were infants, Klemsz was sort of a “practice what you preach” sort of pediatrician. At home, safe sleep was always an issue. “My kids had a mattress and a sheet. There were no crib bumpers and no stuffed animals,” she said. As the toddlers began to explore new foods, there was no popcorn, peanuts or hard candy allowed because they were choking hazards. There also wasn’t a lot of juice in their diets that might introduce unnecessary calories. Milk or water was the only option.
When the children rode in the family vehicle, car seats, booster seats and seatbelts were the first checklist on a road trip. And even when they weren’t traveling in the family vehicle, her children knew the routine, said Klemsz.
“When the kids were riding with another parent, I provided the booster seat. I didn’t care if it wasn’t cool. I didn’t care that it wasn’t popular,” said Klemsz. When her children became teens, strapping on the seatbelt was a reminder that they were responsible – for themselves and their passengers.
“I’m always learning of accidents happening at the wee hours like 2 a.m. so, another rule is - nothing good happens after midnight. It’s just another thing that makes me the unpopular mom,” she says laughing.
As the family grew and the children began to get more independent, structure was critical in maintaining a busy household and still is.
“We eat our meals together. There are few exceptions - everyone is around the table at dinner. Research shows when children eat dinner with their family it has a positive influence on their behavior,” said Klemsz.
“My kids know what’s expected of them. Giving your kids clear expectations and repeating them over and over again is your job as a parent. We do give them a lot of responsibility and freedom but we expect them to follow the rules.”
She knows the consequences and has seen first-hand the injuries. Some can be avoided, others possibly not. And the increase in summertime activity can heighten some risks, she says. Lawnmower accidents, pedestrian and vehicle accidents, trampoline injuries, sports injuries, near drowning - Klemsz has seen them all.
Her eyes mist over as she recalls a teenage patient who was seriously injured in a car accident.
“I was so devastated by what happened with this kid that I went home and told my kids they could go to a movie on a school night. I think that’s part of setting boundaries and expectations. You also want your kids to have fun,” said Klemsz. “I’ve been honest about why I set expectations. I tell them what could happen.”
Even with kids in college – two studying at the University of Alabama and two enrolled at IU, the Klemsz children continue to enjoy family vacations. They’ve traveled to Bolivia, where they spent time working with children in foster care and to South America where they hiked in Peru and rode ATVs off-rode – wearing safety helmets, of course. They’ve also joined their University High School soccer team on trips to Italy and Spain and will again join the team this summer on a return trip to Spain and to Portugal.
The kids have all played sports – two of the sisters are on a softball team coached by their dad and one road on an IU Little 500 bike team.
“I think if you set examples for your kids along with expectations, it’s an easy course for them to follow when they become teens and adults, “ said Klemsz. “You will always worry. You want to keep them safe but you also want them to have great memories,” she said. “Part of setting expectations is also showing unconditional love.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.