A few months after country star Sara Evans and Jay Barker signed their marriage certificate, the couple-who set up house together with her three kids and his four-found themselves drafting another very important document. A battle plan. "We started to realize that the kids were going to run over us if we didn't draw a line," says Evans. "There's seven of them and two of us!" So the newlyweds came up with a list of 20 house rules now laminated and posted prominently on a kitchen cabinet. Among them: Make your bed, no shoes in the house and no fighting allowed. Says Evans: "The kids thought the rules were reasonable. And we're showing them more love by giving them boundaries."
She and Barker are also showing them life is full of second chances. Over a year after her first marriage ended in 2006 amid bitter accusations from both sides (the split caused her to drop out of Dancing with the Stars
), Evans, 40, fell for fellow divorce Barker, an NFL quarterback turned radio personality. In 2008 they wed in front of their children. "I've never loved anyone as much as I love Jay," says Evans, sitting at an oversize table in Mountain Brook, Ala., as the kids bound about, brimming with after-school energy. The party of nine-Evans and her kids Avery, 11, Olivia, 8, and Audrey, 6, as well as Barker and his kids Andrew, 12, Braxton, 11, and twins Harrison and Sarah Ashlee, 9-live together half the time, per custody agreements. Says the singer: "The kids really love each other. It just works. We're so fortunate."
It's not just luck: "The Parents" (as the children call them) make it a priority to treat their seven as one. "We are truly a family. We don't think of it as 'blended'; they are just our kids," says Barker, 38. "But we also understand our roles. If I'm around when Sara's kids' father is around, I give him his place as their dad." Daddy Jay and Miss Sara (other nicknames they've picked up from each other's kids) also make sure the whole clan has dinner together at least one night a week. And there's only one meal on the menu. "Whatever I cook is what's for dinner," says Evans with a laugh. "In the beginning I tried to make everyone happy, but I was like a short-order cook. It was ridiculous."
Mom and Dad-who employ the help of a house manager-also know quality time in smaller groups is crucial. So Barker takes one child out to eat every Monday night, and Evans takes her girls for pedicures "to be sure they get their mom time." Teaming up does have its advantages, as the kids (five of whom play sports such as football and basketball) have learned. "They begged us for a dog and broke us down," says Evans as Roman the poodle mix trots into the kitchen. Just don't ask the Parents for a passenger van. Says Barker: "We take two cars because we refuse to get one."
A different mode of transportation will put the rules to the test when Evans-who just released her album Stronger
-hits the road with Rascal Flatts this summer. Mom has by-laws for the tour bus, on which each kid will have a bunk bed. Because she's working, Evans gets to sleep in, she says, so her husband will get the kids up in the morning and take them off the bus. Which is no problem, says Barker: "I had to quarterback 11 guys and make sure they were all in the right place. Seven kids is easy."
So how about eight? The couple admit they often have late-night baby talks over a bottle of wine. "I just turned 40, so I don't want to wait much longer," says Evans. "The kids always ask, 'When are you going to get pregnant?'" Adds Barker: "Having a child together would be a bridge, not just for us, but for our kids." Of course that would require a little alone time. Perhaps an unwritten house rule would come in handy? "Our Saturday rule," says Evans with a grin, "is not to wake us up before 10!"