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Come mid-December, Kenny McCaughey will use strings of white icicle lights to decorate the seven-bedroom house in the small central Iowa town of Carlisle that he and his wife, Bobbi, share with their eight children. Mikayla will turn 11 in January, and the septuplets -- Alexis, Brandon, Joel, Kelsey, Kenny Jr., Natalie, and Nathan -- celebrated their ninth birthdays on November 19.
Today the eight kids are sprawled on the multisection sofa in the family room, reading library books. Stacks of The Berenstain Bears and American Girl series, as well as the Arthur chapter books, surround them. Bobbi is in the spacious adjoining kitchen, with its bright-white cabinetry, navy blue walls, and 10-seat counter, clearing the remains of their mac-and-cheese lunch. Kenny Sr. is at work on the assembly line of a factory in nearby Des Moines that powder coats metal furniture.
The seven 9-year-olds continue to captivate because they are believed to be the world's first surviving septuplets. In 1998 a second surviving set of seven was born in Saudi Arabia, and octuplets were born in Texas, of whom seven survived. Reportedly, no larger multiple-birth siblings are alive today.
Bobbi wants the kids to put in a good hour of reading, but every couple of minutes one of them pops up to do something else: Kelsey kisses the beak of her blue parakeet, Tweety, who occupies a cage in the kitchen; Mikayla brings in Cattie, the family's calico cat, from the attached two-car garage; and Brandon, who has long enjoyed making his own bows and arrows out of sticks, announces that he has just gotten a real store-bought set.
"You haven't finished your reading," Bobbi admonishes them all, whereupon Natalie and Alexis burst into "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" in preparation for recording the Christmas carols they will sing in a few days for LHJ.com. "We want to practice!" they cry out.
Finally the group leaps up and rushes off in a pack to show a visitor their bedrooms. "It says 'Hollywood,'" shouts Natalie, as she points to a sign on Mikayla's door. "And now you'll see why." One of the shyest of the septuplets, Natalie has become a ringleader. "Ta-da!" she cries as she swings open the door to reveal a hot-pink-accented bedroom with a ruffled-canopy four-poster bed and a raised, curtained stage in the corner.
The four girls troop into the room. "We're actresses, take our picture," chorus Kelsey, Natalie, and Alexis, scrambling onto the stage to hide behind the curtains and fling them open with a few more ta-das! With a TV-viewing diet of public television, the Learning Channel:TLC, and other family entertainment, the children are only marginally aware of today's pop icons, like Britney Spears, though they are apparently aware of the glamour of Hollywood.
"And I," says big sister Mikayla, raising her hand for emphasis, "am the director." Almost two years older than her septuplet siblings, she's part of that cohesive group yet -- quieter, more serious and self-possessed -- very much her own person. In contrast, the seven, or any subset of them, are so close they can finish one another's sentences, or even speak in unison.
The group sprints to the three younger girls' shared room, where Kelsey, Natalie, and Alexis remove from the wall the plaques they earned at church for memorizing many Bible verses. Together they recite John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son...."
The boys are impatiently waiting in the hallway to show off Kenny Jr. and Nathan's camping-themed room, with its bunk beds, small tent set up along one wall, and nearly life-size stuffed bear propped up in a corner. Alexis snuggles up with the bear. "It's not real," she and Kenny Jr. explain, while Joel climbs up the inside of the doorframe by pressing his hands and feet firmly against it. "My mom and dad don't mind," he says.
Bobbi then appears and tells him in no uncertain terms that she does mind, whereupon he jumps down and leads the dash next door to his and Brandon's nautical-themed room, with beds shaped like rowboats.
"Time to get back to reading," Bobbi warns, and the group tears back downstairs to the family room and the neglected books.
As the kids settle in to read once more, Bobbi describes their progress. Mikayla is in sixth grade, and the septuplets are in third. The seven have been in separate classrooms for the past two years (their regional elementary school had seven classes each for first and second grades), so they have had a chance to develop individual interests. "Kenny Jr. likes to build things and take them apart. We can see him someday having a career that has to do with mechanical work," Bobbi says. "Joel is analytical, so maybe he'll be an engineer. Brandon is very much into sports."
This past year Brandon and Kenny Jr. played Little League baseball and though Kenny enjoyed the games, Brandon was the one who took them more seriously. "If Brandon struck out, he was really down," his mom reports. "Kenny would just shrug if he didn't hit the ball."
The girls have all said they'd like to be mothers. "Natalie wants to have triplets," Bobbi reports, adding wryly, "I said, 'Honey, you don't get to choose.' And Mikayla would like to be a nurse like my husband's sister, Alisha, and do missionary work."
As the septuplets move into higher grades, where there are larger numbers of children per classroom, they are sharing teachers. This year, for example, Kenny Jr. and Natalie are in the same class. However, the groundwork has been laid for their ability to develop independently. Each child visits his or her own special friends around town, yet they typically all play together when a little pal comes over to their house.
Ordinary days may be action packed at the McCaugheys, but to the relief of Bobbi, 38, and Kenny Sr., 36, there was just one significant medical event in the past year: orthopedic surgery last fall to correct the alignment of Nathan's feet and knees. Of all the septuplets, Nathan and Alexis have had the most problems since the seven were born about 10 weeks early. Nathan has spastic diplegia, which causes unwanted muscle tightness in his legs, and gets pulled out of his regular classroom for extra help with reading ("more to increase his speed than to improve comprehension," Bobbi says). Alexis, who has hypotonic quadriplegia, or weakness in all four limbs, as well as some mild learning disabilities, receives special attention for reading and math.
Nathan's last major surgery was in November 2004, when he underwent an operation that clipped some spinal nerve roots and thereby eliminated the tightness in his legs. He can now walk independently for several yards, though he relies on crutches or a wheeled walker if he has to cope with longer distances, such as those he might encounter during a shopping trip or a day at school. He keeps improving, according to his mother.
Nathan will continue his weekly physical therapy sessions, as will Alexis, who generally crawls to get around at home but uses a walker with wheels at school. She gets stronger and better coordinated every year, so her parents are still hopeful that someday she'll be able to walk on her own, if only for a few minutes at a time. Neither Nathan nor Alexis has ever complained about his or her problems, nor have they ever been teased. "It doesn't happen at home," Bobbi says. "And it never has at school, either. If it did, there would be consequences."
Still, just one surgery since November 2004 is a big change from the septuplets' early years, when they suffered a variety of problems including Joel's strabismus, a condition that caused his eyes to cross, until four operations improved them, and problems swallowing food for Natalie and Alexis. "We don't anticipate any medical procedures in the near future," says Bobbi. "We've left much of that behind, along with diapers and potty chairs and everything that all kids eventually put behind them."
All the McCaughey kids are outgoing and sociable. "They're at ease with people," says Marilyn Cater, the septuplets' Sunday school teacher at Willow Creek Baptist Church, where the family worships. When the septuplets were born, Ginny Brown, a member of the congregation, called around to the sister churches to line up volunteers. "Until preschool the children had so many of us in their lives, helping to care for them," says Cater: Family, friends, and members of area churches fed and burped the kids and changed their diapers around the clock.
Now, at age 9, the brood no longer needs hordes of helpers. The day-to-day aspect of caring for them is much easier, their parents confirm. The family doesn't even require the small groups of relatives who would come along on outings during the past few years, and Bobbi and Kenny Sr. were able to get a babysitter and go to a restaurant in West Des Moines last year on December 5, their 13th anniversary. Such a night out would have been very hard to manage in the septuplets' early years.
"Life has settled into a routine for the McCaugheys," says Brown. "Well, as much of a routine as it can be with eight children. But Bobbi's very well organized."
The family's daily schedule runs like clockwork: Kenny Sr. is up by 6 so that he's ready a half hour later to head for his 7 a.m. shift. The rest of the family is up by 7, and the kids make their beds and neaten their rooms before coming down to breakfast. They're out the door by 8 for school and back just after 3 p.m. Dad's home by then, too.
Both parents supervise the next few hours, as the eight children do homework and chores, pitching in with tasks like feeding the family's two cats and taking out the garbage. On Mondays they have an extra job: tossing all their dirty clothes into a chute that lands them in the first-floor laundry room. Supper's at 6, after which they take turns washing the dishes. Then it's baths and bed by 7:30. The early bedtime gives their parents a short breather before they get some sleep so they can wake up to start the whole process all over again the next day.
The McCaughey parents have gotten so good at managing the group, in fact, that they were able to shepherd them through a mall recently. "We don't go to the mall that often," Bobbi says. "In fact, I think it was the first time some of the boys had ever been. But even with Alexis being slow because of her walker and the others moving more quickly, we managed."
At the mall Bobbi heard someone quietly point out the family, who are well known, especially in the Des Moines area. They're not the sort of celebrities who are mobbed by autograph seekers, though. Somebody came through and said, 'Oh, that's the septuplets. Look, they're out shopping,'" Bobbi says. Usually, she reports, she can ignore these remarks. The children are vaguely aware of being famous and love seeing pictures of themselves in the pages of Ladies' Home Journal, but aren't sure what that means other than occasional visits by reporters, to whom they can show off their rooms and toys.
From time to time, Kenny Sr. and Bobbi are aware of resentment of the many substantial gifts they received when the septuplets arrived, including the promise of college scholarships, five years' worth of kids' clothes, two years' worth of milk, their van, and their house, built gratis by Iowa builders and contractors.
"After they were born we would get letters saying that we, by ourselves, had overpopulated the earth," Bobbi recalls. "But we didn't intend this. I took the same fertility drug I'd taken when I had Mikayla. Then people said that our kids, being preemies, were using up scarce medical dollars. Recently somebody wrote to the Des Moines Register to say she was sick and tired of hearing about the septuplets rather than about ordinary kids, like her own.
"I thought, 'Oh, my word!' This woman's been carrying this baggage all these years. Sure, we've been given a lot, but I don't think we'd get many takers if we asked, 'Do you want to trade places?'"
Even with all that the McCaugheys have received, they've had to economize carefully to get by. "We don't buy all of our groceries at one store," says Bobbi. She comparison shops at several stores in order to find the lowest prices and always purchases meat on sale. "When I find hamburger with a date that's about to expire, for example, I'll buy a bunch and freeze it. That way, if nothing's on clearance later on, I'm not hurting."
She plants a vegetable garden each year as well, but in 2006 there was a bumper crop of rabbits in Carlisle, and she lost most of her peas and beans to the furry intruders. Fortunately, they turned up their twitching noses at her 30 tomato plants, so she was able to can approximately 40 quarts of salsa. The family enjoys it with eggs in the morning and as a dip with chips.
Sewing some of the kids' clothes herself is another way to save, Bobbi says, indicating the green gingham dress Kelsey is wearing. Kelsey jumps up to model it, and Alexis points out the contrasting green patch Bobbi stitched over a spot where the skirt had gotten torn. Placed at an angle, the patch adds a rakish decorative touch. "Because the kids are different sizes, they also hand down clothes," Bobbi says. "Of the four girls, Mikayla's the biggest, Alexis is the littlest, and the other two are in the middle. So we can use clothes for a few years."
Kenny Sr. has found ways to pinch pennies as well. He's carefully maintained the large white van that Chevrolet gave the family after the septuplets were born. "I have to," he says wryly. "We've come up with so many ways to save, it's hard to figure out where else we might consider cutting back expenses." He uses a motorcycle to ride the 15 miles each way to and from work. "I can save gas that way. Of course, during the cold weather, I have to switch back to the pickup truck. And we use the van mainly when we take the entire family somewhere, like school or church."
Church is an essential part of the family's life. Both Kenny Sr.'s and Bobbi's parents are devout Christians, and her late father was a preacher. "It's not just about the service, though, or rules to follow," says Bobbi. "It's about building the relationship with God. We want the children to understand that this is very important, with the goal being that someday they realize their own need for that relationship. And in bringing them up, we want them to know that when we say something is wrong, it's not just us but God who's saying you shouldn't do it."
Sunday at Willow Creek Baptist Church, a modern tan-brick church surmounted by a simple, stylized cross and situated next to a cornfield, starts with Sunday school for children and adults. The subject in the adult class is a creationist view of geology and the earth's history. The children are reading Bible stories.
The service that follows includes a lot of hymn singing, and the practice the McCaughey children have in raising a joyful sound stands them in good stead two days later, when Bobbi loads them into the van and drives them back to church to record Christmas carols in the sanctuary at Ladies' Home Journal's request. The kids' rehearsals at home pay off as they make their way through old favorites.
The McCaugheys will play the CD on Christmas Day, when Kenny Sr. will read the Christmas Story to the children. "I always choose the version from the second chapter of Luke," Kenny says of their longstanding tradition. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Augustus Caesar that all the world should be registered...," he'll read. After he finishes the story, the McCaugheys will begin a series of visits to relatives in Carlisle and Des Moines. By retelling that favorite story, exchanging gifts, and reiterating the bonds of family and community, the McCaugheys will begin the new year filled with the love and grace that has sustained them thus far.
The eight McCaughey children are gathered around a big round table in their church's community hall.
The group is getting ready to record three Christmas carols -- "Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" and "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful."
The two producers, who are from Nashville, pass out sheets with lyrics, along with headsets that will allow the children to sing while listening to accompanying musical tracks beamed to them by the recording engineer. "Let's make sure all the batteries are facing the right direction," says producer Sam Levine. "I'm depending on you, Mikayla."
Mikayla and Bobbi circle the table helping the littler ones with their headsets. Nathan decides he'd like the receiver portion of his to hang from his belt. As he lifts his shirt to put it in place, Brandon teases, "Don't show your belly!" Kelsey puts pretzels up her nose, provoking merriment all around.
The children quiet down as Levine leads the group in a short prayer before beginning to record. Soon they're working their way -- over and over -- through "Silent Night." Levine says, "Okay, stop. It's 'heaven afar,' not 'heaven above.' Do you see that? 'Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing alleluia.'"
The eight children look dubious, talk it over and decide quickly among themselves that heaven actually is above. "We want to sing 'above,'" all eight chime. Levine eventually manages to quell this minor rebellion. Other than that, the kids are cooperative and focused -- which Bobbi ensures by continually hovering on the periphery of the group, admonishing anyone whose attention begins to flag.
At about 4 in the afternoon, eight tired children and four exhausted adults call it a day. When a CD of the recording arrives at the McCaughey home a few weeks later, the kids pronounce it "cool." And -- who knows? -- maybe it's their first step on a journey to that mythical land called "Hollywood," a place that mostly exists for them on a little curtained stage in the corner of Mikayla's room.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2006.