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Ten years ago headlines around the globe heralded the birth of the McCaughey septuplets in Iowa. After 40 people, including specialists in high-risk pregnancies and respiratory therapists, helped them into the world on November 19, 1997, USA Today trumpeted the miraculous 7. They were the "Magnificent seven!" in the Belfast News Letter and "Seven Bundles of Joy" for the Queensland, Australia, Courier-Mail. In Montreal The Gazette declared a "Miracle in Iowa."
The world's first surviving set of septuplets, the McCaugheys are the largest intact multiple birth on record. Born two and a half months early and weighing just 3 pounds each (give or take a few ounces), Alexis, Brandon, Joel, Kelsey, Kenny Jr., Natalie, and Nathan have grown and thrived as the world has watched.
At first, caring for the seven fragile preemies meant endless diaper changes and feedings by their parents, Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, and a volunteer team of friends and family from in and around their hometown of Carlisle, near Des Moines. Photographs from the septuplets' first years depict exhausted adults plastered with sleeping -- or crying -- babies. Tender nurturing was the order of the day.
Now parenting the seven -- and their older sister, Mikayla, who will turn 12 in January -- is more like reining in a fun-loving mob. When the gang arrives for this month's Ladies' Home Journal cover photo session, they gallivant down the prop-lined corridor to the studio. "Look! The bathtub!" Natalie cries, and the septuplets rush to surround a white claw-foot tub as Mikayla watches, the bemused big sister. "We've been here four times for Ladies' Home Journal shoots," Bobbi explains.
"A printing press," announces Joel, gripping the wooden handle as the group passes an old-time machine.
"Hold my hand, honey," commands his mother.
When the kids see the crew, some of whom they remember from years past, it's hugs all around. Stylists usher the girls into the dressing room. "These are adorable," Mikayla says about the ballet flats she'll wear.
"Cute boots," Natalie remarks about the footwear that's been chosen for Kelsey, before putting on her own Mary Janes. Then to the makeup artist: "What color is this lip gloss?"
Meanwhile, the boys chow down on breakfast bars and guzzle juice at a snack table while waiting their turn to get ready. "Okay," says photographer Steve Liss, "who gets into trouble at school?" Only Kenny Jr. raises his hand. "Not even a contest?" marvels Liss.
"Kenny asked his teacher to marry him," Brandon offers, as if to explain the extent of his brother's daring. Kenny Jr. glares at him.
Soon all eight are costumed and have posed for a group shot. Then just the septuplets surround a giant white-and-red 10th-birthday cake. Years in the public eye have accustomed them to taking direction. They pose and cavort as Liss requests.
These days, they're aware they're famous and will even point that out to their mother from time to time. "But they're still not sure why," Bobbi marvels. "They've noticed there aren't other families with such large numbers of children born on the same day, but they haven't put it all together."
But of course, as children, they are more interested in things they've accomplished by themselves, like Brandon's and Kenny Jr.'s baseball trophies, earned at school last year.
Nathan's most recent big achievement has been giving up his walker, which had been necessitated by spastic diplegia, or unwanted muscle contractions, a problem he's had since birth. Surgery, as well as ongoing physical therapy, contributed to the improvement. In September 2006 doctors cut through the bones of his lower legs, which had been pulled out of alignment by his muscles. They then reoriented the bones to straighten out his feet. To hold the shinbones in place while they were healing, the doctors placed metal plates on them. The bones have healed, so the plates will be removed in the near future during an as-yet-unscheduled operation.
Alexis, the other septuplet with persistent physical issues, will have surgery to straighten her feet in the next year or two -- paid for, as most of the septuplets' medical costs are, by the health insurance their father has through his job at a Des Moines factory that powder-coats furniture and other items. In Alexis's case, hypotonic quadriplegia, or weakness in all four limbs, causes the misalignment. Meanwhile she receives physical therapy and periodic injections around her upper legs. The medication deadens the nerves, interrupting the inappropriate muscle patterning and allowing her to build strength. She still relies on a walker, however.
Both Nathan and Alexis need tutoring in reading and math but are essentially working at grade level, as are the other septuplets. The children have moved beyond most of the medical issues of their early years -- including Joel's strabismus, which caused his eyes to cross until an operation corrected them, and the reflux that caused swallowing problems for Natalie and Alexis. Both girls wear glasses to correct nearsightedness, according to Bobbi (Alexis since preschool, Natalie since second grade).
The septuplets' progress has been remarkable. "They're seven of the healthiest kids I see, with few of the issues, like respiratory problems, you'd expect from preemies," says Peter Hetherington, DO, their pediatrician since birth. "Yes, Nathan and Alexis have some neurological issues, but often children born with similar problems can spend a lifetime in a wheelchair."
Dr. Hetherington also notes that they're "socially adapted." The girls tend to share friends, Bobbi reports, and the boys typically have individual best pals.
Occasionally medical issues do crop up for the children just because they're active. This past August, for example, the septuplets were playing outside with an 11-year-old cousin. Climbing is irresistible for Joel, so he had scaled a large shade tree. "He can climb lampposts," declares Kelsey. Suddenly a branch broke beneath Joel's weight, and Bobbi, who was -supervising the children, looked up to see him plunge some 18 feet, landing flat on his back.
Bobbi quickly told her niece to take the other children indoors so they wouldn't become upset or panic Joel. Though Joel never lost consciousness or even cried, mostly because the wind was knocked out of him, says Bobbi, she admits she was frightened during the few minutes they waited for the ambulance. "I didn't know how badly he was hurt," she says. Joel and his mom were whisked to a nearby emergency room, where pediatric and trauma doctors diagnosed compression fractures in five vertebrae -- uncomfortable, but not major injuries.
"They put a plaster vest on him to immobilize and protect his vertebrae for several weeks," explains Dr. Hetherington, who met Bobbi and Joel at the ER. "He was moving around just fine and merely a little less talkative than usual. After a brief hospital stay they sent him home with over-the-counter painkillers. We don't expect long-term effects." Though Joel certainly wasn't able to climb anything for a while, he could walk unaided and started fourth grade with his siblings on August 22.
Bobbi is philosophical about the accident. "He loves climbing and is good at it," she says. "I discourage him from going too high, but really, I don't want any of them avoiding things they enjoy because of my fears."
Joel may be the septuplets' aerialist, but all seven explore the world with gusto. "They're becoming independent, testing life," says Kenny. He and Bobbi are well aware that the day is coming when they'll have not eight tykes but eight teenagers in the house.
"In many ways, parenting them now is more difficult than when they were little," confesses Bobbi. "With babies, every day is the same. You can go through the motions blindly. Now we have to be on our toes constantly in changing situations -- teaching them self-control, respect, and more."
Kenny calls the stage his children have entered "the in-between years," when they're no longer malleable little kids but not yet potentially rebellious teens. "Things will get interesting when they start turning 13 and 14," he says. "We hope this isn't the calm before the storm."
As devout Baptists, Bobbi and Kenny feel that a relationship with God is central to ensuring that their eight offspring become caring adults. "Right now our children attend church and believe in the Bible because we do," says Kenny. "When all of that is actually theirs, it will hopefully have a positive effect on them during their teen years."
The children's access to the media is also carefully controlled. "We keep a tight rein," says Bobbi. "That's the way Kenny and I were raised." Christian music and TV and educational television, such as the Discovery Channel, are on the approved list, along with family-friendly shows, such as Hannah Montana and High School Musical 2. Only Mikayla has an e-mail account, accessed with her parents' permission and on their computer in an office off the kitchen.
All eight do chores, says Bobbi. They tidy their rooms, change their bed linens, feed the cats, and more. As the oldest, Mikayla has recently added more grown-up tasks. She occasionally mows the lawn and babysits her siblings. The family has an imaginative fee structure: Mikayla earns $3 an hour for watching her siblings, while the others each receive 50 cents for behaving while their parents are away. For Mikayla, there's a bonus: She enjoys having the house to herself after the younger ones' bedtime at 8 p.m. Once, Bobbi and Kenny returned right after the little ones had gone to bed, and Mikayla exclaimed, "Couldn't you have stayed out longer?"
Mikayla's independence appears to come from having been homeschooled. After Bobbi taught the lessons, Mikayla decided which homework she'd do when. The approach worked well, with Mikayla scoring high on standardized tests. Her big adventure this year has been going to a regular junior high. She's not feeling like the odd one out, though. "It's a new regional school," says her mother, "so it was unfamiliar to all the kids."
The septuplets have always attended the town's regional school, which is large enough to divide them among several classrooms and let them develop without being compared to their siblings. With Mikayla's new schedule, Bobbi has been able to take a part-time job, working during school hours on the production line at the same factory where Kenny works and thereby supplementing the family's overstretched income.
The McCaugheys' finances are a balancing act. During the past year they've dipped into savings for day-to-day expenses, Kenny says. Bobbi still makes much of the children's clothing. Vacations are camping trips at nearby state parks. Other outings are rare, but not just for financial reasons: Nathan and Alexis can't keep up during, say, a walk through a mall.
The day after the big photo shoot, the McCaugheys have a get-together for friends and family. While Alexis picks out "Jingle Bells" on the piano in the living room, Bobbi and Kenny put out platters of food on the kitchen's breakfast bar. In the family room, Bobbi's mother, Peggy Hepworth, and youngest sister, Michele Bailey, sit with Kelsey, looking through photographs from the kids' early years. The other children jump and climb on play equipment in the backyard.
As everyone digs in, Bobbi and Kenny's stepmother, Val, reminisce about a day the two of them managed to transport seven infants in seven car seats to the hospital for tests. Friend Vicky Skiles, whose husband, Mark, is watching over the outdoor play, reports that she recently saw one of the kids climbing on the equipment unsupervised. Kenny smiles. "I'm going to have to set up a security camera to keep track of them," he says.
Camera or no, he and Bobbi look forward with optimism. The McCaugheys have survived the challenges of the septuplets' early years with the support of their faith, family, and community -- the bulwarks that will sustain them as their energetic children move into the future.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2007.