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Until you see the Gosselins enter a building single file -- the 5-year-old sextuplets first, followed by the 8-year-old twins, their sitter, Jon and Kate, a security guard, plus a pair of German shepherd puppies -- the chaos and charisma of this family is impossible to imagine. As Jon says, watching two of his little kids dash down one hallway and race up another, "I spend my whole life counting to eight."
For the past four seasons 2.6 million of us have been counting along with him each week. The Gosselins star in TLC's top-rated reality show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, airing and baring everything on the small screen, from Kate's tummy tuck to the couple's wedding-vow-renewal ceremony in Hawaii. What's the draw? "Our show is the realest reality show there is," says Kate, 34. "You get the good, the bad, and the ugly." Amen to that. Jon & Kate Plus 8 is such an unvarnished view of family life that it makes you laugh one minute and wince the next. You marvel at how adorable those eight kids are but shudder at the thought of putting your own rawest marriage and parenting moments on film.
In person the Gosselin children -- Alexis, Aaden, Collin, Hannah, Leah, Joel, Madelyn, and Cara -- are full of personality but well behaved, politely saying "please" and "thank you" and sitting in their seats to eat lunch even as they vie with one another for their parents' attention. All of them are eager to play with their new puppies, 8-week-olds named Nala, for the lioness in The Lion King, and Shooka, for one of the bodyguards the family hires whenever they're in Hawaii. "Shooka is just like all brothers," says Mady. Leah agrees. "He wants to wrestle all of the time."
Kate speeds around to get lunch organized. In person she's more petite and forthright than she appears on camera. "Pressure is my middle name," she says, taking a sip of Diet Coke while she orders her kids to "sit down," "stand up straight," "wash your hands," "stop tugging on me." Today she refuses to undo the belt on her dress because it might let her relax and eat more. As Jon, 32, says, "She does not look like a woman who's had eight kids."
And that's the point. A paragon of motherly self-control with a trim figure and sculpted blond hair, Kate also seems permanently exasperated with her sweet-natured husband -- a combination that earns her admiration and disdain in equal measure. She is a woman who speaks her mind plainly, whether interviewing babysitters or getting Jon to clean out the garage on Sunday when all he wants to do is inline-skate. The TV show offers an edited view of a family that's grown disproportionately large in a very short amount of time. After all, it was only 12 years ago that Jon caught Kate's eye as he strolled across a hotel lawn. She sprang into action, vowing to friends that "I'm not leaving here today until I meet him." Jon had a girlfriend at the time, Kate says, "but she was gone the next day." The Gosselins were married in a friend's garden, a wedding they paid for by working three jobs each. Until their honeymoon in Disney World, Kate had never been on an airplane.
Jon, the middle child of a dentist, was a college dropout who worked odd jobs as he snowboarded and backpacked his way across Europe. "I always thought I'd be, like, 54 years old and marry a 19-year-old or something," he says with a grin.
Kate, a nurse, was filling in at a tanning salon to make extra money. "I was the kind of girl who always had an action plan," she says. When she discovered she couldn't get pregnant because of polycystic ovary syndrome, she saw a fertility specialist. After she underwent intrauterine insemination, she became pregnant with the twins. Kate describes the next three years -- during which she worked day shifts and Jon worked nights at an information technology job so they wouldn't have to put their children in daycare -- as some of their happiest. When they bought a modest home in 2001, "I had everything I had ever hoped and prayed for," Kate says. But she grew restless. After another round of fertility treatments, she discovered she was pregnant with septuplets (the seventh baby didn't fully develop). The couple was encouraged to selectively reduce the number of fetuses to decrease the risk of medical problems, but Kate refused. The rest is TV history.
Does she miss those leaner, blissful, pre-sextuplets times? "I wouldn't return to those days," she says. "We think of the TV show as our family job, one that lets us stay home together." If anything, she continues, life in a fishbowl has allowed them to appreciate one another's strengths. Although Kate often criticizes Jon on air, privately she's quick to praise him for being able to embrace "the little moments that I may breeze over in my quest to conquer the world -- or at least clean it!" His playfulness is one of his strong points as a father, and he's totally supportive. "He lets me chase my dreams and succeed while being willing to keep the kids and house in one piece," she says.
But the marriage is under tabloid scrutiny. Last month a photo of Jon at a bar with his arms around two young women surfaced on the Internet, and rumors spread that he had been playing drinking games with local college students. He says the women were simply fans who wanted their picture taken with him. The stories also alleged that Jon had been living at his mother's house, which further fueled rumors that the couple's marriage was under strain. But Jon says his mom had injured her foot and needed his help. And he is quick to assert that his marriage to Kate is not over. "I am not perfect," he says. "This struggle has definitely put some tension in our marriage. But I never cheated on Kate. Kate and I are together."
Jon says it is becoming harder to live a normal life and that privacy is the thing they both miss most. "The fact that we are recognized, screamed at, mobbed, and so often approached when we're together does make life difficult," Kate agrees. Even at home "Kate and I have maybe 10 minutes together while we're cleaning up the kitchen, but other wise it's the kids and the show and meetings and, well, see you next Christmas, Kate," says Jon. True to his TV persona, Jon is Mr. Mom, the more domestic of the two. "It's a tough thing, breaking this stereotype that you're worthless if you're a stay-at-home parent," he says. "People still define one another by their careers." It's obvious Jon is the go-to guy when the kids are hurt or just need a hug. But on the show he also appears a little lost, while Kate has become more driven than ever. "Kate's a type A personality, and I'm a pleaser and a giver," he says.
Does he ever find the experience humiliating? "Nobody wants to discipline their kids in public," he says, "but eventually you get used to the idea." Or as Kate puts it: "We don't pay attention to the negative comments." Besides, living out loud has opened new doors for them. In addition to the fortune they've made, Kate has found success as an author. Last year fans lined up by the thousands and waited up to five hours for a signed copy of her best seller, Multiple Blessings. "They were in tears while I signed their books," she says. "I don't get it. I'm just a mom who's doing her best -- not unlike moms every where. I just happen to have a few more kids than the average."
That's an understatement. Her advice to Nadya Suleman, the California mother who gave birth to octuplets last February? "Just take one day at a time, accept a lot of help, and try to use the little moments that arise to connect with each kid," she says. At the end of the day Kate still relishes the simpler things in life. Happiness to her boils down to: "Having the kids down for a nap, a quiet house, dinner cooking on the stove, and a chance to sit and read a book." Spoken like your average American mom.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2009.