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The septuplets always have energy to spare, and on this chilly but sunny afternoon they're burning some up on their bicycles. "Natalie! Go more fast!" hollers daredevil Kenny (aka Bert) as he tailgates her on the driveway, zooming perilously close to Sprinkles the tabby. Blond and delicate in ballet slippers, Natalie will have none of it, and when little Kenny sideswipes and knocks down a standing bike, she stops and scolds. "Bert! Why do you do that?"
Kelsey rides around silently in a world of her own, while Brandon, normally a roughhouser, plays nice with Cattie, the timid calico cat. "You can't talk loud because she gets scared," he whispers, kneeling on the grass and petting her gently. He looks up. Dad, Kenny Sr., 34, has come outside to monitor any mischief. "Joel, ride on the sidewalk, not the street!" he shouts. Joel obeys. But as soon as Dad goes back to the garage, he starts pedaling hard, props his feet up on the handlebars and speeds away -- in the middle of the road.
Inside, in the rec room, Nathan lies contentedly on the rug with Alexis, who's pleading with her mom, Bobbi, 36, to watch a Miss PattyCake video. With wish-list dreams in her head, big sister Mikayla thumbs through a toy catalog, admiring the cheerleader and Wonder Woman outfits, when Kelsey comes in and snatches it. "Kelsey!" she says in her best Mom-is-miffed imitation, "I was looking at that!" In the kitchen there's an aroma of baking bread, and Bobbi smiles as she stirs the pepper stew in the slow cooker. "Always lots of fires to put out,"she says.
Just another day in the life at the McCaughey household, where the septuplets turned 7 on November 19. And it truly is the best of times. "I'd say the biggest change in the past year is their wanting to help me, whether it's cooking supper, putting forks on the table, or pouring the Kool-Aid," says Bobbi. "It all started one day when they'd all behaved especially badly at their group violin lesson. I told them, 'There'll be no playing tomorrow!' The next morning I gave each of them a list of three chores to do, like picking up papers in the car, sweeping the garage floor, wiping the stair rail, straightening the sofa pillows. But it almost backfired as punishment," she says, laughing, "because they enjoyed it so much!"
The septuplets are now old hands at the public elementary school in Carlisle, Iowa, where they're in separate first-grade classes. That includes Nathan and Alexis, whose speech and cognitive skills are impaired by cerebral palsy; both need walkers to get around, though the ever-practical Alexis sometimes prefers to crawl.
"They love going to school so much that last summer they'd sigh, 'Oh, that's our school,' whenever we passed by on our way home from church," says Bobbi. After several years of homeschooling, Mikayla, 8, started attending the same school, where she has leapfrogged into fourth grade. Bright and articulate, she's become quite the social butterfly. "Then again, she's always been outgoing," says Bobbi. "For example, we'll go camping, and by the end of the day she has a new best friend."
With the septuplets' early, most labor-intensive years behind them, Mom and Dad are reaping the rewards. Since the kids get tray lunches at school, there are no more for Bobbi to pack. "Even though I got it down to seven meals in 15 minutes, I dreaded doing it day after day -- especially pouring the juice," she says.
Fewer spills mean the septuplets can wear a single outfit the whole day long, so weekly laundry loads have dwindled from a dozen to just half that. And no longer overwhelmed by a constantly needy brood of fussing, finicky toddlers, Kenny seems to have come into his own and found his footing as a father. "I'm the fun-stuff guy -- they come to me when they want to go outside, play video games, or ride their bikes," he says. "They go to Bobbi when someone is hurt or one wants to tattle on another."
After his 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. assembly-line shift at a local manufacturing plant, he's also the house disciplinarian. But today, as on most days, the skirmishes are minor. "Get down right now!" Kenny yells at Brandon, who's walking on the kitchen counter. Then, to Bert, who saunters in chewing gum -- a no-no unless doled out by Mom or Dad: "Where'd you get that? Spit it out, right here, now!" The boys oblige.
These days, the greatest challenge for the McCaugheys is balancing their children's growing need for independence with the desire to keep them close to the nest. "They've made so many friends, they're always saying, 'I want to go play with so-and-so,' or 'Why can't so-and-so come over?'" Bobbi says. "We can't accommodate them very often. Kenny and I are very close to our brothers and sisters and want to spend weekends with them and their kids."
There's also the siren call of team sports -- and the risk of parental enslavement to schedules and chauffeuring. Brandon, a natural at baseball, was dying to play, but after careful deliberation, the McCaugheys said no for now. "It's partly because of how much all the equipment costs and how it would cut into family time," she says. "My dad didn't allow me or my five siblings to do sports for the same reasons."
As for being in the public eye, the couple is confident they're doing what's best for the children while giving something back to the people who have supported them. "From the beginning, the outpouring of love -- the prayers, the gifts, the financial help, the new house -- was overwhelming," says Bobbi. "We're no more deserving than any other family, so we're grateful that this is how God chose to provide for us."
Granting a few interviews and photos around the holidays and updating people on the septuplets' progress, she adds, is her way of returning in kind. While the kids know that they're septuplets, they don't know that it's anything special or that they're famous -- and the McCaugheys would like to keep it that way. "I certainly don't want us to be the next Osbournes," Bobbi says with a laugh.
"Who's that?" asks Kenny.
In fact, they're in no rush to see the children grow up too fast, although of course children always do. "Kenny and I are looking forward to having the freedom we did early in our marriage, and we've decided we're going on a cruise to Alaska or the Caribbean," says Bobbi. "But it's a different stage of life now, and when it passes, I'll be sad. Not long ago, the rest of the kids were visiting friends or relatives and we had dinner with just Alexis and Nathan. I was putting the plates on the table when I said to Kenny, 'It's too quiet.' And he said, 'You're right. This is what it's going to be like when the kids are all gone.'"
An empty nest is still many years -- and happy memories -- away. And what has been the best one this past year? Bobbi thinks hard. "Things always seem so cool when they happen, but then you can't remember them," she says. Kelsey walks into the kitchen and asks for her vitamin. Alexis clambers onto Bobbi's lap and starts kissing her elbow. Nathan asks if someone can take the bandage off his boo-boo. Joel and Brandon come clack-clack-clacketing into the kitchen on roller skates. Bert wants another graham cracker.
Suddenly Bobbi's face lights up. Christmas morning, when Kenny reads the Nativity story from the Bible before the presents are opened, has always been her favorite, she explains, "but last year was the first time the children bought presents for one another." Not big-ticket items like dolls and toy cars, but clumsy, achingly sweet little gifts like plastic jewelry and coloring kits. "That made it one of the best holidays ever," says Bobbi. "You know, I'm just trying to enjoy what we have. I'm not one to think, 'I can't wait until they're in junior high.' That would be wishing my life away -- as well as theirs."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, December 2004.