A Septuplet Celebration: The Septuplets at 9
Thriving, Despite Trials
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?'"