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updated 11/20/2001 4:15:48 AM ET 2001-11-20T09:15:48

In what’s become a delightful ritual for us at “Dateline,” it is again time for a visit with the McCaughey septuplets. Who would have imagined in those precarious weeks before and after they were born, that we would be celebrating a fourth birthday. Times seven! Over the years we’ve been given the remarkable opportunity to follow their development — when we can keep up. It’s a fascinating look inside a family for which even an ordinary day is extraordinary and every moment holds the potential to surprise. Ann Curry reports in a “Dateline” exclusive.

IN THE WONDERFUL world of Disney, the seven dwarfs have finally met their match. The McCaughey septuplets got up close and personal with the celebrated characters on a magazine photo shoot eight months ago. Of all the thrills at the park, the ride that enchanted them most was the old favorite — “It’s a Small World.”

For the three girls and four boys, who turned 4-years-old on Monday, the world was not just small, but downright cramped, in the months before their historic birth on November 19, 1997.

In the four years since, Kenny, Alexis, Natalie, Kelsey, Nathan, Brandon and Joel have stretched out in every sense. So have their parents.

For Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, life in the small town of Carlisle, Iowa, is jam-packed with growing challenges. This year, they’ve redefined their roles both in, and out, of the home. They’ve taken special steps to care for their two children with disabilities. And they’ve learned more about the strength needed to raise septuplets and big sister Mikayla — now a collective force of muscle and lung power.

“They are the model kids when they’re by themselves,” says Kenny McCaughey. “When they’re together, they’re nuts.”

Everything about the McCaughey septuplets seems less contained. No longer in cribs, they are bigger and faster and much more rambunctious. It’s much harder to predict where they’ll get into trouble.

The kids have reached the age, Bobbi and Kenny say, when they’re just too smart for their own good. Sometimes, games like “one potato, two potato” go a little too far. Other times, the monkeying-around teeters on dangerous. What might be typical toddler mayhem in any other home becomes a three ring circus when multiplied by seven. These are just a few of the new tricks the kids surprise their parents with each day.

“What one doesn’t think of, the other will,” says Bobbi McCaughey. “And they help each other do things. They never lack for somebody to get into trouble with.”

Partners in crime? “Yes,” she says. “I don’t think they get up in the morning and say, ‘Let’s see what we can do to really tweak mom today.’ It’s just they’re very inquisitive.”

IGNORING THE SCHEDULE

Ever since the kids came home from the hospital, Bobbi has relied on a strict schedule to keep the kids under control. But when they moved into their beds this summer, their mandatory afternoon nap and 7 p.m. sharp bedtime became harder to enforce. Suddenly Bobbi was faced with roving children, who had to be returned to their rooms repeatedly, day and night.

“And I’m sitting downstairs thinking and I said, ‘I’m just not going to have a moment’s peace with them in those beds,’” says Bobbi.

The biggest culprit? Little Kenny — the oldest of the seven — who has developed a knack for quick escapes. Like the time he vanished as Bobbi was getting everybody into their pajamas.

“I called his name, ‘Kenny, where are you?’” says Bobbi. “The doorbell rings. And I come down here to the front door, and it’s a neighbor bringing him back.”

He had gotten outside the house? “Oh, he was outside the house like two houses away,” she says.

Image: Bobbi McCaughey
Bobbi McCaughey now has her own column. She writes for the online version of American Baby magazine.
Doesn’t that totally scare her? “It makes me angry more than really being worried about him because he knows better, you know,” says Bobbi. “He knows that when he went out the door that he was doing something naughty that he shouldn’t have been doing.”

The McCaughey’s did add extra locks on the doors. But this year, all-around safety has become a major issue. Hard as they try, Bobbi and Kenny say it is impossible to watch every move the septuplets and five-and-a-half year old Mikayla make. And they’ve discovered not everything can be childproofed.

“Just recently, Brandon has, because he’s such a climber, has figured out how to climb over my privacy fence into the neighbor’s yard,” says Kenny.

That is a tall fence. A seven-foot-tall fence.

“Yes,” says Kenny. “I don’t know how he does it, he just does. He’s been caught over on the other side of the fence many times. And so I guess the next thing is razor wire. No, just kidding. I could see my yard looking like a penitentiary out there.”

NEW WORRIES ABOUT SAFETY

A custom-built house was the most generous gift the McCaughey’s received when the septuplets were born. With its seven bedrooms and five bathrooms, it’s a place that the family can grow into comfortably.

But right now, there’s almost too much space to get lost in. And there are safety hazards the McCaughey’s didn’t anticipate. Brandon and Joel, for instance, have figured out how to open their bedroom windows.

“Ours, unfortunately, were designed with cranks where they can reach them,” says Kenny. “And yes, Joel cranked the window open and was hanging on his tummy, leaning clear out the window.”

From the second floor. He could’ve fallen straight down? “If Brandon would have pushed him,” says Kenny.

Even when the cranks were stowed high up in a closet, Brandon — a virtual spiderman — managed to get his hands on them again.

“So we now have to hide them in our bedroom,” says Kenny.

To some degree you laugh, you think it’s funny — they’re pretty inventive and smart. But on the other hand, that’s pretty scary.

“It is,” says Kenny.

What’s been the biggest safety scare? “I guess when Brandon has straddled the railing on the deck,” says Kenny.

That’s from the second floor over-looking the backyard. Kenny was inside the house and saw him sitting there on top of the rail. “Yes, Bobbi saw him too and ran out there immediately and grabbed him off there,” Kenny says.

Luckily, there’ve been only a few mishaps. Joel broke his finger doing a somersault in the kitchen. And little Kenny took his first trip to the emergency room for stitches, after bumping his head on a chair in the living room. For Bobbi, these incidents — though heart-stopping — are inevitable.

“No matter what kind of household you live in, no matter how many children you have, accidents happen,” she says. “Of course, you try to prevent them.”

Her matter-of-fact attitude is also reinforced by the belief that someone far more powerful is watching over the family.

How does she not get crazy? How does she not get so upset about the safety issue?

“You can’t live your life being paranoid, either. You know?” says Bobbi. “I mean sometimes when I go to bed at night, I lay there thinking, ‘Now if we have a fire, how are we going to get out of here?’ You know, if we can’t get out the windows, then we have to go out on the deck upstairs and go out in the garage, and Kenny gets down and I drop the kids to him one-by-one. And I go through this in my head over and over and over. And I finally just have to say, ‘quit it and go to sleep.’ I mean you have to reach a point where you just have to trust that God’s going to take care of you.”

But don’t you think that God would also want you to not sit down and not pay attention? “Oh no,” says Bobbi.

You’re supposed to be part of this as well? “Oh, absolutely,” she says. “I have a responsibility. But I can’t go around wringing my hands going, ‘I wonder if something’s going to happen to the kids today. You could ‘what if’ yourself to death.”

Part of Bobbi’s responsibility, as she sees it, is teaching the children to keep themselves safe. That’s a lesson that begins with obedience. In the McCaughey household, there are firm consequences for defiance. When stern words and time-outs don’t work, Bobbi and Kenny, who are missionary Baptists, say they discipline according to the Bible.

“It says right there, ‘spare the rod and spoil your child,’” says Kenny. “It’s pretty clear. And I know that it’s not a very popular thing. I know a lot of people have said, you know that severe spanking is, you know, abuse and stuff like that, well we don’t do that.”

What do they do? “It’s a very controlled type of, you know, spanking thing that we do,” says Kenny.

What does he mean? “Maybe like two or three swats is all,” says Kenny. “Because for me, I was spanked as a kid. For me that was the best way — one of the best ways to learn was through consequences of wrongdoing.”

Does he think that having so many children causes them to have to feel that they have to spank them more often? “Yes,” he says. “Because, as a parent, we have to be consistent. And if one child sees another child getting away with something and yet they’ve gotten disciplined for it, then they’re like, ‘This is a mixed message here.’”

Bobbi says the message goes beyond teaching the children right from wrong and hopes that one day they’ll appreciate that.

What does Bobbi want them to learn from this? “Right now, of course, they don’t like it,” she says. “Eventually they will see that they have been disciplined because they have been loved. And that we want only the best for them.”

PULLING TOGETHER

Determining what is best for their family has been a challenge ever since Bobbi’s extraordinary pregnancy. For the septuplets and Mikayla this is all just fun and games. But for their parents, child’s play can be a physical, mental and emotional endurance test.

“This is a chore, this is a job,” says Kenny. “This is something that stretches you out to your very maximum limits as an adults.”

But Kenny says the challenges — like going camping on Memorial Day weekend when it unexpectedly rains — have actually strengthened the McCaughey’s marriage.

How has this brought them closer together? “I have seen — especially like here in Iowa with the floods of 1993 — how that brought so many people together,” says Kenny. “A natural disaster would cause people to want to love and to grasp a hold of each other.”

Do they have a natural disaster happening in their house? “A supernatural — I’m just kidding, a supernatural occurrence,” he laughs.

It’s stressful, it’s very demanding, and because it is so demanding, the two parents have to be together. “We have to be 100 percent for each other,” he says. “Sometimes 150 percent.”

One way the McCaughey’s have pulled together recently is by spending more time apart. For nearly two years, Kenny was a stay-at-home dad. He supported the family through paid public appearances. His speeches, about the challenges of parenting septuplets and his religious beliefs, have been a lucrative, but unsteady, source of income.

The family still receives free diapers, children’s clothing and some supplies of food. But with their cost of living increasing, Kenny was anxious for a weekly paycheck. Last spring, he went to work on a metal parts production line. Though he is still taking speaking engagements, this job has helped cover the family’s health insurance — which was going up to about $550 a month. And it has restored Kenny’s sense of well-being after an identity crisis of sorts.

“I was a stay home dad, you know, for a year and a half or so,” he says. “And that was slowly starting to get to me a little bit.”

What was it that he was missing? “Just the getting out of the house and just doing what other normal fathers do is go to a job every day,” he says.

Was he feeling ashamed about not having a job outside the house? “In some ways,” says Kenny. “A little bit I was. It goes clear back to biblical times, you know, when the men went out, did hunting, they did their things to supply the bread for the family.”

He wanted to feel like he was bringing the bacon home? “Right,” he says.

And Bobbi was more than encouraging.

“She wanted me to get a job, because I guess I was driving her nuts,” he says.

Why did Bobbi need him to go? “Because he would make me crazy,” she says. “He would be so restless and just needing to do something, needing to go somewhere. So it’s just, ‘Go Kenny, I mean I will miss your help here at home. But bye. See you when you get home.’”

ON HER OWN

Unlike her husband, Bobbi says she is not at all conflicted about being a stay-at-home parent — a job she always wanted and expected to do without help. The volunteers who once pitched in round-the-clock, at Bobbi’s request, now only come two mornings, one afternoon and one evening each week.

“I’m pretty much at home with the kids all the time,” she says,

Because she can’t go out with seven toddlers and Mikayla safely?

“Right,” says Bobbi. “You know I can’t go the grocery store. I mean they don’t make carts big enough for eight kids.”

How does she not just want to pull her hair out? “Oh sometimes, I do,” she says. “It’s like suddenly a trip to Wal-Mart is, ‘Whoo, I’m going to Wal-Mart today!’”

Bobbi may have given her husband a gentle push out the door, but she wasn’t as light-hearted about two of the septuplets leaving the nest. Advocates of home-schooling, the McCaughey’s had not anticipated putting any of the kids on a bus each morning. But earlier this year, they decided that Nathan and Alexis should attend a special preschool.

They both have different forms of cerebral palsy — a condition, more common in premature and multiple births, that can affect movement, muscle tone and cognitive development. Here, Nathan and Alexis receive therapy to improve their mobility and coordination with the support of other children who are overcoming challenges.

“They’re doing great,” says Kenny. “They love the social interaction with all the other kids. They are learning — defining their motor skills a lot better.”

With therapy, botox injections and orthopedic support, Nathan is surmounting spastic diplegia — a disorder that makes his legs rigid. He’s even figured out his own ways to keep up.

“We don’t have to get him out of the highchair anymore,” says Bobbi. “He just gets himself out. Nathan just grows by leaps and bounds. He is so motivated that he wants to do so many things independently.”

Alexis is eager to stand on her own, too. She suffers from hypotonic quadriplegia, which weakens her muscles. Given care similar to Nathan’s, she is gaining strength. Last year, Bobbi was disheartened to learn from a therapist that Alexis was lagging in other areas, such as speech, a sign that her cognitive abilities might be impaired.

“It was not what I wanted to hear,” says Bobbi. “Because I think sometimes that a physical challenge is easier to overcome maybe than a mental challenge.”

Lately, though, Bobbi sees reason to be optimistic.

“There has just been incredible changes in her,” she says. “Her language and her understanding of things has just blossomed in the past seven, eight months.”

NO SECOND GUESSING

Before the children were born, the McCaughey’s had been warned that cerebral palsy was one of the risks of carrying septuplets. Bobbi was offered the option of reducing the number. She refused. There was a reason, she says, that the same fertility drugs that helped her get pregnant with Mikayala had drastically different results the second time around.

“There is no explanation for there being seven fertilized eggs, and all of them implanting, other than it was the hand of God,” says Bobbi. “And for me to take that into my hands, take it out of God’s and say, ‘Well, I’m sorry God, but you just didn’t know what you were doing, I’m going to take this into my control and I’ll pick how many I want.’ That’s not for me. That is not my choice.”

Some would say the explanation is that she used fertility drugs.

“What they say about that does not change my viewpoint at all,” she says. “No matter what God presented us with as an outcome — whether I had lost some of them early on, whether some of them had not lived after they were born, God would have equipped us to handle that.”

A lot of people have e-mailed us asking this question: If God makes it OK to use fertility drugs to have a child, why does God not allow a woman to reduce the number of babies that those fertility drugs create?

“You can’t compare the two,” says Bobbi.

Why not? “Because using a drug to create a life is entirely different than taking a life,” says Bobbi.

When Nathan and Alexis were diagnosed with cerebral palsy two years ago, Bobbi was reluctant to talk about it publicly. She says some of the media coverage offended her.

“The headlines: ‘Two of the septuplets have cerebral palsy,’” says Bobbi. “And it shouldn’t have been that way. It wasn’t newsworthy, I don’t think. Because it didn’t change who they are.”

But perhaps the reason why this was a headline is because it was to talk about this issue, the risks of having multiples.

“But see, in part they were using my children to try to get other women to reduce,” says Bobbi. “Using them as an example. Which still goes back to the mindset that it’s better to just kill them in the beginning, and how warped is that? I mean Nathan and Alexis will have challenges. But they will be more special because of it. There will be things in their life that they can accomplish that I could never accomplish.”

SPECIAL CHALLENGES

Kenny agrees that selective reduction was out of the question. But he does struggle to understand why it was his fate to be the father of septuplets.

“It makes me wonder what did God see more special in me than anyone else to have seven kids all at one time?” he says.

Kenny says he hopes to live up to the responsibility he feels God has given him. But he admits that in weak moments, he misses his old life with Bobbi and Mikayla when everything wasn’t such a big production.

Can you blame him for wishing sometimes that he didn’t have so many children? “No,” says Bobbi. “I mean it wasn’t like we had set out in the beginning to have eight children, you know. And certainly not seven of them at one time, you know? Nobody would ever, ever plan that.”

Because you’d have to be crazy to do it? “Yes, you’d have to be out of your mind,” laughs Bobbi.

But even when push comes to shove, Bobbi and Kenny say they wouldn’t trade in any of this. Especially with so much to celebrate on the septuplets’ fourth birthday.

Since birth, Natalie had been fed through a tube in her belly. At first, she suffered from severe reflux. Later, she had an aversion to swallowing. Now, she eats so well that in September, her stomach tube was removed.

Alexis is not only making strides with walking and talking. Like Natalie, she too, battled eating problems. But recently, she stopped needing supplemental feedings. And if her healthy appetite continues, her stomach tube will be removed, as well.

Joel, who suffered a seizure during a family road trip last year, is now doing just fine with medication.

And there’s been a less serious, but still meaningful development. Following Kelsey’s early lead, five of the seven children are now potty trained during the day, though they aren’t quite ready to make it through the night.

“We always have to keep in the back of our heads that preemies do not mature at the same rate as a full-term baby,” says Bobbi.

Still, Kenny wishes they would hurry up. “I’m just tired of changing diapers,” says Kenny. “You know we’ve got the diaper thing mastered to a T.”

If they calculate how many diapers they’ve probably changed? “Oh man, it’s probably in the hundreds of thousands,” says Kenny.

Bobbi laughs, “Oh, he thinks so!”

She’s changed a 100,000.

For Bobbi, the transition out of diapers is a welcome change, mostly because it marks yet another rite of passage for their children.

“Their growth, their maturity I think those things are exciting to watch,” says Bobbi. “That’s the fun part. When the kids are doing things all together as a group, that’s what makes you think, ‘Oh boy, I can do this tomorrow.’”

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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