Image: McCaughey family and NBC's Ann Curry
The septuplets are turning two, and on 'Dateline NBC,' Ann Curry joins Kenny, Bobbi, Mikayla and all seven of the McCaughey septuplets to celebrate.
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updated 11/18/1999 7:12:00 AM ET 1999-11-18T12:12:00

As the moon rises in Carlisle, Iowa, silence falls in a house where, one-by-one, seven little boys and girls and their big sister drift off to sleep. Not long ago, these children who so innocently toss and turn, kicked their way into history. On Nov. 19, 1997, the world came to know them as the McCaughey septuplets. Ann Curry returns to Carlisle for this update.

More than 700 nights later, with the release of a lullaby album called “Sweet Dreams” to honor the occasion, Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey are celebrating their babies’ second birthday.

Bobbi McCaughey: “It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe that they’re gonna be two. It’s like ‘it hasn’t been two years? Where did my babies go?’”

The babies we first introduced you to just days after they were born are now curious, mobile and demanding 2-year-olds. And everyone still asks, “how do Bobbi and Kenny do it?” Life in the McCaughey home is more challenging than ever.

There is a secret to staying sane in this household, one Bobbi figured out soon after she brought her four boys and three girls home from the hospital: Routine meals, naps, and bedtime for everyone. No ifs, ands or buts.

“Our schedule is like a finely oiled machine,” Kenny says. It is a machine that has required more and more steam, especially since they moved into their 16-room home last year. From eight in the morning to seven at night, there’s only one chance for Bobbi to catch her breath.

Bobbi McCaughey: “I have started taking naps in the afternoon.”

Ann Curry: “Really?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Yes, oh maybe the past six weeks, I’ve been really tired. I used to use that time in the afternoon to go sew or run errands or something. But more and more I find myself sleeping when the kids sleep.”

Ann Curry: “What’s happening?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh, I think there’s just a lot more chasing, you know — take somebody off the table for the sixth time in a row, and keep them out of the plants and keep them out of the laundry room and not eating the lint.”

Ann Curry: “Do you feel like you need eyes in the back of your head?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “It would help, yeah.”

During weekdays, Bobbi and Kenny do rely on an extra set of eyes. Remember the dozens of volunteers who pitched in round-the-clock during those early months? They still help out — only now, just one at a time — for short morning and afternoon shifts. Even with the babies moving every which way, Bobbi and Kenny are as determined as ever to handle all this — the scuffles, near-misses and meltdowns — on their own.

A NEW ROLE FOR KENNY

It’s been eight months since Kenny left his job at the car dealership to become a public speaker:

Kenny McCaughey: “Greetings from Carlisle, Iowa — from Bobbie, from Mikayla, from Kenny, from Nathan, from Brandon, from Joel, from Natalie, from Alexis, from Kelsey... and from ... Did I leave anybody out?”

He accepts three-to-four speaking engagements a month — enough, the McCaugheys say, to support their family. Otherwise, he’s a fulltime dad.

Ann Curry: “When we last spoke, you were just getting used to Kenny being at home more. How is that going?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “It’s been fun, it’s nice having him there every day — we work together a lot more. When he was working the fulltime 45 hour a week job, when he would come home at night, I didn’t want to jump on him the minute he was in the door — ‘well, could you change this one’s diaper, and this one hasn’t eaten yet, and there’s just a million and one things to do, would you please get busy’ — you know, because I knew he was tired, but now it’s just great. We share a lot more of the responsibilities.

Except maybe when it comes to cleaning.

Bobbi McCaughey: Kenny sometimes just gets on these little cleaning frenzies. Well, just a couple weeks ago, he spent the entire morning upstairs between dusting and cleaning the bathrooms, he was up there for like three and a half hours. Didn’t see him.”

Ann Curry: “There are worse things that a husband could do.”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh, yes I know that.”

The toughest thing about the kids turning two — for Kenny — is the responsibility to teach them right from wrong.

Kenny McCaughey: “They all have their own wills and some of them have a stronger will than others — and that’s one of the challenges we are now just getting into is the disciplining.”

Ann Curry: “And you don’t like to discipline?”

Kenny McCaughey: “Not a big discipline guy.”

Ann Curry: “So you have to buckle up your seatbelt, buddy.”

Kenny McCaughey: “Mmh hmm. Oh yeah.”

Bobbi McCaughey: (Laughs)

Ann Curry: “Cause you’re heading into the full storm.”

Older sister Mikayla whole-heartedly throws herself into the fray. Sometimes, though, even she needs a break.

Bobbi McCaughey: ”Most of the time she is very loving, but every now and then she just wants her own time and time with us too.”

A PRIVATE LANGUAGE

Everyone is learning to communicate.

Alexis: “Hello!”

Brandon: “Uh-oh.”

Nathan: “Me...”

Bobbi: “Yes, you.”

Kenny Jr.: “Bye.”

So far, Natalie is the most verbal.

Kenny Sr.: “Doggie?”

Natalie: “Doggie.”

Kenny Sr.: “Yeah.”

But often the septuplets appear to talk to each other in ways only they can understand. What sounds like conversation has been happening ever since they shared a room in their old house.

The phenomenon is called cryptophasia. Doctors say multiples who spend a lot of time alone together can develop a secret language, which may make them less inclined to use words.

Bobbi McCaughey: “When (older sister) Mikayla was two, she was singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ by herself.” Obviously none of the babies are doing that, but all of them, Nathan and Alexis included, have words that they use and they use them appropriately.

And more than their vocabulary is growing. Since last year, each has made steady weight gains. They now range from 18 to 24 pounds, about eight times their birthweights. And they aren’t getting sick as often.

Kenny and Nathan have temporary tubes in their ears to help prevent ear infections. Joel needs minor surgery for a lazy eye because he doesn’t like to wear the glasses we saw him in last spring. Brandon continues to be remarkably healthy. As does Kelsey, who nudges her sister to eat. Natalie is overcoming an aversion to having food put into her mouth.

Bobbi McCaughey: “Some days are better than others. You know some days she might eat half a donut for breakfast.”

Ann Curry: “And swallow it?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh yeah. It goes down, yeah. And the next day she won’t eat anything, you know because she’s not in the mood.”

So, Natalie is still mostly nourished from a special high-calorie formula fed through a tube in her stomach. Alexis is also tube fed. Her early respiratory problems made it hard to coordinate breathing with sucking and swallowing. But she is figuring out how to eat.

Bobbi McCaughey: “I just recently started getting back in the routine with a bottle. Trying to get her to do the suck-and-swallow thing, you know, now that she’s been off oxygen for a long time. She’s getting bigger, her strength is increasing.”

Alexis and Natalie also struggle with “gastroesophageal reflux” — which sometimes makes them gag or throw-up. There is a chance they could have lifelong eating problems. It is just too soon to tell.

Bobbi McCaughey: “Each little bit of progress gives you hope for tomorrow.”

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

On some days, life is anything but routine for the McCaughey’s. There was a recent photo shoot for the December issue of “Ladies Home Journal.” Since the babies were born, the family has graced more than a dozen magazine covers worldwide.

Bobbi McCaughey: “When I was laying there in the hospital we never anticipated that there would be anywhere close to the kind of response that there was. I think we still are amazed that there’s still these kinds of opportunities.”

They are opportunities that have taken the McCaughey’s out of Carlisle — like this trip to New York City for a television interview — a rare journey given the logistics of travelling with eight children and eight adults.

Their guide on these adventures is a man who shares their spiritual beliefs — Wes Yoder. As president of Ambassador Artist Agency in Nashville, Tennessee, he represents musicians, authors and public speakers. He also handles every single media request and commercial project for the McCaughey’s — to protect them from being financially exploited, he says.

Wes Yoder: “My main goal is to secure their future and to make sure that they are taken care of.”

It is Yoder who orchestrated the making of “The McCaughey Septuplets’ Sweet Dreams” — their new lullaby album released this week. Artists from Nashville to London donated time, talent and royalties to the project. TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford lent her voice to charity as did stars in the Christian music industry.

Bobbi and Kenny have always sung in church, but they never expected to find themselves in a major recording studio. They performed one of the lullabies.

Kenny McCaughey: “It’s just astonishing the stuff that they have to do. When we did our song you know we thought we’d probably just sing it through a couple of times. Nnuh.”

Ann Curry: “How many times did you have to sing it?”

Kenny McCaughey: “Oh boy.”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh, I couldn’t even count. Between the two of us, to record our song we had thirteen hours.”

HELPING OTHERS

Until recently, Yoder thought the Mccaughey’s would receive most of the profits from the album. But Kenny and Bobbi had other ideas: “We don’t want this just to benefit us. We want this to benefit others. It’s so staggering.”

To their delight, the couple who had first relied on donations of diapers, food, clothing, a van, a house, furniture, free babysitting, and much more — is now in the position to be charitable.

Kenny McCaughey: “It is more blessed to give than to receive and we’ve received quite a bit, of course, but it’s also, it’s almost twice as neat to be able to give back.”

They intend to donate 50 percent of their profits to the foundation they’ve established to help other families of multiples.

Ann Curry: “Some people may wonder, do you have to be a Christian to get this money?”

Wes Yoder: “Not at all. We are so happy to help anybody who’s out there in need.”

Yoder hopes that the album will generate as much as a million dollars, half of which will go to families in need. And if it does, Yoder says, the McCaughey’s share — added to their investments and savings — could set them up for life.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment given that just two years ago, they were overwhelmed at the prospect of raising eight children.

Wes Yoder: “They have been very careful with their money. They have lived on their current income and the things that we have been able to do for them, they have put aside for the future.”

What Yoder’s agency has been able to do for them includes product endorsements, two book deals, Kenny’s speaking engagements, and an exclusive arrangement with a photo agency that Yoder calls “a significant” source of income.

Ann Curry: “Many people look at everything that Bobbi and Kenny have gotten and they say ‘Why is this family capitalizing on these seven children?’”

Wes Yoder: “Right... I don’t think they’re capitalizing on them in a bad way.”

Ann Curry: “But they are capitalizing on them, do you agree with that word?”

Wes Yoder: “I think the word that I would use is stewardship. If you look at what God puts in their hand, and you say how do we use this wisely in a way that does not take advantage of others? Are the decisions such that they will be good for the marriage and good for the family? Is it the right thing for the children to be involved in? And does it have integrity? Those are the three basic criteria that we’ve used.”

UNEXPECTED PROBLEMS

Once, the McCaugheys’ horizons barely stretched beyond Iowa. Now, they are seeing the world in unexpected ways. But their focus has remained the same.

Their top priority is being good parents to their children — especially, now when their strength and optimism are most needed by two of the septuplets.

To their parents, Nathan and Alexis are “the little engines that could,” determined to keep up with their brothers and sisters. And when Bobbi talks about the adversity they face, it’s with tenderness and pride. “Neither one of them are content to just stay put in one little place. They are everywhere,” she says.

Like other premature multiples, the septuplets are reaching milestones more slowly than full-term babies. They have all been at risk for developmental delays, some of which are now evident.

Before they moved out of their old house last year, the Mccaughey’s realized that Nathan and Alexis were not progressing as fast as the other children.

When their motor skills were evaluated, Nathan and Alexis tested at least 25 percent below average — scores significantly low enough to qualify them for state-funded physical therapy.

Five months later, in April, as the rest of the children were beginning to walk, Nathan was mustering the strength to roll over, and Alexis was learning how it felt to be upright.

Last spring, there were signs that the children might have cerebral palsy, a broad term for many neurological disorders that affect movement and posture. Doctors have now diagnosed Nathan and Alexis with two very specific disorders that fall under the umbrella of cerebral palsy. Nathan has spastic diplegia — the muscles in his legs are so tight, they are stiff and difficult to control. His arms are also affected, but not as severely. Alexis has the opposite problem, a disorder called hypotonic quadriplegia; the muscles in her torso, arms, and legs have such low tone, she has trouble holding positions without support. These are lifelong disorders thought to be caused by a brain injury that happens during pregnancy, delivery or in the critical weeks after birth, the injury impairs the brain’s ability to control certain muscles. How much the children will be able to compensate is unknown. They will need extra care as they grow-up.

Ann Curry: “Were you ready to hear the diagnoses?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Well, I don’t think that you’re ever ready. We knew that they were not as developmentally advanced as the other five, but until you actually hear it, you can deny it. So of course when she said, ‘Yes, this is what Nathan has, this is what Alexis has,’ you know, I cried.”

Both children now wear ankle-to-calf braces. And their physical therapy has increased from twice a month to twice a week.

“It’s like re-programming parts of their brains to take over and make those muscles work the way they should,” Bobbi says.

With help, Alexis is finding her balance. A special chair — designed for standing — forces Nathan to put weight on his legs. And he is learning to walk.

“He is so proud,” beams Bobbi. “The cheesy little grin that he gives you when he’s walking in that walker is just... If you only saw one of those in a day, it’d be worth getting up in the morning.”

Bobbi has even seen Nathan crawl. Just once. But once was enough for now. Every tiny step inspires giant hope.

Bobbi McCaughey: “It’s just like Nathan and Alexis both are saying that we are not gonna lay here on the floor, we are not gonna be still and let everybody come to us.”

Ann Curry: “You see their will to overcome it?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Every day.”

There are moments, though, when Bobbi fears for her children’s future.

Bobbi McCaughey: “What makes me cry about what they have — ‘cause when I think of when they’re playing with other kids. You know if maybe they walk something like that they’re going to be made fun of. And that’s almost more than I can take.”

Ann Curry: “When my children are hurt — even if it has nothing to do with anything I did — I take the blame. I think every mother does that. You’re not doing that, are you?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Most of the time, no.”

Ann Curry: “Sometimes?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Sometimes the thought is there that maybe if I’d hung in there another week...”

Ann Curry: “You mean carried them another week?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

Carried them longer? Even Bobbi’s doctors were amazed she was able to withstand the incredible discomfort as long as she did.

But, Bobbi wonders, would an extra week in utero have made a difference for Nathan and Alexis — even though she managed to stay pregnant for seven-and-a-half months.

“You know sometimes you can get to thinking and your mind plays games and... I know it’s not my fault. I didn’t do this,” she says.

Doctors told the McCaughey’s that trying to carry so many babies could jeopardize the septuplets’ health and Bobbi’s, too.

But she and Kenny, who are missionary Baptists, say they are at peace with their decision.

“Just pray for Nathan and Alexis. They just need extra prayer,” Kenny says.

They are so certain they did the right thing that, despite some of the challenges they face, Kenny regularly speaks to pro-life groups across the country about their situation. And though some of their fears have become realities, they stand by that decision, saying Nathan and Alexis are gifts from God.

“I wish that they didn’t have it and that they didn’t have to struggle twice as hard to be able to do things as the other kids do,” Bobbi says. “When I look at them, I see two children who are beautiful, that I love, and that were created out of love. It doesn’t matter what they have. They’re my children and I want them and I love them and I’m so glad they’re here.”

Eight hundred miles away, another mother is embracing her babies with the same passion, a family whom Bobbi and Kenny have chosen to mentor, as if taking care of eight children weren’t enough.

A few weeks ago, they found time to visit Jeannette and Mark Zimlich of Mobile, Alabama — the parents of quintuplets born in August.

“She did it with seven so there’s certainly hope for me to do it with five,” Jeannette says.

The Zimlich babies did not break any world records when they were born. There are already more than 70 sets of quintuplets in the U.S, so the Zimliches didn’t receive the same generosity as the McCaugheys — who are now trying to get them donations of diapers, toys, baby food and clothing.

Bobbi and Kenny have also offered their expertise.

Ann Curry: “What do you hope to share with that family?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Some of the little things that we have learned along the way when our kids were small — scheduling and how much easier that makes things. And just any questions or doubts or anything that a new mom might have.”

And for Bobbi, who is no longer a new mom of multiples, the visit was a reminder of all the challenges she and Kenny have conquered in the two years they wish had not gone by so fast.

Bobbi McCaughey: “I’m glad to see them growing and developing and learning new things, but I think there’s just something about the smell of a baby.”

Ann Curry: “So even the mother of septuplets, like all other mothers who have children, is sad when they leave babydom?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh yeah, I mean babyhood never sticks around long enough.”

Ann Curry: “Now, most mothers in that position start thinking about another...”

Bobbi McCaughey: (laughs) “Already been there...”

Ann Curry: “Have you passed that, have you gotten that thought out of your mind?”

Bobbi McCaughey: “Oh no, I don’t think that thought’ll ever be — I’ll probably be 105 before that thought’s gone. We’re not having any more. We’re not pregnant or anything like that, but yeah, the feeling is still there.”

It is a feeling that says so much about how the challenge of raising septuplets has been eclipsed by the joy that they have brought.

And on the eve of their babies’ second birthday, Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey are thankful for every day they’ve shared — and for all that is still to come.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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