As the sun sets, the Science Center of Iowa closes to the public and opens for private slumber parties.
On this evening, the visitors, invited by “Dateline,” are a famous family of ten: parents, Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey, eldest daughter, Mikayla, her three sisters Alexis, Natalie, Kelsey, and four brothers, Kenny, Brandon, Joel, and Nathan. All are incredibly curious and excited to explore.
Now in second-grade, divided among seven classrooms at Carlisle Elementary School—these eight year-olds are starting to understand what it means to be the world’s only set of living septuplets.
Kelsey, for one, enjoys the attention.
Ann Curry, Dateline correspondent: So what do you think about being a septuplet?Kelsey: It’s good. Curry: Do people ever say anything about it or ask you questions, besides me? Kelsey: They say, I know you’re the septuplets. You’re so sweet and lovely and very kind to each other.Curry: People say that? Kelsey: And sometimes they give us treats.
Given the unusual “treats” here, we had a feeling these “Jimmy Neutrons” would be experimenting long into the night...
The hours from dawn until dusk, yielded a field report on how this unique family has progressed in the past year — especially Nathan, one of two septuplets who suffer from cerebral palsy. He’s made remarkable strides in the 14 months since he had spinal surgery to help him walk.
Within a half-hour of arrival, little Kenny cut loose, as he has ever since he first snuck out of the house alone at age three. Tonight, he stumbled into a puppet theater. After the show, he revealed a mouthful of news.
Curry: You lost four of your baby teeth? Kenny: These two ones. And I lost two at the bottom. I got money from them.Curry: How much money do you have right now? Kenny: I have 30 cents. Curry: That’s good. That’s a start.
In an exhibit called “Who Are We?” Natalie was fascinated by an “aging machine." Call it maturity, or just a mood. Her goals have changed since we last spoke.
Curry: Are you thinking about not being a doctor at this time? Natalie: I don’t want to be a doctor. Curry: You don’t? Why not? Natalie: I wanna be a mom. Curry: Do you wanna be a mom who has septuplets? Natalie: (shakes head no) Curry: No?!
Bobbi, of course, understands why Natalie does not aspire to be the mother of septuplets.
Bobbi McCaughey, septuplets' mother: Sometimes, it’s the best job in the world. Sometimes, it’s a job I wouldn’t wish on anybody else.
Around the time they’d normally be down for the night, everyone was as wired as the high-tech exhibits.
Though it may seem dizzying, in some ways, Bobbi says, parenting the septuplets is getting easier. The kids are increasingly self-sufficient. Now, each earns a dollar a week for helping with chores such as laundry, meals, and tidying up. But Kelsey says her mom is still always on the go.
Kelsey: I say, ‘Mommy, you better stop working cause your face is getting really red.’ Curry: She’s got a lot to do, doesn’t she? She mows the yard? Kelsey: The whole yard even the backyard. She’s trying to keep our house clean, you know she doesn’t want it really messy.Curry: Kelsey says you work too hard sometimes and your face gets really red.Bobbi: Well, when it’s 90 degrees outside...Curry: And you’re mowing the lawn?Bobbi: Yes, or hanging laundry.Curry: She thinks you shouldn’t work too hard. Bobbi: Well, I’ll have to add a few more chores to her list then! (laughter)
Homeschooling and battle of the sexes
But it is Bobbi’s “to do” list that has gotten longer.
The septuplets’ older sister, 10-year-old Mikayla, decided she preferred being home schooled by her mom, after spending fourth grade in public school. Much as she liked her classmates, Mikayla missed having someone special all to herself.
Mikayla, septuplets older sister: Home schooling this year will get my mom’s attention for me again.Curry: There was a time when it was really hard for you to have so many brothers and sisters.Mikayla: It’s better now that they’re older and they understand more.Her room is still her sanctuary—to the dismay of Brandon, the would-be “army man,” whose mission has long been to infiltrate it.Brandon: Mikayla, my big sister, never lets the boys get to go in her room. She always just lets the girls. Curry: Maybe if you asked her nicely just once.Brandon: I do ask, but she says no all the time.Curry: Hmmm, do the girls ever play with you?Brandon: We like to fight. Curry: You like to fight with the girls?Brandon: Yeah.
Kenny, the kids' father, is more determined ever to keep his children on the straight and narrow. He feels the weight of the eight years since he brought those seven babies home.
Ann Curry, Dateline correspondent: Tired?Kenny McCaughey, father: Oh yeah. But we’re still going strong. We’re still maintaining our heads. Curry: What’s helping you maintain your head?Kenny: A lot of it is just God, who is, and I’ve always said that throughout the beginning—that he was going to be our sustainer and our strength. And he has been that. Curry: What do you pray to God for these days?Kenny: Knowing how to discipline them and train them in the way that is right for them. Teaching them how to respect others and not liabilities in life. We want them to be assets.
A little after 10 p.m., Kenny, who had to be up early for work, hopped on his favorite toy and headed home for a good night’s sleep.
For five years, he has worked on an assembly line at a powder coating factory. Last January, Bobbi got a job there, too. She puts in 3-5 five hours, two days a week, while the kids are at school and Mikayla studies in the break room.
After eight children and 13 years of marriage, they say the time they get together is a nice bonus that comes along with the extra money.
Bobbi: He’s so sweet. He says that the days that I work go much better than the days I don’t work.
Four hours into the party, the kids were fueling on “comets” made out of ice-cream and Oreos, which of course rocketted them to the moon.
For Joel, who wants to be an astronaut, the star-gazing was nothing short of heaven.
Joel: I wish I could be in outer space ‘cause then I would float.Curry: That would be fun.Joel: So would all the food.Curry: The food would float. Joel: I wanna go to the moon and see what its like on there.Curry: What do you think it’s like?Joel: Sand and rocks.Curry: Not cheese?Joel: No.
Between second winds and last calls. Everyone had to get down to the business of bedtime.
Dealing with cerebral palsy
Alexis still needs help changing into pjs. Cerebral palsy has affected her movement, muscle tone, and cognitive development.
But her skills and comprehension keep improving with physical therapy and special education at school, which she loves.
Curry: Why do you like school?Alexis: ‘Cause it’s very fun.Curry: You get help on things like—learning how to read?Alexis: It’s very important.Curry: Why is it important? Alexis: You have to learn very a lot of things. Curry: Do you know how to read?Alexis: Yeah.Curry: You do not.Alexis: Yes I do.Curry: Can you read a whole sentence?Alexis: Yes, I can.Curry: Can you read a whole book?Alexis: Yeah.
As soon as the lights went off, eight high voltage children finally powered down.
For Nathan, who was probably dreaming about his hero Spiderman, it’s been a momentous year.
He has been contending with a form of cerebral palsy that makes his muscles punishingly stiff.
But 14 months ago, he underwent a surgical procedure called “selective dorsal rhizotomy.” More than 60 nerve rootlets in his back were cut to loosen his muscles.
Days after the operation at Gilette Hospital in St. Paul Minnesota, Nathan began six weeks of rigorous rehabilitation to learn how to sit, stand, and walk properly. True to form, he never complained. And he was proud when he returned to school.
His therapist says Nathan was so thrilled to be able to tell his class that he could sit with his legs crossed just like everybody else.
As he continues his regimen of physical therapy, Nathan is now walking longer distances and doing something else he once only wished were possible.
Curry: Your mom said that you ride a tricycle all the time?Nathan: Every single day. Five times a day.
For the sound sleepers at the Science Center, daybreak came much too soon.