McCaughey septuplets tackle toddlerhood

Their story held us spellbound even before they were born — the McCaughey septuplets — seven babies and the family that’s gone through so much to bring them into the world. Since the anxious preparations for their very special delivery, “Dateline NBC” has been given the extraordinary opportunity to follow their development and bring exclusive video to you. Now the three girls and four boys are toddlers. If you think it can be a challenge with one little one, just wait till you see what life is like with seven. Ann Curry reports in a “Dateline” exclusive.

They are all eyes and ears, with hands rarely empty, and feet barely still. On the brink of their third year of life, the McCaughey septuplets — Kenny, Alexis, Natalie, Kelsey, Nathan, Brandon and Joel — are like popcorn kernels on a high flame bursting with curiosity.

In the past year, these children have taken bites out of so many new things in life. They are learning to express themselves, to assert their independence. And when they’re not buckled in, each one is moving at an ever-quickening pace.

And so are their parents, big sister and newly-adopted stray cat. It is the funny things and the sweet moments, the signs of learning and the rise to new challenges that Bobbi and Kenny say have allowed them to survive the “terrible twos” with seven toddlers.

“There are moments of reprieve where you actually remember why you started doing this in the first place,” says Bobbi. “And that yes, I really did want to be a mother. And I really do like my job.”

How does Kenny describe the twos? “The trying twos,” he says. “They were very trying. They tried our patience. They tried our emotions. They tried our wits. And they tried our humor, even.”

What is the thing that was the worst about the twos? “Screaming,” says Kenny. “Screaming for this. Screaming for that. Screaming because you’re mad. Screaming because you want something.”

With such lung power, this year the septuplets have pushed their parents to the breaking point.

While busy taking care of everyone, Bobbi manages to stay calm — even relaxed. But in her reflective moments, all the stress that she and Kenny are under, rises to the surface.

“Literally there have been times during the past year when Kenny and I have been both just brought to our knees,” says Bobbi. “And have just sobbed ‘Please Lord give us the wisdom that we need to teach these children.’”

It is wisdom that must come through experience. There is no manual for raising septuplets — a job complicated by some of the children’s medical needs. The McCaugheys, who live in Carlisle, Iowa, are the first parents in the world to face such a challenge — or blessing, as they still call it — no matter how tough it gets. But Bobbi, who almost always has a child at her hip, admits, she occasionally watches the clock for relief.

“Sometimes the focus of the day is 12:30 and seven o’clock — naptime and bedtime,” says Bobbi.

As in the past, a strict schedule helps to keep everyone’s batteries charged. The septuplets’ routine hasn’t changed much since last year, but it needed clever reinforcement when the kids started climbing out of their cribs.

The three girls share a bedroom. The four boys are divided two-to-a-room. As a rule, the children sleep — or play around — in their cribs from seven at night until eight in the morning, then nap for three to four hours in the afternoon. That leaves eight hours a day for eating and escapades, for playing nice or not so nice.

Because they are multiples, born nearly 10 weeks early, the septuplets are not yet as mature as other kids their age. Each one is reaching milestones on his or her own timetable. Some are more agile. Others are more verbal. But all have learned how to make trouble. Parts of the house have been off-limits, ever since Brandon tried to swing on the dining room chandelier. That hasn’t stopped him from being a daredevil.

“They can be sneaky sometimes,” says Bobbi. “They are not perfect, but they mind pretty well.”

The loud demands of seven two-year-olds could easily drown out everything else. But Bobbi and Kenny work hard to stay tuned into their eldest daughter, Mikayla. They recognize she needs quiet time and special attention.

“Mikayla gets to do much more with Kenny and I on an individual basis than the rest of the kids do,” says Bobbi. “There’s things she’s able to do by herself part of the privileges of being older.”

Mikayla, now almost five, says sometimes she would like her brothers and sisters to be the same age she is. “I wish I was one and they were one, and I was two and they were two,” she says. “I was three, and they were three and I was four, and they were four.”

As it is, Mikayla has her favorites. “I only like to take care of my sisters,” says Mikayla. “Not my brothers.”

Why? “Because they keep — all of them keep pulling my hair,” she says.

Recently Mikayla has been offering to feed her sisters — who are overcoming eating problems — through the tubes in their stomachs.

“That makes her feel like she’s helping,” says Bobbi. “I wouldn’t let her do it every day because I don’t want her to feel like it’s her responsibility to do that all the time.”

As if Bobbi didn’t have enough to do, this fall she started home schooling Mikayla while the other kids sleep. Bobbi intends to do this with the septuplets, too. She says, giving herself a break is not as important as shaping her children’s education.

All this high-octane parenting comes with financial pressure, as well. It’s a burden that has been eased by gifts as large as their custom-built house. There is no mortgage, but they do pay property taxes and utility bills. Thanks to corporate donations, there’s an unlimited supply of cereal and juice. The children also receive $1,000 worth of free clothing and shoes every year until their fifth birthday.

The potty isn’t yet used by everyone for its real purpose. Until they all catch on, the more than 150 diapers they use each week, are free.

But the most remarkable assistance is still coming from the community. Ever since the septuplets came home from the hospital in early 1998, people eager to help have donated nearly 70,000 hours of their time.

Can they believe people are still willing? “It’s kind of awesome to think about you know, that there has been that kind of dedication,” says Bobbi. “Not only on their daily schedule, but if Kenny and I have to both of us be out of town for a speaking engagement, we have a whole list of people who love to have one or two of the kids for the weekend.”

But even though the job of parenting septuplets is increasingly demanding, the McCaugheys are determined to be self-sufficient. They keep cutting the caregivers’ schedule. At this point, the volunteers come solo — six mornings, one afternoon and on Friday nights each week.

From time to time, Bobbi gets out of the house to make special appearances, as she did last month in Des Moines for a religious organization called Women of Faith that drew 11,000 people.

But it is Kenny who earns a living as a national public speaker. He shares his family’s story with church and community groups. With 18 speeches in the last three months, he has been on the road more than usual. When he quit his 9 to 5 job at a car dealership, nearly two years ago, Bobbi wasn’t sure how she’d adjust to having her husband at home.

Now she knows.

“When he went to Alaska, he was gone for six days and several of those days I was by myself all day,” says Bobbi. “You have to stop and think and say ‘Thank you God that he is home with me most days.’”

Even though the house is full, there’s an emptiness when he’s not there. And the children, says Bobbi, do not like it either. It’s evident by how they welcomed their father when he returned from a two-day trip.

What is it like to have seven little kids and an older daughter come running at you, glad you’re home? “It made every little stress and thing like that ... when I was doing speeches ... totally gone,” says Kenny. “Instantly a good prideful feeling that wow, how blessed I am. I get to come home to this.”

Married now for almost eight years, Kenny and Bobbi are, in many ways, a traditional husband and wife. But they are redefining those roles.

One of the dynamics that happens in most American families is that when there is a child, a woman feels she needs to be completely responsible and the man feels like he’s helping. How does that work for them?

“The way I view it is 100 percent responsibility on both sides,” says Kenny.

Bobbi says, “There’s been times where I’ve gone storming around the house looking for Kenny. ‘What is he doing? Doesn’t he know there are children up here who need this and that and that, where is he?’ And he’s doing something that is equally as important. I think we have both learned this year to work better together.”

But even a strong marriage, huge financial aid and community support are not enough. Bobbi and Kenny have realized this year more than ever that the responsibility of raising septuplets would crush them, were it not for their faith.

“In and of our own powers, even Bobbi and I, as weak as the flesh is, couldn’t, you know, possibly do this,” says Kenny.

Bobbi says, “We have to have a source that we can go to and just say God, we cannot do this.”

How does God answer? Bobbi says, “It’s like we see changes from the kids. And it’s, you know, it almost sounds supernatural. It’s not really, it’s a direct response from God in answer to what we asked him to do.”

The McCaughey septuplets are now discovering the world beyond their backyard. In September, the children went wild at the Blank Park Zoo, in Des Moines, Iowa. On this adventure, their dad was out of town, but zookeepers were on hand for show-and-tell. They made sure no one went swimming with the fishes or strayed too far from the group. Luckily, only little Kenny’s sneaker was lost then found. And who knew the most fierce creature would be the bee that stung poor little Kelsey? Not even that could spoil her fun. By the time the safari was over, everyone was wiped out, but Bobbi was pleased at how the kids had held up.

“They actually did very well and we were out there for about three hours,” says Bobbi.

In fact, now that the septuplets are older, the McCaugheys are going on more family outings.

“Logistically, it’s a little bit easier to get out with them now,” says Bobbi. “And we still usually take at least one other couple with us when we go, just to keep an eye on things.”

So on a Thursday afternoon in June, with the help of Kenny’s dad and stepmom, the McCaugheys packed the 15-passenger van given to them when the septuplets were born. The journey began light-heartedly. But it would turn into a frightening ordeal.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, the family set off on a 13-hour trek to a small Amish community 700 miles away. They had been invited to make a few public appearances there. “Dateline” tagged along.

That weekend in Berlin, Ohio, dozens of admirers lined up for autographs. Later, a crowd of 1,500 people gathered in a school auditorium to meet the family that had made history.

Kenny began, as he always does, with the story of Bobbi’s incredible pregnancy and the septuplets’ birth. He then went on to tell the audience about a chilling event. It had just happened in a small Ohio town on the family’s overnight drive. It was a moment that was unknowingly captured by Kenny’s dad as he videotaped inside the van.

“It was just a little bit before morning,” says Kenny. “It was slightly light out when I happened to look back into the rear mirror and saw my son Joel just staring up at the ceiling with this really glossy look over his eyes. And that’s when I told Bobbi, ‘Would you go back and see what’s going on with Joel?’ And she immediately screamed out ‘Kenny he’s cold! We’ve got to, we’ve got to stop!’ And I said ‘Oh no Lord, what’s going on here?’ And so immediately we stopped. At that moment, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t do it. We just didn’t know what was going on. It was such a fury, such a panic.”

After a frantic call to 911, a police car arrived. Kenny said, “He’s breathing but we need to get him to a hospital as soon as possible.”

The policeman couldn’t take them, but an ambulance came within minutes. Joel was whisked to a local emergency room and then transported to a children’s hospital about an hour away. He’d had a seizure. It might have been caused by a fever, Kenny explained. The doctors couldn’t find signs of anything more serious.

“But it’s just for that first moment there when we had first saw him, he had looked like he had died,” says Kenny. “I just don’t know what I would have done if he was dead.”

By the time the septuplets made their entrance that evening, Joel seemed fine.

In his speech to the group that night, Kenny said, “This is the one. It was 24 hours ago that he had us really scared. But we knew that God was in control and has brought him here tonight.”

Joel had scared his parents once before. He was the baby who was born last and needed an emergency blood transfusion. Since then he has thrived. Now pushing 30 pounds, he’s the team heavyweight — all the more reason the McCaugheys were stunned by the seizure.

“And our first thoughts were that God had taken him from us,” says Kenny. “And it was a horrifying feeling. And they did the tests on him and come to find out they don’t know what caused it. But the big relief was that he was alive. He was OK and there was no brain damage.”

But then in September, Joel had a second seizure at home. He was rushed to the hospital where he was examined by neurologists again. They found nothing abnormal, says Dr. Peter Hetherington, the McCaugheys’ pediatrician. During a recent housecall to see all the kids, he explained what Joel had been tested for.

“You check for abnormalities in the brain as far as the structure of the brain, like a tumor or extra fluid or what’s called hydrocephalus,” says Dr. Hetherington. “And none of those things showed up.”

Given that, Dr. Hetherington says Joel could outgrow these episodes. For now, he is on anti-seizure medication.

The McCaugheys have been dealing with other medical challenges since their babies were delivered more than two months premature. Since they were released from intensive care, Kelsey and Brandon have been consistently healthy.

So has Kenny, nicknamed Hercules in the womb because everyone rested on his shoulders. He and Joel have both had minor eye surgery.

Natalie, who has been one of the more delicate children, is now eating so much, she is down to one tube feeding a day.

Alexis is taking more bites, too, but not enough yet to sustain her. There is some early concern about her cognitive ability because her verbal skills are lagging. But on another front, Alexis has made a dramatic leap forward.

“At first there was hardly any determination,” says Kenny. “The determination is starting to really come out now.”

Alexis has a disorder that causes weakness in her torso, arms and legs with the exception of her calf muscles. They’ve become too tight, as she’s grown older.

Last year, Alexis was just learning how to sit up. And now?

“Just recently we’ve caught her in the walker trying to walk by herself,” says Kenny.

This was the first time Kenny had seen Alexis grab the walker on her own initiative.

When they saw that, what went through them? “Just praise the Lord,” says Kenny. “That’s the first thing I said.”

Bobbi says, “She has gotten to the point now where she doesn’t want you to do everything for her. We cannot carry her up the stairs at night to put her to bed. She wants to go up the stairs herself.”

And so does Nathan, who has a condition that makes his legs extremely stiff. He’s so determined to be independent that he makes his way to his bedroom on his own, even when his walker isn’t in reach. When it is, he zips around with increasing skill.

“He’s figuring out things and how to make his life and all a bit better,” says Kenny. “And he walks clear out to the dollhouse, gets out of his walker, goes in the dollhouse, pulls himself up to the little toy kitchenette there and acts like he’s cooking too.”

Developmentally, he seems to be embracing imaginative play. “Yes,” says Bobbi. “Mentally, he’s not behind at all. It’s just with the gross motor skills. His fine motor skills are very, very good.”

Physical therapists work with Nathan and Alexis at home two times a week. The children both wear ankle-to-knee splints for support. This year, they were given Botox injections to relax their tight muscles. It’s not a permanent fix. The shots must be repeated, but in Nathan’s case especially, the treatment has helped.

Dr. Jill Meilahn, a specialist in pediatric rehabilitation, is the children’s doctor. She says Nathan, though he is reluctant, is now able to take the next step.

“A lot of kids won’t initially want to give up their walker because they go so fast and get so good with the walker,” says Dr. Meilahn. “But once they’ve gotten a hang of the crutches, they can get a lot more places a lot faster.”

For Bobbi and Kenny, this has been a time of coming to terms with something that, at first, was difficult to accept.

“No parent ever wants to hear that their child may have some kind of disability that will stay with them for their whole life,” says Bobbi. “For some reason that we may not know for years to come, this is God’s plan for Nathan and Alexis.”

Maybe, says Kenny, they are meant to be an inspiration. “Sometimes with physical limitations you can be more of a testimony and more of an example to others,” says Kenny.

With the septuplets’ third birthday just around the corner, the McCaugheys are looking forward, as always, with hope. They recently bought a family camper in anticipation of good times ahead, though they expect to have their hands full for some time to come.

“They’re preemies,” says Kenny. “It may take a lot longer to get out of the twos than most people.”

Bobbi says, “We’re hoping that some time before they’re 18, this, too, shall pass.”

Donations continue to be accepted for the “McCaughey Family Multiple Birth Project,” a non-profit charity that the McCaugheys set up to help other families with multiples. So far, 31 families in 18 states have received financial assistance.