Bundles Of. . .Joy?

MANY PARENTS, LIKE THE MCCAUGHEYS, regard their children as gifts from God, which is very good for the children. The implied corollary--God wants you to get out of bed and warm up that bottle--is one reason most babies make it past infancy. Even though she hadn't had any children yet, Brooke Zacher of Florida, 31, understood perfectly well that a gift from God comes with strings attached, which is why she remembers crying for three days after being told last spring she was pregnant with triplets. That's about all she remembers of 1997, in fact, having gone almost without sleep since she brought Tyler, Jacob and Grant home in June. She thinks the McCaugheys may have been carried away with the thrill of having septuplets. Or, more bluntly, ""I think that woman in Iowa is totally nuts. And if she's not nuts now, she will be.''

It may be, as Zacher suggests, impossible for two parents to look after three or more infants without losing their minds. Of course, wise parents know this is equally true of just one infant. But a mother's most consoling thought--she's got to fall sleep eventually, doesn't she?--is cold comfort for those whose multiple babies can stay awake all night in shifts. Normal life goes out the window. Marital sex is a subject of hilarity among a group of mothers of triplets and quads from the Portland, Ore., area. Cathy Patocka, 36, reminds her friends that their obstetricians warned them to avoid it during the weeks of bed rest that precede a multiple birth. ""We haven't told our husbands yet they can have it,'' she chortles. The women's babies are 4 years old.

Yet never underestimate the resilience of America's parents. Support groups have sprung up to help parents of what are sometimes called supertwins--multiple births of three or more. They are still a tiny fraction of all births, but a growing one: there were 365 quadruplets born in the United States in 1995 (individual babies, counting only live births) and 57 quintuplets and higher. Their outnumbered parents are learning to compensate with superior organization and guile. In raising their quintuplets, Patty and Scot Shier of Los Angeles adhere to a Bible-inspired program called Growing Kids God's Way, which emphasizes the need for structure imposed from above; God's way, fortuitously, is for the toddlers to sleep 12 hours a night, with a three-hour nap in the afternoon. Scott Lederhaus, a neurosurgeon, rigged up an automatic feeding device for his four infants, consisting of bottles suspended by Velcro above crates, enabling them to be fed and burped in a mere 45 minutes. To the problem of keeping track of feedings and changings once the children start moving around, there are, broadly, two approaches. One, adopted by Ann Parks of Brockton, Mass., calls for color-coded cups and bottles, keyed to each child's wardrobe, so she can tell at a glance which of her quadruplets has eaten and which has just spilled her juice all over her jumper. The other approach, adopted by Gina Kent of Chattanooga, Tenn., was to change and feed all three of her girls whenever any one of them needed it. ""It was too hard to try to figure out who we had just [done],'' Gina explains. On the same principle, she asked that all three go into the same first-grade class; that way, ""I don't deal with three sets of homework at night,'' she says.

Triplets are an order of magnitude harder to raise than twins; another critical mass is reached at five, being one more than the number of hands belonging to two parents. That's the experience of Debbie Knox, of Dallas, who raised the locally famous 22-year-old Davis quintuplets, Chanda, Charla, Christa, Chelsa and Casey. ""When we opened the car door and everybody jumped out, there was always one we couldn't grab.'' The synergy among quadruplets seems to lead to a particularly sneaky brand of mischief. ""It was four against two,'' recalls Lederhaus's wife, Janet, of the toddlerhood of her three boys and a girl, now 14. The children pulled all the wallpaper off their walls, took the legs off their beds, opened the mattresses and pulled out the stuffing. Eventually they slept on the bedroom floor with blankets and pillows. Parks believes that her four 2-year-olds are actually conspiring against her. ""Courtaney loves to cry, so she'll come in and cry and sit in my lap,'' Parks says. ""At the same time, the other three will go downstairs and flood my bathroom. I'll be sitting here comforting her, and then I hear water running and my bathroom's flooded. It's happened at least a dozen times.''

Hiring nannies is rarely a solution for these mothers; they'd need a whole village full. Diapers, even if they come free courtesy of the local TV station, still have to be changed, at the rate of six or more per baby per day. The neighbors who pitch in to wash bottles won't be around 10 years later when four children have soccer games in different places at half-hour intervals. Multiple births illustrate what might be called a diseconomy of scale. Cribs, clothes and toys have to be bought in sets instead of handed down from child to child. A three-seat stroller, even bought at a discount through the support group The Triplet Connection, costs around $500.

The McCaugheys seem uniquely blessed with relatives, neighbors, politicians and businesses eager to play a role in their grand event. But not every family is as lucky. As multiple births become less rare, the presumption that the parents are automatically entitled to a free lifetime supply of Pampers is beginning to erode. ""There was a rumor that Oprah Winfrey was going to buy us a house,'' says Norm Haner, whose sextuplets were born almost two years ago. ""People don't have the vaguest idea what really goes on.'' Haner, a corrections officer in upstate New York, has been fixing up an old six-bedroom Victorian house, while the toddlers sleep in kennel-like compartments in what had been the dining room of their two-bedroom home. ""We've lost all our credit cards. We fight about money all the time,'' says Dawn Salina, a Burlington, Mass., nurse and mother of triplets. ""We taped a whole week's worth of Nickelodeon so we'll have it if we can't afford cable anymore.''

Even more poignant is the fate of the Quesada quints of West Lake, Calif. They were born on Feb. 9, 1995, and whisked away to incubators; the first their mother, Marcella, saw of them was on the TV news that afternoon. Strollers, baby food, diapers and clothes were lavished on Marcella, a restaurant manager, and her husband, Raymon, a truckdriver. Both are 28, and were born abroad (in Argentina and Mexico, respectively) but are in the United States legally. The babies were signed by a talent agent and appeared on ""ER'' and ""Picket Fences.'' But then, a year later, misfortune struck in the form of competing Los Angeles-area quints, born to the articulate and distinctly Anglo Shier family, who became regulars on a cable-TV show about families. The gifts to the Quesadas dried up--although in compensation, so did the sneering comments from strangers who'd assumed, wrongly, that Marcella was an illegal alien on welfare. ""I'd get comments like "You're so lucky; you get all this support from the government now and you don't have to work','' she says. Anyone who envies her, she says, should try holding down a full-time job while raising five children. But, she adds, ""I'm really happy about my kids and I love them a lot.'' The proof is that she's pregnant again--unplanned and expecting to have the baby this month.

Marriages can be at risk when exhaustion is compounded by impoverishment. Peter Heyl, a maternal-fetal specialist at Eastern Virginia Medical School, says that ""one of the risk factors for divorce is multiple-gestation birth.'' Patricia Malmstrom of Twin Services, a California-based support group, says studies have shown that multiples are more likely--anywhere from 2.5 to nine times--than singleton children to be abused by their parents.

Striking a balance between fairness and meeting each child's individual needs can be harder than with children born sequentially, who go through the stages of development at different times. ""You love them all the same,'' says Tony Pritchett, 31, a Tennessee shipyard worker and the father of 7-year-olds Dylan, Logan and Cody. ""If you kiss him, you might as well go down the line.'' But parents can't really function as automatons. ""Whoever's fussing the loudest gets picked up,'' says Denise Ingoldsby, 29, of her 8-month-old quints. When more than one child is crying, ""you'll pick up the one that looks the most distressed,'' says Lyman Wynne, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester. ""It's impossible to treat them equally and wouldn't necessarily be a good idea if you could--but as a parent, you'll feel constantly torn.''

On the other hand, Wynne has seen families in which the parents arbitrarily designated the firstborn as the leader, even if he preceded his siblings by only a few minutes. All children develop strategies to win affection and attention from their parents, but with numerous siblings of the same age, that competition takes on a sharper edge, says Ricardo Ainslie of the University of Texas at Austin, an authority on multiple births. Some children might grow into emotionally needy, attention-craving adults; others might shy away from the fray and turn inward. ""Their sense of the world will always be [colored by] the feeling that they're one of a litter . . . that who they are is inextricably connected to all their siblings.''

And that can be a wonderful thing, as well as a burden. ""I've got two brothers the same age as I am, and they're my best friends and they're always around,'' says Jonathan Bleyl, 14. But he adds that he's happy the honor of gestating the first septuplets went to another family.

Casey Davis, 22, the only boy among the quints raised by Debbie Knox, looks back on a happy childhood filled with raucous birthday parties at TV studios and reunions at the hospital where they were born. ""There were always news photographers'' at his birthdays, he remembers. ""I remember them always trying to position us in a certain way. But somebody was inevitably crying or in a bad mood.'' On the night of their high-school prom, his mother took pictures for three straight hours as the various dates came and went. He carries with him to this day a certain serenity when faced with a waiting line, hard-won by experience at his early meals, when his mother would line up five highchairs, seat herself on a desk chair and roll down the row, spooning food into the mouths in sequence.

Knox, for her part, remembers the custom-made five-across stroller that used to lose a wheel every time it turned a corner, and the check that once came in the mail from a stranger with a note that said, ""Surely it's time for new tires.'' She remembers the relief she felt when the children went off to kindergarten, and the sudden, crushing emptiness when they all went their separate ways after high school. Now she's a grandmother, at 42, and as she watches her daughters with their babies she wishes she'd been able to spend more time with her own children, one at a time. ""It must be nice,'' she muses, ""to put just one baby in the seat of a grocery cart.''