By Maureen Harrington
December 22, 2008 12:00 PM

On the evening Martha Padgett gave birth to twins, her partner Karen Wesolowski stroked her hair, cradled the newborn babies and raced home to finish work on a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed nursery.

The next day, as would be expected, Karen was back at the hospital. Only this time she was giving birth. Eight months earlier both women had been implanted with embryos conceived artificially, using Martha’s eggs and sperm from an anonymous donor. By 9 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2007, the Riverside, Calif., couple found themselves the ecstatic (if overwhelmed) parents of quadruplets, whose unusual creation has made them a curiosity even among reproductive-medicine experts. “This is something I’ve never seen before,” says Richard Paulson of the University of Southern California Medical Center. (The family is the subject of Discovery Health Channel’s Quads with Two Moms, airing Dec. 24.) “It’s exhausting,” says Martha, 39, a nurse with an easygoing manner. “But we wouldn’t change it for the world.” Laughs Karen, 43, a physical therapist: “We were trying for one baby!”

But that effort wasn’t going well. Martha—a divorced mom of an 11-year-old daughter—and Karen had been together four years when they decided to try for a baby in 2005. Wanting to share motherhood, they decided Karen would donate the eggs, but that the fertilized embryo would be implanted in Martha. But Karen’s embryos proved not to be viable. They went back to the drawing board, this time having the doctor implant Martha with embryos conceived with donor eggs and sperm; despite an initial positive test, the pregnancy didn’t take. Says Martha: “We were devastated.”

They were also draining the $30,000 they’d stashed away for the effort, but vowed to give it one last shot. “Karen wanted to carry a child from my egg, to feel bonded,” Martha says. “Why not have embryos transferred to both of us?” Given that each implanted embryo had an approximately 30 percent chance of taking, transferring two into each woman would increase their chances fourfold. Says Dr. Alonso Ojeda, Karen’s doctor: “They hedged their bets.”

The strategy paid off—in spades. Ten days after the procedure, a blood test showed both women were pregnant—and had hormone levels indicating each might be carrying twins. Sonograms confirmed the news. “We just laughed,” says Martha. “It was too much to hope for.” Both pregnancies went smoothly, with both women poring over maternity books. Jokes Martha: “We should have been reading about what to do after you have the babies!”

On Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. Martha—who was four weeks early—gave birth by C-section to Alex and Sofia, both healthy and over 6 lbs. “Two down!” Karen recalls thinking. She wasn’t due for another month, but when her blood pressure shot up, she had her own C-section 22 hours later to deliver Andrew and Sienna. Andrew had complications and was kept in the intensive-care unit for two weeks, but was then given the go-ahead to join his brother and sisters. “When we got everyone home,” Martha says, tearing up, “we finally felt like a family.”

Make that a tired family. For the first year the two took turns sleeping on an air mattress next to side-by-side cribs, where they’d nurse whoever was hungry—and watch in dismay as one baby would fall asleep, only to see another awaken. “We’d fight a lot,” Martha recalls.

They’ve coordinated work schedules so Martha is home during the day and Karen is with the babies at night. They go through 24 diapers and 16 bottles a day, and have run through three nannies. “It’s not that [the babies are] hard,” Martha says. “There’s just a lot of them.” Martha’s daughter Julia also helps out. “They’re fun,” she says of her new sibling quartet. “My lips are wearing out from kissing them.”

It’s gotten better. Now that the babies are sleeping through the night and starting to walk, the two moms have even had a couple of moments to enjoy them. Each has a different personality—Alex is the ringleader, Sienna the diva—and when they’re all asleep “they look like little angels,” Karen says. “We think we’re the luckiest people.”