By Susan Horsburgh
Updated August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

Mornings in the Hanser household are timed with military precision. The drill sergeant, a.k.a. Mom, rises at 5:55 and makes peanut-butter sandwiches, then hauls the troops—twins, triplets and a toddler—out of bed and into the kitchen for breakfast by 7. Though their maximum age is 6, the kids know the routine, reaching into the pantry to add their choice of juice, fruit and chips to their lunch bags. At 7:25 Jennifer yells, “Take them downstairs!” and her husband, Dolph, scoots everyone out the door, stopping to mediate the daily fight over who gets the middle seat in the family van. “We drive off at 7:40,” says Jennifer, 33, “and I’m eating my breakfast on the way.”

It’s a scene more families are coming to know. The rate of multiple births in the U.S. has skyrocketed since 1980—twins by 74 percent and triplets or more by 404 percent—mostly because of the spread of fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization. The IVF procedure typically costs at least $10,000 each time, so women tend to have two or more embryos transferred to their wombs to boost the odds of pregnancy. The result is often multiples—and when the process is repeated for subsequent births, multiple multiples. “As a mother, you worry about doing enough for one child,” says Dr. Mary Wood Molo, a fertility specialist at Chicago’s Rush Presbyterian Medical Center. “How do you do enough for several children at the same time?”

The Hansers certainly never planned to have six kids under 7. Dolph, now 64, already had two grown sons from his first marriage when he started dating Jennifer, a hostess at his restaurant, in 1989. She, however, had always wanted a family. When Jennifer could not conceive after the couple’s 1995 wedding, doctors blamed Dolph’s low sperm count and prescribed IVF. Fraternal twin girls Hunter and Morgan arrived on July 12,1997. Hoping for a boy, the Chesterfield, Mo., couple gave the procedure another try the following year. Seven embryos resulted, three of them took, and daughters Courtney and Lauren and son Parker were born by cesarean on Sept. 24,1999. The real shock, though, came a year later, when she conceived daughter Peyton, who was born on Sept. 12,2001, naturally. Overwhelmed by the news that her already big family was about to. expand, “I cried for three weeks straight,” Jennifer recalls.

To solve the space problem, the Hansers installed a bunk bed for the twins in the living room of their two- bedroom home. They resolved the childcare issue in 2000 by buying the Countryside Montessori School, where the kids go to class or daycare while Jennifer, who once ran a daycare center, acts as administrator. Dolph works long hours as a property developer, but if he does get home before bedtime, “he’s like a magnet,” Jennifer says. “I get a kick out of them,” says Dolph, who also has five grandchildren.

Maura Tamez, who has two sets of twins, aged 5 and 2, plus a “surprise” 8-month-old, says support from her husband, Eli, is crucial. If he works too late, she summons him home. Once he arrived to find her at the stove cooking dinner with her coat on and her car keys in her hand. “He walked in, and I said, ‘Bye, I’ll see you in a little while,’ ” says Maura, 38. Says her mother, Kathleen Smith, 66: “She tries to be organized, but there’s only so much she can do.”

Things have become even tougher since Eli’s software-consulting company failed two years ago. It took nearly a year to find work as a software salesman at half his former salary, and the Tamezes recently filed for bankruptcy. They lost their house in La Grange, 111., and are now renting a four-bedroom home in nearby Downers Grove. The financial stress, however, doesn’t compare to the ordeal she and Eli went through to have a family. After five rounds of artificial insemination, Maura gave birth to triplets in 1996; one was stillborn, the other two died within 15 minutes. “My heart was ripped out,” she says. They tried again, and daughters Maeve and Mia arrived in 1997. A round of IVF brought Catherine and Gennevive, born in 2000 at 24 weeks—after Maura was in a car accident. The babies each weighed less than 2 lbs. and needed heart surgery. Brother Noah came last December. Now that all the kids are thriving, says Eli, 40, “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The Hansers feel the same way, though they seldom get a breather until 9 p.m., when they tuck in the kids and collapse in front of the TV. “I wouldn’t change anything,” says Jennifer. “If we had a lot of money, I’d even get pregnant again.”

Susan Horsburgh

Giovanna Breu in Chicago and St. Louis