By Christina Cheakalos
November 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Question: Who picks safety locks, scales fences, scrambles down staircases and sneaks out of the house? Answer: The McCaughey Seven of Carlisle, Iowa, the world’s first septuplets, who—despite doctors’ initial fears for their survival—turn 5 on Nov. 19. Their parents, Bobbi and Kenny, attribute their own endurance to love, discipline and a sense of perspective. “It’s not like they’re monsters,” says Bobbi, 34. “It’s crowd control.”

And a diverse bunch it is: Firstborn Kenny Jr. is headstrong, Alexis is a cuddler, Natalie is sensitive, Kelsey is maternal, Nathan is the charmer, Brandon is a loner, and Joel is mischievous. “Thankfully,” says Bobbi, “they all get along and are learning to share.” Dad has a different take. “It isn’t a cakewalk,” admits Kenny, 32. “The screaming and fighting gets to me.”

It could be a lot worse. And by all accounts—Kenny’s included—the credit for making it work goes to Bobbi. “She’s very calm and has great instincts,” says Dr. Pete Hetherington, the septuplets’ pediatrician. “In addition to caring for her kids, Bobbi has sewn two dresses for my daughter. She’s almost like something from the ’50s.” For the shy former seamstress, child rearing en masse is easy compared to sharing her life with a curious public. “People want to know everything,” she says, “from potty training to our schedules.”

Certainly the nation was transfixed on Nov. 19, 1997, when in a mere six minutes Bobbi gave birth to the septs, 9½ weeks prematurely, by cesarean section. Though she had taken the fertility drug Metrodin—it had helped her conceive the couple’s first child, Mikayla, nearly 7—she and Kenny were shocked when an ultrasound showed seven fetuses. The likelihood of bringing them all to term was nil, doctors thought, and even if she did, the children would surely have profound medical problems.

Two of them do: In 2000 Alexis and Nathan were diagnosed with cerebral palsy, common in premature and multiple births. They may never walk unaided, but they’re getting stronger thanks to medication and physical therapy. “Both use walkers and have overachieved the goals we set,” says Hetherington. “The other five kids are hitting their development milestones on time.”

As for making it all work, the parents rule by executive fiat: The kids wake at 7:30 a.m., take afternoon naps and get tucked in by 7 p.m. When negotiations fail, spanking can occur. Kenny does the shopping bimonthly—never name-brand, always in bulk: seven dozen eggs, for example, seven gallons of milk and half a cow from a friend who raises Black Anguses. Menus are nonnegotiable. “I’m not a short-order cook,” says Bobbi. She dresses the girls and boys identically, in outfits donated by a local outlet. Chief among the trove of gifts bestowed upon the family by well-wishers was a new, fully decorated home with seven bedrooms and five bathrooms (“We can take baths together in the big tub upstairs,” says Kenny Jr.). Nonetheless, after two years as a motivational speaker Kenny needed a steady paycheck (health insurance alone costs $750 monthly) and now works on a metal-parts production line.

Come first grade, the McCaugheys plan to homeschool their kids. For now they attend preschool for some non-sib socialization. The parents hope that experience will break their children of a certain mob mentality—such as the when-one-cries-they-all-join-in chorus. “It’s wild around here,” says Mikayla, who helps keep order. Quieter moments are cherished. “When they’re all playing nicely on the swings,” says Bobbi, “Kenny and I sit back and say, ‘Yep, this is what it’s all about.’ ”

Christina Cheakalos

Joanne Fowler in Carlisle