By Alex Prud'Homme
November 09, 1992 12:00 PM

On Jan. 11, 1988, Michele L’Esperance made medical history by giving birth to the nation’s first test-tube quintuplets. Since then, the joyous brood has kept Michele, 39, and her husband Ray, 32, teetering between exhaustion and elation. But change lurks on the horizon: Next year the quints will turn 5 and head off to kindergarten. Michele and Ray are acutely aware that their time spent home alone with the children is dwindling rapidly. Recently PEOPLE visited the L’Esperances at their Davisburg, Mich., home.

ON A SUNNY DAY IN OCTOBER, THE FRONT WINDOW OF THE L’Esperance house is crowded with five beaming faces smeared with chocolate. Within a hall hour, the rambunctious quints—Alexandria, Veronica, Raymond, Danielle and Erica—have fetched freshly laid eggs from the chicken coop out back, captured a salamander and neatly folded their clothes. But moments later hall the eggs are splattered on the kitchen floor, the hapless salamander has to be rescued by an older brother, and much of the clean Laundry has been strewn about the room. Michele shrugs off the chaos. “I’m getting more laid-back,” she says. “In the beginning I found myself saying no all the time, so I decided there must be a better way. Now I don’t sweat the small things. What good does it do to holler?”

Indeed, Kay and Michele seem to be savoring every minute with the quints. Ray, who works an eight-hour graveyard shift as a corrections officer at Macomb country Jail and another eight hours as a toolmaker, gets by on just four hours of sleep a night. “I just do what I have to do to make the bills,” he says groggily. “These kids are my inspiration.” Adds Michele, who is studying for an associate degree in social work at Oakland Community College: “I don’t want to look to the future. These are my last babies, and I’m in no bury for them to grow up. I’m enjoying this stage.

The enjoyment has been hard won. When they married in 1986, the L’Esperances thought they would never have a child together. Michele—who already had two boys, Larry, now 11, and Christopher, 9, from an earlier marriage—had had her diseased fallopian lubes removed. Ray had Brian, 6, who now spends most weekdays with his mother. (A niece, Julia Badalamenti, 9, a ward of the stale, also lives with the L’Esperances.) But when they tried in vitro fertilization, five separate eggs were successfully implanted. The quints’ premature cesarean birth, and their tenuous first weeks of life (PEOPLE, Feb. 15, 1988), made national headlines.

Since then, life has settled down a bit—but not much. At age 2. the quints discovered how to take their diapers off. “We started putting the diapers on backward so they couldn’t reach the tape,” recalls Ray. “Then they undid each others diapers. Then we used duct tape. It got to be such a pain that we decided to try potty training early. It was time to get rid of diapers and the $275 we were spending for them every month.” At age 3, says Michele, “they were sassy and talked back.”

Within the pack, though, each child was developing a unique personality. Michele describes the first-born Alexandria as “my long, lean screaming machine.” She has “the energy of a hornet. If she can aggravate someone, she’s in heaven. On the other hand, she loves to dance.” Adds Ray: “Right now she’s the biggest troublemaker, but she’s also the first one to crawl into my lap when I come home.”

The flirtatious Veronica is “the girl,” says her mom. “Put her in a dress, do her hair, and she’s in her glory,” agrees Ray. “Ronnie is quiet and gentle, she thinks she’s the mom,” says Michele. ‘ “She’ll tell the others, “You should really pick up your toys.’ ” Raymond Jr.’s “the guy,” says Michele. “He likes his trucks and to make mud pies. He’s the first up and the first to go to bed.” Weighing only 26 lbs., he is the smallest of the five and has long been picked on. But recently he has begun to assert himself.

Danielle. the biggest quint, at 35 lbs., is also the most talented artist. “She’s the strongest willed,” says her mother. “She’s somewhat of a bully. She and Alex go head-to-head because they both want to be the leader. She’s still Daddy’s little girl; she knows how to wrap Kay around her little finger.”

Agile Erica is the family gymnast. “I think she’s double-jointed,” says Michele. “She bends in places that don’t seem possible. She runs around boasting about her strength. One day, on a bet, she almost pulled her father off the sofa. She’s also the neatest. She folds her clothes the minute she takes them off. Last year she was a wild child. Now at times she’s almost docile. These kids are always changing.”

Indeed, the quints have grown to he amazingly well adjusted and well behaved. They suffered from weak lungs and respiratory infections when they were babies, but their health has improved, and only Alexandria and Veronica still get sick in the winter. The quints are responsible for cleaning their room and helping with the 50 loads of laundry that pour forth every week. To earn one to 25 pennies, they do chores like tending to the family’s 120 chickens. “I run this place like a boot camp,” says Michele. “It raises their self-esteem.”

Despite the comfortable routine, change is already in the air. Each weekday, Raymond and Erica are bused to a special preprimary program for speech and social skills, while the other three go to a neighbor’s home or a day-care center. When the school bus comes for Raymond and Erica, all of the quints troop out. But one day recently, Alexandria ran back into the house in tears. “They’ve been together so much, they have a hard time when they are separated,” says Michele. “They genuinely miss each other.”

For a moment, Michele herself looks melancholy. “The hardest part for me is meeting their individual needs,” she sighs. “There is just not enough time, not enough of me.” And there is not always enough money, either. “Like any father, I want to provide for them,” says Ray, who’s in charge of shopping and reads five supermarket circulars a week. “When I buy shoes, I usually don’t spend more than $9.99 a pair, but that’s $50 for five. It’s hard, especially at Christmas, knowing that their birthday is only a few weeks later. And just when you think you have a chance to get caught up with the bills, an [automobile] engine will blow.”

Despite the strain of caring for quintuplets, the L’Esperances are enthusiastic about in vitro fertilization. “I’d advise anyone to go for it,” says Ray. “Just be aware of the risks. Unless you’ve lived through this, you’ll never know the difficulties—and the joy—of having five at a time. I have their photos on my tool box. When I look at the pictures of those kids, I realize that they are the reason I’m here.”