June 3, 2009 -- Forgive the casual observers who, after putting down a supermarket tabloid, come away with the impression that every parent of multiple-birth children in America has a television show, a publicist, a marketing deal and a plastic surgeon.
The circus of attention surrounding John and Kate Gosselin and "Octomom" Nadya Suleman might be seen, understandably, as the natural conclusion of America's obsession with multiple births, but the vast majority of parents have a very different experience.
Parents of multiples who expected to raise just one child have to change the basics of their lifestyles and find themselves facing unanticipated financial hurdles, not just paying for hundreds of diapers and dozens of gallons of milk a week, but also buying bigger cars, larger homes and finding the money for clothes, school and activities.
In some communities, news of quadruplets, quintuplets or more babies is enough to spur locals to pitch in, generating donated diapers, food and other freebies, including volunteer labor.
But when the excitement fades, the local television trucks pack up and the novelty of five children crying in unison becomes the monotony of five children crying in unison, many families are left on their own, without any outside support.
It didn't take long for the excitement to fade around Jayson and Rachelle Wilkinson's quintuplets.
When the five babies were born in July 2007, the couple received free diapers from a local supermarket, baby-food vouchers from Gerber and more than 100 volunteers from their Austin, Texas, church lining up in their living room to help with feeding and changing the babies.
"We got a lot of help in the beginning," Rachelle Wilkinson, 32, said. "Randall's supermarket gave us $250 worth of diapers, which we went through really fast. We got lots of gifts, people would give us their kids' old baby clothes or just randomly drop packages of diapers on our doorstep.
"For a year," she said, "every time the local news needed a story, they would show up. They did a piece on Halloween and the anchors worked a shift helping to take care of the babies. But we don't get those calls anymore."
Multiples Often Come Up Short
Raising multiples creates a challenge distinct from raising a large family of different aged children, Wilkinson said.
"When you have them one at a time, you can buy one of everything, one stroller, one high-chair, one crib and use them over and over again. I can't get by with one high-chair, I need five."
Wilkinson said she spends $50 a week on diapers and $60 a week on milk, the family, which includes two older children, goes through a gallon a day.
The 120 volunteers working three at a time in three-hour shifts have been reduced to one helper, an "adoptive grandmother" who the family knows from church.
Wilkinson returned last semester to teaching nights at a local community college to help make ends meet. Her husband, a manager at technology company National Instruments, had to take a 5 percent cut in pay recently.
"It is getting more expensive as the kids gets older," she said. "They're eating more. For a while, we had baby food and formula donated, but they've outgrown that. They're eating real food. We used to get baby clothes. But now I have to buy everything. I'm buying clothes all the time."
Wilkinson said it was doubtful she would send her kids to a paid preschool, or be able to afford the activities -- swim lessons, soccer, and dance lessons – for the quintuplets that she covers for her older children, ages 6 and 9.
By contrast, John and Kate Gosselin, stars of the TLC reality show "John and Kate Plus Eight," are reported to earn $50,000 each per episode and have a small army of people helping them herd their sextuplets and twins.
The Gosselins, once paragons of parental virtue, have come under fire in recent weeks for a rumored extramarital relationship and are being investigated by Pennsylvania state authorities for violating child-labor laws.
Not to be outdone, Nadya Suleman, the so-called "Octomom" who, in January, was the first woman to deliver eight viable babies, and quickly went from being hailed as a medical marvel to vilified, has reportedly inked a deal for her own reality show. Suleman has already trademarked her nickname "Octomom" to brand a line of baby clothes and has an exclusive deal with Radar Online, a Web site owned by the National Enquirer.
A Rise in Multiple Births
TLC is also producing "Table for 12," about Betty and Eric Hayes of New Jersey, who have 10 children -- a set of sextuplets and two sets of twins.
"Most parents never get a free pack of diapers, let alone a reality show," said Maureen Doolan Boyle, executive director of Mothers of Super Twins, a support and advocacy organization for parents of multiples.
"The vast majority of families do not receive a whole load of celebrity or much help. In the 1970s, triplets would generally make the newspapers. By the 1990s, triplets were not that unusual," she said.
"It is difficult for families of multiples when the limelight fades and they realize they cannot just trust on the kindness of other people."
One of the earliest cases of multiple-baby fever hit the United States in 1997 when Bobbi and Kenneth McCaughey became the parents of the country's first surviving septuplets. The reported list of gifts and donations was seemingly endless, a new car, free clothes, free food, free portraits of the children, free diapers for life, a new van. Even the governor of Iowa made good on his promise to get the family of 10 -- the McCaughey's already had a daughter -- into a brand-new house, built just for them.
On the other hand, one South Carolina woman was arrested in November 2008 when authorities discovered that she had received thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a community convinced she had quintuplets, which never existed.
The rise in multiples is directly attributed to fertility treatments that became widely available in the early 1990s.
The Centers for Disease Control did not record births for quadruplets, quintuplets or more babies from 1980 to 1988. In 1988, there were 229 quads and 40 quints born in the United States but, in 2006, those numbers had jumped to 355 and 67, respectively.
Many families spent their savings just to become pregnant, Boyle said, and the expense of having multiple children can be financially crippling.
"In reality, multiples create a huge lifestyle change and financial burden for families," she said. "If you have one baby, you might return to work and put the baby in day care. Three or more kids and it becomes too expensive for most families. By the time the kids get to college, families are often in debt. The average student graduates with $60,000 in debt; it's much higher for multiple families. Parents' entire salaries go into paying tuition.
Try the Cost of Raising a Child Calculator
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Cost of Raising a Child Calculator -- a tool the department developed to help parents prepare for expenses and life insurance -- a middle-class family living in the western United States can expect to spend at least $9,171 on a year's worth of housing, food, transportation, clothing, health, education and other expenses for a single child under age 1.
Projected costs keep climbing as the children get older, according to the USDA calculator. By the time the children are 17, their parents can expect to spend at least $10,133 on each child annually, or $81,064 total for the year.