by Kevin Mungons
That’s right. The McCaughey family is completely normal. It took us about a minute to reach this conclusion while walking into their house through the garage door.
“Normal” is a kid and a frog on a hot August afternoon. Normal is a box sitting in the driveway, stocked with the obligatory sticks and rocks and lettuce leaves. Normal is a skinned knee and a tussle over the video game joystick. Normal.
We sit and talk with Bobbi and Kenny at a fourteen-foot kitchen counter, with room enough for all eight children to eat lunch. Out the back window, we see a field of white socks fluttering on the clothesline. Scanning the back of the house, it takes me a minute to count heads—whoops, too many—there’s actually a neighbor kid or two, wandering in and out.
It wasn’t always this way, back when the craziness started. The army of video trucks in front of the hospital wasn’t exactly normal. A phone call from President Clinton to the happy parents was not normal, but then, neither was a television reporter quizzing the guy who bags your groceries. And that Saturday Night Live parody? Definitely not normal.
So ten years ago, with Bobbi and the septuplets still in the hospital, Kenny hosted his first-ever press conference. He chose the spot where he and his wife were married, five years previously—the same spot where he taught Sunday School every week. That’s right: a press conference in a small-town Iowa church. And just to make sure everyone understood the connection, his pastor began the event with prayer. As the national reporters peeked through squinted eyes and half-bowed heads, it became clear that this was an event like no other.
Then Kenny walked to the microphone, turned toward the glaring lights, and said one word: “Wow!”
“This is my commission as a father—to raise them in a normal Christian home.”He testified of the miracle of birth—God’s miracle—and then explained how he and Bobbi expected to raise their children. “This is my family. That’s what I want it to be, and it’s just going to be us and we’re not on for display. God could’ve given us one, but God decided to give us seven. This is my commission as a father to raise them, to try to raise them in a normal Christian home.”
The backlash took only two days, when bioethicists converged on the Sunday news programs and questioned whether science had gone awry. Soon the McCaugheys landed on the editorial page, as cynical reporters declared seven children to be something less than a miracle—maybe just a medical accident.
But in addition to the miracle-bashing, there seemed to be another, undeclared question: What was this thing the McCaugheys called “a normal Christian home”? Journalists announced the matter of the McCaugheys’ religious faith, but few were willing to explore the implications.
So the media left what they call “fly-over land” and busied themselves reporting the reality of Hollywood, Wall Street, and the U.S. Congress.
It was like the McCaugheys were football players looking heavenward in the end zone. Announcers were willing to shout “score” at the additional seven points—but then the camera blinks, skipping past the possibility that God intervenes in the affairs of His children. And wait . . . maybe as the kids grow older there might be a fumble that can be replayed in slow-motion.
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The McCaugheys’ goal of “a normal Christian home” includes attending church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
“They are just normal people who have been blessed with seven children all at once,” says Chuck Pausley, their pastor at Willow Creek Baptist Church in West Des Moines. Noting that the McCaugheys don’t really attract any special attention among the rest of the congregation, Pastor Pausley says, “They like it that way. Our church family has gotten used to them. When they first came, it was kind of a novelty; now, they are part of the family.”
DeAnn Bowler has taught Sunday School at Willow Creek Baptist Church for twenty-five years and has seen her share of Promotion Sundays—an August rite of passage at many churches where students are promoted from one class to another. “But never anything like this,” she says as her class leaves for the morning service. “I think you really have to be prepared. You can’t leave a spare minute.”
Kenny is sympathetic, explaining that “our seven kids plus another eight in the same class means that suddenly the next class is off the charts.” The church adapts by rearranging the room assignments and recruiting assistant teachers to follow the group to the next grade.
“This is where a lot of their Bible memory happens, motivating them to learn God’s Word,” says Bobbi of their church.
“This is the process of moving truth from head to heart, training them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, making their faith their own,” Kenny adds. “We don’t want them to believe just because their parents said to believe.”
And within the past few years, all of the children have done just that, making personal decisions for Christ. Older sister Mikayla was recently baptized and joined the church, a step her parents are hoping the rest of the children will consider in time.
Kenny serves as a deacon at church, managing a benevolence fund and visiting elderly church members. “It’s been a stretching and growing year,” Kenny says. “A deacon is a leadership position, and I needed a lot more sharpening to do the job.”
Two years ago Kenny traveled to Haiti on a church missions trip. “We made big eight-foot desks for the students at the schools, with shelves and tabletops,” says Pastor Pausley. “Kenny helped us with these and sang with us in the evening services and gave his testimony. Even in Haiti, some people had heard of him before and were interested in meeting him.”
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As we sit at the kitchen counter, Kenny and I note one thing we share in common: we both pilot fifteen-passenger vans full of children. We trade stories about the horrid things people say to parents of large families, but I have to admit they’ve taken more heat than my wife and I.
“In the beginning, for every ten letters we would get that were happy for us, we’d get one letter accusing us of exploiting the kids and being selfish to waste the world’s resources on a family this big,” says Bobbi, who soon learned to recognize these letters because they never arrived with a return address. “Our neighbors never gawked; here in Carlisle—they gave us privacy. But we had complete strangers come around to the back door, knock, and ask if they could hold a baby.”
Curious about all of the media attention, I ran a LexisNexis search and discovered there have been more than two thousand newspaper stories about the McCaugheys since 1997. I was fairly certain the family didn’t have time for all of those interviews, and Bobbi confirms this, saying, “There was all kinds of stuff in the papers early on—but they never actually interviewed us. Most of it is one paper quoting another.”
And sometimes what you read is just flat-out wrong. Bobbi expressed frustration over reporters who understand very little about Alexis and Nathan’s cerebral palsy. After all, “normal” doesn’t sell magazines, so one particularly irritating cover proclaimed, “Good News for the 2 Frail Septuplets.”
“Well, who told them that?” Bobbi asked, as her blue eyes flashed in the late afternoon sun. “In the whole interview, did I ever use the word ‘frail’? It made me so upset! It’s not an issue of their health, it’s their physical development.”
One other thought struck me while we were talking. The children are now old enough to read articles about themselves and develop a basic awareness of their own fame. “It’s kicked in within the last year,” says Bobbi. “At one point, Mikayla asked me, ‘Why does everyone come to take pictures on their birthday?’ and she slowly began to understand that they were the first septuplets.” And from time to time, Bobbi and Kenny catch other snippets, such as overhearing, “I’m one of the septuplets . . . and I’m famous.”
So despite their appearances on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and many other national magazines, it is not surprising to learn that today the McCaugheys grant few interviews, usually only around the November birth date. “We like some writers better than others,” notes Bobbi, who was happy when a Ladies Home Journal writer attended Sunday School with the family. She adds that Dateline NBC will be visiting church on an upcoming Wednesday night. Bobbi and Kenny see this as a positive development—the real story is at church.
“Their coverage of our ‘religion’ was always limited,” says Kenny, who says the word “religion” so that I could hear the quote marks.
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Kenny has worked at a powder-coating factory in Des Moines since 2000, having been hired by a friend from church. But for the first two years in the media spotlight, he and Bobbi were able to support the family by speaking at fund-raisers for crisis pregnancy centers and Right to Life groups. “It was ideal—I was able to be home quite a bit when the family needed me,” Kenny says.
In retrospect, part of the interest in the McCaugheys seemed related to the general spirit of the times. It was 1997 when scientists cloned a sheep and gave it a human name, “Dolly.” It was also the year Robert Latimer received public sympathy for killing his disabled daughter. And with Bobbi and Kenny’s help, 1997 became the year “selective reduction” was exposed as a euphemism for selective killing of unborn children.
Ironically, neither Bobbi nor Kenny consider themselves to be public speakers (a casual observer would say they are both reserved), and they clearly would not have chosen such a task if it were not for the moral obligation they felt. When the doctors and scientists and ethical experts persisted in their modern version of eugenics, Bobbi and Kenny patiently and publicly opposed their “facts,” armed with nothing but a personal testimony.
“I just can’t talk about it enough. I want the world to know that God is good, that by His grace He performs miracles every day.”And no one—no one—mustered a plausible response to Bobbi’s quiet challenge uttered during one of her first interviews: “Well, come to our house, and tell me which four I shouldn’t have had!”
It is a question that will never be answered. The happy photos that accompany this article [in the print edition of the Baptist Bulletin] serve as their own irrefutable testimony that Bobbi and Kenny continue to navigate the ups and downs and good and bad of “a normal Christian home.”
Nothing has changed from ten years ago, when they were first caught in the unwanted glare of the lights and cameras. Speaking to that first group of reporters, Kenny intuitively knew what the continuing story would be.
“I want people to remember not the babies but the God Who made the babies,” Kenny said. “I just can’t talk about it enough. I want the world to know that God is good, that by His grace He performs miracles every day.”
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography for Regular Baptist Press.