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Sextuplets more than a handful for Ross parents

Daily tally: 36 diapers, two gallons of formula, 24 jars of baby food

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Erin Perry scanned the clipboard for the baby-sitting roster that would let her and her husband, Joe, escape the relentless daily routine of 36 diapers, two gallons of formula and 24 jars of baby food.

  

CLOSE-UP 2003
One of a series


Tomorrow: Obesity emerges as the nation's No. 1 health concern.

They were going to a December Steelers game, only their third date since the birth of their sextuplets March 19.

But the small feat of getting out of their Ross house for an afternoon of football would require precision planning.

With the efficiency of plant managers, they set up the schedule: First shift of three sitters due at 11:30 a.m. Three additional feeders to arrive at 1 p.m. A second shift of two sitters due at 5 p.m.

And then they will follow one rule while watching the game, rattle-free.

"No baby talk," said Erin with a laugh.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
The Perry sextuplets, shown in July when the last of them was released from hospital and last week, are, from left, Ian Richard, Simon Edwin, Olivia Ann, Zoe Patricia, Joshua Joseph and Madison Regina.
Click photo for larger image.

Erin, 34, looks tired but remarkably calm and organized for a woman who has a maternal load that would make most people cry out in agony. And though it's hard to fathom how hard it would be to parent six babies at once -- on top of 4-year-old son Parker -- the Perrys are able to give a few hints of the chaos of the last nine months.

The Diaper Genie broke the first month, so they have resorted to a big trash can they empty daily.

When they took Ian, Zoe, Madison, Joshua, Olivia and Simon to the Three Rivers Arts Festival, they were overwhelmed by the crowd and went home early.

A good day: Five of the six babies slept at the same time for an entire 20 minutes. Ian was the holdout.

A bad day: Three of the six screaming in the middle of night, or all six getting chicken pox, not letting Erin sleep for more than two hours a stretch for two weeks this month.

"How do you do it?" people always ask them.

"With a lot of help," Erin replies.

About 25 volunteers -- family, church members, neighbors -- come to the house every week to help out with four feedings a day. That's down from the 60 who initially handled the feedings.

Just as they will eventually wean their babies off the bottle, the Perrys are trying to wean themselves off help so they can regain privacy. They have started to do some of the evening feedings by themselves.

"During the day, I don't know how I would do it. It would be a disaster," said Erin. "I am so grateful."

While heartened by all the aid, they also hear the occasional criticism that it was irresponsible to have so many babies at once. What makes them so special that they should get all this help, an occasional critic asks.

Erin says she took fertility drugs with the hope of a second child -- not a third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.

"People help us and we are grateful," she said.

"People say it is irresponsible," said Joe Perry, a production coordinator at CUE Inc. in Cranberry. "The irresponsible thing was to reduce [the number of embryos] once you were pregnant. If you are going to mess with Mother Nature, you have to deal with whatever happens."

"People think they brought it on themselves," said Cheryl Milford, a neonatal psychologist at Magee-Womens Hospital. "I don't know of any situation where the family said, 'I want a whole litter. I want four kids at once.' These things just happen. Reproduction is a very complex process."

Though fund-raisers were held on their behalf and people and businesses gave them diapers, cribs and other necessities, the Perrys say many people have the wrong impression that they were given a free house and a 12-passenger GMC Savannah. They paid for their own van -- auto dealer Rob Cochran of No. 1 Cochran gave them a 25 percent discount -- and they are looking to build a new house with two big playrooms to replace the three-bedroom red brick house that is bursting with cribs, bouncing seats and other baby paraphernalia.

Parents of multiples have to deal with exhaustion and lots of stress. Milford said the Perrys are well-equipped to handle it all because they are calm and highly organized.

On top of the typical parenting worries, parents of multiples often have worries about the health risks typical to children born prematurely and at very low weights.

At birth, during the 28th week of Erin's pregnancy, the Perry sextuplets weighed between 1 pound 11 ounces and 2 pounds 9 ounces. The Perrys were told about risks such as blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and difficulty moving.

But as the babies fill out there are no signs of any of those or other problems.

"I think they are going to be classic normal 2-year-olds," Milford said.

The scrawny babies who spent weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit have grown.

Joshua, his face adorably pudgy, weighs an impressive 19 pounds. He is the laid-back one, the one who laughs at Zoe's croonings.

Madison may be the smallest at 12 pounds, but she is the most strong-willed and demanding.

"That little girl is going to kick butt and take names. She might have been small, but she is mighty," said Milford. That strong will helped her recover from an infection that kept her in the hospital the longest.

Erin said her best day was July 15, when Madison came home from the hospital.

Though it's sometimes overwhelming to parent six babies, it can be fun: The babies looking and laughing at each other. The time they all flew together to New York City for "The John Walsh Show." The time they all traipsed to the Duquesne Club for a Magee-Womens reunion.

"It's fun," she said. "We are getting to do things we wouldn't do if we had one child."

Of course, there will be other things they will have to do six times. As Milford puts it: "Just think about it -- six kids in terrible twos, six kids learning to toilet train."

When Erin thinks ahead, she imagines six teenagers learning to drive and fighting over the car.

But most of the time, she doesn't have time to think ahead about parenting travails times six, admitting: "I need to get through today."


Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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