From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
After 5 1/2 hours on a plane with eight little kids—demanding trips to the potty, begging for snacks and chattering at the same time—Jon and Kate Gosselin's flight lands on Maui, where they have come to renew their wedding vows. They juggle 18 bags while trying not to lose a straying child at the airport. And when they arrive at their hotel, fans of the TLC network hit Jon & Kate Plus Eight, which follows the Gosselins as they raise twins and sextuplets, are out in force. Soon they are peppered with questions. "How is it having your own show?" asks a stranger. "Are they identical?" wonders another. It's enough to make Kate want to scream her trademark one-liner: "Shoot me now!"

Welcome to the real world of Jon and Kate and their multiples: twin 8-year-old girls (Cara and Madelyn, whom they call Mady) and 4-year-old sextuplets (that would be Alexis, Aaden, Collin, Leah, Hannah and Joel). Together they have captured the fascination of 2 million weekly viewers who have followed their exploits on TLC since Kate delivered six babies in 2004. Now in its fourth season, the show has become the network's highest rated series.

Much of the program's appeal comes from its warts-and-all approach. When kid stress gets overwhelming, the Gosselins respond like cranky parents the world over: They turn on each other. Kate's no-nonsense style, more Old Mother Hubbard than Carol Brady, makes her a favorite target for bloggers. "It does bother me," she says of online criticism. "Sometimes they get real personal and cruel. I'm not mean and horrible and ugly. We work hard all day, every day. I'm sorry if it's grouchy and we're yelling and complaining, but that's life."

And life Gosselin-style means rising at the crack of dawn to feed a platoon of tots, rushing the twins onto the school bus by 7:30 a.m. and starting the first of three daily loads of laundry while the little ones finish eating. Then playtime—with plenty of time-outs for those who misbehave—followed by lunch, naps, snacks, dinner, baths and bedtime. Eight hours later it's time to do it all again. "We're doing the best that we know how. We love our kids to death," says Kate. "All these people who have time to write about us, I wish upon them eight children."

Still, for Kate, 33, and Jon, 31, having kids at all was a wish come true. Both grew up in central Pennsylvania and met at a picnic. When she first saw Jon, a network engineer, holding a baby, Kate, a labor and delivery nurse, was hooked. For his part, Jon says he was drawn to Kate's driven nature. They wed in June of 1999 and wanted children right away, but Kate had a condition, polycystic ovary syndrome, that affected her fertility. Three months after their wedding, the couple tried intrauterine insemination (IUI), in which Kate's ovaries were stimulated with drugs and sperm was injected directly into her uterus. The result was twins, born in October of 2000.

Within a few years the couple longed for one more baby, and they decided to try IUI again. The first attempt failed; the second more than worked. "We figured we would have twins again," Kate says. Five weeks later, at an ultrasound, a doctor counted six embryo sacs. Even though the Gosselins, who are devout Christians, never considered reduction, Kate sobbed, while Jon couldn't look at the screen. Kate soon went on bed rest until the sextuplets were born, remarkably healthy, just shy of 30 weeks. But by that time Jon, who had been taking care of the twins and Kate while trying to work, had lost his job. "They had nothing except the kindness of their church and neighbors," says Joan Brenner, a friend of the family. "You could see the worry in their eyes."

Then TLC discovered the clan and filmed a one-hour special on them. A year later the network returned to catch up and proposed a reality series. Says Brenner: "The TV show was a blessing." Jon was able to leave the new job he had found and do consulting work. And thanks to a viewer who was married to a plastic surgeon, Kate even got a free tummy tuck. (She continues to stay trim by spending an hour and 15 minutes on a treadmill every morning.)

Now, raising their brood—on camera—is the main priority. "We call it the family job," explains Kate. She has asked her kids if they would rather be a "normal family" with parents who worked while their kids were in day care. "Unanimously, they all say they would rather have the family job," says Kate. And although no one will discuss dollar amounts, that job is lucrative: In addition to being paid to do the TLC show, the family has earned thousands from DVDs, a book, speaking engagements and endorsements.

Like most celebrities, they also get freebies: that trip to Maui last August, which was also taped for an upcoming episode of the show. Though Kate is often shown berating Jon (while he rolls his eyes), the pair say their union is rock solid. "The things we've been through, it almost tore us apart. But in the end, I realized he was the one standing next to me through everything," Kate says. "Big news: We love each other, and our marriage is not about to crumble." Agrees Jon: "I'm not running away." So both were eager to say "I do" once again. "It's been our dream to get married in Hawaii," says Kate.

Despite the perks, the Gosselins maintain that they would never force their kids in front of the camera. Certain rooms in their home outside of Reading, Pa., are off limits, including Cara and Mady's. The sextuplets are so used to being filmed year-round, three to four days a week for several hours at a time, that Jon says, "It's natural, normal." It's tougher on the twins, who recently started second grade in a small private school. "Sometimes their classmates make comments," reveals Kate. "Cara doesn't care, but Mady doesn't like to talk about it."

Even Kate tires of the attention, especially now that strangers ring the doorbell at all hours and take pictures of the kids at play in the front yard. The Gosselins say they will soon move to another house, perhaps in a warmer climate, due to a need for both more space and added security, plus their desire to abolish snowsuits—times eight.

For now, Kate refuses to contemplate how she will deal with life when her sextuplets—who started preschool in September—are in school full-time. "I can't talk about it," she says. "We take it one day at a time." At night, though, with the cameras gone and the kids tucked in bed, Kate and Jon rock in a swing on their back porch and imagine the future. They wrap themselves in blankets to guard against mosquitoes, sip decaf coffee and talk about their kids—including one who may still be on the way.

Their dream is to adopt a baby from Korea, where Jon traces much of his ancestry. "I can't wait," says Jon. "We want another little girl." Adds Kate: "I've figured out her middle name." It's one challenge they have yet to conquer: raising a child that is not a multiple. Kate confesses, "We still want to know what 'one' is like."