Up Against a Gang of Five

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On Jan. 11, 1988, Michele L'Esperance made medical history by giving birth to the nation's first test-tube quintuplets. "It seems like a century ago," she says today. "I have to go through newspaper clippings to keep track." For Michele, 34, a fashion model, and her husband, Ray, 27, a $26,000-a-year corrections officer with the suburban Macomb County Sheriff's Department outside Detroit, the dramatic ordeal of the quints' premature birth and tenuous first weeks of life has given way to the daily joys and tribulations of feeding, diapering, waking at all hours and making ends meet. When they married in 1986, Michele already had two boys, Larry, now 7, and Christopher, 5, while Larry had Brian, now 3, who visits on weekends at the L'Esperances' new four-bedroom house in Davisburg, 50 miles north of Detroit. Detroit bureau chief Julie Greenwalt spent 24 hours with the family for a round-the-clock look at the miracle and madness wrought by love and medicine.

Noon. The nursery. Five wicker bassinets stand in a row, their tiny occupants (each weighs around 10 lbs.) identified by bibs with names embroidered in the traditional colors: pink for the four girls, Alexandria, Danielle, Erica and Veronica, and blue for their brother, Raymond. Michele, dressed in jeans and a washable cotton top, is prepping for "the big one"—noon feedings, medications, changings and baths. With one baby, this is a chore; with five, a feat. "Ooooookay," exhales Michele, urging herself onward, "let's get going." She prepares a prescription syrup of theophylline, a cardiac stimulant, for Alexandria and Veronica, who still must be monitored by equipment that sounds an alarm if their breathing or heart rates become abnormal. Then Michele administers eye drops to Raymond and Alexandria, who have eye infections, soothing them when they cry out their displeasure. Unscrewing the metal caps from five four-ounce bottles of formula, she puts them into the microwave. "I used to keep elaborate charts in the beginning," she says. "Now I just don't have time. All's I know is that if it's gone, they've eaten." Rather than try to juggle five bottles, Michele simply props each one near an open mouth. She feeds each baby by hand some of the time, of course, but her unpatented auto-feeding system is efficient.

12:10. It's time to burp Erica, who has been fed first. The doorbell rings, and Christopher runs to answer it. The respiratory therapist has come to check on the oxygen for Veronica's occasional breathing difficulties and to replace some parts for Alex's and Veronica's monitoring equipment.

12:22. Danielle, who drinks fast, is next to be burped. "Ah, my little pound puppy," coos Michele. "Look how she sticks her little tongue out. This one loves to eat; she also likes to throw up." Michele repositions the protective diaper on her shoulder just in time, as Danni burps and spits up in rapid order. "I buy perfume to match the smell of barf. Opium and barf match, so I use that."

12:43. After feeding and burping comes assembly-line diaper changing and bottle cleanup. Veronica starts to cry, and Christopher goes to her crib to play with her. The crying stops as Ronni looks wide-eyed at her half brother. "Mama, I'm hungry," complains Chris, now bored with his siblings and tugging on Michele's shirt. She puts Erica, who has been crying, in the windup swinging cradle. "This is the 'bad swing,' " she says. "Who's ever bad, gets puts in." Then she heads downstairs to the kitchen to make Chris some lunch.

1:25. Back upstairs to change the quints' bedding. Erica is sleeping in the swing. Michele puts Danielle in an infant seat, then spreads a hand-crocheted afghan on the floor and puts the other three on that. Filling a large plastic laundry basket with soiled sheets, clothes and burping cloths, she carries it down to the washer. "This is just a half day's worth, and only for the babies," she says.

1:45. The washer overflows, sending water surging across the laundry-room floor. Michele doesn't panic. "Oh, weeeell," she sighs. "What can you do?" Before she can answer that one, the doorbell rings. It is her father-in-law, Raymond, a pipefitter, come to help with the housework. She tells him about the washer, then goes back up to the babies. Sitting on the floor surrounded by all five, she plays and talks with them. "That's all I find myself doing, playing with them," she says. "The babies are my No. 1 priority. Everything else can wait." Respite over, she pulls herself up and puts clean bedding on the babies' bassinets.

2:20. Michele boils a pot full of pacifiers and nipples to sterilize them, cleans up after Christopher's lunch, then starts some spaghetti sauce for dinner. "I just have to keep going and not think about how tired I am or who is crying," she says. "Getting upset doesn't get things done faster or better. They just have to wait. If I get myself all upset, the babies sense that. They pick up on everything." Having gone without a meal so far today, she munches on a piece of cheese as she finishes in the kitchen.

2:50. All five babies are now on the afghan waiting for baths. During bath time, the phone rings. It's another response to the L'Esperances' ad for a nanny. When the applicant learns there is not one new baby but five, she says thanks, but no thanks.

3:40. Larry comes home from school and after a kiss is sent to the laundry room to put the babies' clothes in the dryer. Alex is the last in the tub, then it's five more bottles in the microwave. While the formula is heating, Michele gets out the stethoscope and takes a heart rate on Alex and Veronica, then passes out another round of bottles.

4.05. The little ones turn their heads to the nipples and loudly slurp away, seemingly famished by their baths. Michele looks at the clock on the microwave and says aloud to herself, "I wonder where Ray is. He gets off work at 2, and he's usually home by now." The next 45 minutes are spent burping and changing diapers.

5:03. Ray walks in and comes upstairs to the nursery to see the brood. Michele snaps: "You are dead meat. You get off work at 2. Now it's 5." Ray, ignoring the outburst, explains simply that he stopped for groceries, gas and building supplies. Then he goes down to help his father with the plumbing job.

5:14. Finally, all the babies are sleeping. The constant bending and lifting is taking its toll; Michele takes a back-pain pill. "That's the worse part of it, the back pain," she groans. "Usually when Ray comes home, I can relax. When the babies cry, I outwait him."

5:20. Down to the kitchen. Ray is putting away groceries, and for the first time today the couple has a moment to talk. "What time did the kids wake up this morning?" Rays asks. "I fed them from 4:15 to 5:15. I figured they'd let you sleep in." Michele smiles a "no chance," and Ray continues. "Does Veronica still have the runs? I had to change her three times while feeding her. Once she went right through the diaper onto me. I had to change my uniform. Needless to say, I was late for work."

5:30. A baby cries. Michele goes up to the nursery with a pacifier.

5:36. Another cry. This time Ray goes up. "If I didn't have such a helpful husband, I never would be able to do this," says Michele.

5:45. Michele puts pasta in the pot for dinner. A nurse arrives for her last visit as part of a two-month service provided by the Visiting Nurses Association. "I'm going to miss them," says Michele. "I always knew I would have at least an hour's break when the nurse would come."

6:30. Dinnertime. The family, including Ray's father, sits down to two different kinds of pasta, spaghetti and rigatoni. Larry asks, "Mama, do you have any meatballs?" "Not today, Larry. No time," answers Michele.

7:12. The nurse leaves. "Goodbye," she says, "and good luck." Michele is holding Erica at the kitchen table. "Why does everybody always say 'Good luck'?" she asks. A baby cries. "Do you hear that?" Michele directs her question to Ray. "Yes, I do," says Ray, unscrewing a kitchen cabinet as he prepares to tear a hole in the wall in order to fix the plumbing. Michele, seeing she'll get no relief tonight, trudges up the stairs to the nursery.

7:30. Feed, burp and change babies. Larry reads a book of riddles aloud to his siblings and mother. "Hey, Mom, what is a sourpuss?" Michele replies, "Your mother—after she's heard that riddle 15 times." With the babies back in bed, Michele entertains Larry and Christopher with a game of ticktacktoe on the overturned laundry basket while folding a tower of clothes.

9:02. Michele tucks in Larry. "Tell me a story, Mama," he whines. "You never tell me stories anymore." Michele, her patience waning, says pointedly, "There once was a boy who wished he went to bed when he was supposed to." With that she leaves the room to tuck in Christopher. Larry, from his bedroom across from the nursery, calls and asks once more, "Mama, how come you never tell me stories anymore?" Michele says softly, "I'm sorry, Larry. I'm just very, very tired." Michele tries to spend time alone with the older boys, "but it's not very easy these days."

9:15. Michele stretches out on the floor of the nursery. "I never seem to get out of this room," she says slowly, heavy with fatigue. "Sometimes, when Ray is here or I have help, I just close myself in my bedroom and say, 'You do it.' I sort of go on strike. I always recharge my batteries. Sometimes I go out with my girlfriends. Problem is that they don't go out until 10 or 11 at night. By then, I think I'd rather sleep. Emotionally, I take care of myself. Physically, I don't take the time."

10:12. Ray and Michele are in the living room, planning for their second anniversary, for which a team of relatives has offered to take the babies for the weekend. "We haven't been married that long, it just seems that way," says Michele. "People ask us if we'd do it over again. I never think about second thoughts. I knew I had five coming and we did what we could to get ready. Thank God, I'm not a nervous, first-time mother. I read about selective abortion. They choose who to abort by location. For me, the selections would have been Alex and Veronica. I look at these kids and think, 'Oh, God, how could I ever do that, my sweet, little angels.' They light up when I walk in the room. They have a purpose." Michele and Ray spend the next hour on the sofa, too tired to move. "Our social life is nonexistent," says Michele. "I don't think we've watched TV in months," adds her husband.

11:15. Ray's dad comes in after working on the plumbing and chats before taking his leave. Ray brings in big dishes of Neapolitan ice cream for Michele and himself. The conversation turns to finances. "The reality of the situation has set in," says Ray. "Routine visits to the doctors for the babies for shots and checkups cost over $300 each time. Formula is being donated, thank God, by Mead Johnson, a pharmaceutical company, but not the disposable diapers—and we go through a minimum of 60 or 70 a day. Financially, I don't know how we're going to make it, especially when we have to start buying school clothes. After we get some live-in help, I'm going to try to get in some more overtime. I'm feeling the pressure. But we're trying to cope."

"Thank God for insurance," says Michele, who was covered, along with her babies, by Ray's Blue Cross. "The hospital fees for each baby averaged about $50,000—also over $50,000 for me because I was in the hospital for nearly four months." She has decided to go back to modeling, she says. "This was a very hard decision to make, but we've decided to do commercials with the babies. People will think we're marketing them, but we have no alternative. We have to feed them."

12:10. The babies are quiet. Michele goes into the kitchen with Ray to clean up the dinner mess.

12:23. The babies are still sleeping. In the darkened room, the lights of the heart monitors blink out their messages in orange flashes. There is the sound of infant sucking and lip-smacking. The wind whistles at the windows. In the bedroom, Michele is writing thank-you notes and Ray is getting his uniforms ready to go to the cleaners. They both keep glancing at the clock, wondering..."When?"

12:55. Now. First one baby cries, then another. This time the children are each fed by hand. Ray picks up and feeds Raymond, and while Michele gets the medications ready, he teases her. "How come you're not wearing one of your sexy nightgowns?" he says. "Well, look," she counters, "at least I'm good breeding stock."

2:30 to 4:35. Blessed quiet.

4:35. An intermittent wail that falters and fades into silence.

4:48. A baby sound, between a coo and a squeak.

4:50. Erica cries, then stops. Then cries again. Ray gets up to give her a pacifier.

5:10. Ray begins the early morning feeding, solo. Zombielike, he changes everyone, then props up bottles. He walks between the bassinets, checking on progress, whispering endearments. Frequently, his eyes are closed.

6:07. The last bottle done, Ray turns off all the lights and goes back to bed. It is his day off.

8:05. Ray staggers in for the morning feeding. Through a haze, he tries to motivate Larry to get ready for the 8:25 school bus. An hour later, with the babies asleep, Dad heads back to bed.

10:35. A howling cry. Erica. Now a duet. Michele brings all the quints back to the bed where Ray is still dozing.

11:28. Michele and Ray get up, and the babies go back in their bassinets. Ray starts the noon feeding, singing the "Do-Re-Mi" number from The Sound of Music.

12:10. A recharged Michele bounces into the nursery. "Hey," she teases Ray, "you only got three done? I stayed in bed as long as I could." She laughs. With a baby in one arm and two bottles in the other, Ray gives Michele a hug, as best as he can. "Oooookay," she calls out, "let's get going!"

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