The Challenge of Her Life

updated 02/23/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

For the octuplets' first public showing, their mom, Nadya Suleman, exhibited an almost Madonna-like calm as she moved from crib to crib in the neonatal intensive care unit of Kaiser Permanente Bellflower Medical Center near Los Angeles. Cupping their heads gently, she cooed soothingly ("I love you." "Your eyes are open!" "Do you recognize my voice?") as she introduced her brood to the world via the Today show: Maliyah. Noah. Jonah. Isaiah. Nariyah. Jeremiah. Makai. Josiah. "Your brothers and sisters at home want to see you," she murmured. Then, to the camera, Suleman spoke of her other six children, ages 2 to 7, who were back home with her parents and a nanny. "I feel torn because I have the other kids at the house, and I want to be here too," she said. "And I can't wait till they're all together because it's like we're not a whole family yet."

At the small three-bedroom house in suburban Whittier that Suleman and her six older children share with her mom, Angela, the scene was strikingly different. Outside, leaves and dead ficus branches were scattered across the hard-packed dirt yard; a cracked kitchen window was held together with duct tape. Inside, pictures posted by RadarOnline.com showed a master bedroom where two cribs were strewn with clothes and towels, and the window was covered by a bedsheet; another bedroom, equipped with bunk beds, showed knee-high mounds of clothes tumbling from a closet. Suleman's publicist said the conditions did not reflect on his client, who's been away on bedrest for nearly two months.

As Suleman's babies became the first octuplets in history to cross the two-week mark (one of the eight born to a Texas family in 1998 died after one week), questions continued to fly about how a 33-year-old single mother without a job could adequately care for 14 children. Contradicting the serene image that Suleman is presenting to the cameras were 332 pages of documents released by the state of California that painted a portrait of a young woman given to depression and suicidal thinking both before and after her first successful pregnancy. In the documents, Suleman speaks of developing "an intense depression" and says, "I just wanted to die." Meanwhile paparazzi swarmed the West Coast IVF Clinic in Beverly Hills, the center that Suleman said performed her multiple-embryo implantations (see box).

Even as she told her story on national television, Suleman remained something of a mystery. She told Today's Ann Curry, "I'm not receiving help from the government." But her publicist Michael Furtney confirmed reports that she receives $490 a month in food stamps as well as federal supplemental security income to cover the disabilities of three of her older six children. Neighbors, friends and family describe a smart, intense and charming young woman who sees no limits to her own abilities; she told Curry that she'll go back to get her master's in the fall, putting the octuplets in the school's day care.

Suleman's own live-in child care is clearly reaching the end of her rope. Angela, 68, has helped care for her six older grandkids since her daughter moved in three years ago. "The grandmother is the one you always see coming outside and dealing with the kids," says one neighbor. Tasked with caring for the kids while Suleman was in the hospital, Angela, talking to PEOPLE in her driveway, says when her daughter returns, "I'm done, I'm leaving." Hearing this, her oldest grandchild, Elijah, 7, grips her leg and says, "Take me with you, Grandma. Take me with you."

Describing Suleman as "very strong-willed," Angela says that her daughter first started trying to get pregnant in high school. When a combination of endometriosis, blocked fallopian tubes and three miscarriages thwarted her aims, Suleman finished high school and over a three-year period secured a psychiatric technician license. In 1999, while working at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, Calif., she suffered a back injury during a patient riot that eventually brought her more than $168,000 in disability benefits.

No longer able to work, her thoughts returned to children. Worker's compensation records show that three months before Suleman gave birth to her first child, Elijah, in May 2001, she was deeply afraid of losing a fourth pregnancy. Five months after Elijah was born, Dr. Alfred Bloch, her psychiatrist, reported that Suleman had "become very fearful that [Elijah] will be kidnapped, injured, etc." and was so anxious that she reported "somebody, my husband or my mother, has to take me almost everywhere." Over a period of time, Bloch revised his assessment of Suleman from being "a severe risk of suicide" to "a moderate risk." Bloch didn't return calls for comment.

By the time Elijah was born, Suleman was separated from her husband of four years, Marcos Gutierrez, who was not the boy's father. Rather, Suleman acknowledged that the 14 children all came from the same sperm donor, a friend. Asked on Today how he responded when he learned of the octuplets, Suleman said, "He didn't know what to say. He needs time." According to Angela, Suleman and the donor "actually have a contract drawn up; he's not going to be asked to support any of the children."

For now, Suleman's parents, Angela and Ed, are cleaving to a regular schedule. Weekday mornings, Ed drives the three oldest children to the private Whittier Christian School and he or Angela sees Nadya's autistic 5-year-old son off on a school bus. The grandparents and a nanny then mind the younger children. As for Nadya, "my sense is that she's focusing on taking care of her children and is trying to figure out how to do that," Curry says. How things will work once the babies are part of the picture, no one knows. Says neighbor Thelma Steinweg: "I just hope things work out for all of them."

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