Serial Mom


Planning a litter? Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is relocate to Carlisle, Iowa, a place where anxiety that the world will soon run out of white people runs so high that you can enlist a whole town of 3400 in your obstetric fantasia. Think I’m joking? Consider the folks of Carlisle, who conspired to keep Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey’s “secret” for months.

Now everybody knows and we’ve all been invited to the septuplet orgy. “I Just Wanna Hug ‘Em,” the elated seamstress-mother said in a Post headline last week. Hasn’t there been quite enough of that?

We can probably all agree that human life is a miraculous creation. So, I’ve always thought, are amazing sea monkeys. In the week since Mrs. McCaughey was surgically split to reveal seven tiny Baptists with the aggregate weight of a good-sized watermelon, Americans have become willing conscripts in a demented nativity pageant. The season is ripe for subtexts. And Katha Pollitt will be along shortly to provide explication of the antiwoman sentiment behind Bobbi McCaughey’s near-Marian apotheosis as The Great Incubator. With any luck, the Semiotexte crowd will soon be “reading” the covers of Newsweek and Time. Yet there’s another way to look at what occurred on November 19 in a chilly heartland city: what if it had happened to a welfare mother in New York?

“God could have given us one, but God’s entitled to give us seven,” said the virile, pious, and fully entitled Mr. McCaughey. Having given them seven, God then apparently instructed Procter & Gamble to deliver to the McCaugheys 32,000 Pampers (enough to outfit the children through toilet training), and Toys “R” Us to send seven strollers and car seats, and TCI Cablevision to promise seven years of free service, and MidAmerican Energy to kick in free heating and cooling for the free house that the governor of Iowa, under divine guidance, saw fit to arrange.

Gerber will feed the babies. The Hartford/Carlisle Savings Bank and the First Bank of Iowa will safeguard the coffers into which the McCaugheys can pour the donations that have poured in for Kenneth Robert, Alexis May, Natalie Sue, Kelsey Ann, Brandon James, Nathaniel Roy, and Joel Steven McCaughey “from around the world.” So far, no one from the Menninger Clinic has come forth with the promise of a billion free hours of psychotherapy for the McCaugheys’ first child, two-year-old Mikayla. God, or Hard Copy, will no doubt provide.

Let’s say, then, that it isn’t your reproductive, geographic, and racial good luck to be the maternal equivalent of a Lotto winner. (And race is a big factor here, as Newsday‘s report on the all-but-ignored Thompson quints, survivors of the first known case of sextuplets born to an American black couple, makes plain.) Let’s say, instead, that you’ve had your seven babies while on public assistance, well away from the mike booms and Steadicams. Let’s say that–under welfare regulations that have the effect of making the Reagan era seem elysian–you and your brood find yourselves forced to eke by on the welfare-reform entitlements of the Democratic magi.

It was just a short time ago that our hypothetical Serial Mom on public assistance would have been exempt from mandatory workfare until her children were five. That, presumably, would have given her time to do the breast-feeding 29-year-old Mrs. McCaughey and her doctors seem so alarmingly keen on. In October 1990, however, Congress in its systematic gutting of the Family Support Act, reset the limit to correspond with a child’s third birthday. Next, Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act came along to reduce this cap to a mere 12 months–roughly 6000 Pampers in McCaughey time. Then last August George Pataki went Clinton one better with state regulations that restrict a new mother on welfare to a mere three months off before starting another kind of labor.

Home counties can make discretionary exceptions that extend the period to a year. But that’s the lifetime cap. No exceptions for extra babies. You can’t supersize. “In theory, if I’m a poor woman and use the full exemption for my first child,” explains Liz Krueger, associate director of the Community Food Resource Center, “and then I have the second one, or seven, immediately after labor I’ve got to go back to mopping.”

Assume, if you will, that this particular poor woman lives with the father of her children (or husband, even!) and that the couple already have a beloved two-year-old when the septuplets come along. By current standards, the maximum public assistance allotted for a family of ten is $1173 a month, good for no more than five years. According to the law, at least one parent would still be obliged to fulfill a 35-hour-a-week workfare assignment. “Probably the father,” says one welfare expert, “although they could share [the assignment]. The law is nonsexist in that way.”

Although there would not be–for this particular family–a free car, a free house, a trust fund flowing from the great wellspring of reproductive affirmation, the family would be eligible for food stamps totaling $590 a month. That works out to roughly 19 bucks a day. As the media obsession with the McCaugheys has not neglected the minutest details of child rearing, even the childless among us have become aware that preemie formula costs $8 a can. Clearly, someone would have to be thrown on the ice.

“It is my commission as a father to raise them, and to try to raise them in a normal Christian home,” said Mr. McCaughey, also much quoted to the effect of “Wow!” One might point out that it is the commission of most average parents to try and raise their children, Christian or otherwise, normally, in homes. But why quibble when so many Americans fail altogether to merit the blessings showering down on a Chevrolet billings clerk whose wife took Pergonal?

A recent telephone survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that there may be as many as 7 million homeless people living in the U.S. at a given time. It’s no stretch to assume that the hypothetical poor New Yorker and her brood would soon join this crowd. Even with a $40 per child emergency supplementary allowance from the federal Aid to Women and Infant Children budget, the $421 allotted each month for rent wouldn’t cut it. She’d likely be forced onto the streets, dragging her babies behind her in their little glass life-support domes.

In another city, this woman might be rushed into a glamorous pied-a-terre in a public housing project. But the mayor of our fair town has consistently shown himself hostile to the idea of sheltering welfare grifters. Perhaps he would soften his heart for this imaginary mother and her children. And perhaps pigs will some day take to the air. There is another thing to consider, and not a small one. It is the matter of how we as a culture tend to valorize certain kinds of baby making while demonizing others. “Instead of ‘Omigod, septuplets!'” says Liz Krueger, “it could just as easily be ‘She’s a welfare mother dropping kids. What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they ever know when to stop?'”