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Family Falls Apart On Reality TV

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Jon and Kate Gosselin - of the popular show Jon and Kate Plus Eight - announced last week their separation after almost 10 years of marriage. Their dramatic conflict has led many viewers to wonder whether the cameras strained the marriage. Or could raising 8 kids - a set of twins and a set of sextuplets - just be too much? Moms Jolene Ivey, who has five boys, and Diamond Harris, mother of America's first set of surviving African-American sextuplets, talk about raising multiple children. And Sharon Covington, Director of Psychological Support Services at Shady Grove Fertility Center, offers advice about parenting multiples.


I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we want to talk about "Jon & Kate Plus 8."

That's the mega-hit cable reality show that's chronicled the lives of the Gosselin family as they parent one set of twins and a set of sextuplets. And the news of late has not been good. The marriage apparently is ending, undone by at least one extramarital dalliance.

Now while we know that some people are disgusted by the very thought of the camera's prying eyes peering into the corners of their intimate relationships, we wondered whether it's the cameras or, well, the reality that caused the marriage to fail. Are more kids tougher on a marriage or having more kids at once?

So we decided to check in with a mom who really understands what the Gosselins are going through, at least part of it. Diamond Harris is the mom of the Harris sextuplets. That's the first set of surviving African-American sextuplets in the U.S. They are now six years old. I'd also like to welcome regular parenting contributor Jolene Ivey. She's the mom of five sons, whom she had one at a time. We're also pleased to be joined by Sharon Covington. She's the director of psychological support services for Shady Grove Fertility Center. That's here in the Washington, D.C., area. Welcome everybody, ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

Ms. DIAMOND HARRIS: Hi, thank you.

Ms. SHARON COVINGTON (Director of Psychological Support Services, Shady Grove Fertility Center): Thank you.

MARTIN: Sharon, I'm going to start with you because many people these days will know somebody who has twins or perhaps even triplets. So people have their own personal experiences with the idea of having multiples, but we wanted to ask: Is there any data on this, on what effect having higher-order multiples like triplets or more has on a family?

Ms. COVINGTON: There is, and as one would expect, the more children you have, the more likely it is that there is different kinds of stress that is experienced within the family. One of the studies that has really looked at this has found four particular areas that affect families and cause significant stress. One is in - as far as maternal depression. They find a higher level of maternal depression, sometimes as long as four years later.

Also in the area of financial resources, not surprisingly, people are really overextended in many different ways because of that. Also there's a decreased quality of life in general just because you've got so many different kids that you're looking after. And the last one is kind of an interesting one, and it's the area of social stigma. The fact that many of these families, because of their larger order, stand out to others. People make assumptions about how their family came to be. They often ask questions and sometimes pass judgments.

So with each additional child, these four areas become significantly more difficult for families.

MARTIN: Diamond, what about you? Did you experience any of these things: exhaustion, depression or stigma, people feeling that they can say things to you that they might not say to somebody else?

Ms. HARRIS: Yes, I experienced just about everything she said. She's right, and she's true in all of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: I'm sitting here, and I'm just shaking my head because, yes, everything she just said is right.

MARTIN: Now I remember - because I remember that you had been interviewed for a documentary, a film project that I think we saw - seen on - where was it?

Ms. HARRIS: Discovery Health. It was called "And Then Came Six."

MARTIN: That's right, Discovery Health. You initially thought you were having five.

Ms. HARRIS: At first twins and then five until the day of delivery, and they pulled out Cal(ph), the last one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And do you remember how you reacted when you first thought you were having twins, and then you found out you were having five?

Ms. HARRIS: My reaction pretty much was a panic. I hyperventilated. I threw things at Chris(ph), my husband, grandmother and the doctor and the nurse and tried to kick everybody out of the room because to me this was unreal. No human being should be having that many children.

MARTIN: If you don't mind my asking, and I apologize if this is too - one of those questions that you really should not ask people, but did you use assisted reproductive technologies?

Ms. HARRIS: Yes, we did artificial insemination. We had been trying to get pregnant for a while and couldn't. So we ended up going to a fertility clinic.

MARTIN: You were going for one more, right?

Ms. HARRIS: We had been married about a year and had just bought our new home, three-bedroom home and working two jobs each, and we felt like now we can add another child because we had Dwayne(ph) at the time, that was seven, and we felt like we got it going on to be 25, 26, 27 years old. Let's add another child.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: One.

MARTIN: That's what you were planning on: one.

Ms. HARRIS: Exactly, the American dream: two children, nice house, you know, picket fence.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us: How are you doing?

Ms. HARRIS: We're doing good. Anybody that have that many kids, even one child put strain on a marriage. But Chris and I, like most couples, we just work at it. We try to communicate. We do seek counseling through our pastor, and just plain old counseling, and we had to relearn each other because who we were before the kids, we're not the same people now. It changed us totally, and we had to just totally relearn who each other are right now and just date and just have fun with each other. And it's still hard. I mean, we still have our problems.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? I know that my husband had two children, one at the time before we married, and now we have twins. And he has told me - this is all I know. Twins is all I know. But he's told me it's just a lot different having one child at a time than having any order multiple at the same - of the same - what do you think? What's your experience, especially having a larger family?

Ms. IVEY: Well, people do have a tendency to look at you like you're crazy. When you walk in the room and you have all these kids, so many times we've heard, don't you know where they come from? And we just laugh at it. We, you know, yeah. We know where they come from. And then they ask me really stupid questions. The one that makes me nuts, I have five boys, and they say: But didn't you want a girl?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Well, which child should I turn back in so I can get that girl? I just think that that's silly. And how many people start out saying what I really want is five boys? No one says that. But once you have the children, you want the ones you have.

MARTIN: Sharon, if you have a family with higher order multiples - what are some of the things you counsel them to think about or prepare for?

Ms. COVINGTON: Well, first of all, it's happening far less often than it was before, and part that's because of the protocol that has really been instituted nationwide and, really, internationally about single embryo transfer. And so we really have to begin counseling patients long before they ever become pregnant about the importance of this issue. Once people become pregnant, and if by chance it's a large number like that - and we're talking usually triplets or more - then the issue of selective reduction is something that they're going to need to consider and address.

And again, this is an issue that is talked about with people before they become pregnant. You don't do it after the fact. People need to begin thinking about these issues because it helps in their making decisions along with their physician about how many embryos they're going to transfer back.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Diamond Harris. She is the mother of sextuplets, Jolene Ivey, our regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor, who's the mother of five singletons, as we would say. And Sharon Covington is the director of Psychological Support Services at Shady Grove Fertility Center in the Washington, D.C. area. And we're talking about the "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" phenomenon. We're talking about whether having multiples - particularly higher order multiples - puts more of a strain on a marriage.

Diamond, what's the - now I'm going to ask you what's the best part of having your sextuplets plus one. But what's the hardest part?

Ms. HARRIS: No privacy. I'm just going to say it. No privacy, whatsoever. I have none. I can't even go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door.

MARTIN: Because somebody always wants your attention?

Ms. HARRIS: Exactly. They always want my attention, and then I have to give it to them. And then I have a 14-year-old I have to give it to. And then I have a grown man, my husband, I have to give it to. So, yeah, it's a crowded house.

MARTIN: Well, what's the best part?

Ms. HARRIS: The best part is it's always something new. There's - you'd be surprised sitting at a table eating dinner together and one of them say something that they never said before. They didn't even know they knew, you know, how to hold a conversation like that. It's just always interesting. They keep us laughing.

MARTIN: Jolene, did you feel it's kind of a, what's it - inundated by having one at a time, even though there are five souls that you have to deal with?

Ms. IVEY: No, I do think that having multiples would be more challenging. And I know when I was pregnant with my first son, I really did want them to be twins. I thought that would be so much fun. I had a whole fantasy about twins. And I even ate all of these yams because I heard that if you were eating yams, you had a higher chance of having twins. So I went through all of this, and I was pregnant with one and I was a little bit disappointed, and then he was born.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: And he was a very demanding baby. And I said, thank you, God, because I could not have taken two of these.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: So I take my hats off to all of you all. To Diamond, go girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: I'm very impressed. You even sound sane.

Ms. HARRIS: You don't know twins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, you know, Diamond, you sound remarkably calm.

Ms. HARRIS: Try breastfeeding them. That wasn't fun.

MARTIN: Now how about that?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, we started off with them teaching me to actually put them to the breast, but one of them bit me, and that was over. I had the pump after that. So it was every - like feeding, every two hours, I was pumping around the clock. I didn't think I would produce enough milk, but my doctor told me Mother Nature always take care of his own. So I produced enough.

MARTIN: You were able to breastfeed all six?

Ms. HARRIS: Yes. I made more than enough milk.

Ms. IVEY: Wow. That's a tremendous commitment.

MARTIN: Yeah. We're all very impressed here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Very impressed. Sharon, what are some of the other common reports that you hear from parents of multiples?

Ms. COVINGTON: Well, I think that Diamond already has said some of those things about the lack of privacy, again, the financial strains is things that I often hear. You know, I think one of the things that I found interesting in the whole "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" situation is the fact that they keep on saying in some ways that it is the multiples that have caused this problem. She throws out the statistics that three times the divorce rate in parents of multiples. I haven't been able to find that statistic anywhere. No doubt it causes tremendous strain. But there were problems in their relationship before this ever began.

MARTIN: I have a clip from the program where they talk about their decision to separate. Let's just play this short clip and just see what we think.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Jon and Kate Plus Eight")

Mr. JON GOSSELIN ("Jon and Kate Plus Eight"): I try to contemplate it and think about it, and would it be better for us? It's just not good for our kids for us to be arguing in front of our kids. And it just - we can't be cordial with one another, and we've decided to separate.

Ms. KATE GOSSELIN ("Jon and Kate Plus Eight"): I'm not very fond of the idea, personally, but I know it's necessary because my goal is peace for the kids. And if peace needs to be brought about by this, then I'm in agreeance(ph).

MARTIN: And listening to that, I can see, Sharon, your point, which is that that's something that perhaps any divorcing couple might say, which is that we're not getting along - and that they don't really say why it is, but you do get the sense that there's some resentment. In an earlier part of the program, Jon discusses his feeling of resentment, that he feels the situation was somehow forced upon him. I don't know. Do sometimes people feel that way, that one party feels dragged into it and not fully onboard? Do you ever see that on the course of counseling your patients?

Ms. COVINGTON: Absolutely. And it's a red flag. And I think that there were indications of this in this marriage. She was a driving force as far as wanting to have kids. He was 22 years old. She was 24 years old. Almost immediately, she wanted to have children. And, you know, again, in marriages, it's good to have a foundation. And usually, you need at least two years together to begin that foundation. Number two, you both want to be on the same page as far as your desire to have a kid. And they had to make a choice in going through technology. And he was somewhat hesitant, went ahead with it. They had twins.

Then it was clear that she immediately wanted to get back into it, within a year, I believe, of treatment. He did not, and he said that he didn't. And finally, my sense is after he was hammered for a while, he ended up agreeing with the idea they would have just one more, and low and behold, they had six. So she has been a driving force in this relationship all along, kind of ordering him around. You can hear it in the shows.

MARTIN: Diamond, do you mind if I ask? Has that ever been an issue in your marriage? Are you and Chris on the same page about this?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, it was somewhat the same, but a little bit different. Chris wanted to have more, and I didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: We had Dwayne, he wanted one more. And he did hound me for a little while, but I think where we differ, where we - like the doctor said, we've known each other a lot longer. Before we even started dating, we were friends, like really, really good friend. And then once we started dating, we dated a couple of years and then got married. So we knew each other. Even though he hound me and we went on and had more than one, it wasn't planned. It was somewhat the same situations, but I don't know why the outcome is a little bit different. But like said, I don't understand why they're have been - they are been held up to a higher standard. Every family goes through this, I think, and people always ask me what I think, and I think nothing. I think I got to work on my own marriage like everybody else does in this world. So I try not to focus on that.

MARTIN: Well how do you and Chris, your husband, maintain peace in the home and try to stay on the same page, because it is - it's hard.

Ms. HARRIS: We religious. We talk to our pastor. We go to counseling, even now. I mean, like you guys said earlier, they do counsel you before you go in for fertility treatment. But to me, I'm all for it, but that counseling doesn't do any good because you're not truly prepared for what's to come. I mean, once the reality hit, it is like a total culture shock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know what? I want to play a short clip from the documentary for Discovery Health that you participated in, with one of your tips for wrangling all these people - little people…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …when you're out in public. And here it is.

(Soundbite of Discovery Health Documentary)

Ms. HARRIS: Handling the kids out in public, the biggest tip I would give is I taught them to line up against the wall, line up against the van, line up against the glass. Anything that's flat where all of them line up and I can make sure I count them and see - make sure everyone is there. That's what I have taught them to do, and it have worked. They get rowdy in a minute, we'll say get up against the wall, and everybody line up and just wait. It's as if you're in school and they tell you to walk in a line. It's the same thing.

MARTIN: Okay. You hear that? Line up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Jolene, what are your tips for handling a large family when you're out in public?

Ms. IVEY: I can't believe that those two have time to fight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: I mean, really. I don't think that my husband and I have the perfect marriage or anything, but boy, we're all so busy between our own lives and the kids lives and everything else we have to do, we really don't fight, and I just think we don't have time. So I'm kind of surprised that those two have time to fight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: But as far as, you know, the kid's behavior and handling them in public, it's really like Diamond said in a way, which is they know what you're expectations are. And as long as you've been clear with them from the beginning how you will and will not behave in public, they'll listen to you.

MARTIN: But what about keeping it together with Glen, your husband? What about keeping on the same page? You all say you're too busy to argue, but this…

Ms. IVEY: Well…

MARTIN: You know, if you're going argue there's always something to argue about.

Ms. IVEY: True. Yeah, and people always say communication's important, and, obviously, it is. And part of it is just being willing to stick it out no matter what. I know that the problems we've had - like Glen will sign the kids up for everything under the sun because they're all such valuable activities, but then he's not the one usually who's got to get them to all these activities. So then I'll get a little bit annoyed. And, you know, but we work it out. And as they've gotten older, it's so much easier because now we can leave them alone for a little while by themselves. It's not like I have to get a babysitter all the time. And we can give them a little more time alone and give each other more time together.

MARTIN: Hear that, Diamond? It get's easier. But…

Ms. HARRIS: It's getting easier now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: They're going to be seven in two weeks. So…

Ms. IVEY: That's a lot easier than when they were two running around, isn't it?

Ms. HARRIS: Oh yes ma'am. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Sharon, in the last couple of minutes we have left, do you have some advice for parents who have these multiples? Do you have any advice for them?

Ms. COVINGTON: You know, I think it's the same advice that I would give to any couple who is about to have a child - just one child. And that is is that marriages are like a garden. They have to be watered and fed and get sunshine and nurtured to make it grow. And when you have kids, suddenly all the focus can be on them. And people really forget about the relationship, about what brought them all together and that whether you have one or you have eight, you have to make sure that you have time for each other, time for yourself, and that you really see it as a fluid state that requires ongoing work and communication in order to make it grow.

MARTIN: Sharon Covington is the director of Psychological Support Services for Shady Grove Fertility Center. That's in the Washington, D.C. area. She was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio along with Jolene Ivey, a regular contributor to our TELL ME MORE parenting segment, and a co-founder of the Mocha Moms. That's a parenting support group. Diamond Harris is the mom of seven, including the Harris sextuplets, and she joined us from her temporarily quiet home in Birmingham.

MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. COVINGTON: Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. HARRIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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