Normally, when you have a baby, you get hugs from well-wishers, some flowers, maybe balloons. Then you come home from the hospital and begin your new life.
There is very little normal when a woman gives birth to seven babies at once. And in this country, when something abnormal happens, it can echo forever.
Which brings us to the now famous Iowa couple, Ken and Bobbi McCaughey, whose seven new children have become “America’s family” — if family is something you watch and watch over.
Already the McCaugheys have been featured in everything from People magazine to NBC’s “Dateline.” So they are clearly being watched.
And they received more than a million dollars in gifts to help pay for their septuplets. So they are also being watched over.
And while no one doubts the wonder of birth or the innocence of children, you do have to wonder about the fuss we make.
Play-by-play on the deliveries
Let’s review the story. The McCaugheys — he’s a billing clerk at an auto dealership — used fertility drugs to help Bobbi get pregnant, as they had with their first child. They knew there were risks involved. They knew the odds of multiple births increased dramatically with fertility drugs, as did potential health hazards to the fetuses. They continued anyhow.
When seven babies were born, the media descended. Had it been four or five the attention would have been minuscule. But seven? That sets a record. And you know how Americans love records.
So this was now a “story,” an event. Corporations showered the couple with gifts. A new house, a 12-seat van, strollers, diaper service, even free cable TV. Not to mention the thousands dollars sent to them from outsiders. President Clinton called. Time and Newsweek did cover stories. (Newsweek, which fixed Bobbi’s teeth in the photo, read like a movie script: “At 12:45 the three clusters of doctors and nurses fell largely silent …the little infant …let out a fledgling war cry . . .”)
Soon Ken McCaughey bemoaned his loss of privacy. This did not prevent him and his wife from granting “Dateline” an “exclusive first” interview.
Eventually, the backlash came. People said, “Why are they getting special treatment?” In an angry letter to USA Today, a black woman wrote how black sextuplets were born in Washington earlier this year, and no such fuss was made. A house was quickly promised to that couple — but now this story was about racism as well. Others questioned how the McCaugheys could bring seven kids into a world where needy children are starving.
Ken and Bobbi went from unknown to celebrated to resented.
It took less than two weeks.
The lure of the spotlight
Now, I want to emphasize, once again, the joy and gratitude for seven so-far-healthy infants. They did nothing wrong. Their arrival is a wonderful thing.
But people do wonderful things all the time and don’t get called by the president. And it does seem that, more and more, American life is defined by media events. The power of the spotlight not only changes the fates of those caught in it, it affects the lives of those who observe it. Americans who might not slow down to talk to their next-door neighbors reached into their pockets and sent money to the McCaugheys, perfect strangers. Why?
In part because of kindness, sure. But also in part because of celebrity. The story was put in front of them, with dramatic narration and moving photos. And at the risk of being too cynical, perhaps some people gave to be a part of an event, the way the “We Are The World” video mobilized people by aligning them with stars such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, even though the cause — starving children a half a world away — had been around for years.
The problem with this is obvious: Pretty soon, unless you make TV or newspapers, your story doesn’t count.
It brings to mind the foreboding sentence from the film, “To Die For,” in which a beautiful and unscrupulous weatherwoman says everyone should want to be on TV because “What’s the point of doing anything if nobody’s watching?”
We cannot let ourselves become that kind of society. Audiences do not make things worthy. TV cameras should record a story, not anoint it.
The world wishes the septuplets health and happiness. But remember, there are 9,000 homeless children in the McCaugheys’ home state of Iowa. And unless we find a way to dramatize their stories, or to dig into our pockets for every needy family on our block, we are all being a little starstruck. And we’re not setting a very good example for our seven new citizens.
Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Waldenbooks, Madison Heights; 12:30 Wednesday, L&L Books, Penobscot Building, Detroit; 7:30 Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Okemos.