In the space of 95 seconds, the world as Patty and Scot Shier knew it turned on end. Never to be the same. But Patty Shier will be the first to tell you that it took awhile--days into weeks--for it to entirely sink in; for her to truly begin to conceive what all this might mean.
And it terrified her.
And it should have.
The biggest splash of sobering reality came pretty early, the evening of Jan. 23, 1996, when she flipped on the evening news still lying in her hospital bed after a particularly busy day. There on the screen, one of her longtime icons, Peter Jennings, led a story: "Tonight, in Los Angeles . . . Patty and Scot Shier gave birth to what is believed to be the healthiest set of quintuplets ever born in the United States. . . ."
"We had had meetings with the publicity people at the hospital before I gave birth. They told us that we probably needed to prepare a statement. That it would be better than having an orderly or janitor on the news telling the story," remembers Patty. "But we couldn't figure out how they knew. So fast! I mean I look up and there was Peter Jennings on the news talking about us. . . . 'The healthiest quintuplets born in U.S. history.' "
In recent years, like many families of high-multiple/fertility treatment-related births, the Shiers found themselves in the center of a whirlwind of floodlights and flashbulbs; questions and judgments, love and admonishments.
Dizzying? Wouldn't even begin to describe it. The Shier five have made the cover of Smithsonian magazine. They've been featured in local news segments as well as international newspapers. In the beginning, people sent checks, shoes, hand-sewn garments--the items arriving from all over the country and beyond.
Now on the eve of the quints' third birthday, we joined Patty and Scot Shier at their Westchester home for a typical day--from sunup to "nighty-night"--to gain a ground-level (literally) view of what it might be like to raise a healthy and happy brood of five--in order of birth: Sarah, Joshua, Rachel, Hannah and Jonathan. What is life like after the crazed frenzy has departed and life resumed its--relatively speaking--normal course?
This is what we found.
About three dozen little shoes spill out of a blue clothes basket near the tile entryway. The house is whisper quiet. The cats--Lucy and Linus--each doze at opposite ends of the blue La-Z-Boy couch like regal bookends.
"The rule," whispers Patty Shier, still in her night shirt, "is we take our shoes off and leave them in front to keep the house clean. But I don't know if it makes a difference . . ." Another rule--and there are many--is pinned both to a living room sideboard as well as emblazoned on a plaque hanging in the sunny kitchen: "No whining." The unifying force that runs this house.
That said, Patty walks purposefully to the back of the house to put on her face and change out of her bedclothes into something--by all means--comfortable. The playroom, which adjoins the kitchen, is neat and sun drenched with a view of the backyard covered with mounds of plastic toys faded by the sun. The white walls are dotted with a Noah's Ark motif. There are Legos and Duplo, a little wood and rattan table--atop which a fabric edition of "Book of Children's Prayers" sits as centerpiece, and plastic baskets and stackables full of brightly colored toys, all in their place.
Scot Shier emerges from the master bedroom, dressed in gray slacks, a crisp white shirt and tie. He slips on his jacket, and through the closed white doors come the first quiet squeals.
Miriam DaMatta arrives. She steps in to help the Shiers two days a week, the only paid help Patty has. The two met at church, Hope Chapel, a few years back, and she has been a steady presence in the Shiers' lives ever since.
"I rely, as Scarlet O'Hara once said, 'on the kindness of strangers,' " says Patty, bending the cliche, but underscoring it at the same time.
Miriam is a slight woman with wide, hazel eyes and a kind, soft voice and an equally serene demeanor. She immediately goes to work. Shucking off her brown lace-ups, busying herself in the kitchen.
"Five more minutes!" Scot calls out to the children, who have begun to audibly squirm and converse. With toys at hand, the morning rule is not to get out of bed without permission.
Formerly a stock broker with Dean Witter, "Until I was laid off in the middle of all this," he says gesturing broadly, Scot figures it all worked out. He's opened an investment brokerage office with Linsco/Private Ledger, which he has run for a year and a half. It has its pluses and minuses, Scot says.
"I'm 10 minutes from home," he says. "But he's often working 12 hours, 7 to 7," says Patty emerging again, ready for action--in a pair of red leggings and a roomy blue T-shirt, her eyes bright, alert, her strawberry blond hair curled and sprayed. The perky picture of Supermom.
Pink sleepers roll out of bed first. Sleepy-eyed girls squinting awake. Scot slips in to say goodbye. Towheaded Rachel was already out of bed. Twice. She's instructed to get back into bed, as her sisters scramble out into the arms of Miriam and Patty preparing for "potty" ritual.
"We have two bathrooms and eight toilets. So you have to watch where you walk," says Patty, 38, lifting the red and yellow plastic pots.
Next, Scot, also 38, makes the rounds to the boys' room, done up in a Mickey Mouse motif--Joshua is lying in a tangle of blanket face down, and Jonathan on his side. Joshua immediately snaps awake, twinkling eyes. Jonathan, in bed with a fire truck, sits for a moment staring into space, thumb planted firmly in mouth. But after a while, peering from the corner of his eye, he growls--"A lion!" Scot dispenses his good mornings and goodbyes laced with hugs and dips out the door. A classic TV dad.
Five little blue bowls and five little silver spoons sit on the kitchen counter. Next to them sit five plastic cups with little sippers. They are color coded, like the children themselves have been from the beginning--Sarah, yellow; Josh, blue; Rachel, white; Hannah, pink; Jonathan, green--the Rainbow Team.
"And don't worry," says Miriam, as she spoons oatmeal into each dish, "they'll tell you if you get it wrong."
Strapped securely into their multicolored plastic booster chairs, four of the quints wait patiently as Sarah, the last to be seated, makes herself busy, helping her mother and Miriam by passing out juice to each of her siblings and wiping their trays, reaching up on tippy toe.
After morning grace, the children begin to eat--chattering among themselves. As they munch, Patty has a minute to put a fried egg (now cold) on top of a piece of buttered toast. But eat it? Not just yet.
"I have to schedule everything around when I have help," Patty explains, finally taking a bite of her egg and toast, then a sip of coffee.
"I make one major trip to the market a week," she says. "And I use double coupons. So the best days for me to go to the market are on Monday and Tuesday, when the coupons are good. So that makes it rough."
A prodigiously maintained calendar is pinned to the refrigerator with a magnet, each square filled with highlights, must-dos in Patty's neat, even hand.
"I worked for Hewlett-Packard in systems support--my last job there at the end of 17 years--and in the end I said, 'Great, I'll never have to use a Franklin Planner again!' Boy, was I wrong."
The first shift of baths. The boys are corralled and whisked off by Miriam, while the girls busy themselves in the playroom. Toby, the family dog, peers in from outside at the goings-on. While the boys are bathing, Patty attempts to coax the girls into a potty visit--with mixed results. Some false alarms. Some quibbling. But they are dutiful and at the very least give it a try.
Miriam has been Patty's saving grace, she quickly acknowledges, a second set of eyes, arms, legs and ears. She volunteered in the beginning, but the Shiers wanted to keep her on so now pay her for her time.
"I feel bad sometimes. I'll lose my temper and feel that I was short with Miriam," Patty says. "So I'll call her later to apologize, and she'll say, 'Why?' "
Now the Shiers have five floating volunteers--one who commutes from Moorpark--who help out when they can.
"We have to schedule different activities around when the next bath is," Patty explains. "There's no oatmeal or peanut butter or sidewalk chalk on days that I don't have help with the baths. We have to maximize the benefit."
The girls bathed, they join the boys in the playroom. Things move smoothly--that is, until Joshua begins playing with a piece from the Duplo set that Hannah decides she wants. Joshua's eyes tear up immediately, indicating the storm to come. Out comes a tiny yelp: "Momma! The timer!" He leans over the plastic gate that separates the playroom from the rest of kitchen, and Patty gives him the kitchen timer to give Hannah three minutes with the toy. This is how they learn to take turns. The concept of sharing comes later.
Jonathan has slipped a pair of pink socks over his hands and looped a pair of "oculars" (binoculars) around his neck, lying flat against his back like a cape--hence "Sockman." The floor is an explosion of 3-D plastic color. Although the noise level rises and falls, there is a control and rhythm to their play. The tussles generally break out over toy possession.
"When they were little, less than 2 weeks old, I was driving out to Long Beach Memorial every day, so I had some time to transition," Patty recalls, surveying their interaction. "But when one of the doctors said, 'I think you can take Sarah home tomorrow,' that's when it hit. I can't do this! I just really flipped out. My husband was an only child, and I was an only child. I panicked. They even had to call the chaplain."
"Sesame Street." As Patty and Miriam wait for the children's hair to dry enough to comb, the cacophony is stilled by a big dose of Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch.
"I really had planned not to have them watch more than 30 minutes of video, video, a day. But, as you see, that didn't work," Patty says. "But we really try to limit how much time they spend in front of the television." While they're distracted, Miriam begins changing the bedclothes, and Patty slips off to do a couple of loads of laundry. (By day's end, she will have completed six.)
Hair combed, dressed in matching sets in their own colors, shoes on and laced, they're ready to head outside. Patty is stunningly organized. There are indoor toys and outdoor toys--within them a range of possibilities. A playhouse. A kitchen. A combination slide and modular jungle gym. Jonathan and Rachel skirmish over a whistling teapot. Out comes the timer. Joshua and Hannah have repaired to the playhouse and are "cooking." Patty tours the lawn, peeking in on each activity, working out disputes with the creativity and patience of Solomon. Sarah and Miriam sit on a chair in the sun and sing. Rachel now concentrates on making cake for breakfast. Jonathan has found a plastic broom and is regaling all with a Pete Townshend-style rendition of "Old McDonald," followed by a deep bow and a "Thank you. Thank you very much!" When it breaks, after he leans his little bit of weight on it, he quickly reimagines it a trumpet.
Lunch. Top Ramen with cheese toast and pears.
"Nothing cuts into five pieces easily!" Patty says, with a shake of her head. This afternoon's grace includes thanks to Miriam, and Sarah's nod to the worm they found in the yard. And Jonathan has actually taken his socks off his arms to eat. Patty's lunch, tuna salad over lettuce, but for a forkful, goes uneaten.
With more than a little prodding, Miriam and Patty have gotten all five to potty. ("Our lives revolve around these potties. We take them with us when we go to the park now because they don't have public bathrooms there anymore. We take a mayonnaise jar with us to pour it into.") Miriam has stayed a little later to help coordinate all of this, calm them down enough for their nap, but is gone by 2. This is Patty's relatively quiet time when she can return phone calls, get laundry done. Work on her Bible study homework for class tomorrow morning. Maybe, just maybe, lie down for a bit of rest. Today, though, the girls didn't go to sleep when asked the first time. So Patty lays down the law, leaving the door open so she can check on them. They finally drift off at 3:30, but Patty knows this will throw off the rest of the day, since the boys will have slept and the girls have not.
"One of the keys to all of this," Patty says, "is having a sense of humor."
"My dreams about what I was going to do if I had had one kid: I thought I would have some time to do some artsy-craftsy stuff. Cross-stitch, garden, read, stencil. I was going to cook more from scratch," Patty laughs, as she pulls out a package of frozen spinach and checks on the chicken thighs that she's just put in the oven. In the other room, the children begin an elaborate game of "preparing dinner." Hannah stops, rubs her belly: "I've got gas!"
"Sleep is really important to me in keeping my patience throughout the day," Patty says. And this is the hour of the day that she most needs it. Her fears are realized, as the noise level increases. She has to take a break from her dinner chores to spend some time with the kids.
While the noodles are simmering, Patty opens a can of Diet Coke. Exhales. For the first time in the day, traces of fatigue pull like gravity at her face. Her worries: too much noise, not enough noise.
"It just helps when they can go outside from 4 to 6, and during daylight savings time, it works better. But this," she gestures generally to the voices in the adjoining room, "this is why I need help."
She jumps up when she realizes they have gone into their rooms, off-limits for afternoon play. She bolts after the girls and then the boys, and reassembles them into the playroom. Rachel's mouth opens, first silence and then a wail: "Use words, Rachel. Use words!" Though Patty's voice becomes a bit more stern, she doesn't raise it. Under her breath, she mutters. "Dinner is burned, I'm sure. We're getting closer and closer to the black box," as she eyes the TV almost longingly.
Scot arrives home to a cascade of squealing "Daddy!" The kids are up, pogo-ing. Asking for "uppies," palms open, arms upraised. Meanwhile, Patty rushes around the compact kitchen, grating cheese, checking her recipe as she periodically ducks her head into the playroom.
"Scot, I really want this cleaned up so we don't have to come back and do it later," she says.
Scot turns to one of his wide-eyed daughters. "You've got to help me clean up, Sarah." That task resolved, Scot--now in casual clothes--steps into the kitchen.
"Someone smells like poo-poo." he tells Patty. Patty glances up from cutting the chicken. "I need you to check all the diapers. Please have all of the girls sit on the pot. And I would check them all for poop. It's already a quarter to 7."
There is an urgency in the voice that wasn't present earlier.
"The volume level at this time really gets to me," Patty admits. "Morning is so different. But it's really important to be consistent, even though it's more irritating. All this takes a strong faith, a sense of humor and organizational skills."
Somehow for all her earnest efforts, 6:30 has stretched to 7 by the time the whole family is seated.
"Dinner gets later and later, and that's not good for them," she says, as she makes the final adjustment before standing beneath the arch of the kitchen door with Scot to lead the family in the evening prayer. And both Joshua and Jonathan make sure to add: "Thank you, Jesus, for chicken and noodles! Yum-eee!" Patty, once seated, shows signs of the press of hours.
"Now I'm feeling tired," she says. "If you sit down, you just don't get up. So I just don't feel comfortable sitting down."
Dinner over, the children return to the playroom. Jonathan retrieves his pink socks and rolls them up his arm like opera-length gloves, then slips on his binoculars. Hannah leaves the table--and a trail of chicken and carrots she's folded into the bib. Potty and diaper duties complete, the children are then dressed in comfortable clothes for bed that they will then wear tomorrow for Bible study.
"It just makes the whole morning flow easier," Patty says, "because I will be on my own."
Sarah protests loudly: "I don't need a diaper, I don't wear diapers. We are not babies," she argues.
"What are you?" Patty asks.
"Quintuplets. We are not babies anymore."
Five heads on five pillows. Lights out. Lucy and Linus still recline on the sofa as if the day were just a dream. The house is once again whisper quiet. Patty is seated on the love seat with another full basket of laundry.
"I haven't read the mail. I haven't folded the laundry. I haven't done my Bible study homework. I'm going to try to go to bed by 10:30, I hope." She glances over to Scot who is petting one of the sleeping cats. "Scot," she tosses a pair of tiny trousers his way, "feel free to help." Scot gets folding and says with a sheepish grin: "Yep. I wondered how long I was going to get away with that."