"Full House" should be read with appreciation by all mothers of very young children (fathers are welcome, too, of course, though Mom is the important figure in this story). In the first place, it affords the salutary reminder that no matter how trying one's own domestic circumstances might be, there is always someone around who has radiantly survived much worse. Second, it allows readers to try to imagine experiences that really are unimaginable to most mothers.
By 1973, when she became pregnant, Karen Anderson had already suffered six miscarriages in as many years and had adopted two small boys, one of whom turned out to be deaf and asthmatic, the other intellectually gifted. By most people's standards, she had her hands full already. Imagine being told, then, after a routine prenatal X-ray, "Here's one. And here's one. And here's one. And here's one. Karen, you're carrying four babies!"
Anderson writes movingly of her feelings that night: "it took me hours to drift off even after the babies had settled down, and when I finally fell asleep I had a horrible nightmare. Despite the fact that I was brimming with life, my dream was all about death . . . Six times, I had given birth to dead babies. Were these four going to die, too? As dawn drew closer, I started vividly imagining my own death: my stomach was going to grow bigger and bigger, and I was going to split in two like a ripe tomato."
Try to imagine, further, how the Andersons must have felt when she gave birth to five, not four, babies, all weighing less than three pounds, and one with hyaline membrane disease and a heart murmur. After the calls, the visitors, the press attention, she writes, "My head felt as if it were going to explode." But this was, after all, only the beginning of the unimaginable effort -- as well as the rewards -- of raising the quintuplets and their two brothers without regular outside help of any kind. "Eric and I were private people, and we wouldn't feel comfortable having someone else around all the time."
The question is, how did they do it? Eric Anderson was a salesman for a metals company, and the family lived on a farm of sorts near Portland, Ore. It would be interesting to know more about the financing of the children's upbringing, since the Andersons refused any commercial offers that involved apparent exploitation of the children. Apart from a year's supply of formula, baby food and some other products from Gerber and Mead Johnson, they were on their own, on a single salary.
But in the end, money is never the most important factor. "Full House" is unself-conscious testimony to the fact that the really extraordinary person in all of this was Karen Anderson herself. She writes convincingly of the mind-shredding difficulties of the quintuplets' early years, "learning new definitions of the word busy. Busy meant staying up after a 2 a.m. feeding to clean the house and do the laundry. Busy meant setting our alarm clock for 5 in the morning to squeeze in showers -- even though we had had only four hours of sleep. Busy meant going to bed forgetting to eat dinner. When the babies were sick . . . "
But her good humor remains uppermost, and it is this quality that gives her story its zest and excites our sympathy and admiration. "I was followed by a row of towheaded, sticky-fingered crawlers wherever I went -- the bathroom was no exception. At first, I tried closing the bathroom door -- but they howled miserably, and I decided it was better to invite them in. So there I would be, seated on the throne, surrounded by little people. One would be patting my leg. One would be helpfully pulling out long lengths of toilet paper, two would be bending over the tub playing with the soap and another would be opening and closing the cabinet door. So much for privacy."
"I'm the kind of person who always likes to feel in control," she writes, and in control she manifestly was, tireless, patient, tolerant and unfailingly well-organized. If this sounds too good to be true, and even starts getting you depressed, it is comforting to learn that her husband sometimes felt the same way. "I come home and find Supermom in the flesh. The babies are fed, dinner's ready, the house is clean, the boys are playing together -- you seem to be able to do it all by yourself. Where do I fit in?"
Karen Anderson wrote "Full House" simply to let the curious, skeptical public know that taking care of quintuplets was not a terrible burden but a uniquely rewarding experience. "I had often observed the gentle, loving interaction between the five and wished that I could be a part of it . . . Constant, sympathetic companionship . . . By some twist of fate, Audrey, Scott, Roger, Diane and Owen had been born into the comfort zone that the rest of us spent all of our lives searching for." Lucky children! Not only did they have that, but also a mother capable of writing about them with such insight and tenderness.
The reviewer, author of "David Jones: Mythmaker," is the mother of three children under 6.