4 x + 1 = joy and chaos, as quadruplets complicate one family's equation

By Lorna Collier
Published July 18, 1999 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family section)


It's 8 o'clock and the Sunday morning rush hour is in full swing inside a tiny three-bedroom bungalow in Springfield, Mo.

With church due to start in less than an hour, and with Dad occupying the home's only bathroom, the household's six females - one teenager, four 12-year-olds, plus their mom - aren't concerned.

Armed with three curling irons, three blow-dryers, several cans of hair spray, mousse and styling gel, not to mention an assortment of lip glosses, eye shadows and blushes, the woman and her daughters have assumed positions in front of the home's three wall mirrors, which hang in the living room and two bedrooms.

The girls take turns standing and sitting on the floor in front of the mirrors, putting on makeup and passing curling irons back and forth. `N Sync blares from the upstairs boombox, the Backstreet Boys blast from the downstairs stereo, and the family dachshund, Cocoa, trots excitedly from room to room, seeking attention.

To the casual observer, it appears to be a hectic, even chaotic scene. But in reality, this morning, similar to weekday mornings when school is in session, is part of a well-timed routine.

Ever since Carmen Sunday gave birth to naturally occurring, non- identical quadruplets in Rockford nearly 13 years ago, she and her husband, Steve, have lived with near-constant hustle and bustle, unending noise and energy, unceasing commotion and chaos.

There have been some almost unbearably painful and difficult and exhausting times, but also many moments of overwhelming joy and happiness, as the family has learned to live with love, faith and serene acceptance of the challenges they have been dealt.

Getting seven people in and out of the bathroom on any given morning has become, for the Sundays, a piece of cake. The key, Carmen says, is the magic word learned early by any family of multiples that hopes to survive: organization. Time is a prized commodity, tightly scheduled. The girls' showers, for example, are taken at night and last no more than 15 minutes each; clothes are selected the night before; homework is done immediately after school; weekly chores are rotated.

"Life at the Sunday house (runs) like a well-oiled machine," says Kevin Day, 39, Carmen's brother-in-law, who also lives in Springfield.

This is not to say that Carmen and Steve Sunday and their daughters--Erin, 14, and the quads: Jackie, Rachel, Kimberly and Janna--live robotic lives with no joy or spontaneity. Quite the contrary.

Although the family has been through difficult times in recent years, their loving and energetic household is full of laughter and singing, sports and music and free-wheeling discussions about everything from Kosovo and cloning to whether Hillary Clinton should run for the Senate -- not to mention favorite group 'N Sync's latest songs. Theirs is a spiritual household, in which nightly devotions are said and where church and God and the Bible hold positions of prominence. The Sunday home is also a normal one: the girls, like all siblings, sometimes squabble and fight and pout.
They are, after all, teenagers. Or soon will be.

The quads turn 13 in November. But, says Carmen: "The girls think they are teenagers already. I get a lot of rolling eyes and long sighs and stomping up stairs and a lot of moodiness."

So far, they haven't fought over boys; they have, however, argued over "borrowed" clothes. This doesn't happen often, Carmen says, because the girls have different sizes and tastes in clothes.

Rachel, for instance, is already 5 foot 4 and taller than both her mother and big sister Erin, with whom she shares a downstairs bedroom (the other girls use the house's third bedroom, built upstairs over the garage). Rachel likes sophisticated casual clothes and describes her style as between the "tomboyishness" of Janna and Kim and the preppy dressiness favored by Jackie.

"All the girls are really into their appearance" and love to shop at the mall, Carmen says, which would be easier if the family were well-to-do.

Money -- or rather the lack of it -- has always been a big problem for the Sunday family.

When the quads were born, the family lived in Rockford, where Steve worked as a night stock clerk at a grocery store and Carmen was a nurse's aide. Despite donations from the community and local businesses, the Sundays soon had to declare bankruptcy; they lost their first house and since then have lived in rented homes.

Seven years ago, the big blow came: Carmen was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It wasn't enough. In 1997, cancer was discovered in her other breast and in her lymph nodes. She had another operation and began the yearlong preparation for a stem-cell transplant, which she had last August.

Their mother's life-threatening illness was painful for the girls.

"We dealt with it hard," Erin says. "At first, I didn't have a full idea of what it was. I took it really hard when I found out."

In August 1997, feeling estranged from her husband, depressed, ill and frightened, Carmen took the girls to visit her sister in Springfield. She decided to stay, believing Springfield was a better place to raise the girls than Rockford: Housing and living costs were lower, as was the crime rate, and the town had "the wholesomeness of family values that Rockford has lost in the past 5 to 10 years," said Carmen, who rented a house and found a job at a hospital.

Steve, 45, a lifelong Rockford resident, at first refused to leave his hometown, his parents and the only job he had known for the last 28 years. Finally, last June, after a year spent soul-searching, he rejoined his wife and daughters.

"I'd never had to make a decision like that in my whole life," he says. "I didn't want to lose my family."

Steve found a second-shift job at a Springfield rubber factory, which he enjoys, and rediscovered both his wife -- "We've never been happier in the 15 years of our marriage," Carmen says -- and his daughters.

"When I came down here, I hadn't seen them in about a year. They had grown up so much in just that short time. They're young women now; before long, they won't be around."

"He's a good dad," says Carmen's sister, Gretchen Day, 38. "I've seen him up at midnight typing with two fingers on a manual typewriter to help one of the girls get a paper done for school. When the quads were playing basketball this winter, he was at every game."

Despite the newfound family harmony, the bills have continued to mount. Every school field trip fee, every yearbook or picture fee is times four, and that's just for the quads. At least two of the girls need braces, but the family has no dental insurance. Carmen takes maintenance drugs to prevent her cancer from recurring; even with insurance, she can't always afford the co-pays and sometimes chooses not to fill a prescription.

The still-growing girls always seem to need clothes. The girls don't like buying things at discounters like Wal-mart or Target -- Rachel once was taunted by a girl at school for "wearing Wal-mart clothes" -- but they know there often is no choice.

And on top of all that, there's college to save for. All five girls are honor-roll students and have careers in mind.

Despite these pressures, Carmen and Steve find joy almost daily in the simple act of watching their daughters grow up. The girls sing and act in church productions, some of which Carmen has written, and also volunteer at a homeless shelter and children's home.

"To see them give back and participate in other people's lives is a real joy," Carmen says. Besides delighting in her daughters' activities and accomplishments, Carmen loves simply being near them: snuggling beside her freshly showered girls at night, inhaling their scent, sharing their bedtime confidences.

With Steve at work, the Sunday daughters and their mother gather at bedtime each night for a formal group devotion. It's a time they use to consider how much they have to be grateful for.

"Even the bad things that have happened have brought good into our lives," Carmen says. "My girls have a much more mature perception about people and a genuine interest in them as individuals, which they might not have had if they'd had the opportunity to indulge in `things.' "

Later, after her daughters have fallen asleep, Carmen often slips back into their bedrooms. She stands in the quiet darkness beside each sleeping girl, contemplates that child's individual needs, and says a silent prayer for her.

© Copyright Lorna Collier, 1999

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