Tallmadge -- The Whitmer quadruplets, which are said to be the only known quadruplets in Tallmadge's history, reached a major milestone when they turned 1 last month.
Kelly [Smith] Whitmer, a 1999 Tallmadge High School graduate who is an eighth grade math teacher at Green Middle School, and 1988 Mogadore High School graduate Tony Whitmer, who runs the family's small lawn fertilization business, invited about 100 guests to a party at the Akron Turner Center in Tallmadge Jan. 20.
Friends and family sang four rounds of "Happy Birthday" to the toddlers lined up in their highchairs and watched while each smashed his or her own cake.
Admission to the party was a package of diapers.
As Kelly and Tony look back on the first year of their children's lives, their story provokes all sorts of emotions, from love to excitement to anxiety.
The time is right
After two years of marriage, Kelly and Tony felt it was time to start a family.
"We tried for a year and a half to have kids, and with me getting older and her insurance at work had changed which then covered the costs of the fertility specialist, we went," Tony said.
The couple opted for insemination, or inserting only the best sperm from Tony into Kelly. After Tony provided his sample, the sperm were spun to separate the healthiest and strongest from the weak.
The doctor told the couple there was a 20 percent chance of conceiving twins and carrying them to term and a .2 percent chance of quadruplets.
Tony said having twins was attractive as they could have two kids and complete their family. Kelly wanted three, which could have taken six to eight years, and Tony didn't want to be 48 years old and still having children.
"I'm an only child, and I knew my kids wouldn't have any aunts and uncles from my side of the family ... I knew what it was like to grow up as an only child, and I wished I would've had siblings and that's why I wanted three [children]," she said.
Tony has three older brothers, but the third-oldest brother has 10 years on him.
"Later in my life, I thought two and done would've been great, but she would have been able to talk me into three," he said. "When I was younger I wanted a big family." He said he doesn't remember his oldest two brothers living at home, and he didn't really have siblings to hang out with when he was growing up.
Three. No, there's four!
Before the couple found out Kelly was pregnant, she told Tony that something wasn't right. What she had read about early pregnancy didn't cover a swelling belly before a mom-to-be even found out she was pregnant.
At six weeks of gestation there was good news from her OB-GYN.
"The first time we went to the doctor we were told we had triplets," she said. "The week after that when we went, we were told there was a possibility there was a fourth gestational sack there but couldn't see a fourth baby or a fourth heartbeat." It appeared that four of Kelly's eggs had been fertilized, but only three had developed.
During the next appointment a week later, the doctor confirmed there were four beating heartbeats in Kelly's womb. The doctor said the fourth embryo might have been connected to one of the others and was undetected by the ultrasound.
"When we found out it was quadruplets, I was like, 'OK. What's one more? One more to add to the party,'" she said.
Tony, although relieved that there was now a reason for Kelly's swelling abdomen, didn't take the news of quadruplets as well as he did the triplets. He said through TV shows, he'd learned of families who had triplets, and foursomes seemed to be "the new twins." But even "John and Kate Plus 8" didn't prepare him enough.
"I was just overwhelmed when I heard it was four," he said. "I think that was it. I had never been a part of or heard of anything [about quadruplets] from anyone in my life."
Kelly was referred to a high-risk OB-GYN to closely monitor her pregnancy.
In the early weeks, severe, all-day nausea from a fourfold increase of pregnancy hormones led her to take medication to ease it, but she was able to coach cross country during the fall, even while she was on bed rest.
As the weeks went by, her abdomen grew ... and grew ... and grew.
"I would say I was looking more than nine months pregnant at 20 weeks," she said. "So walking down the hallways at my school, walking up and down the stairs was just getting really hard."
The kicking babies in her belly continually woke her during the night so Kelly found herself exhausted.
When her doctor put her on modified bed rest, where she would rest a few hours a day but still be able to do her daily routines, such as driving and grocery shopping, she felt her energy and health improving.
Her doctor appointments every other week continued until she was 28 weeks pregnant and then became more frequent.
Still, the size and weight of her belly made it difficult for her to do much of anything, so she had to ask her husband to do even the simplest things, such as pick up something from the ground. By the time the holidays came around, Kelly could go Christmas shopping, but only in a wheelchair.
Finding clothes that fit was another challenge.
"Extra-large maternity clothes didn't cover my belly, and I am normally not an extra-large size person," Kelly said. Only some of her father's extra-large size clothes worked.
Four is better than one
Toward the end of her pregnancy and after she had been on full bed rest for a week, Kelly's doctor discovered she had pre-eclampsia, or high blood pressure. Because it was her first pregnancy, and she was carrying multiples, Kelly was at a higher risk for developing the condition.
At that time she was scheduled for a Caesarian section at Akron General Hospital to deliver the babies, who had been developing for 32 weeks and five days, on Jan. 17, 2012.
"At that time I was so huge and uncomfortable and in so much pain that I was ready," she said. The babies were pushing up on her lungs, diminishing her lung capacity.
"I couldn't eat a lot or breathe," she said. A trip to the bathroom at home would leave her panting.
Because Tony was working fewer hours during the end of the pregnancy, he felt he had a better understanding than some men of what pregnant women go through.
"It was hard to see her have to go through that, but she did all the right things ... ," Tony said. "She carried these quadruplets for a long time. The doctor was super-proud of her." Tony said the average gestation of a quadruplet pregnancy is 28 to 30 weeks.
Kelly and Tony chose not to learn the sex of the babies until they were born.
"I was thinking probably two and two. So we went to the hospital prepared with three boys names and two girls names," Kelly said. "And we had three girls and one boy."
The only boy in the set, 4-pound, 11-ounce and 17.5-inch Bryson, came out first, followed by Kendall at 3 pounds, 12 ounces and 17.25 inches. Both were born at 11:51 a.m.
A 11:52 a.m. Alana, 4 pounds and 16.5 inches, was delivered before the smallest of the set they called "Peanut." She was 3 pounds, 2 ounces and 16.5 inches.
After a smooth delivery, the overall healthy babies were transported to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Akron Children's Hospital. Kendall received some respiratory assistance that night but by the next day was breathing on her own. All of the four had minor jaundice, and because they were born two weeks before their suckling reflexes probably would've developed, they were fed through nasograstric tubes, commonly called NG tubes, that went up their noses and into their stomachs.
With the complications of the delivery of the multiples -- a C-section, four placentas, blood loss and different post-operation medications she was taking -- Kelly wasn't able to see her babies until two days later. At that time, the new parents officially named "Peanut" Jenelle.
It takes a village, or at least a team of 12
Alana was the first of the quadruplets to be released after spending three weeks in the NICU, and Jenelle came home the following week. Kendall and Bryson couldn't wait long after and joined their brother and sister the next day.
"After watching the [TV] shows, I was prepared for them to be in [the NICU] for months," Tony said.
Now that the entire family was together, Kelly said it was "overwhelming" to be caring for the babies themselves.
"We kept everything on the same schedule. They fed every three hours. They didn't feed quickly," she said. Half of their feeds were pumped breast milk, the other half special formula for preemies.
The quadruplets haven't experienced any health complications from being premature and are growing properly. Jenelle took a while to learn to roll over, but after she did, she soon reached other milestones, such as on Jan. 1 when she rolled from her back to her belly, crawled and stood by herself.
A week after their first birthday, Kelly said the babies are all doing well.
"Two of them are walking, and two of them are trying. They're hitting milestones at or ahead of where our doctor is expecting them. You really don't expect 1-year-olds to be walking," she said. Kendall was the first walker at 11 months old, followed by Alana at 11.5 months.
They understand language and are starting to say some recognizable words.
The Whitmers have recruited a team of 12 volunteers to work in shifts to help care for the children. Family, friends and neighbors donate their time. A nanny works part-time during the winter when work is slower for Tony and possibly will again this summer when Kelly is off work. She works full-time for the family during the spring and fall.
The babies start to wake up at 5:30 a.m. during the week, and Kelly's parents, who live across the street in the house where Kelly grew up, arrives at 7 a.m. Her cousin and her boyfriend come Monday afternoons, and volunteers help out every bath night.
Kelly said that sometimes during the winter when Tony is with the quadruplets a lot, it's like he's running a day care. When she gets home from work, she has about five minutes before she's needed to pitch in.
Tony said he admits he gets "housetrophobic" when he's stuck inside at home all day and the weekdays and weekends blend together.
"Technically, Kelly and I can do it, but when we have do it all the time, it just gets to us. And that can affect our relationship," Tony said.
The Whitmers don't plan to have more children, but their quadruplets will have playmates that also have the experience of being higher-order multiples. Since they were born, Kelly and Tony have befriended two other families -- one in Green and the other in Medina -- who have quadruplets.
And the support goes beyond the babies; the parents of each of the families lean on each other for information and advice.
Kelly and Tony's hopes are what all parents should want for their children:
"For them to be healthy and happy with whichever path they choose," Kelly said.
Tony added that he wants people to see past the fact that they're quadruplets and get to know them individually.
"They're already close, and they'll always be close, but I want them to be individuals, too," he said.
Unless there's a special event, such as a holiday, the toddlers dress in non-matching outfits. Kelly avoids referring to them as "our quadruplets" and prefers "my kids."
"They're siblings that just happen to have the same birthday," she said.
Raising four children is expensive enough, and the Whitmers had theirs all at once.
Kelly manages the finances for the family and has figured exactly how much it’s spending on supplies and where it can save money.
“Kelly and I aren’t rich, but we’ve found a way to afford this,” Tony said.
The children go through about a gallon of organic whole milk each day, which costs about $6 per gallon. Other than applesauce and infant cereal, Kelly makes homemade baby food. The toddlers are transitioning to table food.
During the first year of life, babies used 8,880 diapers and drank 7,516 bottles of milk and formula. They also paid $1,800 per month for a full-time nanny for half of the year.
In order to help with expenses, the couple had five baby showers. Guests who brought diapers or wipes in addition to their gift were entered into a gift basket giveaway. The husbands and boyfriends of the guests were invited to a separate pizza-and-beer party, for which a pack of diapers was the admission. The babies also have a benevolent fund set up at a bank, to which guests make donations.
Other ways the family tries to control its budget include not taking vacations, having only four or five outfits in each size per child and asking for gifts the children could really use.