Parents react to news of identical septuplets
The New York Times (Section A, Page 14)

February 19, 1983

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The parents of the world's only septuplets received astounding news yesterday: their seven children are all going to look alike.

Consider any twins you might know: if they look nothing alike, then they're probably fraternal, like two-thirds of twins. But if they look alike, they are probably identical. Their hair is the same color; they're about the same height; they might act something alike.

In a large multiple birth, a single embryo may split into two or even three separate embryos, resulting in identical twins or triplets within a larger pregnancy. Robin and Peter Carlson, both 34, had their children tested to see if this was the case with any of their daughters.

What they found astounded doctors and family alike.

"They had them tested at Sinai Hospital in Detroit first," said Dr. Anna Wannamauer of the University of Michigan Medical Center. "Then they brought them here to double-check the findings because they couldn't believe what they saw. It might still be easier to believe that somehow both tests produced the same mistaken results. The odds against identical septuplets are incalculable."

"That something as incredible as this could happen in our family—it's like the shock of having the world's only septuplets all over again," said Mr. Carlson.

Still, the family isn't entirely surprised. Though they didn't know the odds, they know their children. "They're seven months old now. If they weren't identical, I would have thought they'd look pretty distinct by now, but we still put colored bracelets on their wrists to tell them apart," said Mrs. Carlson.

"Not that we can't tell them apart," she added quickly afterward. "Sometimes we just have a little trouble. The bracelets are just to be sure."

What's ahead for the girls?

Not being able to tell their seven little girls apart is only the first of many worries for the septuplets' parents.

"We already knew they were going to have a hard time at school, with there being seven of them," said Mrs. Carlson. "We want them to be able to make friends easily. That might be harder if they all look alike. Will people want to be friends with them if they can't tell them apart? Or will they just make fun of them?"

"We're also concerned about the effect of the attention they're getting," said Mr. Carlson. "After having been so well known as newborns, we hoped the public interest would die down. This seems to be starting it all back up again."

Added their mother: "No one's going to be able to forget that they're the famous septuplets if they all look the same."

Such attention is the biggest concern for the septuplets' parents, who don't want their girls' lives harmed by the attention of curious outsiders. They acknowledged that seeing seven girls who all look alike will be enough to make even the most innocent passerby stop and stare, and pledged to dress the girls as differently as possible in the hopes of counteracting such effects. They spoke of a story from the past to demonstrate their worst fears.

A history lesson

Before the Carlson septuplets, the largest group of identical babies in medical history was five. These were the Dionne quintuplets, born in Ontario, Canada in 1934. Just as the Carlsons are the world's first septuplets, the Dionnes were the world's first quintuplets.

The Dionnes were taken from their parents and put on display at "Quintland," a tourist attraction in Ontario, Canada. Their parents sold souvenirs to the mobs who came to view the five look-alike little girls through a glass window. Their faces were used to advertise everything from Quaker Oats to corn syrup. Collectible toys, dolls, and scrapbooks featuring the Quints made a fortune for the Canadian government.

"Everyone was captivated by those little girls," said Mildred Blakely, a Detroit resident who remembers collecting quintuplet memoribilia when she was a child. "Had they all looked different, I don't think they would have had nearly such a strong grip on the public's attention. But there's just something amazing about seeing such a group of identical children."

In 1965 the Dionne sisters co-authored a book, We Were Five, in which they tell the story of their childhood. The quintuplets make it clear that the quality of their lives was in no way improved by the attention of the masses. Robin and Peter say they have read the Dionnes' book and taken its message to heart.

The Dionnes' lives were destroyed not by merely being quintuplets or being identical, but by the way their family and community treated them because of it, say the Carlsons. "I think we can already say we're doing better than the adults in charge of the Dionnes did, but even if we don't put them on display, we worry sometimes that we won't know what's best for our daughters," said Mr. Carlson. "There are very few people who can give advice on raising a large group of world-famous identical children."

In the end, the parents say they plan to treat the septuplets as ordinary children as much as they can. No doubt learning to manage public curiosity will play a role in the girls' upbringing, but their parents hope it will not turn out to dominate all aspects of their lives.

"We hope people will be able to see past their similar features to understand that they are each unique individuals," said Mrs. Carlson.

What do the Carlsons hope the biggest problem for their family will be?

"Pretending to be one another and trying to trick us," said Robin with a laugh. "I can just imagine the day that's going to happen. With luck that'll be the biggest problem we'll have to face."

With seven healthy little girls, the Carlson family has been lucky so far. As the family adjusts to this latest development, they can only hope their good fortune will continue for many years to come.

The New York Times is a trademark of its respective company. Used without permission. This article is fictional.
The Carlson Septuplets, characters, and stories © 1994-2006 by Jessie Mannisto.