Photo Credit: Michael Pilla/Getty Images
Tonight, TLC will air the final episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8. Most news outlets have trumpeted this information with a sigh of relief. Good riddance, they say, to this squabbling couple and their sanctimonious divorce. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
The truth is, though, that the Gosselins were welcomed guests in millions of homes over the last four and a half years, and for a while, we enjoyed their company. In May of 2006, when I had one baby and a second on the way, I happened to catch their Discovery Channel special, Surviving Sextuplets and Twins. There was Kate, a woman with twin preschoolers and six babies who were just a few months older than my one. She was dealing with my issues -- fatigue, tedium, joy, wonder, non-stop work -- on an exponential scale. Her nursery was like mine, a sacred place. But hers had six cribs.
She walked us viewers through her day, starting in the morning, when she first entered that room of cribs. Surrounded by babies, outnumbered by them, she got right to work. Changing diapers. Snapping onesies. Preparing, then hand-feeding healthy food. Laundry, laundry, laundry. She did everything I did, times six. I can't begin to express how helpful that was to me. In my tough moments -- dirty diapers at inconvenient times, nonstop crying, whatever it was -- I'd remind myself, "You can handle this. She's just one baby."
Later, I discovered that the special had been developed into a series. The Gosselin kids, and my first daughter, were now 2 years old. I loved seeing how Kate's children had grown and changed, as mine had. I loved, too, watching Kate grapple with the issues common to 2-year-olds, and marriage.
There was so much I could relate to. In one early episode, when Kate asked Jon to organize the garage, the sextuplets gathered behind one of the many baby gates (just like at our house) and squealed for Daddy (just like at our house). Kate then complained that when Jon had a project like this, she lost her weekend -- the one time she wasn't sole caretaker of the kids. What mom hasn't been hit with "overtime" parenting, and couldn't help griping about it?
The potty training episodes were priceless, because they highlighted a universal truth: Potty training is an all-consuming activity. For as long as it takes, the training shapes your days, and it's awful. Yes, it was strange when Kate took a photo of Alexis sitting next to her first poop in the potty. But I think most moms would agree that the end of dirty diaper changing is a glorious moment worth celebrating. (Though, for the record, I agree with Jon that photographing it was gross.)
Kate's children gave up their pacifiers right around when my older one did. "You can have one last suck," Kate told the kids before taking them away. "Why would you tease them?" Jon asked, as if the pacifier was a cigarette. And it's true: Paci sucking is like an addiction. "I told them they can have one last suck," she insisted. Then, cold turkey.
The first dentist visit, with Kate hovering and fretting, was also interesting, if uncomfortable, to watch. Kate correctly predicted who would flip out in the chair, and who would make it through easily. The kids went through in pairs, and we viewers sighed along with Kate when Leah reached over and took Joel's hand to comfort him.
My favorite episode was the day they visited the Crayola Factory, a "hands-on experience." Some amused producer kept a tally of how many potty breaks were required. But the running joke was that neat freak Kate is extremely wary of "markers or paint or any of that kind of stuff" around her children. "Nothing messy, that's the rule," she said. "When they offer us a project, nothing messy." Jon took his cue and rolled his eyes. (His eyes must be so tired.) And later, Kate explained her marker horror. "When you have one child who gets one stain on her shirt, that's one thing," she said. "When you have eight kids that are all markered up, that's a whole day I'm spending in the laundry room on stain removal." Point taken.
Even with all those little voices and opinions and personalities, Kate seemed to know each child. So did Jon. In one episode, they told the TLC interviewer about their kids' eating patterns, while the camera panned across the little faces around the dinner table. "Hannah eats more vegetables and fruit." "Colin eats more than the others." "Leah eats less." "Joel and Aiden are a toss-up, but on the lesser side." "Alexis can eat almost as much as Collin." As they reeled off their kids' likes and dislikes, their love for their kids -- each kid -- came through. A mom knows those special little details, even a mom of eight. That was lovely to watch.
As a viewer, I found the sextuplets' fifth birthday party to be bittersweet. By then, the couple's marital problems were front and center at supermarket newsstands. "The kids are so innocently oblivious to all that surrounds us and follows us," said Kate, sitting at a picnic table with one of the little girls. The camera angle includes Jon, but he was eating at a separate table. And even this was a relatable moment. What parents haven't had to shield their little ones from some adult-inspired tension? Viewing this happy event through knowing eyes, I felt a twinge of sadness when Colin declared, "This is my favorite birthday ever!"
I understand why people are relieved by the Gosselins' departure, and I agree that it's for the best. The divorce coverage was outrageously over-hyped, and that's not to mention the many concerns that have been raised about filming the children. But a lot of people enjoyed the show for a while, and this sour ending doesn't detract from the many sweet and relatable moments it offered during its run. I bid them a fond farewell.