The Byler sextuplets burst through the front door, half of them smiling, half of them screaming. Three came home from preschool with lollipops. The other three, who attend a different preschool, arrived empty handed. ¶ Welcome to sibling rivalry times six.
"Some teachers give them surprises and some don't," mom Karoline Byler explained as her husband, Ben, tried to quiet the riot by handing out gum. "The ones who don't have them want them."
The Byler bunch — five boys and a girl who are the state's first set of surviving sextuplets — celebrate their 4th birthday today. While the good-night kisses overshadow the tantrums, refereeing the pack is a constant balancing act between fairness and equality.
"They don't yet get the wait-your-turn thing," said Karoline, 33, after the kids celebrated their birthday party last weekend at a bowling alley. "MacKenzie was just throwing balls. Charlie and Eli love (potato) chips, so they were sitting with the chip bowls in their laps."
Much has changed since the children were delivered via caesarian section in 2007 at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.
The calls from national television shows have stopped, mainly because the Bylers haven't bitten. Karoline cringes at reality shows and the dysfunction they seem to create in some of the families who agree to be featured. She also questions the motives of some parents.
"It's like they said 'Oh, boy, we can get rich off this,' " she said of Kate Plus 8, formerly Jon & Kate Plus 8, which chronicled the Gosselin sextuplets' and twins' lives and their parents' breakup. TLC recently announced it was canceling the series.
Bryan and Jenny Masche, who had sextuplets just before the Bylers, also got their own show, Raising Sextuplets, on WE, only to separate after moving from Arizona to the Florida Panhandle. They have since returned to Arizona but remain estranged.
The Bylers have not shunned publicity entirely. They still return local reporters' messages. And Karoline posts on Facebook about the children's cute moments and news of adenoid removals (three of the six have had them removed and Brady is due next month).
The sextuplets, who had minor speech and motor delays from being born two months early, have pretty much caught up to singleton peers. All are potty trained, a huge relief to a family that multiple birth experts say likely went through 13,602 diapers the first year.
However, space has become an issue. Ben, 34, walled off a large hallway to create an extra bedroom, where MacKenzie sleeps with her big sister Zoe, now 8. The boys sleep in two other bedrooms.
"It's a work in progress," Karoline said.
Having just one younger sibling is a big adjustment for any firstborn, but what about six?
"It's crazy," said Zoe, whose request for a sibling at age 3 started it all. Still, she's become a mother hen and quickly alerts her parents if a head count comes up short.
Her parents say they do their best to offer her one-on-one time. Sometimes Karoline will take her to the movies along with one or two sextuplets. Recently, mother and daughter flew to New York to visit relatives.
"We timed it so that Ben (who owns a Pepperidge Farm delivery route) was off," Karoline said.
Surrounded by volunteers when the kids were born, the couple is mainly on its own now. Karoline's mother lives about an hour away in the Villages and visits when she can. The children are in school weekdays, giving their stay-at-home mom time to run errands and coordinate doctor's appointments. She sometimes chaperones school field trips.
She and Ben also split up the kids more often. When one spouse goes out, they take at least one kid with them to lighten the burden for the other spouse.
Affectionately dubbed the "Six Pack," the boys still are dressed alike. But personalities and tastes of all six are now diverging.
When the parents ordered Pillow Pets as a gift, each child was allowed to choose. Each opted for a different animal.
Brady chose a monkey. Eli picked a pterodactyl. Charlie went for the triceratops. Ryan asked for the lion. Jackson got the giraffe. MacKenzie picked a pink ladybug.