It’s a remarkable milestone – the world’s only set of surviving octuplets has just turned 10. Their mother is Natalie Suleman – better known as Octomum. She may well be the most famous single mother on the planet – and for many years, also the most hated.
But Natalie Suleman is proving everyone wrong – and managing the unthinkable by successfully raising her little army with a military-like discipline.
10 years ago, Natalie Suleman was 33 years old. She was about to give birth with six other kids at home, ranging in age from 2 to 7. She was expecting seven more.
She was so big that the drugs she was given during labour weren’t strong enough to numb the pain.
“I felt everything,” Natalie tells Sunday Night’s Angela Cox. “Mums out there, if you’ve had a caesarean section with one baby, imagine eight, imagine feeling it. I felt the scalpel, I felt it cutting, I felt like a carcass being ripped to shreds by a pack of lions.”
Doctors were just about to stitch Natalie up when one of them felt another tiny hand reach out.
“A hand grabbed his finger, he is like, ‘There’s another baby in there,’ and then pandemonium erupted,” Natalie recalls. “I was hearing the doctor screaming – she wasn’t even talking, she was screaming – ‘There is an eighth?! There’s another one?!’ I was just in a state of panic, and I was freaking out.”
It was about to get a whole lot worse. Natalie and her babies sparked a media frenzy. Public fascination quickly turned to outrage when it was revealed the babies were the conceived through IVF, and that Natalie was already a single mother struggling to feed six other kids.
Natalie admits it was a bad decision. “I think I was young, dumb, irresponsible, selfish, reckless.”
Natalie was single. She had no home, and no job. She was living with her mother and trying to work out how to feed 14 mouths.
From the very start, Natalie knew she had to sell her story to make ends meet – so for the next several years, the world would fixate on the Octomum train wreck.
“[The media] had one sole agenda: to ignite as much hate towards me for as long as possible,” Natalie explains. “The more I was hated and the longer I was hated, the more it would line their opportunistic, profit-fuelled pockets.”
“It was very irresponsible and reckless to try to have another [child] when I was struggling taking care of six. But the hate – imagine how it would feel as a mum. You can’t conceptualise it. Nobody could fathom that feeling. So you disassociate yourself. You completely detach from the world all around.”
Still, Natalie wouldn’t change a thing. “I made these poor decisions. I don’t regret my children, any of them. I don’t know what I’d do without any of my fourteen kids. But I was so desperate, and so I sold out my character.”
The morning routine for the Suleman house begins at 6am. Natalie rents a modest three-bedroom townhouse south of Los Angeles. There are only three bathrooms for 15 people.
Natalie says it costs $5,000 a month to run the household. She only gets $1,500 worth of food stamps from the government.
But her darkest days came in 2012 when she hit a terrible low trying to keep a roof over their head. “The little kids were turning two,” Natalie remembers. “The interviews weren’t coming as much, I couldn’t work full time. I had too many little kids and day care would have been too costly, and I was too terrified to go on public assistance because that was one of the primary components of why I was hated to begin with.”
“The only industry that would accept me was the porn industry. I didn’t want to do any porn; I’ve been celibate for years. I’m still celibate to this day. So it was a cheap, formulated this plan to do a self-pleasure video. Which is still porn, I’m not going to say it’s better than porn, it’s not. So I hit rock bottom.”
“I made $8,000. I sold my soul to the devil, temporarily, for $8,000. The only good news about that is that was the exact amount we needed, because we were about to be homeless.”
Not long after, Natalie caught her then 10-year-old daughter Amerah strutting around the house in her stripper high heels – and she realised her life had spiralled out of control.
“That was the ultimate pivotal moment where I hit rock bottom,” Natalie reveals. “I was cleaning up and I saw that heel on the stairs and I picked the heel up… and I threw it.”
“The anger, the resentment towards myself, the resentment towards the world, towards other people, towards women, and the shame I had towards myself – it bubbled and boiled up into rage, and that’s when it happened. So the next morning, I called the manager and told her we’re leaving.”
Six years later, Natalie would rather be poor and proud than keep making the mistakes of her past. Still, the trip to the supermarket can be a struggle – both financially, and trying to keep the kids in check.
Natalie shops healthy – there’s no junk food; instead, their shopping trolleys are loaded up with fresh fruit and vegetables. Feeding a family of 15 an organic, vegan diet makes for an eye watering grocery bill.
Bedtime is right on 8:30pm – but there aren’t enough beds for everyone. “At the moment we are crammed in a tiny little place, and I’m hoping circumstances will change,” Natalie says. “I will never stop working towards achieving success for my family.”
“I do the best I can and, in all honesty, if anyone out there wants to point the finger and project some type of judgment, you’re absolutely entitled to try to live a day in my life. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to survive and provide for your family.”
Natalie says romance has never been a priority for her. She was already celibate before having 14 children.
She’s completely fine raising the kids on her own. “If I missed that, I would have had a partner to begin with. I am just a different kind of person. I am just unusual. I think I am different from the norm.”
Her critics may be vocal, but there’s only a handful of people whose opinions matter to Natalie. “According to my kids I am [a good mother], so that’s all that matters to me – what they think.”
Reporter: Angela Cox
Producers: Andrea Keir