Little babes, big change

One newborn is hard to handle. Jennell Dickens and Noval Davis jumped into parenthood with five.


All five babies are quiet, all asleep. It's midafternoon and the lights in the living room of the one-bedroom Northeast Baltimore apartment are dimmed. The television is on, but barely audible. Dad's cell phone has been turned to vibrate and the house phone's ringer is on low. All to keep the babies dreamy. They lay, one with Daddy, two in their playpen; the others on the couch. It is calm. Thank goodness, say Mom and Dad, who have slept all of two hours.

As the parents of the first set of quintuplets born in Baltimore since 2001, they need naps, too.

But Jade, who rests against Dad's chest, starts cooing just loud enough to get the other babies stirring.

"You know they gonna start a Jackson 5 in here," says Dad, Noval Davis. "One kicks off, and they all start singing."

NaRae begins wailing and is greeted by Mom, Jennell Dickens. "Hey, Ladybug."

Then comes Rayne.

"Yup, there she go," Dad says.

Si'ani and JaMir, the only boy, soon follow. Now Dad is off the couch and warming bottles. Mom is simultaneously grasping for pacifiers and wiping bums of the babies, who are alternately huddled into the corners of the navy-blue couch, or stretched out on their Boppies, the crescent-shaped pillows they often nap upon.

Boppies, Mom says, are a "godsend."

They operate as a team, with Mom sputtering off tasks and Dad quickly rising to oblige, all in the small confines of the living room, which has taken on the look of an overstocked baby supply aisle.

This has been life as of late for Dickens and Davis, proud parents to their 2-month-old fraternal quintuplets. Born via Caesarean section Sept. 21 at University of Maryland Medical Center, the preemies made their debut 10 weeks early, boasting a combined weight of 11 pounds 14 ounces.

They're all relatively healthy, doctors say. And the final baby arrived home Nov. 18.

Space is tight and money is sparse in the Dickens and Davis household.

The birth of quints is no longer so unusual that the infants automatically become the subject of worldwide attention - as the Dionne quintuplets did 71 years ago - nor is there any guarantee that commercial donors will help underwrite the substantial child-raising costs.

So far, the family of seven has been living off savings and donations, assisted by a small network of helpers.

Mom has been out from her job as an administrative assistant for six months. She's scheduled to return to work Nov. 30, but isn't sure whether she will be able. One set of hands, the parents say, isn't enough to adequately care for the quints. And Dad was laid off from his warehouse job back in the summer. He's not looking now, saying that he needs to stay home to help. And they rarely venture outside, save for doctor appointments; the family car can only accommodate two car seats.

"Financially, I definitely need to go back," Dickens says.

Dickens' sister, Sharita Dickens, is a mainstay at the apartment, popping in at least once a day. And a baby nurse, Meredith Ball, who volunteers a few times a week, helps the parents navigate their chaotic new lives.

Ball has color-coded the babies' bottles and pacifiers, and devised a feeding chart for the quints. The owner of Babiease, a baby nursing company, Ball is something of a quint expert. She helped care for the children of Orioles third basemen Melvin Mora when his wife delivered five babies in 2001.

Dickens, 22, and her boyfriend Davis, 26, planned on one baby. She was taking hormones for a medical condition and had been warned that the medication would enhance her fertility. In her ninth week of pregnancy, the news of the five came, and Mom says she was "sad." She cried for months.

"We were ready to take on one, but that changed really quickly," Dickens says.

Davis chimes in. "I feel like it's a blessing."

And here they are, crammed in the small, modernly furnished apartment, which is filled with a hodge-podge of baby items. Five car seats are stacked high in the dining room. The kitchen window sill doubles as a counter for large cans of baby formula. And there are diapers - on shelves, table tops - anywhere they can fit. Space is at a premium.

It could be easy to get lost in it all. But Dickens is the picture of calm and cool, never rattled, smiling often, and speaking baby-talk to her children: Rayne with her big, dark eyes; Si'ani, the eldest sister; NaRae, the smallest; Jade, who likes to watch TV; and JaMir, the firstborn.

It's easy to forget Mom is 22 - just 22 with five babies.

Even Dad is like an old pro. Davis rocks Si'ani on his lap while burping Rayne.

"Whoa, that was a warrior burp," he tells Rayne. He yawns. And then he checks on the others.

"You fed Jade? She burped?" Dad inquires.

"Yup," Mom answers. "Where's her pacifier?"

"In the cup."

Soon the phone is ringing and it is Ball, the volunteer nurse. "Help is on the way. Meredith is coming," Dickens announces in a singsong tone.

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