The secret to life with sextuplets is containment.

Gates and more gates. All six sextuplets, 18 months old now, are walking and climbing and going exactly where they shouldn't, as often as they can, at the Carey family home in Feasterville.

The only way to keep order is to put gates between kitchen and living room, between kitchen and family room, between living room and stairs - gates everywhere. But the gates are crumbling.

Patrick, the bruiser, the Bam Bam of this Carey clan, rattles his cages with the zeal of a toddler who wants his freedom, and where Patrick leads, Connor, John, Olivia, Samantha, and Emma will follow.

"At some point," said Stacey Carey, 34, their mother, "they'll all need beds, when they're climbing out of their cribs. I'm dreading that."

She's not complaining. No, sir. She thanks God every day for her six healthy babies, born June 1, 2011, at Abington Memorial Hospital. On the floor at playtime, they smother her, pawing at her clothes, pouncing on her back. There's no defense.

She pulls Emma close, Emma who wasn't expected to survive a week.

"What does Santa say?"

Emma's mouth turns into a big round O and her face lights up.

"Ho. Ho. Ho."

Stacey and her husband, Brendan, 42, will thank the Lord on Christmas morning, but they won't make it to Mass. They hope Father Bill over at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church will understand. They did go last Sunday to Grandma's house, all of them, their first outing as a family, but Grandma had no containment.

"I don't think we'll be invited back anytime soon," said Stacey.

Her mother, Peggy Malachoski, had removed everything dangerous, but still she wasn't prepared for the onslaught. They pulled out every pot and pan and piece of Tupperware, climbed on everything, banged on everything.

"I thought I was going to die," Peggy said.

This Christmas for the Carey clan will be way better than last, when two of the six were at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Everyone now is home and healthy.

Stacey and Brendan so desperately wanted children. They went through in vitro fertilization several times, over five years, and were down to the last frozen embryo when they had Julianna, the big sister, a month shy of 3 now and still in diapers herself.

They wanted to try for one more child. They went with fertility drugs and insemination, and knew the risk of that method - superstimulating the ovaries and sending in the sperm - could be many fertilized eggs, maybe twins, even triplets. But six?

Stacey knew she was pregnant, and stopped at the doctor on her way to work as a math teacher at William Tennent High School.

The ultrasound showed four beating hearts. Four. She went back in a week and the doctor saw a fifth.

Another week, a sixth.

Doctors told the couple the risks of carrying six, the virtual impossibility of delivering six healthy babies, having all survive, the likelihood of disabilities. There are ways in utero to cut the number to three or two.

"I felt like this happened for a reason," said Stacey. "I waited so long to be a parent, I wasn't going to turn around and lose some of them. Which one wouldn't be here now? Little Connor? Little Samantha?"

It took a team of 60 at Abington Memorial to handle the births, said Gerard Cleary, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit. They did drills, worked out a system to keep all labs and X-rays straight. They had six Baby Careys. Each arrived between 1.5 and 2.2 pounds. Emma had "systemic inflammatory response syndrome," Cleary said, "with a 70 percent chance of dying." Samantha was born with one lung barely developed, and was sent to Children's.

"The chances of everyone going home alive were less than 5 percent," said Cleary. "Stacey also overcame huge odds. You can have really big complications delivering so many kids. The uterus stretches so far. She's unbelievable. Her body was just built for this."

Just what every woman wants to hear!

After eight weeks, by late July, they started coming home. The last, Samantha, was home by October. But over the winter many were in hospitals. Lungs were fragile, immune systems undeveloped.

A real blessing has been the community. This family didn't have to buy a diaper for a year! And they still go through easily 30 a day! There are 15 women - both grandmothers, an 82-year-old great-aunt, church members, friends, neighbors - who felt a call to help. They come in shifts, and help play with the children, feed them, clean up after them.

Helpers at first came 24/7, but now come 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., when babies go to bed. Being a math teacher, Stacey put a spreadsheet online, and volunteers fill in shifts.

"I love it," said Mimi Sabath, a volunteer. "Oh, my God. I love it. Sometimes it's like herding cats. But oh my, they're precious."

Each is about 20 pounds now, and personalities have emerged. John is like an old man. He must eat lunch by 11:30, dinner by 4:30 or he will whine.

Olivia thinks she's an only child. "Olivia just wants to sleep in our bed," said Stacey. "She cries every night to get in there."

Does Olivia get her way?

"Some nights," confessed Mom. "Depends on how tired I am."

Samantha took medications because her lungs weren't developed, causing her hair to grow faster.

She has long hair. The boys know instinctively to pull it. Emma and Olivia covet her barrette and constantly take it.

There are piles of little sneakers piled high in the living-room corner, whites and blues, and inside each shoe is an initial so Stacey can tell which shoe belongs to which child.

Clothes are simply divided into boys and girls. Pink coats are for girls, red for boys. Out back are six strollers - a quad, a triple, two doubles, and two singles.

At first, Stacey and crew were mixing three types of formula, giving bottles every four hours to some, every three to others. They moved through baby-food jars of peas and peaches and are on to finger foods - six high chairs in a row.

"They love garlic toast," says Peggy, the maternal grandmother, "and pot roast." And now they just guzzle milk - 10 to 12 gallons a week. Spaghetti is always followed by baths. The other night, Samantha started throwing her tiny squares of cut-up pizza on the floor. "That means she's had enough," said Stacey.

Brendan knows Stacey is the alpha figure in this family. He works long days and nights as a bartender at the Valley Forge Casino Resort, and is grateful that through that job he provides health-care benefits to this family.

The total insurance bill for the sextuplets is well more than a $1 million, probably closer to $2 million. Much of that, including the births, was covered by Stacey's insurance.

When Brendan is home, he's often cleaning and cooking or helping with baths or throwing yet another load in the dryer, the rhythm of which syncopates their lives. He says the biggest surprise of sextuplets: "I had no idea it would be this busy."

Stacey, astonishingly, went back to work part time at Tennent, from 11 to 3. "For my sanity," she says.

Sometimes, students complain to her.

"You don't know what hard is," she tells them. "Come to my house."

Contact Michael Vitez
at 215-313-3518 or mvitez@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelvitez.