Feeling sorry for Octomom and her brood

Octomom Nadya Suleman has made a new documentary—once again stirring a hornet's nest of contempt and condemnation. Diss her if you like, but think of the kids

I have to admit, this is one cheesy British "documentary" that I really want to see. In a television programme that premiered in the UK this week, Octomom Nadya Suleman attempts to explain, for the umpteenth time, why she thought it was a good idea to produce 14 children when she is single, unemployed and, to put it politely, unhinged.

For those not familiar with the world's most famous welfare mother, a quick recap. In January, Suleman, a strangely naive, plump-lipped 34-year-old with six children conceived via in-vitro fertilisation, gave birth to a further eight IVF babies. At the time she was living in her mother's three-bedroom California home (except for a four-year marriage that reportedly ended because of fertility issues, Suleman has always lived at home). Unleashing Octomom on the world, staff from Kaiser Hospital in Bellflower, a suburb of Los Angeles, announced that this historic birth had been a success and mother and babies were doing well.

If hospital administrators were expecting a nice syrupy bit of publicity for their role in safely delivering live octuplets—only the second time this has been achieved in the United States—they were soon disappointed. Public reaction to Octomom was swift and savage. How dare she? What, was she stupid? Was the whole thing planned as an entree to fame and fortune? Who was going to pay for all these kids to eat, live, go to school?

And so a particularly ugly pop culture phenom was born.

Rumours grow on Octomom like barnacles on the arse of a ship: it is reported that she has a crush on Jon Gosselin, another creepy reality celeb with eight children; that she had plastic surgery to make her look like a carbon copy of baby-obsessed Angelina Jolie; that she tried to sell the video of her octo-birth for $1 million; that she wants to trademark the term "octomom".

What is true is that the state of California, the kind people who donated to the octo-fund, and television producers on both sides of the Atlantic have bought Suleman a home of her own and provided the services of four nannies, enough gear to stock a Baby Factory outlet, a souped-up people mover to get the kids around, and endless lashings of media attention. There are photos of Suleman all over the gossip-scape, hiding behind her huge sunglasses as she ducks in and out of her van, her manicured hands often holding a giant Starbucks cup aloft. She's looking good these days, having shed 140 pounds of baby weight and seemingly acquired a new wardrobe despite not having an income and pimping her babies out on TV to pay the bills. Oops, pardon me, that sounded a bit judgmental.

You see, despite her many protestations, Suleman appears to enjoy the frenzy she creates every time she leaves the house with one or eight or 14 kids in tow. There was a particularly plastic moment during a Dr Phil show (staged as a sort of intervention with Suleman and her mother) when she complained that she couldn't understand the fuss: "I'm not the president." It stood out because Suleman is faux-shy. Nobody who hates publicity would go on Dr Phil, for starters. Not long before the British documentary was announced, she said, "I have no interest in being famous. I'd love to vanish from the public eye as soon as I can."

And then she went and dressed as a pregnant nun with eight devil-babies for Halloween.

While it is absolutely understandable that people have turned on Suleman, their reaction is problematic. Shame on the folks who threw a baby seat through the back window of her minivan. Shame on the people who created the nasty Octomom website with its cartoon octopus, each tentacle holding a baby. Suleman is a woman who is not, it would seem, equipped to deal with life as it stands. Her universe is a place where you have 14 children, alone, and then start thinking about how to feed and clothe them. She is to be pitied, if anything. She is in for one hell of a reality check when those kids are not cutie-pie lil' babies anymore and her public have lost interest.

But the real losers are Suleman's children. Especially the older six whose already chaotic lives have been nudged past the edge of reason with the arrival of their eight siblings. The babies don't know any better. Life for them has always been about flashing cameras and hubbub. But the first six-pack used to live in anonymity in a house with their grandmother. Their mom was studying towards a graduate degree in counselling. They never had to worry about switching on the box and seeing themselves in there.

According to the British documentary makers, the older six Suleman children used to shout "go away, go away" out the window when they saw the crew arriving. Their mother might enjoy notoriety, but they do not. JJ, aged six, pointed a light at the director and asked, "How do you like that? How does that feel?" It is said that kids can get used to anything, and it seems JJ and his siblings have adjusted to life with a camera crew in their house, but where is this crazy reality trip headed? For someone with a degree in child and adolescent development, Nadya Suleman is oddly unaware of the damage she could be doing to her children—and herself.