On January 26, 2009, Nadya Suleman, an unemployed single mother of six, gave birth to eight babies in a California hospital. An international media frenzy ensued, and tabloids began following the family's every move.
After 14 months of being portrayed in the media as "Octomom"—not Nadya—she decided to send Oprah a letter. "Thus far, the media has depicted a completely false picture of who I am. The trial I've been put through has forced me to see my true self—something I have avoided most of my life. I have been compelled to dig deep inside and pull out strengths I never knew I possessed in order to protect my family. I am not a victim. I do not blame anyone for the circumstances of my life."
Oprah says she had never spoken with Nadya before that letter. "I had reservations about putting myself in this whole media swirl that seems to always surround her," she says. "But I reconsidered after reading this letter from her. And she says she wants the world to see her for who she really is."
To Nadya, Octomom is nothing but a fictional character. "That's exactly what Octomom is: a carnival attraction," she says. "I'm not a celebrity. I'm a pseudo-celebrity catapulted into this big media mess. Did I want it? No. Was I in denial thinking that it wouldn't happen? Yes."
In reality, Nadya says she's a busy mom. Nadya's oldest, Elijah, is 8 years old. Next are 7-year-old Amerah, 6-year-old Joshua and 5-year-old Aiden, who has autism. Twins Caleb and Calyssa are 3, and the octuplets—Noah, Maliyah, Isaiah, Nariyah, Makai, Josiah, Jeremiah and Jonah—are 14 months old.
To support her family, Nadya walks a fine line with the media—selling her Octomom image while trying to maintain some privacy. "I've done things in the media I was not only not proud of, I was ashamed of," she says. "If I were to secure something in the media, I could in 20 minutes make what I could make in two months working 9 to 5 and being away all the time. It's unrealistic. It's a double-edged sword."
Still, Nadya was not paid for her Oprah Show interview. "I want you all to know we did not pay Nadya a dime for this interview, neither have we ever paid in 25 years," Oprah says. "I don't believe in that."
Oprah: I thought that was really insightful of you to say that you were a carnival attraction, but do you feel that you have contributed to that?
Nadya: Yes. Absolutely.
Oprah: Because when I saw that, like everybody else, I saw that cover of you on Star with [your] new bikini body, and I tell you, the first thing I thought was, "Why are you doing that?"
Nadya: Right. Right. I need to tell you why: 14 hungry mouths. Then a 15th here. And it is my responsibility. I own full responsibility for providing for my children. A parent must provide for their kids, not the other way around. I will never—from the beginning I've always been consistent with this—I would never do a reality show. That has been a lie from the very beginning. And I must provide for my children. Deep down, I was ashamed of [the bikini shot]. That is not my character. I am shy. I always have shied away from cameras. But I feel as though I needed to do something. And in doing so, I was able to provide for my kids. We have some of that money still left until I figure another way to make ends meet.
Oprah: So you made $100,000 from that?
Nadya: Yes. I did.
Oprah: I heard you were offered an opportunity to do a porn film too.
Nadya: Oh, my goodness. Again, another outlet trying to steal a piece of the situation. I feel as though exploiting me, disrespecting me, that, in turn, disrespects and exploits my children. I personally perceive that to be a publicity stunt. I mean, they have started from the very beginning. Right after I had the babies they were offering that. Really? I mean, I would obviously need the money if I did something like that to move my family to a deserted island far, far, far away from civilization. That is completely unfathomable, obviously.
Oprah: Let's just be clear about this. So you were offered money to do a porn film, and you have turned them down.
Nadya: They have offered this probably three weeks subsequent to the birth of the babies. Maybe at least three times. And I feel as though it's completely, utterly disrespectful to a mother, to anyone who is just trying to survive. I was just catapulted, again, as I mentioned, into this unfamiliar life as a carnival attraction. I never imagined it would end up being like this.
Oprah: Nadya, tell me this: Do you think that you could ever be in the situation where you have 14 hungry mouths to feed and you'd ever have to resort to doing a porn film? Would you do that if you had to feed your children?
Nadya: If they offered $100 million I would never, never, never resort to something like that. It stems now to boundaries. I'm teaching my children to have healthy boundaries, and there are ways. There are other ways that are much more obviously more respectable.
Oprah: So let's go back to before the octuplets were born. ... You didn't think six was enough?
Nadya: I believe going back, reflecting back, I feel as though I was so caught up with my own childish desires to compensate. There's an amalgamation of factors contributing to why. I didn't do one or choose one thing for one particular reason. There were so many reasons. And perhaps selfishness—perhaps trying to compensate for being an only child, trying to fill some missing piece inside. And I maybe wrongfully looked outside of myself when I should have been filling that in from within.
Oprah: That's a very insightful thing to say. So do you think now, looking back, that you were perhaps using children to fill the void or space for something else that was missing that an adult or a real relationship with someone else could have or should have filled?
Nadya: Yes. Absolutely. I believe that perhaps, looking back, I've always coveted that connection, that attachment to another being. And the connection felt safer with children than with a significant other, more predictable. The security—I was hungering for the security.
Oprah: Now would you say that you've sort of crowded yourself out of [security]? Now you don't even have time to develop a relationship because now, it looks like from the film that I've seen, that you're just trying to keep up. You're just trying to keep your head above water.
Nadya: Absolutely. I'm trying to stay afloat and holding my children in that raft with me. We're still in the midst of survival. We're surviving. We're so busy going, going, going, moving, moving, moving, trying to keep up that you don't have time to think, to reflect, to feel anything. And it is a choice. I own all of the responsibility for my poor choices in the past.
Do I regret [it]? You can't regret children. But the choices were childish. They were immature. They were selfish. Are we defined by our choices? Our behavior? Our actions? No. I don't believe that defines our worth.
Oprah: I don't believe it defines our worth. But when you've got 14 children, it's pretty defining, wouldn't you say?
Nadya: I do believe you're right. Absolutely. I feel as though I wasn't thinking at that time. If I could go back, would I make different choices? Maybe. At this point, I know and I need to teach my children that we need to learn, we need to grow, we need to keep on growing and transcending, and we need to make the best possible choices. And when we make poor choices, all you can do is really, really learn from that and grow from that. Try not to repeat it.
Oprah: Now I had heard something. I didn't see you on The View, but I heard that you said on The View that if you met somebody and they wanted to have children that having another child is not out of the realm of possibility for you. Is that true?
Nadya: You know what? At this point in my life, that is the furthest thing that I would ever even imagine. I cannot grow additional eyes or hands. I'm not an octopus. I can barely give them—nobody could, not two people, not four people even could give them—all the emotional, psychological and physical needs. You can't possibly. I live every single day every hour of the day with a tremendous amount of guilt. And I feel guilty when I hold the one or two and then that I can't be there for the others. And they're crying. And then I feel guilty. Look at the older ones. They all have different unique needs. And I'll live with this forever. But all I can do now is keep on going, keep moving. Keep on trying to be the most devoted mother I can be.
I was...no. That was a conversational thing, and I was thinking, "Oh, one thing in life is [that] uncertainty is certain." I can't say five years from now something won't be different or that something like that won't happen. Right now, at this moment? Absolutely not. That's the farthest thing from my mind. I couldn't even waste my energy thinking about something like that.
Oprah: As we were watching that tape, just taking a 24-hour look at your life, it's very clear that you, like a lot of mothers who have far fewer children, don't have enough time to really look after yourself. So if you're up all night long looking after your kids, pretty soon ... it takes a toll and you're running on empty. ... How are you surviving?
Nadya: Breathing, Oprah. Taking deep breaths throughout the day and staying connected to my kids. And you know what? Mothers have to understand, and this is really hard for me.
That is when I am thankful for help. I thank you, friends. I thank you, whoever is altruistic enough to help me and my nannies, for allowing me that opportunity to get some sleep, and then I recharge.
And [having a] healthy lifestyle—I cannot reinforce that enough. I am obsessed with healthy eating, and then I even think the crew saw me constantly chasing the kids to eat healthy food. Food, vegetables.
Oprah: So how are the children? ...
Nadya: They have their own needs. [Eight-year-old] Elijah is 14 kids all in one, in my opinion. And the eight babies, actually they're very, very, very easy babies. They are all incredibly healthy. And I have to tell you: I wouldn't be even thinking about anything other than it—the one child, let's say—if there were a problem. I am thanking God every day for their health.
The [3-year-old] twins, they need attention and I'm trying my best to give them their own special time every day.
[Five-year-old] Aiden has autism. He is doing amazing. ... Now he's saying a couple words and he's waving bye, and he just did that for the first time a week ago.
Oprah: Do you feel that you can give your children what they need and deserve?
Nadya: Absolutely not. No parent can. I live in guilt. And no parent could ever even imagine giving six children all of what they need emotionally, psychologically, physically. Again, you cannot. No couple could.
Oprah: So all the babies now are 14 months. You've got months, Nadya, before they're all 2.
Nadya: Oh, boy. But remember, Oprah, as they get older, it's more challenging. For me, my 8-year-old in and of himself is more challenging than all the babies combined. He has his own unique needs and he is very demanding, and I try so hard to get to his level and go into his world and try my best to meet his needs. Does that happen? No. Not always. But I try.
Oprah: Have you ever thought of putting a child, two children, some children in foster care or giving up some of the children for adoption so that they could be better cared for and you maintain some kind of relationship with them, obviously as their mother, but creating an environment where they would have, say, multiple parents so that the children could get more of what they needed? Have you ever really considered that?
Nadya: No. I will do anything in my power to secure what I need to, on my own, without exploiting my children, to secure revenue so I can provide that. There are a couple nannies that are very, very close to them, and they're very, very good friends. And I will do everything, everything as a mother to avoid that at all costs.
Even Aiden. A family member, it broke my heart when a family member, I'm not going to disclose who, said: 'How are you going to handle Aiden? In a few years you should put him in a hospital.' I would die before I ever—
Oprah: So you would never consider giving up any of your children?
Nadya: I know that sounds selfish, but I breathe for my children. I wake up for my children. I will do anything to secure the revenue on my own to provide for these kids.
Oprah: So how are you taking care of children, paying a mortgage and taking care of the three day nannies and being up all night?
Nadya: Not on government help. That has been one of the most erroneous beliefs out there. From the very beginning, ... I canceled food stamps. I was receiving food stamps with the six children for one year. Once I found out it was affiliated to welfare—and I was oblivious, I guess, at that time—I terminated them.
We were on private insurance, and we went on MediCal. Then we went off of MediCal [and] back to private because I do not want to be a burden on anybody. This is my choice. It is my responsibility to take care of them. So I have been ashamed of myself for going through certain, let's say, media outlets to provide for my children. And it has helped. It has helped significantly.
Oprah: Is the only way you can take care of your children is to make money through the media?
Nadya: Unfortunately. And I have never ever had a history of even wanting or been interested in the entertainment industry prior to having children. That's another erroneous misconception. I have never been interested in this industry. I don't believe it is the industry in and of itself that is duplicitous and corrupt. It is the media that enshrouds it. And I have been avoidant of that. I feel it is deleterious to children.
I would never do a reality series, anything associated to that, because that robs them of their childhood. And I think it's borderline abusive.
Oprah: You do.
Nadya: Yes, I do. Absolutely.
Oprah: Would you consider it? Maybe you will have to at some point to feed them.
Nadya: I feel there must be, Oprah, there must be some other way. I feel I may be decently intelligent. I know I want to delve into something in regard to education. Maybe using my voice to make, I don't know, some kind of difference in younger people's lives. There will always be an opportunity in an appropriate, respectable manner, not ever resorting to exploiting children. These are innocent lives, and they did not ask to be born. I brought them into this world, and it is my responsibility to take care of them. But I must provide for them. I've always felt that way.
Oprah: Will you ever name your children's father?
Nadya: It is not my place, and that would be completely disrespectful of me. He and I may have unresolved issues, but what does that have to do with exploiting him? I respect his life. I'm loyal to him. That is not even something I would even fathom to do.
Oprah: What do you think is the biggest misconception about who you are?
Nadya: Everything. Everything. Everything. From the moment I woke up, I have been placed into this unfamiliar life, foreign and foreboding, not familiar. This fictional character, Octomom, completely is the antithesis of who I am as a person and who I represent. And I know by strangers telling me who they think I am has allowed me to really see who I know I am and who I always believed myself to be.
Oprah: What do strangers tell you you are? What do they tell you?
Nadya: Octomom. Seeking fame. Having eight babies to be famous. I did not know even one would grow, let alone twins, let alone triplets. My goodness, who could imagine having a litter? I don't think cats have that many at the same time. I never ever could have conceptualized something like this happening based upon an immature, selfish choice that I made.
Who's gonna suffer? The children. Am I gonna exacerbate that and put them out in the media like they say I'm doing or am going to do? Absolutely not. I've been consistent in saying, no, I will never do a reality show. I was embarrassed to do the bikini shoot in January. That is not who I am. That is not my character. And I needed to make money to put food in my children's mouths. It is you, Oprah, I thank you for allowing me to finally speak the truth because thus far the media has been feeding people erroneous rumors and lies because sensationalism sells. The truth is boring.
Oprah: Every time you leave the house, there's paparazzi outside your door, there's paparazzi at the park by your house.
Nadya: There haven't been. We've been pretty good at avoiding that, and that was very unusual that there were three paparazzi following us. Usually there's not.
And when there's no paparazzi, unfortunately sometimes people are very curious and they're going to cross the boundaries and they will try to touch them or they'll immediately recognize and they'll start taking out their cell phone, and I don't like what that sends my children. It sends [the message] that people are dehumanizing all of us. We are human.
Oprah: Here's a big question for you: Have you dated since the octuplets?
Nadya: No. No. Absolutely not. I have many, many reasons why. First and foremost, I mean, I already feel guilty as it is. I'm spreading myself too thin as it is. How could I even fathom taking or stealing an ounce of energy away from them and giving it to a stranger? And then how selfish would that be for that man? I couldn't devote any time to that person. Things change when kids get older. That's different. But as of now, I mean all of my energy I am sublimating into raising these children as well as I possibly can.
Oprah: I heard that your home is going into foreclosure. Is that true?
Nadya: It is not at the moment. I have been consistent in paying the mortgage. And I'm considering, because the mortgage is high, I must secure some type of revenue to continue paying it. Within a month, I have a friend who's offering to loan me some money until I get a little bit more secure in regard to it.
Oprah: Has this experience shown you who your real friends are?
Nadya: Absolutely. That's a fascinating question. Unfortunately, in the beginning, acquaintances were flocking to the center like starving geese. They liked the limelight. I did not. I was shying my best away from all of it and trying my best to protect my kids. But I have many trust issues that I need to work on throughout the day every day and for the rest of my life because I do not want to project that onto my children.
Oprah: So you're telling us you don't like all the attention.
Nadya: No, I do not. My children don't either. And they act out, especially my older ones. They will act out. And they sometimes do not have the words to convey: 'Mom, we don't want this. We don't want these cameras.' So they will act out. That is sending me a message: Keep them away; protect them.
Oprah: If you had it to do over, you would or would not implant the eight? I know you don't want to say the children are a mistake. But if you had it to do over, knowing what you know now?
Nadya: Knowing what I know now, if I had it to do over, they transferred in six and based upon my past reproductive history, they didn't do anything different. He didn't do anything different. But if I knew then what I know now, perhaps if I still chose to do it, maybe I would have transferred in far fewer. I never wanted more than maybe six, seven children total. Not double that.
Oprah: But you had six when you got them implanted.
Nadya: I had six. Yes, I did. As if that wasn't enough. I was receiving bills: "Your embryos are in storage and we have options to continue paying the storage or you have to pay this much. Or we can dispose of them." I couldn't imagine disposing of them. I figured, in my childish mind at the time, "I'm doing well and we're doing well in school, and I have all this energy," and I'm rationalizing. I'm justifying, and "let me transfer in what there is, the remaining embryos, and maybe one will grow". Maybe.
Oprah: You told me in your letter that you'd done a lot of self-analysis. ... What have you learned about yourself in this process?
Nadya: What I've learned about myself is so much. Sometimes just when I feel so stressed out I will just journal—2 in the morning, 5 in the morning. I'll journal. And I have learned that this experience has, and I think most mothers can agree, when you're faced with extraordinary stressors, you are compelled to tap inside yourself, deep inside, and look at yourself. Face what you maybe have not wanted to face for most of your life. Maybe you're learning you have extreme extraordinary strengths, resources that you never knew you possessed. How much I have learned? I have grown. I have grown up probably more in a year than in 34 and a half years of my life. And in that growth, I have learned how much more growing I really do have to do. I have learned that not one human being can possibly give to one child, two children, three, all of what they need. Not even to one child.
Oprah: Because obviously you didn't get what you needed. Otherwise you wouldn't be out seeking this.
Nadya: Obviously. Exactly. Point being, I love that point you just made. How prevalent is it, and I am admitting, I absolutely looked outside myself to give me something I lacked from within. How prevalent is it? I think many, many people can relate. Not in regard to children, but how often do we look outside ourself and find something—success, achievement, a significant other—to give us affirmation we should be sending from within? Confirmation that we are okay—that needs to come from within.
Oprah: I just had an epiphany here. Other people have addictions. You were addicted to having children.
Nadya The connection perhaps that felt so safe with the kids. Kids won't leave you. You can create this safe, predictable little society. I created this village, my own little safe, predictable, safe village. ...
Oprah: Do you feel inside that people really want you to fail?
Nadya I do not want to put people in a box. I feel as though every single person is unique and diverse, and I don't like to say people in general. There are people out there. Maybe the more insecure and more unhappy they are with themselves in their own lives, perhaps they would want to see this person that this octo-creature that they invented in the media fail. That Octomom is a fictional character. I never from the beginning really personalized anything associated to it, because it's an it. It's not a human. Okay? And the life they talk about has ceased to ever materialize. That life is not mine. That life is not my children's lives.
Oprah: The reason why you wrote me that letter, what I'm sensing, is that you wanted to not be objectified. You wanted us to know that you are a real person with real feelings.
Nadya: That is only one of many reasons. I feel as though because I chose this, I own responsibility for the repercussions and the consequences of my choices. ... I'm not going to personalize [anything] that has to do with me, however I am speaking up and I am attacking back when it is now deleterious to the well being of my children.
My daughter comes home, my 7-year-old daughter and says, 'Mom, what is a stripper?' That felt like a sledgehammer to my heart. And it does right now. That a parent—a woman, a mom—asked her daughter to ask my daughter, 'Is your mom a stripper?' Of course I've never been a stripper. But, again, I will not judge any person. I will not put people in a box and say, 'Oh, because you do this for a living...' Let's say if I were a stripper, that doesn't define my worth. But I have never been one.
I have never been on welfare. I have not had plastic surgery. I have never wanted to look like some celebrity. I've never wanted fame. I need the truth out there. Why? Because it's deleterious. It's affecting my children. They are my life, and I'm going to be damned if that is going to affect them for the rest of their [lives]. We do not even have Internet in the house I'm trying so hard to protect them.
Oprah: One last thing you want to say that we feel is a misconception is?
Nadya: Everything that they have said so far about me and about my choice, wanting to do this on purpose, I would never have done this on purpose. I would never have wanted to seek out fame or use children for fame. If that were the truth, there would have been history of that. If that were the truth, I would have had a reality show by now. I am struggling. I am surviving. I am still staying afloat. I would not wish upon anybody failure. And I feel it saddens me that people are so unhappy with themselves in their lives that they wish upon someone they don't even know, failure.