I prepared for the birth of my identical twin sons with all the precision of a military operation. I had a roster of friends and family staying with me for three months and a food circle that would keep me in evening meals for six weeks. I hired a cleaning lady, a mowing man, and bought enough firewood for the winter. Two cots, two car seats, two slings and a double pram. Drawers of clothes in premmie sizes. Eco nappies. Books on twins. A breastfeeding pillow, black lace nursing bras. A budget.
But nothing could have prepared me. No one could have warned me.
My guiding light was Caroline de Costa, the eminent Australian obstetrics professor who 40 years earlier had found herself single, pregnant and on the other side of the world. A first-year medical student, she had travelled to Ireland as a deckhand with the Swedish merchant navy. She applied the same shipshape organisational skills to single motherhood, breastfeeding her baby with one hand and studying her anatomy textbook with the other. If the 20-year-old de Costa could do it – and go on to have a successful career, marriage and six more children – then so could I.
The cards I had been dealt were rather different. Motherhood was planned, single parenting was not; identical twins were the unimaginable wildcard. But I was 36 years old. I had a career, I owned property, I had travelled the world. Friends and family were lining up to help. How hard could it be?
Imagine a Mack truck, bearing down at full speed, headlights blazing, horn blaring. Then slamming into you again, and again, and again. Nothing else describes the first few months with twins. The relentlessness was overwhelming.
It took almost two hours to feed them, and they fed at two-hour intervals for weeks. Nights passed without sleep. Days passed without a shower. Weeks passed without me leaving the house. As for the firewood, I didn’t have time to light a fire. A trip to the rubbish bin was the highlight of my day.
Every new mother feels overwhelmed by their first child. Except I had two. Before they were born, I had never changed a nappy. Now there were at least 20 a day. They cried, for hours, in stereo, and when they cried together the sound increased exponentially – not two babies crying, but a howling, squalling symphony.
“It took almost two hours to feed them, and they fed at two-hour intervals for weeks.”
I had gone from being a calm, competent, in-control person to absolute freefall. I was out of control with nothing to hold on to and no past experience to guide me. Every book, every website, was contradictory and the health professionals I consulted knew little about twins. I had no idea how to settle my sons, how to comfort their crying, or how to help them off to sleep. “Like that,” said the community nurse, showing me how to rock/pat my newborns to sleep in their cot. Except they didn’t settle. “See you next week,” she said, smiling and slipping out the front door, leaving my mother and I to stare at each other in desperation.
The problem was not that my babies didn’t sleep. Rather, they didn’t sleep at the same time. If one went down, his brother would remain awake, bellowing his heart out. The moment he fell asleep, the first one would wake. Many times, in the middle of the night, as I rocked a crying baby, I looked at the other boy sleeping peacefully in his cot. Just imagine, I thought, how easy one would be.
It was not just me bearing the load. I had counted on one person helping out at a time. But caring for two newborns is a three-person job. My mum came for two weeks and stayed three months. My father took extended leave from his job. My youngest sister arrived, found me in tears, dropped her bag at the door and started working. A week later, her bag was still in the same place she left it. My middle sister, who flew in from China, never once finished a cup of tea.
To make matters worse, my babies struggled to breastfeed. I was in excruciating pain, dosed up on Nurofen. I clock-watched through each session then crashed out afterwards. Nappies, settling – every job except feeding – was left to my army of helpers. Tearfully I watched my parenting ideals fly out the window as I adopted disposable nappies first, then dummies.
I was under pressure to introduce formula, too. I refused and when the pain became too great, I expressed milk and bottle fed. I was trying to do the right thing for my children. But the extra time spent expressing robbed me of sleep and the bottles made more washing up for my exhausted mum.
I was not the only one struggling. Before the boys’ birth, I joined a group of expectant twin mums. In six weeks of classes, we never got beyond polite chat. After our children were born, we became stalwarts. I took perverse comfort in their stories. One woman spent the first week at home in tears. Another, who conceived with IVF, wondered, “What have I done?” One couple considered giving their babies away. “When we tell people that, they think we’re joking,” the wife said. “But we were serious. I remember thinking, ‘There has to be a way out of this, it’s too hard, I can’t do it and I don’t want to do it. If I opt out now before I get too attached, then I’ll only miss them for a few days and it’ll seem like they were never here.’ ”
Everyone had some unforeseen fallout. Couples moved house, moved in with their parents, moved interstate, broke up. Almost all of us had intended to breastfeed. Three months in, I was the only one.
Multiples are on the rise in Australia. In 2010, the ABS reported that multiple births had risen 43 per cent since 1990. In one year – from 2009 to 2010 – the number jumped a statistically dramatic 2 per cent. Currently, one in 80 Australian births involves twins and, of those, one third are identical twins. The trend has been upwards since the ’70s, largely due to IVF and older mums.
Having given birth to twins, I saw twins everywhere. My house painters were twins. The waitress at my favourite cafe was a twin. My mother’s best friend’s husband was a twin. (“We’re twins but we’re born on different days,” he quipped. “I was born before midnight, she came after.”)
Everywhere we went we created a stir. I tired of all the questions, and they were always the same. “Are they twins?” (Yes.) “Are they identical?” (Yes.) “Did you know you were having twins?” (Yes.) “Can you tell them apart?” (Usually.) “Are there twins in your family?” (No.) “Were you surprised?” (No kidding.) I made a point of dressing them differently and avoided using my double pram. I insisted my family stop calling them “this one” and “that one”. “They have beautiful names,” I urged, “please use them.”
When I was pregnant, I’d wondered how I’d take to motherhood. I’d joked about sneaking out of the hospital and leaving my children behind, flying to Burma to attend a meditation retreat. But I loved my children fiercely. Ambrose and Clancy were perfect in every way. They had olive skin, shocks of black hair and almond-shaped eyes filled with bright pools of blue. They were healthy and well, and so was I.
But they were new to the world and I had never been a mum. While they struggled to learn to feed and sleep, I struggled with my recalibrated life. The phone never stopped ringing. Friends dropped in and didn’t go home. I couldn’t hold a conversation, I could barely form a sentence. My bedroom, once my sanctuary, became the bustling hub of my house. I spent most of my days naked from the waist up, while my neighbours sat on my bed and strangers touched my breasts. I was exposed, vulnerable and, despite it all, terribly alone.
When my babies were eight weeks old, we hit crisis point. A friend who had come to stay left a week early, exhausted. At the same time my mother, who had been working around the clock, raised the white flag. “Enough,” she said. “This is killing me.” By then, I was close to breaking point, too. I knew I could get through to 12 weeks – four more weeks of breastfeeding hell; four more weeks of three-hourly feeds. After that, I didn’t know what I would do.
Amid this chaos, we hired a nanny. She counted the children of movie stars among her charges but she was neither expensive nor outspoken. She came into my home with gentle humility and slowly but surely turned things around. She helped me to breastfeed and taught my babies to settle. The screaming stopped. We all got some sleep.
Magically, at three months, everything changed. My sons were diagnosed with ankyloglossia (tongue-tie) and had their frenums snipped. Their feeding improved and my pain eased. Gradually, I was able to think clearly again. I returned phone calls, hung out washing, watched the news. I took them to a cafe on my own and felt superhuman. It did not matter that they cried and their nappies leaked. We were all learning, mostly me. And what I learnt, and am still learning, is the need to let go.
No military operation goes to plan. Mine failed, but these days there’s reason to think everything might work out. My babies hold hands and smile at each other; I haven’t boarded a Burma-bound plane. Why would I? I have two little Zen masters at home.
This story originally appeared in The Sun-Herald’s Sunday Life magazine on 5 October, 2013. You can read it on the SMH website here.
Photo: Paul Harris