Two souls lost, two souls found

Tomorrow is September. I have been thinking a lot about this time last year. It was a hard time then. And, in many ways, much harder than it is now.

Darry was enormous, exhausted and uncomfortable. And although she was in excellent health, it was clear that she needed to slow down at work if she wanted to stay that way and get to full term (38 weeks for twins). So she spent the last few weeks of her pregnancy at home, mostly parked in the single air conditioned room of our house, during one of the hottest summers ever, emerging only to eat and drink and go to the bathroom.

I was sick with worry — every time she made a sound I would ask in a panicked voice if she was in labor. There is so much fear imposed on a twin pregnancy, almost like an illicit promise you will have sickly, premature babies who need to spend some time in the NICU. I worried for the little creatures in her belly. I worried about Darry’s health and recovery from the Caesarean we had scheduled, because one baby was breech and not budging. And I worried most of all about my ability to continue taking care of Serafina, the house, our lives, Darry, the babies who would be here so soon, while working full time and trying to push through the fog of a enormous grief.

In the month before we found out we were having twins, my father died from pancreatic cancer, punctuating a brief and sad illness. And then my younger brother died from a blood clot, in a sudden, unexpected and tragic way. I was beaten to a pulp by my father’s death, run over by a train by my brother’s death and shocked into a sort of delirium from the ultrasound where we learned, halfway through Darry’s pregnancy, that her body had made two babies, all on its own.

I feel sometimes like the experience of having twins is not mine to talk about. I do not know the surprise, the awe, the stress or the burden of having a body responsible for making two more lives, nurturing their growth and health and ushering them safely to this side of the womb. I do not know the work of having two tiny mouths attached to my breasts (often at the same time!), wholly dependent on me to feed them, literally keep them alive and help them grow in that intense first year. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up multiple times in the night, quietly pick up one fussing baby, nurse her back to slumber and then pick up her sister to do it all over again, again and again and again. These are the things, plus so many more things, that Darry has done all by herself with the most unbelievable display of patience, endurance, strength and love. Mothers of multiples are truly superheroes.

When we saw those two  heads on the screen for the first time, Darry howled and pleaded with the universe. She wondered how could she possibly do this? She became hysterical. And in the next few weeks, she spiraled into a kind of grief — over the loss of the childbirth experience she thought she would have, over the loss of the whole mothering experience she thought she might have. Grief is such a lonely, individual experience. I could see she was deep in it, because I was in my own.

I spent that whole spring howling and pleading with the universe. During father’s dying and death, I was dragged through painful, dark spaces of our complicated relationship because he was Christian and I am queer. In his final weeks, his wife refused to allow me, Darry and Serafina to visit them as a family; my father’s wish to see his granddaughter one last time was blocked by hate. If visiting without Darry was the only way I could visit, I chose not to; that choice destroyed my relationships with the rest of my father’s family. I was pummeled and the only person who understood and defended me was my baby brother.

Three weeks after our father’s death, my brother started acting strange. Strange enough that my mother took him to the ER; several hours later a giant mass was discovered on his brain. Before we could get a diagnosis, Marc died of a pulmonary embolism on his third day in the hospital. He was so dear to me, he was my responsibility his whole life long. Then so swiftly, so mercilessly, I was dropped into a solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. The ground was gone.

The experience of having twins may not be mine, but the experience of being a parent to what spontaneously felt like a very large family is mine. And the experience of having to meet this challenge in such a difficult, unstable time is mine. I have walked out of the deepest hurt of grief, I have processed so much of it, but the secondary complications, like fatigue, mood swings, sadness and isolation, are all still there.

My grief has been the greatest pain I’ve ever known. Parenting through this pain is, I pray, the hardest work I will ever do. I have wondered so many times how I can do this, even as I am doing it.

I know this, though: the day we learned we were having twins, I felt like the universe was showing me something holy. I lost two souls and two souls found us.

At the end of this month, the twins will be 1. They arrived as we planned, big, healthy and perfect: 7.5 pounds each. Darry’s recovery was easier than any doctor or nurse could have predicted. Within days, she was walking around, pain-free, like nothing had ever happened. The babies have nursed from their first day like experts. They have been easy, happy infants. They have brought an enormous love to our lives, even on the most difficult days, that we never expected we would have. They have been the light that has filled my twice-broken heart.

Daybreak II: Living the dream

1:30am: A sleepy voice floats over the baby monitor from Serafina’s room. Giraffsie.. Giraffsie… I can’t find Giraffsie. I walk upstairs, tiptoe across her room in the dark, pad around her bed until I find the crumpled, filthy lovie she calls Giraffsie, centimeters from her own hand.

4:30am: Mrowww, mrowww, mrowww. The cat enters our room with the ominous, persistent meow that means only one thing: she has caught a mouse. I turn on the light and there it is, a living, wriggling, tiny gray mouse hanging from her mouth. Seconds later, the babies start to whine over their monitor. Darry leaves the room to nurse them for the third time this evening. I close the bedroom door, run to the kitchen to rummage for rubber gloves and a plastic bag, and then entrap myself with the cat and her mouse. The cat tosses the mouse around a few times, threatening to let it run away and hide forever in the room where we sleep. But after one vigorous toss, the mouse falls on its back and is momentarily stupefied. I grab it, throw it in the bag and throw the bag outside on our driveway. I get back in bed and try to sleep, and fail to sleep until Darry returns 15 minutes later.

6:50am: Miraculously we have all slept late. Mamaaaa, mammaaaa. Serafina calls for me from her bed. She is perfectly capable of getting out of it herself, opening the door and coming downstairs but at 2 years and 11 months, she still prefers to call me when she rises and lie still until I pick her up. I guess this is a good thing. We come downstairs and our morning snuggle begins. A minute later the babies are chattering in their cribs. Darry goes upstairs to fetch them, comes down. They nurse again.

7am: We’re getting everyone fed but first, a round of diapers. She’s potty trained, but Serafina still sleeps in a disposable because we can’t fathom cleaning up a soiled toddler bed in the morning right now. This morning when we take her diaper off, there is a surprise, silver dollar-sized raised red bruise on her upper thigh — it was not there last night. I have a small panic attack. Then I remember she did have a spectacular crash on her scooter the previous night. There were no tears when the accident happened, but she did smack the exact spot on her leg where the bruise is now. I still call the doctor for some advice.

7:30-8:30am: We destroy the kitchen with another meal. A blur of babies whining to be picked up and put down whizzes around us. Serafina, excited for a visit to her preschool for orientation, packs a backpack with snacks and a sweater. I throw on clothes. Darry does too. A couple rounds of poopy diapers later, we are almost ready to take the whole family for a visit to the school.

8:40am: We’re outside and the hilarious circus act that is loading three children in a car commences. I notice the plastic bag with the middle-of-the-night mouse is stirring. The mouse lives! I carry it to the woods at the end of our road and liberate the mouse.

9am: We have a lovely visit at preschool. I wish I had no other responsibilities. I wish I could idle the day away with rainbow rice and homemade rain sticks. I wish I could watch Serafina climb on the monkey bars for hours. The babies demand we never leave, but we have to leave because I still have to go to work today and their morning nap is coming.

10:10am: The messages from work start pinging my phone. Am I ready to join the conference call starting at 10am? Haha.

10:15am: I say goodbye to Darry and the babies, who are headed back home. We kiss and sort of make up about the argument we had the previous night when I told her that Serafina was acting like an asshole and she told me it was wrong for me to talk that way.

10:20am: I deliver Serafina to my mother, who will watch her for the rest of the day. But first I have to re-install her carseat in my mother’s car for only the 30th time this summer. I love doing this though. I love installing carseats. So it’s OK.

10:30am: Serafina demands I personally escort her inside, so I do.

10:35am: I am alone. I join the conference call. I am on the call for my entire drive to work, which is one of the only times I can reliably breathe and experience life sort of as the human I once was. The drive is long because, in my haste, I accidentally go the wrong way. The voices on the other end are muffled, like they are traveling light years from another universe where people wake up with the sun, carefully clothe and feed themselves and move freely about their day. I used to live there. I sometimes miss it.

Day break

I think I may have broken a record for the longest inhale in the history of the world today. It started four hours ago when I woke up and I have only just released that breath, here, at my desk, in my first second of quasi-repose.

Mornings are hard. Some are harder than others. These days they seem impossible. When I take a moment to float above the universe we inhabit and gaze down at our three beautiful babies and my beautiful wife, I sometimes wonder: how are people physically able to do the things you must do in the duality of being a human being who works and being a human being who is trying to lovingly care for offspring? The part where you rise early to feed, clothe and cleanup yourself and children each day and then exit the house with some combination of them seems to especially defy physics.

Our twins are at that precious age of babyhood where they don’t want to be in arms but they also don’t want to be out of them. Most of their time in Darry’s presence and even mine involves whining and hollering to go “up” and then whining and hollering to go back down. Their preferred state is for both of us to sprawl on the floor so they can just crawl all over us at will.

Serafina is on the precipice of being a threenager, which, I think, means she is aware of herself on the threshold of bigger-kidness and, in full view of her sisters in babyhood, her exit from that phase. This morning she demanded she sit in one of their high chairs (her old chair) with a bottle full of Darry’s pumped milk and the remains of her breakfast, cut into miniscule bites safe enough for an infant to gum. Seconds later, she insists she wash the dishes “all by self.” We chose to honor these requests today, but there are others like this that we can’t, for lack of time and patience, and there is some protest that I am trying very hard to see and support, but somehow not feel.

Did I mention we’re all in our second round of (thankfully, mild) coxsackie virus? Which sounds either adorable or vile, and this time has brought a crop of mouth sores for me and Darry (not just the kids), a general sense of blech and a fresh veneer of grumpiness to our family dynamic.

When the morning chaos peaks, I feel like I actually might die sometimes. Scene: Both babies are at my feet while Darry is in the bathroom, Serafina is demanding I hold her. I have to poop and maybe even take a shower and get dressed, but how? And then so do all of the children, but how? In my head there is a long stretch of many more mornings like this and cartoon speed lines flying off a history of so many mornings already lived, just like this. There is the epic list of things I haven’t completed at work, still waiting there for me to start, and all the people who will ask my questions as soon as I arrive.

I don’t know what to do with this feeling of impending death, and today, throwing a spoon into the sink for the satisfaction of metal crashing against metal would have to suffice. It’s not my best moment as a parent or person, hurling a spoon from the counter to the sink. But it feels essential to my survival right now.

I start all of my days as a servant to our tiny creatures. But five days a week, I start my day again, in service to my job. I am waking up again, breathing regularly now.

Seeing and loving a serious child

IMG_8780My kid can’t fake it.

When she encounters new people, Serafina is quiet, cautious and observant. She is not the kind of child that leaps into a new social dynamic with abandon or dashes off to see what distraction has captured a group of children. She sticks close by, silently and seriously, and often stays put. Parents and big kids can cajole her, try to lure her or bribe her to participate, but she’s resolute and so solid in her resistance, that they often give up, feeling deflated or even offended.

I sort of hate it.

I sort of hate it because this is not the child I know. At home, Serafina is an exuberant goofball who races around the house and screams with delight when she is surrounded by the people she knows and loves best. She is a downright boss, demanding with such force that we follow her precise orders when we play, eat or read books. She loves to hold court, performing her “ballerina,” singing her own songs or speeches she’s memorized from Daniel Tiger.

I have felt a sting, a sense of judgment when we get together with a group of parents and kids. Everyone else’s offspring is running through a sprinkler while mine is trying to fuse her body with me again. The other kids will giggle if you tickle them, but mine will scream “nooo” and scowl at you. (On two separate occasions, kids in her pre-school cohort have asked me, without any prompting, “why does Serafina only ever say ‘nooo!?'”) Are people asking what I did to make her this way? Are people liking her less because she will not engage?

But she is my child, after all. And this is very much who I was in my young life and now, after years of therapy and reflection, who I still am but now with the capacity to understand it and see how it appears to others. I could never do small talk easily or comfortably. I had no pretense of glee, but when it was real, it was very apparent. I was an introvert in new environments and an extrovert in my comfort zones. I thought for a long time that this is just how I was because I was queer and didn’t “fit” in most spaces neatly. Maybe that was true, or maybe it is/was just who I am. Today, I am a 38 year-old woman married to a woman with three daughters and thanks to brushes with life and death, I have a clear picture of what matters. It is easier now to be who I am than it ever was. The dark, weird, tall girl who did not smile is still there, but she is happy to meet new people and curious to interact with the world.

In this way, I have not loved the praise we give exclusively to the more “outgoing” traits a person might have, especially in children. We celebrate the kids who “flirt” with everyone (a descriptor for kid behavior that I, maybe in my weirdness, feel very funny about). We find it easy to love the kids who are puppy-like and bold. Why don’t we adore introspection and reserve in young people? Sensitive children are brave in their honesty and their vulnerability. Serious children are unique in their thoughtfulness. They are harder to get close to, but they are that much more wonderful perhaps because of what they hold back.

Part of why I love Serafina’s school and her teachers is because they are very intentional about seeing children, listening to them and loving who each child is. Her teachers have helped me feel better and even feel good about her assertiveness (screaming “no!” at boys twice her size) and her deadpan. And Darry too has reminded me that Serafina comes from a long line of spicy, brazen and in-charge ladies, like my fierce Nana, my mom, my aunties and maybe even me.

I want to be so careful to not impose character on Serafina, because her character (like everyone’s, really) is a such work in progress. I resist the way some parents might say “she loves this! and she is *this* way!” because I think children will respond to what we perceive in them, and tell ourselves and tell others. I don’t want to put any pressure on her. I want to work hard to see clearly what she is showing me and to love the wonder of discovering her unique self, every day.

Dining haul

Sitting down to share food together. This simple, beautiful, essential act was the thing that defined my relationship with Darry in all of the years that we were together before children. It is how we found and nurtured our most important relationships with our dearest friends. Nearly 10 years, this twice daily act (always breakfast, always dinner)  grounded us, kept us healthy and in the moment for the duration of each delicious meal.

We are working so hard to keep that foundation present now that we have three children. It was challenging but manageable when Serafina arrived. Every day of her first two years was reliably book-ended by a hot meal at the start and finish of each day with both of us next to her. In the mornings, she would nibble on our eggs. In the evenings, she would often crawl into my lap and gobble up a bit of whatever we were eating. She was a remarkably tidy eater, even in her baby phase, and the post-bedtime cleanup was minimal. In this way, she was a weirdo and she fooled us.

Needless to say, mealtime these days is not the luxurious, deliberate and often artful act that it once was. We are still eating twice daily, always breakfast and always lunch, with all of the children together. We are still preparing hot meals, miraculously made from mostly whole foods. But the time spent seated at the table is now a total fucking circus that generates up to an hour of cleanup after every meal.

When it’s time to eat, Serafina gets a head start on everyone else and often vanishes mid-meal to collect toys from another room, make mischief somewhere, demand that she is tired and ready for bed, etc. The twins cease their clockwork pre-meal whining (they are very conditioned) while finally stationed in their chairs — always with food already placed on their trays so they don’t attempt a premature escape. (At 9 months, Mairead started standing up in her chair and it was terrifying.) Darry and I shuttle all the necessary accoutrements to the table, attempt to sit down, both of us with one eye on the children as they start to inhale food. And then, instead of eating, one of us is continuously tearing up and throwing more and more food to the babies, who are consuming it faster than we can keep up. Meanwhile, the other is trying to keep Serafina engaged and present, and making sure she eats at least a couple of bites of the more important parts of the meal.

When we are done, usually 15 to 20 minutes later, the space around the table is a crime scene of food waste, suggesting that the twins did not actually ingest anything we gave them and that, instead, 100 percent of the tiny pieces we lovingly ripped up and tossed to them, were redirected to the floor. The babies themselves are covered in food, with bits of stuff somehow penetrating their onesies and digging in deep into their cloth diapers. (These will spill later on the bathroom floor, when they are stripped for a tubby.)

I know many families have their kids nibble on their own kid food separately and wait until after bedtime to eat in a more relaxed way themselves. I appreciate that, but I honestly don’t know how those parents can wait so long to eat dinner or when, if at all, they eat breakfast. Darry and I are also very conditioned and always very hungry.

But we are hoping the investment we are making at our mealtime circus now will nurture the same love and graciousness Darry and I have with each other, and the same love and gratitude for food. I like to fantasize about years from now, when the girls count on their time with us in the morning and the evening as a space to share how they’re feeling about the day ahead and about the day behind them. I also like to fantasize about them cooking entire meals for us, many years from now.  And I am proud of us for persevering and committing to the hard work required to procure good food, to prepare it and to share it, religiously, around the table as a family.

Not staying at home and parenting

“I stayed home because I didn’t want someone else raising my kids. That’s not why I had children.”

I overheard a mom saying this once at preschool drop-off. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard other mothers saying it in other places too. I may have even said something like it myself, before I had kids, though I am not sure what the hell I was thinking if I did. Because the truth is, and always has been, I am a working person.

I work because it is compulsory, because it is crucial to my survival. I do not have parents who support me. I do not hve a safety net. Everything I have, I have because I had to work (and so I did) and the same is true for Darry. And even though we, too, don’t prefer to have someone else raising our kids, it’s not presently an option, given our mortgage, modest standard of living and desire to build some semblance of long-term security. Also I work because — and here’s a tricky bit  — neither Darry nor I want to be home full time with three children. We both know that is the hardest job of all and we’ve been over this scenario and feel certain it would disrupt the sense of balance and equity we have in our relationship and in our co-parenting.

I don’t think all proud stay-at-home moms make “I wanted to raise my own kids” claims self-righteously, and I seriously question how many stay-at-home moms are resolute about their decision to stay home. But I do think statements like “I wanted to raise my own kids” over-simplify what is probably one of the most complicated and heart-wrenching realities a person can ever experience: being a parent and being a person with a job at the same time.

It is a fundamentally incompatible thing. Working and raising children, at least the way I personally conceive of both roles. Since Serafina was five months old, and I slowly and sadly and certainly made my return to work, my heart has been broken in a million tiny ways, pretty much every time I say goodbye to her. And especially on those days when the goodbyes are difficult.

This summer Serafina is in camp for the month of July. She’s with her beloved teachers and her buddies from preschool, but in a different setting, which is outdoors for most of the long, hot day, and the transition from school to camp has not been perfectly smooth. She’s the youngest kids attending, one of the few kids who still naps and arguably it’s a little too much for her. She comes home pretty beat and most mornings she says she’d rather stay at home. (That was never the case during school.) And every morning for the past week, she has panicked when it’s time for me to say goodbye and howled as I walked back to the car.

This is basically the worst sensation a working parent can experience. Leaving your child in someone else’s care as they look you in the face and beg you to stay because they want to be with you. This is not a scenario that plays out in your head when you decide getting pregnant is a good idea and that, when the time comes, you’ll work out some kind of child care plan so you can keep your income flowing. But here we are.

We are lucky our kids have amazing, nurturing care from wonderful, loving caregivers. We are lucky we have jobs that compensate us fairly. So much luck makes it seem wrong somehow to still complain that this combo of good fortune is hard, all the same. But right now and for the foreseeable future, every day is a circuitous path of exhaustion (getting up and getting out “on time”), grief and guilt (handing the kids over to someone else while they sometimes protest), anxiety (racing from one thing to the next, most especially to pickup), relief (when we finally get to see the children, happy and in tact at the end of the day) and more exhaustion (when we get a couple more hours caring for them while they are tired, often grumpy) and gratitude (when they go to sleep and give us the sweetest hugs imaginable as we’re tucking them in).