When the midwife said, “Oh, wait. There are two heartbeats, not one,” I thought, who plays a joke like that on a pregnant woman?
But my husband understood right away. He bounced on the balls of his feet. He swung his arms.
“Just two, right?” he joked. “We don’t want to be on a reality show or anything!”
“We don’t do multiples here at the clinic. But I can give you the referral for a great obstetrician who does.” The midwife handed my husband a business card.
Multiple. Multiple? Multiple babies? Oh no oh no oh no. You have the wrong mom. At 40, I didn’t expect to be pregnant again in the first place, let alone with twins. My husband and I were fine with our toddler daughter, just the three of us and I was OK with the idea of adding a fourth to the family. But twins? I couldn’t be the mother of three kids under three. For one thing, I couldn’t fit that many car seats in my car. Tears rolled down my cheek. Not tears of joy, but tears of arithmetic. Twins equaled twice as many diapers and twice as many college funds plus sixteen times the work, half as much sleep and no more paychecks ever. I couldn’t do it.
Then it turned out that my twins were mono-chorionic/mono-amniotic. In other words, they shared a placenta and an amniotic sac, while 99.9% of twins had their own. One placenta and one amniotic sac meant there was nothing to separate their umbilical cords. What was supposed to be a lifeline of blood and oxygen for one twin was also a cord that could strangle his brother. If one twin died in utero, there was no way to save the surviving twin. If we lost one, we’d lose both. Mono-chorionic/mono-amniotic twins had only a 50 percent chance of survival without complications. If they did survive, they’d be delivered via mandatory C-section at 32 weeks’ gestation and likely spend a month or more in the NICU.
“There’s a lot we can do with three-pound babies,” the fetal/maternal specialist told my husband and me.
Another specialist warned, “You have to be prepared at every ultrasound to have a dead baby.”
“Some couples in your situation choose to terminate,” said a third.
Suddenly I wanted twins very badly. I wanted twins who sucked on each other’s thumbs in utero and had special psychic twin powers. I wanted mirror images who would take tests for each other and play tricks on their teachers. Most of all, I wanted fat, healthy bundles who weighed more than three pounds.
In the end, I got much of what I’d imagined: twins who, six years later, still sleep in identical positions. Who buy each other the same LEGO set for Christmas and have to play at least three rounds of Rock-Paper-Scissors because they always tie the first two games. Brothers who have been pretending to be the other twin since before they could speak. Things are pretty rockin’ six years later.
But I don’t know if I would have told that to my 40-year-old self who was busy crying over twin math. I don’t think I would have told that to the mother I was a few months later, crying over her one-and-a-half pound babies in their NICU isolettes, the one who would visit the NICU twice a day for three months. The mother who, after the twins left the NICU, would then take them to weekly appointments with early intervention specialists. Knowing that things would eventually get better is not what I wanted to hear when my babies were in the NICU. I didn’t want to pin my hopes on the future; I wanted to be happy with now, even though our “now” did not look pretty.
So I might tell my just-pregnant self that one day soon, when she’s 23 weeks pregnant, she’ll be sitting on the couch, too exhausted to do anything else, with her hands on her belly. One belly lump will dash and dart around as if he is running laps. The other lump will move around, too, but he is more of a swimmer than a kicker. She’ll stay like that for 20 or 30 minutes. In a rare moment of clarity, she won’t dwell on the doctors’ grim predictions and of course, she’s totally oblivious to the fact that she’ll go into labor two weeks from now. She’ll just sit there enjoying the moment for what it is — time spent with her babies.
This is the moment I will remember when one of the twins has a collapsed lung. I’ll remember it when the doctors explain the surgical procedure the twins will undergo to fix their heart murmurs and again when I’m sitting in the emergency room 18 months later because one of the boys has 105 fever.
I will return to that moment on the couch, just the three of us, because that afternoon was proof that I could sit and enjoy life for what it was, proof that I didn’t need the promise of a happy ending in order to be happy.
Janine Kovac is a contributor to the upcoming anthology Multiples Illuminated. She was a ballet-dancer-turned-software-engineer when she discovered that her surprise pregnancy was a high-risk twin pregnancy. Her NICU-related essays have appeared in Pregnancy and Newborn magazine, Raising Happiness, and in the anthologies Mamas Write: 29 Tales of Truth, Wit, and Grit and Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God. In 2012, Janine helped co-found the 501c3 nonprofit writing group Write on Mamas. She is an event producer for Litquake and the 2016 director for the San Francisco production of Listen To Your Mother. Janine lives with her husband and three children in Oakland, California.