My twin daughters weren’t supposed to be born in December. They were due in February.
Their birth wasn’t a joyous occasion. I didn’t have a birth plan, a doula, or an orgasmic experience. My daughters’ birth was an emergency that wasn’t supposed to happen. The doctors sent me home from the hospital just three hours before we made our way back with blood dripping down my thighs.
As we drove to the hospital, I held the fetal heart rate monitor against my stomach and reassured myself that my unborn daughters would be okay. When my doctor told me it was time, my heart sank. It might have been time for them to come out of me, but it was way too early for them to be born.
My pregnancy was high-risk from the start. What began as a triplet pregnancy became twins after only nine weeks. The ultrasound tech was kind as she measured and re-measured Baby B, but there was no heart beat, and I knew my baby was dead before she even spoke the words. I was cramping and bleeding, barren yet gestating, and my doctor put me on bed rest. My employer winced, but approved my paid short-term disability leave without hesitation.
I had my first placental abruption the night before Thanksgiving. I was only about 28 weeks pregnant, and by then my doctor had upgraded me to light activity. That night, I baked two pies and did a load of laundry. As I moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer, I thought I peed myself. It wasn’t pee.
I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in the hospital. I opened gifts in my hospital bed, hooked up to monitors. A few days later, I finally went home. I was nervous about going home, but my doctors told me the babies would be fine.
I made it home without incident. In fact, I begged my husband to stop and get me a sandwich on and I dug into it like a starving woman after weeks of hospital food. As I stood up to wash my hands, I felt a familiar gush. I didn’t wonder if I’d peed myself, I knew it was blood.
My daughters were born eight weeks early. Like most parents of preemies, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) became our second home. My husband and I celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day there, listening to the angry hum of the ventilator. Sometimes I found myself wondering whether we would still be there by the time Valentine’s Day rolled around.
Valentine’s Day has always been my favorite holiday. I love how flagrantly cheesy it is, and when I was still pregnant with my daughters, I liked to imagine decking them out in matching pink outfits for the occasion. Those silly dreams faded quickly as I forced myself up and out of bed only a few hours after my C-section and the nurses wheeled me into the NICU.
I wasn’t allowed to hold one of my daughters right away, but the NICU nurse handed me the other one gently. She was hooked up to a machine to help her breathe, and it covered most of her face. As I held my miniature daughter, taking in her scent and staring into her inky eyes, maternity leave was the last thing on my mind.
I didn’t have to worry about maternity leave. My company offered generous family leave benefits. Between maternity leave and vacation time, I was able to stay home with full pay and job security for nearly five months. My husband worked at the same company and received four weeks of paid paternity leave as well. He chose to wait and save his paid time off for when our daughters came home from the hospital, so we soon fell into a routine – he dropped me off at the hospital in the morning on his way to work, and picked me up again on his way home.
Time stops in the NICU. As hours became days, and days became weeks, the world collapsed around me, and my reality was the length of the hallway between the parking lot and their hospital room. I basically lived in the NICU, and when I went home to sleep, I pumped my breast milk every two and a half hours around the clock. My motherhood was confined to those drops of breast milk and the few moments in the NICU when I was able to change a tiny diaper, or rock my daughters quietly.
When my daughters finally came home, just in time for Valentine’s Day, all of that changed in an instant. Gone were the wires and tubes, but also gone were the nurses with their calm demeanors and ready hands. My daughters slept fitfully and fought their feeds, and my life became a whirlwind of feeding, changing, and pumping. My husband and I split up the night shift so and each of us would try to get a couple of hours of sleep. I learned how to feed two babies and pump breast milk at the same time, and to function on two hours sleep.
Without that help from my husband, I don’t know how either of us would’ve survived. It was difficult for him to go to work every day when they were in the NICU, but having him available for our daughters’ first month at home saved my sanity. And not having to worry about money in an otherwise difficult time was a gift I’ve never forgotten.
It was the only thing that seemed to go well in a pregnancy, and birth, marked by nothing but complexity.