There are strict rules about a twin birth, at least in Illinois. It has to take place in the operating room, and only one person is allowed accompany the birthing mother and be present for the birth. That is—only one family member or next of kin. There is apparently room enough for twenty-five to thirty medical professionals to wander in and out of the room during the event—some playing major roles, others playing minor roles, and others with seemingly no responsibilities whatsoever and with no real reason for being there other than to say things like “Ooooh twins!”
Once we got inside the OR it was all action and I’m a little hazy on the details. If memory serves correctly, Marie was put on some kind of chair/table hybrid, legs akimbo, with a small group of women peering eagerly into her vaginal region. I was quick to position myself north of the action on what looked like a barstool. I felt it necessary to have something to sit on, and I felt it more necessary still, to be situated in a spot where I wouldn’t be witnessing any actual mouth-of-the-cave type action. Our nurse, who had just clocked in for her shift and was extremely surprised to see us as she had served as our nurse a full twenty-four hours previously, was fresh faced after an evening off and a full-night’s sleep. Our Dr., who had been in the hospital all night, was less fresh looking, but seemed excited and on her toes, as if interested to see how this thing was going to turn out. Marie was raring to go, and didn’t need to be told twice when it was time to push. I was floating somewhere outside of my body—absorbed in the moment to an extent that I have never before or since been absorbed in a moment. There was literally nothing else in the world that could have possibly penetrated my mind during the birth. Bob Dylan himself could have walked into the room and introduced himself to me and I would have dismissed him with a wave of my hand. “Not now, Bob.” Meanwhile, there were literally teams of people gathering in the room and chattering in the background, presumably making preparations for the arrival of our daughters.
The pushing was gut-wrenching and I found myself pushing along with Marie at first, but soon came to the conclusion that if I continued down the road of sympathy pushing, I would eventually soil myself. After a few minutes of essentially trying to take a dump on my stool, I abandoned the project and focused instead on the breathing. There were little breaks in between the contractions when Marie was allowed to relax. At first, I thought these breaks were golden. They were little respites from the business of forcing two human beings out of a woman’s uterus. After awhile, however, the breaks were frustrating drops in momentum. I was now literally gagging to meet my children. They were coming. They were right there, but we still had to wait and take breather after breather. It had been 24 hours, for God’s sake. It was time to get them out!
When the first of our daughters finally did arrive, flailing like a fish out of water, hair wild on her head, skin covered in fluids, a tube thrust into her nose to keep her from inhaling her own feces, her weight announced and recorded; the team of people who up to a point looked as though they were trying to subdue a wild animal, wrapped her in a blanket and handed her to me, and within the context of my own personal life on planet Earth, calendar time as we know it, stood still.
Holding and looking down at my daughter (or baby-A as they were calling her at the time), and peering into her barely opening eyes, I was no longer worried, scared, tired, or anxious. I was a father holding his child, a person holding a much smaller person. I sat down on the barstool and held her close to her mother, who, unable to participate in the lovefest just yet, was engaged in the business of forcing a second baby out of her uterus. Baby-B was apparently delighted by the amount of space that had just opened up in her neighborhood and was in no rush to move out. Although it felt like ten minutes, it was almost a full hour before she finally emerged and graced us with her presence. As it happens there was a separate team waiting for her, and I had to follow them into another room. When I was given the chance to hold her, the feelings were no less intense despite the fact that she didn’t look as though she was related to her mother or I or even her sister. As it turned out, her facial features were a little swollen as a result of the journey she had just taken, and she soon started to look enough like her sister that most people had a hard time telling them apart.
And so, after twenty-four adrenaline-fueled hours, which came at the end of nine sleepless, anxiety-filled months, we found ourselves with two exceptionally cute little girls. It soon became apparent that the twenty-four hour birthing experience was something we would never recover from. We would never have an opportunity. We were now in charge of two tiny, extremely dependent, human beings. We were exhausted, and we were most likely going to stay that way for the next eighteen years. But despite the crushing fatigue and the inconceivable responsibility, the only real thing that stands out in my memory of the event is the happiness. The happiness was a little disconcerting in some ways. I had, after all, taken nine months out of my life and devoted them almost exclusively to fear, anxiety, and the kind of anticipation that keeps you uneasy even when you’re asleep. “For what?” I asked myself. For happiness, apparently— happiness that was making a mockery of me and the way I had spent the last nine months of my life.
The multitude of emotions that are involved when a man witnesses his offspring enter the world are difficult to convey to those who haven’t had the experience. All that really needs stating is that you haven’t seen sh#t until you’ve seen your children being born. (My wife wanted me to make it clear that this is not a literal statement. Apparently some women actually do push out some feces during the birthing process. This, however, was not the case with my wife, who has never pooped in front of an audience.)
And so ends the first chapter of this blog, a chapter devoted to the pregnant man. From here on out we will be dealing with life on the outside—a life filled with diapers, tears, breast pumps, feeding and sleeping schedules, and a staggering array of logistical nightmares that all come wrapped in a strange and disarming phenomenon known to mankind as unconditional love. Of course, we won’t focus too much on the love, because, let’s be honest, it just isn’t that funny.
In some ways the labor became like a microcosm of the entire pregnancy. I was bewildered in the early stages and battling with my all-too-familiar friend, acute anxiety—unable to sit still, but with little else to do. Then came that middle period when, according to the Dr., it was going to be a while before we saw any real action. Immediately recognizing this time as my second trimester—an opportunity to push things out of my mind for a while and focus on the fact that, yes, it was going to happen but not just yet—I enjoyed a brief stint of denial. I would most likely eat another meal before the babies arrived. That was something to look forward to. I’d also take a few strolls around the atrium of the women’s hospital with my ipod while my mother-in-law held down the fort. I was golden.
Throughout the middle period, the contractions were still mild enough that they weren’t harrowing to witness. Gradually, however, the hours would pass and the contractions would take on some very unpleasant qualities. As they did, all possibility of denial and relaxation was annihilated. Contractions became minor earthquakes and then major earthquakes. The miracle of childbirth has a lot more in common with natural disasters than it generally gets credit for. All I could do was witness it, completely powerless to alter its course or even lend a hand to those devastated by its unrelenting wrath. Contractions started to come hard and fast as we entered the final stretch. It can be difficult to maintain excitement and a general upbeat atmosphere when your wife periodically appears as though she is being possessed by some kind of evil demon attempting to take over her body and destroy her. It didn’t help that the final stretch arrived about 18 hours into our unforgiving day.
As we approached the 24-hour cutoff, at which point it would be unsafe to allow Marie to continue with the labor, we arrived at a crossroads of sorts. Our Dr., who would stroll casually into the room once in a while and do her best to seem sympathetic to our situation, thought it appropriate to measure Marie’s progress in centimeters. To a conscientious observer such as myself, measuring hours of traumatic physical agony in mere centimeters is misguided and unfair. If it has to be recorded in terms of distance, a laboring woman’s progress should be measured in nothing less than miles. To walk in and tell a woman who has been enduring contractions for 20 hours that her progress is still languishing at the 7-centimeter mark is less kind than simply walking in and slapping her in the face. In a more just world a Dr. would say something like “Mrs. Jones, you have progressed over 1,000 miles in the last hour. Since the time I last checked in with you, you essentially cycled from Chicago to Santa Fe on a unicycle. We literally don’t know how you did it.”
The man in this situation must straddle that uncomfortable line between being anxiously concerned with and engaged in the conversation about his wife’s dilation, and at the same time wanting absolutely nothing to do with the reality of what it actually means. I was as dismayed as anyone when told that we were still at 7-centimeters, however, I was terrified of confronting the practical implications of what we were actually talking about. The best I could do was focus on the numbers as if they were statistics without any tangible physical properties, all the while hoping to God that I would one day be able to shake the phrase “mucus plug” from my conscious mind.
The verbal slap in the face that was the 7-centimeter progress report was delivered to us a number of times as the night dragged itself along in an impossibly agonizing fashion. Eventually our Dr. decided a little help was needed. If Marie was going to give birth naturally, the contractions would have to be intensified with a little help from something called “pitocin.” The pitocin would make the rest of the labor unbearable without a little something called an “epidural”—a step Marie had been keen to avoid experiencing, and I had been keen to avoid witnessing. However, circumstances dictated that we really had little choice. A word of advice to all future fathers: In the case of an epidural, DON’T EVER LOOK AT THE NEEDLE. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t watch a foot-long needle be inserted into your wife’s back at the height of what is likely to be one of the most physically traumatic events of her life, but it should be stressed that you should at all costs avoid even catching a glimpse of the needle before or after it is administered. That a needle of such length even exists, is alone something I would rather have avoided knowing, but to actually see one in person with the knowledge that it was soon to be plunged into my wife’s back is not something I will ever fully recover from.
The aftermath of the epidural, however, was something else entirely. It was as if a button was pushed that turned absolute bedlam into peaceful calm. Marie went from looking like she was being tortured by invisible military forces to chatting pleasantly, cracking jokes with the staff, and even sleeping a little. The dramatic shift in atmosphere was a welcome relief to me as the twenty-hour continuous adrenaline surge I was experiencing was fast reducing me to a mere fragment of a man. Adrenaline is something that is designed to come and go in the heat of a single moment. If it sticks around for twenty hours and intensifies as time passes, it essentially renders you handicapped.
That foot-long needle, as horrendous a sight as it was, granted us a few hours of peace before the big moment arrived. Our Dr. came back into our room, now just about 24 hours since we first checked into the hospital and announced that Marie was ready to push, and that it was time to head into the operating room. Looking ridiculous in the set of scrubs I was required to wear for the occasion, I took a deep breath and helped wheel my wife’s bed out of the room and into a chapter of our lives that would do little to resemble anything we had so far experienced as human beings on planet Earth.
The classics are usually classics for good reason. If they aren’t exactly page-turners there’s usually something in there to make you marvel at their scope or ambition. Melville’s Moby Dick is as epic as it is made out to be, albeit with a few hundred too many pages dedicated to the anatomy of the Sperm Whale. Joyce’s Ulysses, though almost completely unreadable and in most editions overwhelmed by its own footnotes, contains some stunning prose and possesses a style so singular that you can’t help but respect it even if you don’t enjoy it. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is as wistful and romantic a tale as you’ll ever read. The examples are endless and it would benefit no one if I continued to list them here.
Every now and then, however, a book seems to sneak in the back door and settle into this untouchable literary list without any obvious reasons for its being there. This brings us to Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book that is less imaginative and more limited in its range than most of the shopping lists my wife penned for me last year, yet which seems to resonate deeply enough with such a large number of people that it enjoys the reverence reserved for the most highly esteemed books rendered in the English language. Laying aside the nagging thought that, had I held onto and found a suitable illustrator for the list Marie composed for my most recent trip to Target, we might very well be rolling in money by now, I ask you to join me in peeking inside the pages of Carle’s much-loved “classic” and asking one very specific question: Why this book?
“In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.” Fair enough. It’s an evocative opening line and a strong start. Next we learn that on Sunday morning a caterpillar pops out of the egg and that he is hungry. We’re not told anything else about the caterpillar. We know he was just born and that he’s hungry and it seems we’re going to learn little else. It is over the course of the next six pages, which make up the bulk of Carle’s story, that we explore his hunger and what is most likely a rather severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Carle’s nameless protagonist literally eats his way through a modest list of fruits in an alarmingly irrational but extremely methodical and precise manner. On Monday, we are told, he ate through one apple but was still hungry. Rather than eat something else, contrary little devil that he is, he waits until Tuesday, switches to pears and ups the number to two. On Wednesday it’s three plums, Thusday sees him consuming four strawberries, and on Friday it’s oranges and he eats five. With each day he tries a new fruit and eats one more than on the previous day—a method that defies logic and does little to satiate the seemingly irrepressible hunger he was born with.
The caterpillar seems to be a bit of a lone-wolf. No companions are mentioned or depicted at any point, which is just as well, as anyone in their right mind would most likely find his approach to his daily meals infuriating. Whether or not he gets up to anything exciting between meals is anyone’s guess as it is not Carle’s intention to tell us. All we have to go on are his eating habits, which over the course of a week, display a lack of good judgment and a psychotically methodical approach to nourishment. The caterpillar, one would have to assume, decided on a pattern of consumption from the start. As the story progresses, he becomes a slave to that pattern and though it doesn’t satisfy his hunger he sticks with it as if he has no choice. People who struggle daily with obsessive compulsive disorder will most likely tell you that he does, in fact, have no choice, and that the pattern once initiated, must be completed. And so, we stick with him from Monday through Friday as Carle’s inventory-like prose guides us through his meals.
Then comes Saturday, a day on which, within the context of this particular caterpillar’s life-story, all hell literally breaks loose. Something snaps inside his tiny, overtaxed brain and he abandons completely the carefully calculated restraint he showed us during the week. Going on an eating binge not unlike the Saturday night benders of drunken debauchery that so many humans indulge in at the end of their just-bearable work weeks, the caterpillar devours a list of foods so mismatched and so unhealthy and decadent that, were it offered to Rosanne Barr and John Goodman on a Saturday night’s visit to the local diner, they might very well consider splitting the meal. Chocolate cake, an ice cream cone, a pickle, Swiss cheese, salami, a lollipop, cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake, and a slice of watermelon are all consumed. “That night,” we are told, “he had a stomach ache”—a diagnosis, when considered in light of the week’s menu and the fact that the week in question was the caterpillar’s first week alive, we would have to assume is a conservative one. I feel it is safe to guess that the meal came within an inch of ending the caterpillar’s life.
What, then, does Eric Carle have us learn from this terrifying experience? Essentially, Carle tells us this: Do what you want on Saturday night because Sunday is a day of repentance and redemption, and if you do the right thing—whether that involves eating a modest portion of a green leaf (as is the case with our caterpillar) or visiting the confessional booth of a church (as is the case with so many of his human counterparts)—the slate will be wiped clean. You will one day get your wings and ascend to heaven (or the air above flowers for the duration of your relatively short life as a butterfly). Maybe it’s this mirror-to-society quality that makes The Very Hungry Caterpillar such an enduring book. Then again, maybe it’s just the colorful pictures. Either way, it’s a dark and lonely tale, and one that I find myself returning to again and again, not because I want to but because my daughters want me to.
Water, by its very nature, shouldn’t be able to break. I was very confused when I first heard the phrase as a child. Someone’s water had broken? What in the world did that mean? Did the glass they had the water in, break? Did it cut them? Is that why they were in the hospital? Why were people excited about it? What in the bloody hell were we talking about here? Did we all have water inside us that could just somehow break at any moment, causing our bodies to malfunction, and forcing us to be rushed off to hospital amid a strange mix of anxious prayers and cheerful excitement?
Hollywood would have us believe that the breaking of a woman’s water is a warning bell that signals chaos, confusion, and the immediate need to hail a cab. When I learned from our birthing class facilitator that this was not the case, and that the breaking of the water was not even necessarily a reason to rush to the hospital, I was initially relieved. I’ve never been a fan of the mad dash or the frantic scramble. I prefer to amble into emergency situations with my hands in my pockets whenever possible. Looking back, however, I kind of prefer the Hollywood method of dealing with this particular event. You’re out on the town in elegant evening attire one minute, and the next you’re jumping in a cab, yelling for the nearest hospital. If you’re lucky your baby will hang on until you arrive at said hospital, but more often than not you and/or the cab driver (depending on who faints) will deliver the baby in the backseat of the cab. Your wife will be screaming, and may literally kick you to the curb, but soon enough you’ll hear the baby crying and then your wife will be crying tears of joy, and it will all be over just as soon as it started. In the real world, however, the sobering reality of the situation is that the breaking of the water might very well be the beginning of the longest day of your life.
My initial relief about the non-emergency nature of the event was soon crushed by our birthing class facilitator. “There’s no reason to go rushing into the hospital. We want you comfortable at home as long as possible, OK moms!” she said enthusiastically before awkwardly looking in our direction and inevitably deflating my soul even further with her now mantra-like phrase, “of course, for you guys it’s a little different . . .” We would, in fact, probably be heading to the hospital when the water broke.
The breaking of the water occurred early on a Monday morning, just before the time I would normally be waking up to get ready for work. The sound of my mother-in-law, who had arrived just a few days earlier, running inside our small apartment, signaled to me that something was afoot. She and my wife were operating quite quietly, most likely to let me sleep as long as possible before going into what could be the most harrowing experience of my life. When I got up to investigate, I was informed that there was “meconium in the water.” I knew from the birthing class that this meant that one of the babies had pooped in the water. “Let’s just call it poop then,” I thought. As long as we’re calling it water, which it probably isn’t, we might as well call it poop. “There’s poop in the water.” The Dr. was called and given the run-down on our situation, and, yes, he inevitably felt it best that we head into the hospital at our nearest convenience.
The procrastination I had indulged in for eight months had recently and miraculously waned just enough for me to accomplish the few tasks that were required of me before the moment arrived. We had a hospital bag packed and ready to go. We had car seats installed in the car in preparation for the trip home from the hospital. I had even made my wife a mix CD to listen to while in labor. I was, given the circumstances, about as ready as I could have been. Eight months of anxiety and anticipation were suddenly coming to a head and I was eager to end the waiting and skip right to the action. We loaded everything into the car and took one last photograph of my wife’s by-then-enormous belly, and headed to the hospital. I drove fairly fast as years of Hollywood portrayals of the event were still breathing down my neck despite all I had been told.
I dropped the ladies off at the front door, and went to park the car. I was moving through the hospital at great speeds, hardly pausing at the various reception desks when asking for directions. I needed to get to the birthing center. Then I needed to get to the room we were assigned. In my mind, every second counted. What if things had escalated so quickly that one of the twins had popped out while I was in the parking lot? Having located the room, I rushed in breathlessly and braced myself for action. As it turned out, twenty-three hours later, reduced to a heap of jangled nerves posing as a human being, I would still be bracing myself for the action.
The birthing room, which my wife and mother-in-law had somehow very thoroughly settled into in the short time I spent parking the car and finding them, was quite a pleasant environment. There was a TV and a closet, and there were curtains on the window. Had it not been for the mechanical bed, and the fact that my wife was hooked up to various machines, I might have been able to forget where we were. No matter how comfortable we were going to get in this quaint little sterile room, however, I knew it wasn’t where we’d be staying. The long list of exceptions to the rules we were enjoying as the expectant parents of twins were all minor when compared to the one that was coming. It was the mother of all exceptions, and it was going to rear its terrifying head at the height of the drama. We would not be giving birth in a birthing room. We, lucky lottery winners that we were, would, once the labor reached its devastating climax, be wheeling my wife into the Operating Room—a cold environment dominated by metal tables, sharp objects, and masked people. The mother-in-law wouldn’t be making the trip as we were only allowed one non-pregnant person in our party, and that was going to be me.
Before that happened though, we’d be experiencing the glacier-paced escalation of a 24-hour labor that would be as torturous as it was slow. My wife was determined to have as natural a birth as possible. She was uninterested in pain-relieving medication, she was keen to avoid a c-section, and as the labor progressed, she was quickly becoming the most intimidating person I knew. I say this not because she was in any way cruel or aggressive but because she seemed to enter some kind of zone where unbelievable pain came and went without fanfare, and where time and space seemed to merge into one indefinable state. Hours passed like minutes, minutes passed like hours. The bed was the chair, the chair was the bed. Shifts came and went. The nurse was a woman, the nurse was a man, the nurse was a woman again. All the while, Marie bore down—getting through it. Between contractions she was cracking jokes and inquiring as to the well-being of others. During contractions, had an attending nurse leaned in too close, Marie might have snapped their neck like a twig.
Today at Dad of Doubles we introduce a new feature, in which we will delve into the world of literary criticism and review one of the books that our daughters currently enjoy reading. My children enjoy Bear at Home and take a great deal of pleasure in pointing out Bear on each page. I, however, have a few problems with its often confounding, paper-thin plot.
Bear at Home – A Book Review
“This is Bear’s house and this is his key.” So begins Stella Blackstone’s frustrating but mercifully short novella, Bear at Home. Blackstone’s protagonist, who is introduced to us simply as “Bear,” appears to live in a two-story, single family home. Despite occupying a space typically designed for adult humans, Bear, being an actual bear, dispenses with the need for clothes. He is large and yellow, and within the first sentence we learn that he carries the key to the house. (Where he keeps it when out walking is anyone’s guess as pockets are a luxury he has chosen to live without.) The natural conclusion of the reader is that Bear owns this home. His size relative to the front door, as well as his possession of a key, at the very least suggests that he is an adult.
When we are given a glimpse of the house’s interior we see a domestic house cat among various typical furnishings. Whether the cat is a pet or a companion on equal footing with Bear, is unclear. We then see Bear going about some typical household activities. He sweeps the floor in the kitchen, knocking the cat’s feet out from under it in what is either a playful reminder of who is boss, or a vicious attack on the cat’s safety and general well-being. Bear then sits down to eat a meal in the dining room, accompanied once more by the cat, who doesn’t seem to be offered any food of his own. Again, the nature of the relationship is called into question.
In the next scene, we are given further insight into Bear’s life. Clearly a creature of leisure, Bear takes an afternoon nap on the couch. The cat, surprisingly enough, appears to be sleeping soundly on Bear’s chest. At first glance this is an assurance that their relationship is a loving one. However, given Blackstone’s penchant for ambiguity thus far, it would be foolish to assume as much. Perhaps, a notoriously sound sleeper, Bear is unaware of the cat’s presence on his chest. What looks like a cozy bout of snuggling, could very well be a desperate assertion of dominance on cat’s part at one of the few moments during Bear’s day when his guard is down.
What happens next is shocking, completely unanticipated, and a testament to what little prowess Blackstone possesses as a writer. Everything we have so far learned about Bear is dramatically thrown into question courtesy of an image of Bear sitting on the floor beside a large chest full of children’s toys, some of which he is playing with. The adult-sized, possibly home-owning protagonist, is quite suddenly either a high functioning man-child—possibly an heir to a great fortune, for whom work has never been a necessity, and for whom stacking colorful blocks on the floor is an enjoyable endeavor—or an actual child. If Bear is an actual child, he appears to be one who lives alone with a cat in a fully furnished two-story home. Rather than offer any insight into the reasons for Bear’s sudden display of infancy, Blackstone then has him climb the stairs only to settle into a comfortable chair in his decidedly adult-looking library, where he dons a pair of reading glasses and quietly enjoys a book.
This devastating one-two punch of contradictory activity is the one ace Blackstone whips out of her sleeve in what is otherwise a seemingly mindless cataloging of a fairly mundane day in the life of her extremely unlikely characters. Along the way she raises more questions than she answers, and at the story’s conclusion she answers some questions that no reader in their right mind would ever think to ask.
Next on the agenda is a bath in a very colorfully decorated bathroom. The cat, as always lurking in the background, is either enjoying the warmth of a friends company or perhaps plotting a scheme to one day hurl an electrical object into the water while Bear lathers himself obliviously with suds. Predictably enough, bedtime is next. Cat is present but we are not shown the sleeping arrangements. The reader at this point will notice that despite the fact that the story has reached its conclusion, they still have a few pages to go. What, one might wonder, have Blackstone and her illustrator chosen to convey in the remaining pages? Now irate and desperate for answers concerning Bear’s living situation, age, and relationship with Cat, we are gifted by Blackstone, not with any answers to the many burning questions we have, but with a detailed floor plan of Bear’s house. Just in case, having said goodnight to Bear, we are suddenly overcome with a deep need to know how close the kitchen is to the front door, we are given all the information we need. Satiating what she imagines is a deep concern among readers with how the rooms of the house are situated relative to one another; Blackstone presents the house’s layout over two pages—one dedicated to the downstairs, the other the upstairs. Thank you, Blackstone.
Those who picked this up at the time of publication and were wondering what came next for Bear, had to wait three years for the sequel, Bear on a Bike—a book I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, though I can only imagine what pivotal mysteries go unanswered in its stiff pages.
You can’t help but think about simpler times when you add something called a Diaper Genie to a list of things you want people to buy for you. The idea of making such a list has always struck me as a strange and uncomfortable exercise. My wife and I reluctantly made a list when we got married, under the insistence of our friends that it was just the sensible thing to do. We felt weird doing it for wedding gifts, but when it came to registering for the baby shower our friends were throwing for us, I had no qualms about the process. We needed a hell of a lot of stuff and I had no problem telling people what it was. That is, I had no problem with Marie telling people what it was, as I myself had no idea. The addition of the Diaper Genie, a bin in which we would be depositing soiled diapers, forced me to ponder the sheer density of excrement that we would soon be amassing in our apartment. We would as a family, be doubling in size, yet only two of us would know how to use the toilet. The amount of wiping involved was overwhelming to think about. I was not particularly squeamish at the thought of my daughters’ feces, but at the same time I was not especially enthused about the assembly line-type approach I imagined we would have to take when wiping it from their bottoms.
The Diaper Genie was only one of many items that we were apparently going to need. Receiving blankets, hooded towels, swaddlers, monitors, wipe warmers, an assortment of ointments and creams and powders, not to mention the big things like cribs and mattresses and changing stations and car seats and clothes—piles and piles of silly little clothes . . . The list was endless and quite frankly mind-blowing. These two tiny people were going to arrive totally empty-handed with no vested interest in anything but my wife’s breast milk, yet we needed to assemble a small city’s worth of accessories and contraptions in order to accommodate them in our apartment.
We agreed that if I was going to attend the baby shower, then our male friends might as well come along as well. The presence of people even more clueless than I was about the items we’d be receiving was a comforting factor for me. When the event got rolling, our friends formed a large circle and watched as we unwrapped gift after gift, and I, under their watchful and expectant gazes, feigned excitement again and again at the sight of items we ourselves had picked out weeks beforehand. “Ah, the towels” I would say as if delighted to finally see them in the flesh. “Oh great, the Diaper Genie, thank you.” The efficiency of the registry was severely compromised by almost every male friend we had, as none of them knew to check the items off of the registry once they had purchased them. The result was not one, but three Diaper Genies, all of which we were forced to display gratitude for and then do our best to laugh at the idea that, yes, we might very well need all three of them. “No, of course, yeah, we’ll just return it. It’s no problem; we basically live at Target.” Our male friends were keen on buying gifts that they could understand, so the monitor system, which essentially looked like a walkie-talkie set, was popular as well. “Oh, another one. Oh well, no problem. Yes, you’re right we should just keep them all and set it up so there’s a receiver in every room. Wouldn’t that be sweet.”
I don’t want to seem ungrateful at all. Our friends were very generous and enthusiastic and spent lots of money on us. The baby shower was a bit like our own personal telethon, and people responded with a great deal of love and support. We might have done a little better had we been able to set something up with celebrities manning phone lines, but we did well and couldn’t have asked more of our friends. The need to return a few items to Target was hardly much of an interruption to our daily routine, as we spent more time on our way to, or inside, that establishment than I would ever care to estimate.
For our friends, the baby shower was a fun event, a send-off of sorts, a chance to marvel at the miracle that lay ahead for us as we crossed over to the other side into the realm of parenthood. For me it was one of the few milestones that had remained between us and the birth. As those milestones disappeared, so too did my ability to relax for any length of time. As time slipped away, we entered that dreaded period where nothing was safe anymore. I tiptoed through the days, breathing shallowly, always conscious that all hell could break loose at any moment. We would rent movies but I was never invested in the plot, never certain we’d be seeing how they ended. I imagined sipping tea at one moment, and charging headlong for the car keys the next. Every time Marie paused to take a deep breath, or put her hands to her belly as a result of some movement, my world would come crashing to a standstill until normal activity was resumed. Normal activity, of course, was a relative term. As the twins grew, so too did Marie’s increasingly large belly. In the final days of the pregnancy, even reclining on the couch became a challenge for her. There are apparently a number of basic sitting positions that become unavailable to a person when there are two children, constantly squirming and battling for legroom, in their uterus.
As we hit the 36 week mark with the girls still on the inside—a remarkable victory for a twin pregnancy—it was clear that the focus was no longer on keeping them in. Marie was ready to get them out. My keen interest in keeping the birth at bay as long as possible was starting to wane as well. Eight months of anticipation is enough to reduce a man to a quivering heap of nerves. I was starting to think it was time to get it over with, time to meet our fate and our offspring. It was time to step into the next chapter of our lives—a chapter that would contain elements not covered in any of the previous ones. There would be a sudden and jarring plot twist, followed quickly by that most confounding of literary conventions—the introduction of new characters deep into an already established storyline. Was I ready? Had eight months of thinking about nothing else, prepared me in the least bit for what was about to happen? Not even remotely. My ignorance of what lay ahead was so profound that had I been replaced at the last minute by a total stranger who had lived his entire life in captivity, his captors taking extreme measures to ensure that he never find out about the existence of women or babies, Marie would have been no worse off in the delivery room. I had attended the birthing class, I had read a book called The Expectant Father, and I had indulged in countless conversations with my wife about childbirth, but the information was meaningless. It was as if I had been attempting to learn to ride a bicycle without any access to an actual bike. The laws of physics involved were totally theoretical, and would all vanish from my mind as soon as I did finally get on a bike and wheel myself awkwardly into oncoming traffic.
After coming to terms with the fact that God had responded to my “one boy, please” request with two girls, I found myself slipping out of the comfort of the second trimester and into the quicksand that was the third and final set of months standing between me and the birth of my daughters. Of course, for us the third trimester wasn’t going to be a full three months. We were told going into it that our girls were “viable” and could potentially arrive at any time. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the tendency of twins to come early—sometimes dangerously early. “Let’s keep those babies in there as long as we can, OK Mom?” medical professionals would say, more often than not in an exceptionally patronizing and silly voice. Doctors and nurses with multiple degrees and years of distinguished experience in the medical field would for some reason feel the need to sound like Frances McDormand’s character from Fargo as we said our parting words at the end of appointments and they reminded us of the need to keep the babies in as long as possible, as if, without their warnings we would have gone home and tried to suction them out with a vacuum cleaner just to see if they were ready to meet us yet.
During this time I felt it appropriate to purchase a book about pregnancy. Marie, after all, was becoming a walking encyclopedia of all things prenatal. There was an enormous stack of books on her bedside table, and she could have written a 900 page epic consisting only of things I didn’t know about childbirth. I picked up a book called The Expectant Father hoping it would contain all I would need to know. It was full of plenty of useful information and did its best to keep me up to speed on the progress of what it kept referring to as my “baby.” Every time I read the word baby it angered me. I was not expecting a baby. I was expecting babies. Throughout the book there would be little notes that said things like “If your wife is pregnant with twins or multiples, this may not apply . . .” What these little notes really said to me was, “this book is not written for you. It is written by someone who, though an expert on the subject, probably can’t even imagine what you are about to go through. There are no books written for you.”
This kind of special footnote was everywhere in our lives. We attended a birthing class during the third trimester—something we probably should have done months earlier. Not only was Marie further along in her pregnancy than any of the other moms present, she was the only one pregnant with more than one baby. After finishing just about every segment of the class, the facilitator would look in our direction and say something like: “Now, that may not apply to you guys, OK, because with twins we like to be a little extra cautious” or “of course, for you guys that really isn’t an option . . .” or “They’re probably not going to let you do that because you are having twins, OK?”
The other couples would look at each other and visibly mouth the words “Oh_My_God.” Other moms in the room would mutter “I can’t even imagine” under their breath. I would sit quietly smiling, all the while screaming inside my head: “Well why don’t you try to imagine it, you single-child bearing b*#ch!” The class was terrifying. We went over an endless number of possible complications—things to look out for, warning signs, checklists. We went over the responsibilities of the father when it came to timing contractions and coaching his wife on how to breathe. We did breathing exercises that made me feel like I was hyperventilating. We practiced relaxation techniques that made me feel more tense than I ever have in my life. We watched a VHS tape depicting a birth that looked like footage from the Roswell incident. It had most likely been shot some time in the early eighties. The lighting was poor, the picture was grainy, and both mother and child looked like aliens. The woman in this particular video had chosen to experience the birth without the aid of any pain-relieving drugs, and had chosen to moan and roar directly at the camera without any restraint. The baby, not to be outdone by the jarring dramatics of its mother, came out coated in what looked like cream cheese, with not a hair on its misshapen head. Shortly after viewing this we broke for lunch.
The strange thing about expecting your first child (or children) is that no matter how much you are told about what is going to happen, it is impossible to imagine it. People would ask me, “Are you ready?” I’d say. “No, not really,” and they would inevitably say “Well, you’re never really ready.” “You’re never really ready” is the slogan of the human race when it comes to the subject of its offspring. If we’re going to put words on t-shirts, those might as well be what they are. It would save us all from having to hear them and say them over and over again, and it would save us from having to ever read things like “Soccer Mom, and Proud of It.”
As the day approached when we would find out the sex of our then fruit-sized babies, I started to get anxious about a concern that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for some time just waiting for its chance to come out and reveal itself to my wife, and, in the process, out me as its owner and not-so-proud creator. It was a concern I was trying to keep at bay for as long as possible as I knew it wasn’t going to be received well. I tried on numerous occasions to eliminate it completely but it proved fiercely resilient in the face of brutal oppression. Eventually it broke through the wall of restraints I had placed around it, making its public debut in bed one night as I lay powerless to try and rein it in. It came out in the form of six relatively harmless words that rallied themselves into formation and sprang into action with a tone of desperation that was surprising even to me. “WHAT IF THEY ARE BOTH GIRLS?” I asked just before holding my breath and rolling over onto my side to face the wall. I’m not sure what I expected my wife to say. What could she say to such a question. Come to think of it, I don’t really remember what she said. I wasn’t looking for an answer, I was just vocalizing a sentence that I had been living with quietly for some time.
This was undoubtedly the option I was most terrified of. Surely, I reasoned, our chances were high of having at least one boy. I mean, we were having two kids after all. It wasn’t that I was completely against the idea of having a daughter; it was just a little frightening to consider that I might suddenly find myself living with three females—two of whom I didn’t know. Little girls were great as far as I was concerned but they would grow up to be menstruating beings who would doubtless view me as some kind of bearded alien who had no idea what was cool and what definitely wasn’t. Plus, the father-son relationship enjoys so much glorification and romanticization in popular culture that it is one of the few things a new father can cling to. A father imposes his allegiance to the local sports teams on his son; a father wrestles with his son; a father walks hand in hand through a post-apocalyptic wasteland with his son. Meanwhile a father struggles to relate to his teenage daughter who suggests on more than one occasion that he “talk to the hand.” I knew these were all clichés and that any one of these scenarios could just as easily play out with a child of either sex, but the power of popular culture is all-encompassing, as is the power of a personal history of awkward interactions with teenage girls dating back to my own time as a teenager and prevailing right through my adulthood as an often bearded and disheveled looking man who the average teenage girl would rather roll her eyes at than make even the slightest of efforts at polite social interaction with. These thoughts started to dominate my daily life as the pregnancy progressed and we approached the day when we would find out. By the time the moment actually arrived, I had focused so much on the possibility of having two girls that I had essentially convinced myself that that is what we were going to have. When the ultrasound technician confirmed that she had indeed spotted a second set of labia, it was if she was telling me something I already knew—I had two banana-length daughters.
When this information became a reality, however, it was impossible to feel any disappointment about it. These little people living inside my wife’s uterus were just that—actual little people. The idea of me wishing they were different people suddenly seemed quite absurd and unkind. I don’t want to dwell too much on these rather mature and healthy feelings as they will do little to amuse you, the reader, but it is undeniable that something shifted inside me when I saw my two daughters wriggling around and kicking their legs up and down, totally unaware that the universe extended beyond the outer reaches of my wife’s tummy. They suddenly became a lot more real and a bit less scary. I was suddenly less concerned about the fact that they would have menstrual cycles and more concerned with the fact that they were very small and cute.
Of course as soon as it was known that we were having girls, the wife started pointing out “adorable” outfits we might dress them up in. As a firm believer that it’s the kids that are cute, and not the clothes, it was hard for me to even feign enthusiasm about the infinite array of potential ensembles that might one day grace the tiny bodies of my children. I’ve never been a supporter of slogans on t-shirts. The t-shirt has always seemed like an exceptionally shallow medium for expression. Unless you’re an obscenely overweight man wearing a shirt that reads “I Conquered Anorexia,” I am unlikely to enjoy what your clothes say. I am even less of a supporter of dressing up little babies in clothes adorned with slogans that they, themselves, have no ability to read or understand. Furnishing a little person with a shirt that says “Could I be Any Cuter?” seems unwise on the off-chance that a passerby might address the question with uncompromising honesty. There are, after all, some babies, if we’re honest, that could be quite a bit cuter, and inviting the question seems unnecessary. I am no more likely to want to dress my newborn baby in a shirt that claims that she loves her daddy, than I am to gift a stranger with a shirt that reads “I love Bahhaj.” My point is not that my daughters are strangers or that they don’t love me. It’s just I’d rather not put words in their mouths or on their shirts. I’d rather let my daughters express their love for me on their own terms when they are old enough to do so, and I can only hope that when that day arrives they favor some medium other than onesies with the words “I love Daddy” printed across them.
If I had it my way, our daughters would wear plain, utilitarian, one-piece outfits until such a time when they themselves care about, or are even aware of, what they are wearing. In this respect, though, it goes without saying that I do not have it my way. Our friends and relatives have it their way. The cute factor is dialed up to unnecessary levels with every ensemble the girls have ever been given, and despite my plea to friends and family members alike that no one “over-pink it” when buying clothes for the girls, my daughters have more pink in their wardrobe than I have ever seen in one place. My living space is literally awash with pink clothing and accessories, many of which are adorned with slogans that I no longer bother to read. I did notice just the other day that one of my daughters was wearing a hat that said “Canada” (a country that neither my wife nor I have any ties to), but like any sleep-deprived father of twins who feels relieved just to have gotten the family out the door and into the car in under 30 minutes, I shrugged and thought, “huh, that’s weird.”
They say the second trimester is the time when you should try and get everything done. The pregnant woman has more energy at this time than any other time during the pregnancy. The nausea usually disappears at this point and the belly has not yet grown to the extent that it becomes physically taxing to walk around with. This is the time to assemble cribs, take birthing classes, get your living space ready, and tackle everything else on the enormous checklist you should by now have amassed.
I unfortunately mistook the second trimester as an opportunity to sink into a deep state of blissful denial, in which procrastination took center stage. The shock I had received three months earlier was starting to ware off a little. I was no longer waking up feeling like I had just been pulled from the burning wreckage of an airplane, and the birth was still far enough away that I was able to put it out of my mind for long stretches of time. This head-in-the-sand approach, though it makes fools of ostriches, was quite effective for me. There were days when I could have mistaken myself for someone who had never heard of babies. I was living in the present, I was breathing more easily, and I was sleeping better at night. I was, in fact, reveling in sleep. I took great pleasure in telling myself that there were nights, weeks, even months of sleep standing between me and the birth. What birth? Ah, good Christ almighty, that birth—the one where my wife would be forcing two children out of her uterus and into the fumbling cluster hump that was my daily existence.
If I haven’t made it clear, the blissful denial was a shaky foundation on which to base any kind of comfort. It always came crashing down with little realizations like “this time next year we’ll have two children.”
We did manage to tackle a few major milestones during the second trimester, however—not the least of which was the breaking of the news to our friends. There was a long list of people that we wanted to personally share the news with before they heard it from other people, so we practically had to go door to door, phone call to phone call, dinner date to dinner date, telling our friends and asking them not to tell anyone else just yet. It was an exhausting experience. Reactions varied but in each case the same basic sequence was evident. We would share with them that we had some news—a statement, which, when coming from a married couple usually only means one thing. They would smile and say something like, “OK . . .” The nature of the news would become apparent and their smiles would intensify as they jumped to the obvious conclusion that we were expecting a baby. The atmosphere would then take a subtle shift as we awkwardly forged ahead to the next step with something like “well, that’s only half the story” or “yes, but it’s bigger news than you think.” Their mouths, already open from the smiles they were displaying, would contort slightly as the jaw dropped a little and the smile flattened into a plateau of mild concern. “OK,” they would say again, this time with less enthusiasm. And then we’d hit them with it.
It was always interesting to watch other people process the information. Girls generally did their best to keep the excitement levels up despite the fact that they looked like they had just had the wind knocked out of them. As the sheer enormity of the situation hit them, they would lunge forward and hug Marie, squealing “Oh My God!” and most likely thinking “Oh My God!” but with a very different inflection than the one they had vocalized the phrase with. Guys portrayed more complicated faces—often offering up a heady mix of excitement, fear, and loss. Every time we broke the news to someone, I felt as though I was hearing it for the first time myself. The unbelievable magnitude of the situation would come crashing home time and time again as I saw it in the faces of my friends. The hugs would continue unabated as they were generally an easy substitute for the words everyone was struggling to come up with. Marie quite often started crying. Sometimes the girls joined her in this. The guys and I would stand around. They would force themselves to say things like “that’s awesome!” and I would force myself to take deep breaths and would usually look for something to lean against so that I could be sure I wasn’t going to fall over.
As we made our way laboriously through the list of friends we wanted to tell, I started to lose patience with the process. At some point along the way I completely abandoned the practice of breaking the news in gradual increments. I would render whole groups of people speechless by belting out the facts in as abrasive a manner as I could. “Twins, we’re expecting them!” I would yell, “Deal with it!” I would drop the news in the form of one-line emails. I would dispense with pleasantries like “hello” when making phone calls. I tapped a friend on the shoulder during a concert and pointed at Marie’s belly and then held two fingers up. When the friend required further explanation I grew irate and shouted “there are two children in there!” I had been walking around with the knowledge for long enough and I had lost all interest in holding back.
When we weren’t sharing the news and making it all the more real for ourselves in the process, I was busy forgetting the news and doing my best to lose myself in books and films and episodes of LOST. I succeeded from time to time but it was always going to be short-lived. Soon we’d be finding out the sex of the babies, people would be throwing us baby showers, and we’d be entering that terrifying territory when the twins could literally come at any moment.
Walking around with the knowledge that there are two children growing inside your wife, and not telling anyone about it for four months is an alienating experience to say the least. From the moment we found out about the twins, I started to navigate daily life in a disoriented haze. I felt instantly dislocated from everyone I knew. Casual interaction with friends became exhausting because while outwardly I was laughing and adding to the conversation and putting my feet up on the coffee table, inwardly I was thrashing about in the deep end of a swimming pool. It was as if I was trying to participate in a casual game of water polo without letting on that I had no idea how to swim and was likely to go under at any moment. Occasionally if the conversation got especially riveting or amusing I could allow myself to forget for a few minutes and float back into the comfort of the carefree existence I had always known. It never lasted long though. As soon as the laughter died down I was looking for a way to get back to the side of the pool where I hoped I might be able to hang onto the railing and still look like I was playing.
We only told immediate family at first, and even though we got nothing but excitement and encouragement from them, no one was able to soften the blow. No one could hide their amazement at the enormity of what we were facing. No one could stop gasping at the sheer thought of it. I had spent quite a bit of time with my niece when she was a baby and I had witnessed her fight the good fight against sleep on countless nights. I had also witnessed her wage a ferocious war against general cooperation at crucial moments. Her mother, my sister, had survived the experience, but we were going to have two. Two babies. Would they ever sleep at the same time? Would there ever be a calm moment? Would we ever be able to leave the house? It seemed to me we didn’t stand a fighting chance of leading anything resembling a normal existence. Did that mean we had to live the next eight months as though they were are last? Should I have been going out every night or maybe staying home and furiously writing the next great American novel before it was too late? Ultimately our need to save money, and my inability to think about anything but the impending birth, kept my options fairly limited.
Marie was permanently nauseous for the first four months. I was as well. She was always hungry and always exhausted. I followed suit—eating whatever I could and sleeping any time my mind settled for long enough to allow me some rest. I went out with friends from time to time but I was socially disabled. Live music (one of the cornerstones of my social life) became impossible to endure. There was no better setting for the mind to wander down the terrible roads of anxious speculation than in the bowels of the Empty Bottle or Schubas or any one of Chicago’s overcrowded music venues amid a sea of people just standing and listening, just experiencing the music. It was an ideal platform for my mind to start cataloging the worries and weighing up the impossibilities the future held. I would stand in the dark amidst a sea of nodding heads, struggling to keep from feeling like I was about to pass out. A friend at my side might look my way mid-song and show his appreciation for the music with a motion of the head or a facial expression. I might acknowledge said motion of the head with a similar one of my own. Little did my blissfully carefree friend know it was all I could do to stop myself from roaring “We’re going to need two @^*#ing cribs!”
As the weeks passed I started to take comfort in the fact that the birth was months away. Pretty soon the pregnancy would take center stage and would prove somewhat of a distraction in itself. There’s a lot said about hormones and the bizarre mood swings associated with pregnant women. Strangely, Marie seemed quite level-headed and content, maybe even more level-headed and content than usual. The sudden bursts of unforeseeable ravenous hunger were a striking phenomenon, however. There were times when I literally couldn’t park the car quickly enough to get her into a restaurant. She had to get out and run. A quiet drive or a calm sentence might suddenly be interrupted by a very clear and unequivocal announcement that she had to eat right away—not five minutes from now, not however long it might take us to get to somewhere where food was available—right $%#*ing now. (She didn’t necessarily curse, but it is funnier if I imply that she did.) Violent hunger is one thing in and of itself, but when that violent hunger is accompanied by a general nausea and an uncertainty about what it is one wants to eat, it becomes all the more troubling. We would rush headlong in to a local eatery as if we were being chased by the devil himself, and then stand in total paralysis as if the menu on the wall had rendered us speechless. Asking her what looked good was generally a bad idea, so I tended to stand in motionless reverence as she perused the items. My suggestions were usually batted away like annoying insects so more often than not I kept quiet and reassured myself that this would pass, that she would find something to eat, and that we’d live to see calmer moments.
To Marie’s credit most moments were calm. The sudden onset of uncontrollable hunger was really the only thing that derailed her Zen-like approach to pregnancy with twins. She devoured books about pregnancy, birth, child-rearing, and breast feeding without getting overly concerned about the potential complications. She researched pediatricians and birthing options. She looked at environmentally conscious alternatives to common baby-related goods and practices. Essentially she became a mother to our children the moment she knew they existed. I, on the other hand, devoured delicious treats and fell asleep on the couch watching late night TV I had no interest in seeing.
There was a lot to do in the months ahead. There was talk of birth classes, crib purchases, apartment reorganization. We’d need car seats and bedding, we’d need a changing table; we’d need an infinite number of things I had never thought about before in my life. But it was early days yet. I was still in a state of shock, and it could all wait . . .