Barren branches divided the dark sky, which was lit with streaks of pink and pale blue. Jon maneuvered the car down our steep driveway, over the icy patches, and onto the road. I thought about my stretched stomach, the veins branching the skin. The way my belly rippled as one child pressed his fingers up, as the other child pushed her leg out. We wound through the empty countryside, forty minutes to the hospital. I was ready.
This pregnancy had been hard. I felt nauseous and worried constantly that something was wrong. A C-Section had been scheduled because Lily was breech. It had felt odd going to bed the last night, knowing I would have babies the next day. Before I went to sleep I wrote my will.
In the car, with Radiohead’s “Idioteque” blasting, I rolled the window down, stuck my head out into the frost and felt the rush of reckless wind. My long hair, still wet from the shower, froze at the tips. When the song ended, I put a tip in my mouth, sucking the water out. I tasted shampoo.
First came Lily. The doctor held her above the sky blue curtain. She looked like a bird, her arms flung high above her head like wings. Her beautiful eyes, huge and wide open, held a look of shock and hope; we locked eyes and then she disappeared. I wanted to get off the table and catch her mid-flight but a nurse took her to be tagged and weighed.
Tate came next. He looked like a turtle taken from its shell: crying, scrunched eyes, curled in fetal position. He did not look ready for the world. I wanted to hold him, to tell him it would be okay, that I didn’t always feel ready myself. And then, before I could say anything, he was gone, too.
I awoke in a different room to people speaking in worried tones. I looked at my friends and family as if through a funhouse mirror. Nurses handled my breasts, trying to latch the babies’ small mouths to my nipples. I was so dizzy; I could not look down at my children. I heard a nurse say my catheter was still empty. She sounded nervous and said she would go find the doctor.
I received four blood transfusions and spent days on magnesium sulfate to reduce the likelihood of seizures. Numbness coated my body, smothering me like an undertow. IV’s extended from my bruised arms; an oxygen tube snaked from my nose, mechanical leg pumps strapped on my calves and a heart pressure monitor grabbed at my finger.
A few nights after the birth, I woke in a panic, desperate to rip the all these tubes from my body. I remembered parasailing with my ex-boyfriend once. I had wanted to do exactly what the instructor told me not to: unclip the carabiners connecting me to the parachute. I wanted to drop into the sea. I remember being tempted by the blue-green of the ocean, anticipating the impact of the fall, the freedom. Now, I wanted so badly to rip out my cords that I hyperventilated. My milk had come in.
That night I came up with my survival technique. I closed my eyes and pretended the white noise of the machines was the ocean. My babies were toddlers at the beach, their blond heads bobbing up and down in the surf. I focused on this image when I walked for the first time and every time the nurses took blood from my bruised arms.
For the first three months, I wasn’t strong enough to care for my babies. Friends and family stayed with me and took control. I didn’t change a diaper until the twins were five weeks old. It was hard to describe to other people the sense of disconnection I felt during those months, the confusion over what had happened to me, and this inability to communicate made me feel more disconnected still. I was enormously grateful to my friends and family, yet I felt a deep sense of shame. I should be caring for my babies myself, not helpless, consumed by guilt and grief.
One day a friend, Sarah, led me in a gentle yoga routine. With each movement of my body, my mind flashed to a scene in the hospital. Reaching my arms high, I saw them bruised and strapped to the bed. Bending over, I felt the placenta being torn from my body. Inhale: my legs trembling; exhale; an IV of blood. My body began to release the pain.
I grew stronger. Jon and I passed each other at night, walking our babies to sleep. We circled the playroom, shushing the kids loudly, making our own white noise. We called going upstairs to bed “going to work.” We did the nighttime feedings deliriously; we smiled as we passed one another, like teammates exchanging a high-five. Still, every time they screamed, I took it as a sign that I had damaged my children. I wondered if I had done something wrong, if my sickness was my fault.
When I was pregnant, I’d planned to practice Attachment Parenting. My illness after their delivery–HELLP syndrome–combined with twin parenthood, made this nearly impossible. By nine months, my twins used pacifiers, watched “Baby Einstein,” drank formula and had slept in their own room for five months. They were healthy but I couldn’t forget that I hadn’t been able to provide them with what they needed the most at the beginning: Me.
Our twins are three years old now. I stay at home with them, tired but healthy. Lily, still wide-eyed and beautiful, has a strong will and contagious enthusiasm. Tate, sensitive and studious, spends hours showing me the colors, the animals, the outrageous complexity in the world. I’ve tried to tell them about their birth in words they might understand: “Mommy was very sick when you were born, but you were both strong and healthy. Being with you, holding you, imagining our lives together helped me to grow strong, too.”
Still, there are times–like when they cling to me at a friend’s birthday party–when I worry about my kids’ sense of attachment to me. I worry that because they didn’t have me at the beginning that they lack a foundation of security. I worry that I overcompensated by becoming a hovering mother and, now, they are less self-reliant than other children.
But yesterday, we played “beach” in our bedroom. The kids used the laundry baskets as boats. I turned the fan on and we pretended a big storm had come to sea. Lily toppled out of her basket and learned to swim. I cheered her on as she swam back to her ship. Tate stayed dry in his boat and spoke to a whale swimming alongside his boat. I stepped back, watching my kids, the way I had imagined them so many times in the hospital. Lily grabbed Tate’s hand and they ran together, giggling, kicking the sand.
I turned the fan off and their boats drifted to shore. The storm calmed.