On the video of our ultrasound, a blurred image: two, then back to one. The way your vision momentarily doubles before returning, relieved, to normal. Moving the ultrasound wand from side to side, the doctor says, “One baby. Two babies. A twin pregnancy.” You can hear me gasp, a sharp intake of breath and voice, an indrawn huhhh. Then my hushed “Oh, my god. Oh, my god” throughout the rest of the video.
I knew it would be twins. I had an eerie certainty, based on nothing, when I hoped but didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. Then, on the first ultrasound, a second dark spot hovered in the background—a blood vessel, the doctor and technician agreed. But when I reached for the printed ultrasound scans, my doctor picked them up first, casually, as if to admire them. “Why don’t you make another appointment in two weeks,” he said, and something ominous, unspoken, passed between us, the look of a doctor noticing a shadow on an x-ray but not quite ready to call it cancer.
“Holy heck, yeah?” This doctor, filling in for the first, now smiles, acknowledging my shock, but with the pleased anticipation of a parent watching a child open a package, a puppy ready to leap out and lick the child’s face. No, two puppies, two presents. I mean two children. A package deal, not for individual sale.
“Woo-hoo!” my husband cheers in the hallway as we leave.
“This is not cool,” I say, then see disappointment cloud his face. And a hint of betrayal, like I’m Medea, who would sacrifice her babies.
How can I not be ecstatic, as my husband and doctor would assume? We tried for so long, wanted children so badly to have gone through those fertility treatments. We’d beaten the system: our in-vitro surgery was cancelled and we conceived without it, through only a low-tech insemination. And we knew the risk of having multiples. We’d been prepared for triplets, quads, quints; we’d considered opting for a selective reduction–a clean, surgical strike designed to leave a survivor or two behind—in such extreme circumstances. Yet I find myself unnerved by the flesh-and-blood reality of twins.
On our way home from the hospital we stop at my mother’s house to give her the news, me longing for reassurance about having twins. Or do I seek reassurance about my horrified reaction? My mother was raised on a Virginia farm where litters of kittens were routinely drowned. Once, our dog gave birth to a monstrous seventeen puppies on the eve of a family trip to the Caribbean. My mother had them summarily dispatched, by veterinary injection, one after the other as they were born. That side of my mother, the pragmatic murderess, had disturbed and sickened me as a child.
Murderous mothers, monstrous multiples. In some cultures, where infanticide was once common practice, twins are considered cursed. Or one cursed, the other blessed; divided between fortunes or between parents, like the biblical twins Jacob and Esau. Twins represent the dualities of nature, its binary oppositions–black/white, day/night, male/female, sperm/egg. They symbolize a duplicitous capacity in humans, our good sides locked in struggle with our “evil twins.”
Whatever I seek from my mother, I’m shocked when she asks, “Can you get rid of one?” No clinical euphemism like “reduction,” but the cold, hard terms of a mafia don ordering a hit.
I tell her no, doctors won’t do the procedure for twins, only for high-order multiples. What I don’t say is that aborting one twin isn’t an option I can imagine. I don’t want twins, didn’t choose them, but it’s what we’ve been given. The money, the money, is all I can moan. “It’s not about money,” says my mother, “it’s the emotional investment, the labor of caring for two infants, the exhaustion that scares you.” But in my thinking, money can buy nannies, baby swings, resources and devices to lessen the burden. Money is what we have precious little of. And if I have to raise twins, there goes my income, my teaching career, my public accomplishments replaced by the private indignities of child-rearing.
My husband, dogged optimist, views it more simply: two toys are better than one. He’s deflated by my apprehension; I am spoiling all the fun. But even he, when we joke about matching names, suggests Cain and Abel. I picture Romulus and Remus, twin founders of Western civilization, and the long, stretched-out dugs of their wolf-mother. I see preemies, incubators, tubes, and two cavernous, screeching maws like gaping bird beaks.
Is it twins that scare me, or the simple fact of motherhood? I know it’s common for women to experience ambivalence about their changing roles, but hadn’t sensed any in myself as we planned for a baby. Now comes a rush of doubleness. Am I really Medea, sorceress of Greek and Roman myth, who sacrificed her children for revenge? Or will I be the mother who sacrifices everything for her children?
I visit my neighbor and colleague, on leave to raise her own year-old twins. She just might be the model of Having-It-All, the academic professional simultaneously fulfilling her biological destiny as a mother. Yet she’s tenure track, whereas I’m only an adjunct. And she has a live-in au pair, I notice with some bitterness, proving my theory about money and managing motherhood. When she talks about the difficulty of raising twins, I scoff inwardly as I compare her plight to mine.
She asks if my mother, who lives nearby, can help me through my twins’ infancy. I try to explain that my mother is in her seventies, retired from her own academic career, that she’s not the doting, cookie-baking grandmother type. It’s hard to imagine dropping the kids off at her house for the day while I run errands. I see a look of sympathy, a hint of disapproval, cross my neighbor’s face: she feels sorry for me, she’s thinking I came from a bad mother; I might turn out to be one myself. I feel ashamed and defensive at first, and later indignant. My mother has her own life, a second chance at selfhood. Why should she be burdened with more caretaking? As a working mother, she lived her own life of duplicity. She has earned her right not to do it all over again.
Over the next few weeks, as my panic subsides, a quieter anticipation settles over me. I feel at times, in spite of myself, a sly, inappropriate grin twitching at my lips. Like giggling in church, blaspheming the gravity of the moment. I soon discover that having twins is considered special, more interesting than a normal pregnancy. “Oh my,” is the standard response from strangers, even from obstetric receptionists who would, you’d think, not be terribly impressed by any freak of reproductive nature. In my case, the miracle is diminished by the medical technology that preceded it. I took fertility drugs, produced several eggs, two of which fertilized with my husband’s sperm injected through a catheter. Pure science, nothing divine about it. Yet I can almost consider my conception immaculate, as no intercourse was involved; my husband, specimen cup in hand, in another room while I waited. I may be a not-so-virgin Madonna, but I still have a sense of something extraordinary bestowed upon me.
Now, at three months’ gestation, I can’t say I’ve fully embraced the reality of twins, or that my fears have been resolved. But I feel relief, and a strange, fierce joy, every time the ultrasound detects both heartbeats. Already I can see the twins’ divergent souls: one bucking like the possessed child in The Exorcist, the other’s hands beneath its chin in an attitude of prayer. I sometimes imagine Dr. Dolittle’s two-headed creature, the Push-Me-Pull-You, growing inside me.
The emerging differences between them remind me of how natural contradiction is to our lives, though we tend to be uneasy with it, always seeking to reconcile our own extremes. The only thing I’ve come to reconcile is that this simultaneous longing and fear is a fact of motherhood, of being human.
Ambivalence, doubleness, polarity—the nature of twinship. To be of two minds, two hearts; divided but inseparable, entwined. With most dilemmas (in metaphor, a beast with two horns), we grapple with our indecision, an awful fluctuation between two courses of action. Here, thankfully, I’m relieved of choice. For once I accept my fate instead of seeking to control it. I am chosen, a vessel. Blessed or cursed, depending how you look at it.