My mother used to say, “Don’t have more kids than you have hands.”
Or maybe it was less prescriptive: “I didn’t have more kids than I had hands.”
Whatever the semantics, I have always thought of it as real, practical advice. She had two kids. I only ever wanted two kids.
For a long time after my son was born, I struggled to even imagine having one more. He was the kind of baby who slept in twenty minute bursts and who nursed round the clock. If you want a label, he was/is High Need or Spirited. Shortly after his second birthday, he stopped napping altogether. I coped with the high demand of this child with a lot of attachment parenting solutions, not because I wanted to (though much of it was in line with my natural instincts), but more because I was drowning most days, and attachment kept us afloat. If I had a second baby, I knew most of my first approach would not be practical. You can’t lie with a baby for every nap and night-time sleep with a toddler to also take care of. So I decided, Not now. Maybe not ever.
Then my son started sleeping in his own bed, and he gained some independence, and my husband and I reopened the discussion. We could handle a second kid. It would be nice to have two. We didn’t NEED to have two, but we could probably manage okay. It was like this for awhile — open to the possibility, but not overly eager. If it happened, it happened. In some ways, we — or at least I — still thought of another baby as a potential crisis to manage, only now I felt capable. I have two hands.
We barely decided we would try to conceive — a visit with my mom’s huge, lovely family for my grandparents’ 60th anniversary cemented the decision — and then, suddenly, that same cycle, I was pregnant. And it was good. I didn’t feel conflicted or ambiguous.
I scheduled my first prenatal appointment with the midwives and birth center who cared for me through the last third of my first pregnancy and delivered my son. I was easily as excited to re-establish my relationship with them as I was to be pregnant. These are the women who made a physically difficult birth emotionally calm, whose trust and support allowed me to birth my baby despite him being obstructed for nearly four hours. I can’t fully explain what they gave me through that experience, but they are some of the most important people in my life, even though they are not family or old friends. The idea of a second pregnancy and a second birth in their care was a big reason why I felt confident about having another baby. I was pretty sure, knowing what I’d experienced the first time, that I could have an even better birth this time. I could use the position that worked best with my son. I could draw on the fact that I’d already succeeded once.
And then, at my second appointment, I learned I was expecting twins. Two babies. Two babies with a toddler.
I would need three hands.
Not only that, but because of the limitations on certified birth centers, my midwives cannot keep me in their care. My pregnancy is suddenly in the Complicated category. The women who kept me from a hospital transfer, who were endlessly patient and supportive, who gave me the gift of the birth I wanted — as close to it as was possible — can no longer guide me through a pregnancy and birth when I feel I need them more than ever.
One of the first thoughts I had when I saw two babies on the ultrasound was this sort of nonsensical lament: But I’m pro-choice! I didn’t mean it in terms of abortion. I meant it in terms of having autonomy, feeling in control of my reproductive health, my body, the planning of my family. It had taken so long just to accept the idea of a second baby! But we’d chosen it. I did not choose twins. I did not want twins.
So much of our first two years with our son felt like being boxed in, like choices were either nonexistent or being made for us. He didn’t sleep, so I lay with him for every moment of his rest. He didn’t take pacifiers, and he cried all the time, so I nursed him for food and for comfort, day and night, at his demand. Postpartum depression exacerbated everything: I felt bound to him, afraid to change anything for fear of making it harder. My mothering, for a long time, was distinctly colored by the sense that I had very few choices.
Everything was going to be different with baby number two. I was going to ask for help. I was not going to accept that I do not have basic control over how I mother.
The first OB’s office I called to transfer my care referred to my pregnancy as High Risk, as in the doctor specializes in High Risk pregnancies like mine. I spent most of the afternoon after the call sobbing in bed, imagining a man I don’t know at all laying down restrictions. Maybe I wouldn’t get to labor in water. Maybe I’d be stuck in a hospital bed. Maybe I’d be more likely to have interventions, and the labor would get ahead of me, or I’d feel so unsafe and so uncomfortable my labor would stall, or I’d panic, or I’d feel out of control and take the epidural. Maybe I’d have to go on bed rest before I even deliver the babies. Maybe I would have to have a cesarean section. Maybe I wouldn’t even be given the chance to labor at all. Maybe my babies would have to stay in the NICU, and I’d have to drive to the hospital and back every day, and through all of this, what about my toddler? Maybe I’d develop gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia.
The fact that all of these things could happen with one baby, with any pregnancy, didn’t matter. I could look at it only one way: single baby means my birth center and a smooth, beautiful labor and control, and twins means strangers and hospitals and the scary unknown and lack of control. And it was being forced on me.
When things don’t go the way we plan, there are always people eager to say something like, “It’s God’s will,” or to assure us this thing we’re anxious about will truly be a blessing. Why does this make me want to gouge their eyes out? I can only describe my reaction as blind rage. When people told me to cherish the time when my son was young, when he rarely slept and my nipples were raw from breastfeeding and he was screaming for several hours a day and my pelvis was misaligned and I was having panic attacks daily, I felt the same angry heat spread through my chest. To hear that there should be anything positive about a situation that feels overwhelmingly negative creates a painful cognitive dissonance. It tells you, unless you are pretty self-assured, that you are wrong, you don’t know best, you are failing at something that is totally simple.
I’d rather someone say, as many of my friends have, that having twins is going to be hard, that leaving the care providers I’ve chosen sucks, and that they are here for me and family. Then, if they want to tack on some positive encouragement, that’s lovely. But that knee-jerk, saccharine reaction of “what a blessing!” and “this has been divinely planned for you!” just reinforces that I have no choice. Having no choice is one of the most painful feelings I know. While I am mourning the loss of my birthing relationships and plans at a time when I am vulnerable, which is a perfectly healthy way to accept my situation, my emotions are being readily dismissed as unimportant — only the blessing of these babies really matters in the end. That’s how our society treats mothers. If we have desires for our experience of birth, we are missing the point, or we are selfish. Healthy babies trump anything the woman goes through. And forget feeling a little sad because you only wanted one more baby, total, forever — who feels sad about an extra baby? (I imagine this is similar to women who don’t want children being told they’ll change their mind later, as if they don’t know themselves at all.) Be grateful you’re not infertile (which I absolutely am, by the way). Be grateful you are healthy and able to have two.
Even if it’s true — I couldn’t have planned specifically to conceive twins or not to — the reminder of my choicelessness when someone says this was planned for me stalls me in a place of feeling victimized rather than focusing on what I can choose — my doctor, my insurance plan, my doula, what kind of support I want, etc, etc. Why is it so hard for some people to acknowledge ambiguous feelings? Why can’t we say, I didn’t want this, without feeling like a monster?
All these thoughts about choice has made me think about choice as we often talk about it — abortion. I believe in the rights of women to have autonomy and control over their reproductive health. I absolutely believe in that. I know that I am not choiceless in this matter, that I could terminate my pregnancy. I won’t. I choose not to. And thinking of it this way also gives me a greater sense of control. I didn’t ask for twins, or for three children, didn’t want to have them, but I do choose now to have them. That matters.
It was just five days ago that I learned I’m having twins. Obviously, the level of unrest I’m experiencing is still a bit extreme. It won’t always be so. The first night, I saw mainly only negatives. By the next day, excitement crept in. I started thinking of names. Day three was roughest — scheduling that OB appointment. By today, I easily refer to them as The Babies. I am eager to read books, to make lists, to dive into the details. I feel okay. I still feel sad, but I feel okay. I joked with my family that I’ve always just wanted to feel special — my situation could certainly be described as special.
As for my mother’s saying — not more kids than hands — she reminded me two days ago, “Mel, you have a husband, and between the two of you, you have four hands. It’s going to be okay.”