Blueberries … blueberries. That’s what they are like, I thought, trying to find an image to match the deep beauty of her eyes.
In time, they would become hazelnut brown, but at that moment they were dusky spheres, so compelling and mesmerising that I almost forgot we were in intensive care. And although they couldn’t yet focus, her eyes gazed unflinchingly through the clear plastic shield of a humidicrib, while mine, I suspect, were filled with uncertainty.
Like her twin sister, less than a crib-width away in another incubator, she lay on her side, breathing rapidly and draped in cords and tubes. This was not what my wife and I had dreamt of, but it was more or less what we expected, given the vicissitudes of the previous months.
Feeling exalted and a little giddy after finding that my wife was pregnant, our thoughts and emotions intensified when we learnt we were having twins—and identical twins at that. There were twins in both our families, but identical twins created a new twist. Then a scan revealed an irregularity that occurs in about 1% of twin pregnancies. They were mono-amniotic twins, meaning they shared the same amniotic sac with no membrane to separate them.
An ordinary twin pregnancy has its own risk, but this added some extra hazards, such as cord entanglement and a reasonable likelihood that one or both would not survive. Doctors recommended that the babies be born by caesarean at 32 weeks. Any later was too risky, any earlier brought other dangers.
We barely had time to reflect on the implications of this rare pregnancy, for my wife had begun to experience Hyperemesis—a severe form of morning sickness, which lasted through the pregnancy and caused her to be admitted to hospital seven times. Unable to eat anything except ice cubes and the occasional cracker, she was bed-bound and began losing weight.
When arriving at hospital for a regular scan, I would sometimes wheel her along the corridors, her body curled forward in the wheelchair, as she fought off the nausea and fainting spells. My wife spent the final month of her pregnancy in hospital so that the twins could be monitored more closely. Gradually, as her nausea lessened and as weeks passed without complications, we began to feel a sense of relief that the pregnancy was coming to a close and that we would soon meet our daughters.
In the moments after they were born, weighing 1.6 and 1.9 kilos, a doctor held up their cords twisted like a jumble of power cables and said “This is what we were worried about”. Our daughters were tiny, but I felt enormously proud and grateful that they survived the pregnancy. After dodging the hazards of pregnancy, however, they were having trouble breathing. They were immediately taken away in a single incubator and would spend their first two months in hospital.
When my wife left hospital without the babies, we became visitors, delivering supplies of breast milk and cuddles. First, they were in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), then SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit). For us, the experience of having premature babies in these units was like entering another country and having to learn a new language, complete with strange sounding acronyms. These acronyms, we discovered, were not just for convenience. SCBU, in particular, with the unusual twist of its consonant cluster, had a playfulness that suggested a place where baby and parent babbling would be welcome.
The playfulness, though, didn’t quite distort the fact that they were places where miracle and tragedy rubbed shoulders every day—where babies would and would not survive.
Whenever I visited, there was often a sombre, library-like hush in the quieter moments when no babies were crying, and there was only the discreet beeping of the monitors, seeming to accentuate the stillness and sterility of the place—and perhaps trying to reassure us that everything important was under surveillance.. This subdued atmosphere was reinforced by fluorescent lights, cream walls and pastel curtains, and an almost complete absence of bright colours. Is such an environment conducive to healing and growth, I wondered? Could I evoke childhood more cheerfully if I painted trees and birds on the walls and clouds on the ceiling?
Just picking up one or other of the twins to hold for a while engaged us in a delicate choreography that involved lifting the baby from the crib, arranging her safely in our arms, and the unplugging and plugging of cords. If my own heart had been wired to a monitor at those times, the beeping would have brought the nursing staff running.
I was hesitant to touch, for although my hands were lathered in antibacterial hand gel, I feared some germs might still be transmitted. Nonetheless, I would place each of their delicate bodies on the skin of my chest, overwhelmed by these perfectly formed babies and the immaculate attention to detail—their fingers, toes, nose so like everyone else, and yet their particular combination of features making them so unique.
To me, those two months felt like half a lifetime. Two more people entering the world, and my own world had already changed. The day they were born, I too was somehow reborn. The past no longer mattered. The future was open and full of possibility, it seemed, on the day they left hospital, venturing outside its fluorescence and conditioned air for the first time.
The sky was blue but not quite as deep as our daughters’ eyes. Soft clouds floated above and warm air embraced us as we turned to navigate the streets home and all that lay ahead of us.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem