Sunday, 14 August 2016

Four observations on life with newborn twins

Becoming a stay-at-home dad wasn’t something I’d ever considered as a possibility before Oscar and Isabel were born. In fact, it’s safe to say it didn’t particularly enter my head during the initial few months of their lives either.

But what a few months they were. While we’d had plenty of antenatal support, it turns out that chatting about looking after twins is actually a lot different to doing it. What a surprise.

Here’s a few things I learned in those early weeks…

1.       The fear

It only took about an hour or so for me to prove how utterly unprepared I was for life with twins.

The job of dressing them for the first time fell to me and, being the proud, get-up-and-go sort of fella I am, I quickly attempted to pass it on to Nanna – my mum. The reason was nothing more than fear, as I hadn’t yet understood that tiny babies are fairly sturdy little creatures despite looking so fragile. The more I handled them in the next couple of days, the more I understood this.

Despite the practice, changing nappies also initially induced some mild panic. Not only did I have to get used to the routine of changing them, I was also not entirely happy with their contents.

For the uninitiated, the first few poos by a newborn are a sticky, dark tar-like substance called meconium, which proved to be a significant adversary in the early days. There was also a time in hospital when I was changing Isabel and she spluttered out some poo during the act – I actually jumped back in terror, like I was on the Nostromo watching John Hurt’s chest burst open.

For a few different reasons which I won’t get into here, it was actually around a week after the birth that Ana and the babies were given the green light to head home. By this point we were happy with how things worked in the hospital, but obviously heading home created a new set of challenges.

The first for me was actually getting them there. Obviously as Ana had been through major abdominal surgery – not quite Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, but you know – I was tasked with driving them back. I’m a competent if not confident motorist, so it did seem like someone was taking the piss when the weather on the big day was icy and snowy. However, I’m pleased to report all four of us got back in one piece.

2.       The fog

Now, I’d love to talk at length about what it was like to have our lovely little children back at the homestead with us, but I can’t remember much. Well, almost anything. Those initial weeks which I had as paternity leave were full of chaos and everything that happened back then is just covered in a fog created by a lack of sleep.

As far as I can recall, the key focus was making sure the twins were feeding and putting on weight. I remember a trip to the pharmacy to get some nappy rash cream. I remember our first proper family outing was to the GP after one of the kids had developed oral thrush. I remember buying a hoover, taking it back and getting another one. I also recall somehow remarkably finding time to watch the Tom-Hardy-with-a-beard-and-a-Welsh-accent-in-a-car-having-a-drive thriller Locke.

But apart from that, and the rolling cast of helpers coming through the door (who Ana and I are eternally grateful to), that’s about all that comes back to me about that time.

This was the point where sleep genuinely became something that other people had. I remember them both howling on their first night at home, with me, Ana and her mum at a loss to figuring out what it could be. Are they hungry? Are they too warm? Are they too cold? Is it a full nappy? Did they want to catch up with Better Call Saul on Netflix? 

I actually made Ana a checklist while she was in hospital as a reminder to her to consider every possibility when trying to sort them out, but once they were home I soon realised that clarity of thought is something that goes out of the window when you’re trying to sort out babies.

Snoozing with Isabel at the time of 'The Fog' - I have no recollection of this.

Around 18 months on, I still feel like I’m desperately trying to catch up and claw back the sleep lost at this time – it was an incredible and exhausting time. My eyes feel heavy now just thinking about it.

3.       The work/life balance

Going back to work after having the twins was a strange experience. I’d taken two weeks of paternity leave and stuck a week of annual leave on the end of that, yet it really did feel like I’d been away much longer. So much had happened at home, with our lives completely turned upside down.

Bar a tendency to get my phone out and show people pictures of the twins, I personally don’t think my approach to work changed though. One of the only things that did play on my mind however was the need – as long it was absolutely possible – to get home at a reasonable time.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it previously, but Ana and I are not native to Leeds so we don’t have any family nearby. The closest are my parents and sister who live around 60 to 80 minutes away (depending on your willingness to abide by basic traffic laws).

As such, when the dust settled and it came to us looking after the twins day-to-day, we were on our own. So leaving work on time wasn’t just some kind of quick dash for the exit, but a necessity in order to be back and to help out with making dinner, washing bottles, sterilising bottles, making up bottles, giving bottles, actually saying hello to the babies, settling them, washing clothes….and so on.

My delicate, silky smooth vocal cords also had a role to play on one memorable evening. Post-dinner, I was sat in the living room with a screaming child in each arm while Ana was sorting out their next bottles (I think). Faced with the noise, I figured if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em and at the top of my voice attempted to drown them out with Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen. Lo and behold, the twins were so in awe of what they heard that the crying stopped in an instant. Absolutely true story.

Nights tended to work with Ana going to bed not long after the twins, so she could get much-needed rest in before night feeds. I would then stay on shift and tend to their needs until around 11pm, when I’d retire to bed to try and sleep before the next day at work.

Another little job I had in the morning was to ensure that Ana got a porridge pot – we became obsessed with these during the time at hospital – and a cup of tea before I left for work. It wasn’t much, but it at least meant she got some breakfast before the madness of a day with little twins kicked in.

It was all incredibly relentless, but we managed to develop a pretty slick operation.

4.       The unexpected

HOWEVER, things got a lot more complicated when the unthinkable happened and one of us fell ill.

Previously, if one of us had a sickness bug it wasn’t a big deal – all that was needed was a small dose of sympathy and a glass of water left within reach. Matters require a little more thought however when illness strikes and there are two little people sleeping in moses baskets next to you.

When Ana was suffering in the early hours one day, I knew very quickly that we’d need a plan as she was in no fit state to look after the twins and neither of us wanted her to pass anything on to them. The obvious call went in to my mum, a nurse, but she had a shift that day. There was no one else we could turn to. No other choice. It would have to be me. I would look after them.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I soon discovered that employers actually have a term to cover off this type of thing – time off for dependents. This is not the first or the last lesson I’ve learned on this journey of fatherhood.

But Rob, I hear you say, while we understand you covering off these basic principles of HR, how did looking after the twins on your own go? went OK. More than OK, in fact.

The twins were fed and clothed, we went for walks, they napped, they had the pleasure of watching live performances on DVD by the likes of Springsteen and Led Zeppelin. Basically, I can only imagine they were wondering where I’d been all this time. Their mum had looked after them delightfully, but this was next level. Unbelievable stuff.

With Ana getting no better – I sent the odd food parcel upstairs to keep her going – I had to take a second day off to look after them too. Yes, it was hard work but ultimately this was brilliant, unexpected, extra time to get to know the twins, who were still only months old. And I loved it.

It was a special moment and one which felt like something of a graduation. I’d gone from being completely and utterly useless to being capable of taking care of two children on my own. Not only that, I’d actually enjoyed it. 

At that point in time, Ana and I hadn’t really talked about the future and how we were planning to play things when her maternity leave came to an end. However, those events undoubtedly planted a seed in my mind about doing something that honestly seemed unthinkable just months before.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Birth Part 2: Keep calm and agree emergency surgery

At the point of epidural, my day completely transformed. It was like going to the toilet and stepping back into a different room. Which I could have done had the ward not been so well sign-posted (well done Leeds General Infirmary).

I no longer needed to operate the TENS machine, no more offering water and I didn’t have to attempt to provide words of encouragement. Ana was no longer in the zone over a birthing ball on the floor, focused on her breathing and getting through each contraction. She was sat up in bed and chatting casually to the nursing staff like it was just another day.

If I felt a bit useless earlier, the epidural rendered me even more so. Ana had clearly had a tough day at this point, and I’d had a long old slog too.

So, while she got to know the ladies of the night shift, I settled in a chair and had a little snooze, punctuated by the odd moment checking my phone to see if Manchester United were being beaten by Cambridge United in the FA Cup.

Action stations

Around 10pm everything changed again. As mentioned earlier, it was all about being calm in our room so we didn’t worry too much when the consultant on the ward wandered in for a quiet word.

She explained that some element of distress had been spotted in Twin 2 and they would be keen, if we were willing of course, to get the twins out sooner rather than later.

“Do you mean a C-section?”, we asked.


“How soon?”


“What, you mean right now?”


“Oh, ok then.”

All of this was done so coolly and calmly that we actually didn’t realise until the next day that, at that point, we’d just agreed to an emergency C-section.

As I was half-asleep at this point, the urgency definitely didn’t hit me as hard as it should have. I wandered off to make a coffee to wake myself up and call home to inform the family of the latest, only to be quickly directed into a male changing room to get scrubbed up.

Then, after a quick pre-photo in which Ana and I look two parts excited and two parts nervous as hell, we were off down the corridor to the anaesthetist and then boom, we’re in theatre.

Meeting the twins

While I can remember the nerves and tension in both of us when Ana’s anaesthetic was topped up, I can’t really recall how I felt in theatre. I sat with Ana, held her hand and we just talked about being excited to meet the babies. In the background, Smooth Radio was – rather too fittingly – playing Leave Right Now by Will Young.

It probably wasn’t, but in my head only minutes had gone by in the theatre when a screeching baby was held aloft at the other side of a screen erected to block Ana’s view of her insides. We had chosen not to find out the sex of the twins, so I was asked quickly whether I could see who had come first. I spotted the necessary equipment and told Ana we had a baby boy. Then in unison we exclaimed the name that we’d agreed on weeks in advance – “Oscar!” He was born just minutes before 11pm.

Twin 2 came out just a couple of minutes later and the routine was repeated, this time it was a girl – “Isabel!” She needed a little air to get going but was soon wrapped up and in Mummy’s arms, while Oscar drew the short straw and sat with Daddy. I’ll never forget when he first flicked an eye open to have a little sneaky peek about and try to figure out what the hell was going on.

Meeting the new housemates for the first time

While Ana’s beautiful innards were carefully arranged and slotted back into place, we got time with them both to say hello and introduce ourselves. Smooth Radio continued to provide such a suitable soundtrack that you’d think they were in on the whole thing. You’re The Best Thing by The Style Council was given the whirl at one point while I stood with Oscar, just elated.

Once out of theatre, I made what has been described to me on several occasions as an excruciating phone call to the family. Apparently I was supposed to just tell them the names and not go on about the limit to a couple of visitors out-of-hours and how only the mums were coming in that night. But whatever. Nothing wrong with getting the admin out of the way first, yeah?

Looking back, it is funny to think of how much of the time in between the birth and now is so jumbled and fuzzy in my head, yet I remember the events of when Oscar and Isabel were born so well. Our journey essentially started on a Thursday morning and lasted until the end of the following day.

For me, it was huge lesson in patience. For Ana, it was no doubt one of significant perseverance. The birth did not go how she would have liked or planned, but we always knew that things may change and we would have to go with it. But we did it. Well, she did it.

We’ll also be eternally grateful to the staff at Leeds General Infirmary for their work, particularly in spotting the concerns regarding Twin 2 – our little Isabel. She was ready to come out but was agitated that her brother was blocking the way, the cheeky blighter.

We feel incredibly lucky that both of them left Mummy OK in the end, even if it was to Will Young.

The Birth Part 1: Have a little patience

Life can be a hell of a slog sometimes, but every now and then it is punctuated with mind-blowingly brilliant moments which will stay with you forever. Days when everything falls into place, events take your breath away and you genuinely can’t believe what has just happened. January 24th 2015 was one of those days.

It had been a difficult period but things were turning a corner and this was one of the surest signs yet that everything was looking rosy once again. Maybe there would be a happy ending after all.

Middlesbrough beat Manchester City 2-0 in the FA Cup 3rd Round at the Etihad Stadium, sending shockwaves around the world* in the process.

Oscar and Isabel were born the day before too, which was also admittedly a big deal.

While I would love to dwell on the finer points of Lee Tomlin turning Vincent Kompany inside out, I realise that isn’t what people have been coming to this blog for (as far as I’m aware). As such, I’ll focus on the story of when our babies came into the world – a story which, in all honesty, had a bit of a false start.

Meat Loaf, Community and waiting

As mentioned last time, twin pregnancies are treated as high-risk and as such there’s an appetite to get those little blighters out into the world earlier than in a single pregnancy. After weeks of tension – Is something happening? Is anything happening? Are they coming or what? – we agreed to an induction date in Week 38.

This meant we went to Leeds General Infirmary on Thursday 22nd January. Excitement was at fever pitch at this point – there we were, in the maternity ward on the morning, ready to go. This is it! C’mon!

What we didn’t realise was how things were going to work while we were there. We had a set date for induction, but Ana being seen was dependent on how busy the ward was on that day. Basically, with every emergency or patient heading into the final stages of labour, we were bumped down the list of priorities. Rightly, of course – I’m not that much of a selfish arsehole.

As a result, apart from a highly enjoyable playback of the full 12-minute version of I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) by Meat Loaf on some headphones and watching the best episode of Community we’ve ever seen, nothing happened on the Thursday. A whole day just sat there.

I went home on the evening where Mum was holding the fort, knowing I’d get a call as soon as Ana was top of the list.

Wake-up call

Well, I didn’t bloody expect the wake-up call at 3.20am on Friday mind. What was the NHS thinking?!

After a quick shower to get the senses stirring, I was in a taxi to the LGI. At 4.20am, Ana was induced and literally within the hour contractions had started.

Following her time with the Calm Birth School, Ana had sorted a birth plan to be passed on to the relevant nurses etc. As such, and as per her instructions, our delivery room was a place of quiet and calm.

Curtains were drawn, the lights were off and we all talked in hushed tones. Her iPod also played gently in the background. There was also no talk of ‘pain’, with Ana preferring the contractions to be seen as bodily ‘surges’ which increased in ‘intensity’, rather than the p-word. She was also keen to try to avoid pain relief, and initially only had a TENS machine for company.

For the uninitiated, this is a little contraption which uses electrical pulses to reduce pain, via pads placed on the person in question. One of my key jobs early doors was to, on Ana’s mark, switch the machine on and off while she focused on the task at hand.

So, this is the situation we found ourselves in and, while it must have been a truly intense experience for my good lady wife, it was a little odder for me.

Supporting role

Ultimately, I was there to be supportive and do whatever I could, but it was fairly apparent very quickly that really wasn’t going to be much. Pressing a button on a machine, offering water and kind words when I could, changing the music when the iPod playlist proved considerably too short for the occasion.

The only other things I recall doing were heading to the in-hospital Costa for lunch (panini, since you ask – I also bought Ana one and ate it, whoopsy) and checking if Ana could hear certain songs from her iPod. Oops I Did It Again by Britney even elicited a smidgen of finger-dancing from the heavily-pregnant heroine of our tale. Great effort.

Midwives were on hand at all times and we had four hourly checks to see how matters were progressing. Frankly, for the first eight hours they weren’t, which is why recommendations were made to introduce a hormone to try and get things moving a little more. This was added at a small level initially so Ana could cope with the intensity, but when again nothing had changed further action was suggested.

The medical professionals wanted the hormone level increased, but anymore would be too intense for Ana to take. At 8pm, 16 hours on from the induction, we made the unavoidable decision that if the hormone was going up, an epidural was the only way to go…

Yes, this is a bit of a tale. So, I wondered what would Peter Jackson or George RR Martin or one of those types do in my position?

As such, I’ve cut the whole story in half to make it a little more digestible. This is the end of part one, but part two is now live here. So carry on if you’d like, or have a breather if the tension is getting too much. To whet your appetite, here's a picture of me in scrubs...

You're welcome

*Actually the world wasn’t bothered, as Bradford City beat Chelsea on the same day and everyone cared more about that. Typical Boro, causing an upset on the wrong day. Oh, you don’t care? Never mind.