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.

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