Real things

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had 15 years ago, with my friend E, when we lived at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Neither of us had partners or children yet, and we shared great conversation and sourdough waffles every Saturday morning.

“What do you want your life to be about?” I asked.

“I think a lot about real things,” she said.

This woman, in her early 20s at the time, earned a perfect score on her SATs and opted to major in home economics. She was a flawless baker, sewer, knitter, teacher, and cafe owner. She once taught me to properly fold a fitted sheet (sorry E; I continue to wad it up into a ball).

For me, blinky-flashy things like phones are the opposite of real. Everything in there is virtual. I held out on getting my first cell phone until a day in 2006 when I needed a payphone, and I couldn’t find one. In 2011 I finally sent a message to all my contacts that said, “I text now.” I pushed the 7 key four times to get the letter T.

Today I have an outdated iPhone that I use (yes, writing on it now), but also sort of resent. I resent the $160 a month we pay for a service I value at half the price. I resent the way music, which used to play continuously, is now interrupted. I resent the way my husband texts while I am speaking to him and calls it “multi-tasking.” We’ve been together ten years and still don’t recognize each other’s hand writing.

Technology, fine. But what of relationships? I prefer that people use their phones in private (gasp!) because a phone used in shared space quickly shifts we energy into me energy. In gaining all of this personal choice, we’ve lost a lot of comradery.

Photo by R. Evanson

In my home, I am the ultimate real thing. My children are forever climbing on, playing with, and eating me. I rarely use a phone in front of my kids because I can’t. It’s impossible. My husband is exempt from all this and I am very, very jealous.

I also save phone use for nap time because Avery models herself after what I do, and not what I tell her to do. I carefully call this thing a phone and our phone instead of my phone, and I let Avery use it whenever she has a reasonable purpose. I hope she won’t decide she needs one anytime soon because I will never hear the end of it. #littlebull #strongwilledchild #taurus

There is nothing wrong with phones as tools. Photograph. Call. Look up. Pay. Deposit. Text. Social. Read. Listen. But be conscious of how you distract yourself from life. On days when I am over it, I sneak one earbud in and use an audiobook to tune out my children while I parent. I will die the day Avery does this to me.

*

Little kids love real things. Avery employs what we call the object of the week: Life jacket. Ice pack. A few yards of magenta ribbon. Hand soap. First aid supplies. Two breast milk saver bags. Some long blades of dry rye grass. A broken strand of faux pearls. She plays until the object’s uses are exhausted and then moves on to the next real thing.

She is also fascinated by the blinky flashy.

Well-meaning adults are always trying to connect with Avery through their screens. The first time baby Avery met her grandpa he handed her a phone to chew on. When I objected, he was confused. “Because it’s dirty?” He asked.

Once I had to work on a Saturday and my daughter stayed with dad. When I came home, I found two-year-old Avery plugged in and watching the movie Frozen for the second time that day. I will never forgive him this.

Childhood is short and every minute of screen time makes it shorter. To everyone else: I am with them for 100 waking hours a week. You have them for a minute. Couldn’t you do something else?

Adult priorities are clear: All a child has to do is follow your gaze. Yes, getting things done with kids around is impossible. But whenever you can, engage. Swings. Books. Blocks. Paint. Soccer balls. Monkey bars. Bikes. Dirt. Animals. Plants. Music. Food. Love manifests as time and attention.

*

Avery and I have a friend who comes from the last generation of real things. She and her husband have lived in a cabin without running hot water for decades. They turn compost, prepare root vegetables for lunch, ride bicycles as often as they drive cars, and repair their own shoes. This woman reads poems to Avery about kids splashing in creeks and taught her to make little boats out of alder leaves. For all the outside influences my kid is exposed to, she is the one I’m most grateful for.

I want my kids to grow up rooted in real. I sometimes pick up maps, cameras, and novels instead of using a phone for everything just so they learn to use these objects. I want to start buying CDs again so Avery can thumb through them to discover music. I’m sure all of this is mostly futile but maybe not completely.

Childhood is about exploring places and objects, building skills, following curiosity, and discovering the power of creativity. I thought summer vacation would be a time of dandelion crowns, sand castles, and tadpoles. And it is. It is also an endless opportunity for a child to beg for sugar and episodes.

Screen time is a serious crux of parenting. On one hand, a child in front of a screen is doing almost nothing of value. On the other hand, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is never far from my mind.

I aim to keep our family’s screen time just under the brain rot line. I don’t care if my kids are plugged in for 45 minutes at a time if the show won’t inspire nightmares or teach bad language; and as long as kids do something involving brain, muscle, cooperation, or coping skills before and after watching.

I deal with Avery’s constant requests by making screen time predictable and available for a price. She earns daily episodes by napping or playing alone for 30-45 minutes. Between the earning and the episode, I’m able to make dinner.

That’s the theory. But I’m struggling a little this summer with sneaky screen time: We both like it when Avery is plugged in; so I keep finding excuses to allow her more.

Like, she watches something while I do her hair and continues while I put the brothers down for their morning nap. I justify this screen time by requiring it to be in Spanish.

But she actually watches twice each day.

Then there are storm days, which are long; especially when we are up at 5 AM. When a blizzard or torrential rain keeps us inside, and I am tired, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is very, very loud. So Avery watches a movie while I listen to classical music, drink black tea, and write for an uninterrupted couple of hours the way I did before I had children, and I feel very, very happy.

And screen time happens a third way.

This morning, Avery showed her dad a video game on her little camera. It’s been fun for her to change the screen and hear the bubbly electronic music; but thus far she has not known how to play the game. Within a few clicks of his thumb, however, my husband has her disappearing bricks from a candy-colored wall. And now I shall be in constant conversation with Avery about when she’s allowed to play this game, and for how long, and why she’s not allowed to play it more.

Because I don’t want a fourth reason.

*

My friend E and I have each moved a few times since those languid, chatty Saturday mornings. We each married and birthed a couple of kids. Our interactions are usually limited to an exchange of holiday cards but I got in touch while working on this post.

“Remember, the real things?” I ask. “What does that look like for you these days?”

For her, as for me, real things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. Her family confines laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, and phones to a technology room (Did I mention she taught technology?). The rest of the home gets to stay real.

She also recognizes the importance of real food. She prioritizes cooking farm-fresh meals and canning salsa with her daughter while the baby sleeps. “My kitchen is a disaster 100% of the time,” she says.

E prepares fresh veggies and homemade pasta, but her daughter’s request for lunch will always be… you guessed it. “I have no idea what the allure is with boxed Mac and cheese,” she says. “There must be a spell on it or something.”

Kids get hijacked into virtual worlds and virtual foods at least as easily as adults are. Certainly we have less control over what content and calories they consume as they grow. But for the millionth time, caring for others is an inroad to caring for ourselves. At least E and her husband are eating homemade pasta. At least her daughter understands this as a possibility.

Buttressing family life with real things feels like a sort of protection from the spell of the blinky flashy guaranteed to show up in our childrens’ lives. “As long as their days are filled with curiosity and adventure,” says E, “I don’t think a few shows will hurt anyone. At least that’s my hope.”

Photo by R. Evanson

*

Twins: 11 months

Photo by A. Davis

I thought these updates would come more regularly; as it is I will add one more before the brothers’ marshmallow feet flatten and they officially become toddlers.

We’ve entered that phase where everything these guys do is extremely dangerous and/or disgusting and will be for the next 18 months. Toren has been obsessed with the toilet water; and Eirik recently took him up on that game. I made a concerted effort to keep the lid down until yesterday when they pulled it back-and-forth and back-and-forth until they broke it off.

Photo by A. Davis

This behavior is typical for Toren (there are babies and then there is Toren); less so Eirik (but keep your eye on him).

Toren took his first steps at 10 1/2 months and then started climbing highchairs and reaching for doorknobs. Today I found him on top of the coffee table. He loves being read to. He watches big kids frolic with a gleam in his eye that says, I can’t wait! He also has a cat allergy:

Cats (and mosquitoes) make me feel like…

Eirik has a distinctly gentle spirit; as well as a wild streak. If Toren is a Roman candle, then Eirik is a bottle rocket (he even whistles like a bottle rocket when he is excited. Pew! Pew!).

After months of defending Eirik against his sister, I now defend him against his brother as well. If someone takes him down, he lies there on the floor until mama comes to solve it. I would call him a crybaby; except that he is… a baby.

Which is why we call him Eirik-y or Scwunch while Torino is nick-named after a muscle car and a Clint Eastwood movie. They can resent me later.

Also Gran Torino

Eirik can dish it out but he can’t take it at all. His clearest expression of love (also the way he asks for milk) is to tangle each of his baby hands in my hair, pull, and bite hard on my neck or jaw bone at the same time. It gets the point across.

Communication is getting easier. Both babies say mama and Eirik has also picked up the sign for “all-done”. He waves his hands in the air like he just don’t care at the end of every meal. Toren is skipping the signs and going right to words. I’ve heard him say dada, di-di (diaper), To-ren, and water. Once, after a midnight feeding, I heard his gremlinesque little voice say, ni-night mama!; which maybe counts as his first sentence?

Twins communicate more easily than a single baby. They consult each other about how they’re feeling; so I might be getting tired, quickly escalates into I’m tired and hungry! And mad! So is he! We are tired and hungry and mad! Roger.

Milk-fed

Neither baby has gained any more teeth in the last almost-six months but they have gained appetite. Toren got serious about solid food at 5 1/2 months. One day he turned to me after nursing and said, What else ya got? He eats anything and everything, and he has the linebacker booty to prove it. He recently ate half of a roast beef sandwich. Food (unless thrown on the floor) does not go to waste. (If you count the food thrown on the floor, then a lot of food goes to waste.)

When nobody is paying attention, Eirik has his own version of hops. The other day I caught him free-standing for the first time and was so subtle that I almost missed it. I felt like, Have you done that before? Today he progressed from standing at the edge of the couch, holding the piping with his teeth for extra support, to cautiously inching his way along in his first supported baby steps. He also recently swiped an entire beef steak tomato off the table and ate half of it before I noticed. His favorite foods are mama milk, paper, tomatoes, and meat.

Eirik is demanding in only one department: Play. If his daily quota goes unmet, then he refuses to go to bed. He stares me down and bumps his nose into mine in a way that says, tickle me! then he throws his head back in anticipatory laughter, leaving me no choice in the matter. Fun-haver.

Eirik’s only flaw is that the bottle rockets go off at 5AM daily (Pew! Pew!). He parties long and hard enough to wake the entire family; then he goes back to bed.

I love how much humor the brothers bring into my life. My usual dreams of future happiness include more time for friends, mountains, and creativity; I only recently stopped to consider how wonderful it is to have a houseful of kids who are really freaking funny.

More favorite things about these babies: Their skin is like peaches and cream. Eirik throws his little 12″ chicken leg over me when he sleeps. Toren grabs Eirik’s hand when they nurse together. They can totally hang on a camping trip. They come when I call, Coo-ee!

I feel so lucky to know them across the arc of their entire lives.

Monkeys in a tent

*****

Everything as it should be

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Avery is shredding the house faster than I clean it. Eirik just pooped on the carpet. Toren is shrieking at an eardrum-blowing decibel. Why expect anything less?

My mom just left. She came to visit for the week and she played with my kids, put in my garden, and did all my chores. For the first two days I barely got off the couch. I didn’t realize I was so tired until I had an opportunity to stop and sit down. Then I struggled to get back up.

Everything is as it should be.

It’s time to discover how summer works with all three of my littles. Since I found out I was carrying twins there have been so many things I feared that never came to pass. Like I imagined I would never survive that first night before the milk comes in with two babies; but then Toren was in NICU and I was only responsible for the one.

Worry, often enough, has been useless enough, that I rarely bother with it. I don’t look at weather forecasts either – same reason. Because, sure, maybe the future will be terrible, but maybe not. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it will be great. Better to wait and see.

The end of the school year, however, with my husband working out of town, is so far proving to be as hard as I thought it would be. The things I’ve found that help are a dinner rotation limited to spaghetti and tacos, and these words:

Everything is as it should be.

Mothering a bunch of kids at once is no laughing matter. When I ask advice from women who mother twins plus other kids they mostly shrug. Good luck with that. One twins-plus mom tells me she was so stressed raising her kids that she lived in fight or flight for twenty years. “Find a way not to do what I did,” she says.

If I get through the day in my usual way (sympathetic nervous system kicked into high gear) then everything gets done. We have a good time. The children don’t know I’m strapped. And isn’t that the point? To knock yourself out without anyone realizing how hard you’re working?

Everything is as it should be.

“What helps” changes too fast for moms to take mental note (the amygdala isn’t known for its glittering memory). The best advice on how to keep up with my flock comes from the big sisters of twins.

Everyone waits their turn,” says L. She is a photographer who helped me select photos from our twin sitting last summer. Because of her advice I flash a W to any child who starts crying. “Wait,” I say. “You’re next.” Unless someone is bleeding I finish what I am doing; there is no way I will get back to it. And when I’m nursing and Avery freaks out with jealousy, I invite her to flip a sand timer. “Five more minutes for the brothers,” I say. “Then it’s your turn.”

Another twin big-sis sends me flatrate boxes. Inside are 10 books recently outgrown by her child and individually wrapped in newspaper. “Use them any way you like,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it through the preschool years without books as incentives.” Avery earns them whenever she has the opportunity to wake up the brothers, but doesn’t.

Everything is as it should be.

The idea of self care is an inside joke I keep with myself. Sometimes, I say (to nobody), I like to poop. I’m never alone, I don’t have much time, and it’s never when I actually feel the need to go, but sometimes I do it anyway. If you’re going to eat then you might as well poop.

Whenever I get a moment to feel and experience what is going on in my body I learn things I didn’t want to know: That my lower jaw hums with tiredness. That the freedom-loving part of me waits for these precious early years to pass into something more manageable. That what I sacrificed in becoming a mother is so much more than any childless person can understand. I can’t unlearn these things and whether or not it’s helpful for me to know them is debatable. So, unless I’m very careful, all of the laundry gets thoroughly put away and I don’t take any time for myself at all.

Everything is as it should be.

My actual self-care system is a matter of mindset more than a function of time. I do what pleases me and turn away from unreasonable demands. Every day I get outside, cook something I want to eat, and write a little. My needs ride the revolving carousel along with everyone else’s (mama gotta eat). I nap the brothers exclusively in their cart to keep us mobile and avoid conflict with my big kid during nap time and I will continue to do so even if you think it’s weird. When everyone is sleeping (praise Jesus) I write instead of scroll. I am currently reclaiming 30-minutes a day for yoga and I have a kitty tattoo for anyone who lets me get through it without interruption.

Everything is as it should be.

*

Avery’s universe

First self portrait

Photography has been a great way to connect Avery with the baby brothers and offer her a special “big sister” role at the same time. Here, for her 4th birthday, I share some favorite photos of hers that I keep in a folder called “Avery’s Universe.”

A good place to use a phone

Through these pictures I see what my daughter notices about our family. I learn more about who she is and about who we are. Best of all, these photos reflects the totality of her love; a sense of what else would I photograph?

Baby brothers
A study in brothers 1

As a photographer, a kid has this advantage: I reach for the camera when everyone is copasetic and I have a free arm. I hand Avery the camera when everything is hectic and I am hoping to occupy her. In this, she captures the speed of our life more accurately than I ever will.

A study in brothers 2
A study in brothers 3

I like her portraits. I feel drawn to them the way I am drawn into any still frame of art that captures a thing in motion; a living, breathing being in transition from one moment to the next.

A study in brothers 4

I appreciate the honesty of her lens. There is no secret working of camera angles to hide an undesirable mess or the bags under my eyes. Everything is shown as is. Life looks that way. Why wouldn’t it be in the picture?

The sun
This happened once

Casual moments, sticky surfaces, propensity for all objects to land on the floor. From a child these recorded realities come naturally; her pictures are accurate without being insulting.

Mamadada
DIY haircuts 2020

Yes, I delete ten pictures for every one I keep. But also, she is starting to ask for the camera when she sees pretty light. We are adding art words to her vocabulary: Design. Palette. Frame. Subject. Shade.

A study in brothers 5
A study in brothers 6

These pictures feel special for so many reasons, including the gaps where I use my imagination to fill in the time that passes between pictures. Flipping back through these images, I watch my sons emerge from neonates to older babies with spunk and personality. And I watch my daughter shake off the remnants of babyhood and become a strong, confident, capable kid.

A study in brothers 7
A study in brothers 8

One last special thing: Mama gets to be in these pictures. Avery is the only person who documents this chapter of my life. When she photographs me holding a baby – smiling at him or playing with him – there is no end to my pleasure. She catches me in the middle of my work and tells me that the job I am doing is good enough.

*

What we pay attention to grows

Give me back my sock!

Give that sock back! Give it back nooooooeeeewwwwww! She is laughing, running around the bedroom, tossing this purple and black striped sock into the air. Is this why mama it’s always the last one dressed and out of the house?

Um, yes.

Chase, laugh, repeat. Just days ago I would’ve grabbed said sock and made sure we moved on in a timely fashion. But I have a new goal: Make Avery giggle every day and keep it going.

The figurative Puritan farm wife in me has never allowed for enough joy but my new goal is helping. Also this week: Airplane rides. Grandpa walks. Special Time and the The Don’t Do It game. I discover that I know a surprising number of silly songs about horses. Tickle chase in a grassy field substitutes for the workout I never seem to get.

Why would I ever shut this down?

*

Last week was rough. “Don’t wake the brothers,” I said as Avery climbed into the car after school.

Avery and I have been in a terrible cycle. She’s been aggressive towards the babies, seeking attention through negative behaviors, and generally wound up for months. If you say, One more time and I’ll... she’ll get right on that.

Ruptures within our family are never about one incident. Major conflicts fall on top of years of broken sleep and “normal” household chaos (this morning I found play dough smashed into the rug and half-eaten tomatoes in my daughter’s bed). Even if I maintain through offenses A, B, and C, there is no way I will make it through to X, Y, and Z. I have been mad, yelling, slinging consequences, and even spanking.

Already we suffered a string of conflicts this morning. If the babies stay asleep then Avery and I will get some desperately needed one-on-one time before her nap; but I am hoping for the impossible…

“Hi Eirik!” She yells into his face. Two little blue eyes blink open.

With three car seats across the back of my SUV, car time offers Avery unsupervised access to the babies that I find impossible to avoid. Eirik gets the worst of it. At times she has pressed a thumb into his fontanelle until he cried or finger-popped the side of his mouth and made him bleed.

“Hi Eirik!” she yells again, this time poking at his mouth. As she reaches for him now, I go ballistic.

*

I am a good parent; meaning I am committed to the process. Communicate well. Lead by example. Each of us takes responsibility for our role in a conflict. Focus on the beauty. I hold this vision for the long road and offer myself forgiveness in all the moments.

Every now and then I stumble upon a hard topic to write, which also means that I have to do it. This is that topic. Conflict within our family. My child’s overwhelming behavior. Trying to be on the same page as my spouse. The role I play in all of this. It might take a few posts.

At times, Avery’s love for the brothers recalls the curly-haired Animaniacs character Elmyra who gathers the animals into her arms, saying, “I will kiss you and love you and squeeze you all up!”

Parenting is insane and whoever says it gets easier is a filthy rotten liar. The twins get a lot of press, but what makes our family functional or fraught is Avery’s behavior. I wont divulge too much lest I shut down reproduction for the human race, but this list is a pretty good summary:

Avery isn’t a toddler anymore; but Preschooler = Toddler with more brain and muscle. Since I’m the one who’s talking people worry about me but that’s not the point. Please, pray for us all.

*

It’s sad what a big kid loses when she gains a sibling (or two). She had mama entirely to herself for three years and must now compete for my attention (aka take turns).

I remind myself that I am the guardian of Avery’s sense of security, and she expects me to model what reasonable interactions look like. I want to harness her “creatiful” energy for the greater good and find a way forward where I am not mad all the time.

Avery demanded the full hippie swim-up bar until she was two-and-a-half. Watching two babies tethered to my boobs is too much for her to take. If I don’t want a baby at each breast and a jealous kid wrapped around my neck then I nurse in my bedroom.

While I hide behind a locked door, Avery finds outlets for her angst: Sewing needles scattered across the floor. A stick of butter nibbled at the corners. A spool of thread woven through the house like a mad spider’s web. Furniture covered in maxi pads. Wet washcloths wrapped in toilet paper and carefully placed in the freezer. Framed art askew. Electrical fixtures swinging.

Isolating her from her family isn’t what I want to do. It’s bad enough that the other four of us, plus the dog, sleep together in one bedroom while she sleeps alone. (We tried rooming the dog in with her but he couldn’t take the pressure.)

I have an idea. Next time I nurse on the couch and ask, “Want to play hide and seek?” Without waiting for me to finish, she runs away to hide. I count long and slowly then I go find my girl.

My sense of safety is renewed but it’s a bit like tossing a steak for a troublesome dog. There must be a better way.

Time to use a lifeline. My friend E has the same constellation of children only she is a year ahead. She recently spent a long weekend with friends who have preschool-aged only-children and was amazed at how much attention those kids got. “We have to remember our daughters are still really little,” she says.

Knowing what not to do does not help a parent to know what to do. Thankfully, my desperate late-night Google searches yield new ideas at ahaparenting.com.

The blog is written by Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. She talks about fresh ways to be in relationship with children that shift parenting away from consequences and towards fun. In all the margins, I see my daughter.

She writes: Laughter relieves stress as much as a tantrum, and it’s so much more enjoyable for everyone. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.

Peaceful Parenting has three parts:

1. The parent commits to regulating his or her own emotions.

2. The parent prioritizes strength in the parent-child connection, the relationship, which is the reason children cooperate.

3. The parent loves the child unconditionally. No withdrawal of love around undesirable behaviors. No rewards or consequences to manipulate the child into doing your will. Only loving guidance and opportunity for everyone to learn how to manage big emotions together.

All of this takes a lot of effort. But as one playful dad, V, once told me: “I find I have to put in the effort one way or another.”

*

Kids (and grown-ups) act out when they have big feelings they can’t put into words and don’t know how to express. When our needs for attention and power (two big needs behind undesirable behaviors) go unmet we get whiny, controlling, aggressive, and territorial.

At first I couldn’t imagine a world without consequences. Do the crime, do the time, right? But then I realized that punishment doesn’t really accomplish anything helpful. Remember the last time someone yelled at you. Did it increase your respect? Bolster your relationship? Make you want to please them? Improve your behavior in the future? Nope. Me neither.

From a kid’s perspective, there is no need for discipline; only for connection, listening, and stress relief. Kids need insightful adults who imagine what’s going on inside of them. They need us to understand their intentions, believe in them, forgive them, expect the best from them. That’s the adult I want to be.

*

For the first time in a long while, I see positive change in my child’s behavior and it isn’t because I found some magic wand to wave over her. I started with the only behavior I can change: Mine.

In doing away with consequences, I committed to figuring out what my daughter is trying to tell me. The message was obvious: Avery needs to know she hasn’t lost me.

I’ve been slow to understand all the forms separation anxiety takes. That’s why we’ve struggled so much at bedtime. That’s why time outs make her behavior worse. Avery has a case of the mamas and she’s willing to drag a brother around by his arm if it means I’ll come running. She wants to be with me, glued to me, no matter my mood. This is also why she continues to think I hung the moon and stars even on my yelling days.

*

I am having fewer yelling days. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking about my intentions, screwing up, apologizing, seeking accountability in my friends and support in my husband, doing it all again.

Photo by H. Landers

After several months of hard work, I rarely use punishment and consequences anymore. When I am proactive; when I cuddle my daughter and make sure not to leave her on the back burner, the behaviors disappear (okay not completely) on their own. When they surface, at least I know where they are coming from.

What fills the void? Singing of show tunes and whispering of silly things in each others ears. Saying yes when other adults make excuses. Rip-roaring, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor giggle fits that allow me to see more of my daughter’s beautiful spirit and my own.

What we pay attention to grows.

***

Twins: 5 months

The brothers have entered my favorite phase of babyhood where they are no longer luggage but are still immobile. They have personalities but they don’t yet have behaviors = Pretty fun.

“Where was I before I was your kid,” Avery asks.

“In the sky,” I say, “waiting to be born. I was waiting for you to come.”

“And the brothers?”

“They were in the sky too,” I answer. “Only I didn’t know it. Are you happy that we got them?”

“Yes!” she says. “Toren is the best baby in the world!” Eirik should not be offended as both babies are unequivocally Toren.

I have this feeling too: Our babies are the best babies in the world. The anxiety I felt when I found out I was having twins has melted into this bliss of being the mother of a large family I never knew I wanted. I get to have three.

*

My experiences of parenting these children are so different. Avery’s love is oxygen; I can’t imagine life without it. The brothers are as gifts. Eirik is the baby I wanted; Toren is the baby I never could have imagined.

Eirik

I don’t mean to compare my boys and find them lacking; I only mean to learn a little more about what each one is by noticing what he isn’t; like noticing the ways in which a wren is not a chick-a-dee.

Eirik is an old friend. He pauses while nursing to look up at me and his smile cuts straight through my heart. When I’m sad I can hold him and feel better. He is round and scwunchy and my only hope of a south paw in the pack. He initiates giggle fits with Avery. There is nothing complicated about his love. His hands are so wide that I have counted to make sure he doesn’t have six fingers. He will either grow into a strawberry-blonde version of Clark Kent or a big guy with a comb over. Possibly both with enough time.

Toren is both sweetness and drive. With the way he gets a baby chair bouncing I wonder why it isn’t yet an Olympic sport. He has already gained three pounds on Eirik to become the larger of the two. His legs are like tree trunks and I couldn’t be more proud. (Who da big brother!?) The first thing he taught me is this: If you want to be cuter all you need is a little fat and a better mood. Eat the pie; lighten up.

Toren

Being the mom of infants again is made simpler by knowing that it gets harder with time and not easier. As this blog emerged with Avery’s mobility, I have no written record her infancy. I’ve enjoyed having another chance to catch these early days.

At five months, Eirik still accepts swaddling for sleep; Toren is done. Eirik nestles in like a teddy bear when I carry him so I can smell the back of his head. Toren rides straight and tall like a miniature prince. Eirik indicates his desire to nurse with a subtle lift-of-head and a penguin flap of the arms; Toren gets loud. Eirik nuzzles and sips; Toren yanks at my nipple and pumps his feet against the wall to maximize flow.

Everything changes so fast. Even as I write these words, I wonder, is that still true? We are always free to reinvent ourselves.

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These boys have traded roles from how I understood them at birth. Toren was insecure as a newborn: He cried a lot and I was uncertain about how to handle him. Maybe it was his time in NICU; or my hesitation about having twins. Maybe he didn’t feel welcome. Maybe he is less trusting by nature.

I felt that I would have to earn his love, but how? In a home swimming with babies, how could I compete for one child’s affection? I wore him a lot and hoped for the best.

But Toren wasn’t asking me to meet unrealistic expectations. He just wanted to know that he would be safe and loved in his new family; which happens to be my specialty. When I realized he only needed me to be myself, worry lifted from my bones. Fear not, little child. You will be mothered.

Our problems ended. Eirik struggles to sleep but this baby drifts off silently; snuggling down under his giraffe blankie with his matching pacifier. I love you too, ‘lil buddy.

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The first 100 days

I adopted a new mantra when my twins were born: Life is a hurricane; I am the eye of the storm.

We are still marveling over the basics; still saying, There are two of them. My husband is working in Juneau 10 on 4 off. After two months of being mostly alone with my kids, we have reached a delicate equilibrium.

Photo by R. Evanson

Time is used for the highest possible purpose (safety/emergencies > food/toileting/sleep > cooking/laundry/dishes > art/adventures/fun. The microwave stays dirty). My thoughts travel no further than immediate needs. I make do. Who needs a third arm? I have a prehensile chin.

My combat training began with a lactation consultant who is the mother of four, including a set of twins: “You’re going to learn how to pick up a baby with one hand,” she barked. “Grab the baby by the front of his pajamas and pull him into your lap. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible, but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.”

I’ve just completed the fourth trimester with our new babies and I am learning to operate within the chaos, rather than trying to control it.

The hardest part of twins is definitely their big sister. I invest 75% of my daily energy into her. Maybe 90%. “Prioritize your big kid,” recommends my friend E, who became a twin mom last year. “The babies wont remember.”

Crying isn’t dying. “Twins cry more than a singleton,” said one mom on a twin podcast. “Everyone waits their turn. You have to accept this if you ever want want to shower again. If they’re crying, they’re breathing.”

Toren’s cry is shocking; even to the dog. His screams remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West in that scene from The Wizard of OZ where Dorothy pours water over her. What a world! What a world!

“How can you stand that?” asks my husband.

“I’m thinking about how to make fun of him in a blog post,” I say. Clearly.

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I’ve learned to protect myself against situations where all three kids have needs (read: are crying) at the same time. Any combination of two is fine but the third has to be sleeping.

I get a lot of mileage out of lowering my standards. The other day I heard myself say, “Hey Avery, want to drive around and eat cookies while the brothers fall asleep in the car?”

Um, yes.

The hardest question to answer: Can I help? Thank you to everyone who has asked. Food gifts are awesome. They allow me to admire my babies and not just care for them. Otherwise, there is a pandemic, and having adults visitors requires more mature conversation than I usually have to give. If you come around I will inevitably end up dealng with my train-wreck pile of kids; only now with an audience. Not fun.

Help can be confusing even from my husband. M is a fantastic doer. He brings groceries, cooks, cleans, and drives Avery around. But he doesn’t do this parenting thing where his time (all day, every day) is overtaken by the needs of others. He doesn’t do anti-productivity well.

When I’m alone I do what needs to be done, and I don’t think about it. But when M is around, I compare my day to his and notice that my life is insane. I resent him when he makes a phone call or eats his entire breakfast. I feel jealous when he clips his toenails. Then, I feel crazy.

I stopped feeling crazy, however, one day when I got specific with him about how to help with the kids. “Feel free to clip anyone’s nails, anytime,” I said. “I have 40 just between the boys and I can’t keep up.”

“Plus your own,” he said. “That makes 60.”

“Avery makes 60,” I said. “Mine make 80.”

Not crazy.

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How am I? Surprisingly good because Avery goes to preschool five mornings a week. Still, strategic mommery must roll continuously through the background or I get my wrist slapped. For example, I am about to wake the brothers and give them their circus (feed/diaper change) before we pick Avery up from school. Hopefully the babies fall asleep on the ride home so I can put Avery down for a nap without them crying when we get back. If they don’t fall asleep, I got nothin.

I grit my teeth from 4 to 6 p.m. every night, but at least it’s predictable. We eat dinner (out of bowls) as early as possible. At six I plug Avery in to a DVD while the brothers get their circus and are put down for the night. They’re asleep by seven. Then I clean the kitchen, feed the dog, and put Avery to bed. It’s a full shift. To the parent of a singleton it looks terrible but that’s what you have to do. You’re a twin mom now.

I don’t run a tight ship; more like a buoyed Land Rover set adrift. It’s not easy, but it is easier than I thought it would be in that it is possible. Please do not drop by unannounced.

Once the brothers are asleep, Avery and I have a lovely ritual. She dons a baby-blanket cape fastened at the neck with a rubber band. We choose three books and fly out of the front door and run around to the sliding glass door. Yes, we could just go out that way but that is beside the point.

Outside of the glass door there is a cracked and weathered rocking chair; something I bought on impulse a few days before Avery was born but never used. It landed on this porch where it waited three years to become a well-loved fixture of our home.

We wrap ourselves in blankets and read and watch the stars come out.

“There’s Venus!” Avery says.

It’s actually Sirius; the dog star. But I mistook it for the planet Venus on our first night out, and I can’t bring myself to tell her differently.

“There it is,” say.

I try so hard to create special moments for my kids; to live the dream I imagined family life would be. Even now, in all of this sweetness, Avery can’t stop wiggling and jabs me repeatedly with her elbows.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Good,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

I’m ready for a new mantra. I’m moving out of the eye of the storm and into the ocean. What’s the difference between the hurricane’s eye and the ocean? The eye builds a wall to protect itself from what is outside: The ocean is a container. It holds everything and takes nothing personally.

Be the ocean.

As the eye I waited for the unpleasant things to shift. As ocean, I am the environment my family drifts in. Moments come, and moments go. Even if the surface is ruffled, I can sometimes manage to keep things calm underneath. The eye holds it’s breath: The ocean, breathes.

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Letting go

Since I was away from Southeast Alaska for the summer I am still able to enjoy the rainy weather. On most days I take the babies on a walk right after I drop Avery off at school, but today is torrential; we will stay in.

I set the brothers up in front of the fire hoping they will fall asleep in their bouncy chairs if I steam them slightly.

I’m happy to be at home with kids again; even if I am limited to breakfast cereals that benefit from a lot of soaking. The brothers are almost four months old. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and how little time has passed.

So much is different about this round of babies. I wore Avery constantly but I’m forever setting the brothers down; trying to rest my back or catch a minute.

When Eirik is fed and dry but not quite tired I can set him up with a game of red bird (stare and smile at the red bird) or ceiling fan (stare and smile at the ceiling fan). Left to himself in the bouncy chair, Toren just screams.

Toren prefers a playmate and often skips his afternoon nap to get one-on-one time with mom. We play a game called, Hello! Hi! I start by saying, “Hello! Hi!” and he returns my sounds and smiles. We also like A-Goo! (similar rules). Sometimes he likes to mix it up: “A-WOOO!”

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They are asleep. I cook and do exercises to draw my abdominal muscles back together. I write every day but I rarely post. My thoughts link to everything and nothing and fill my drafts folder with frazzled half-sentences. Somewhere in here there is a theme…

It has been a hard year, this 2020. Political strife in my country and a pandemic. Some doors are closed right now: Productivity. Time with friends. Travel. But doors are also opening.

A woman in the white house.

What is this year driving me toward? I move into marriage and family. Into patience. Into risk and fearlessness. Into becoming more and more myself. Into this work that is always just beginning.

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I belong to a generation of women who grew up with the impression that we could do it all: kids and career. I have not quite found that to be true. It is at least impractical to do both at the same time.

I have a theory that, if we dig deep, what we first “wanted to be when we grew up” manifests in adulthood. I spent my free time in elementary school writing and illustrating stories and making covers from wallpaper scraps. I wanted to be an artist.

For a few adult winters, back before kids, I spent rainy days like this playing guitar and writing essays; being time rich. I thought a winter was all I needed to record an album or write a novel. I learned that good art isn’t made by people sitting around with a whole bunch of time.

When I was home with Avery, unsatisfied career goals rolled around in my brain like cobbles in a colander. The less I worked the wilder they got: I’d like to publish a book. Or become a state senator. Either. I’m just doing all of this laundry for now.

I once told M about this problem. “Turn it over,” he said. “Dump it out.”

Good thing someone in the family knows how to run a colander.

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I fall into this myth that one day I will make some thing and feel successful, but creativity is not something we arrive into. It is an infinite and iterative process.

I spend all day narrating in my head and find shards of time to write things down. The squeeze of family life limits me but also inspires me. I have plenty of material. Keep going. Life is stressful enough without being a writer who doesn’t write.

I keep a file called “scraps” for bits of text that don’t make the cut into a final post. I found this from when Avery was small: After more than a decade of wanting baby A, I have her now. But there’s no relief from wanting because my mind stuffs that space full of unrealistic goals…

In this, the twins have been freeing. With one baby my ambitions were just out of arms reach. Now they are so far gone I’d have to be out of my mind to stay bogged down by them. And with three kids I’m so busy that I no longer question my value in my family. Mama is a key player.

Family is not a sure bet either; but at least these people exist outside of my heart and imagination. I will make things because I like to but I won’t feel bad about the things I haven’t made anymore. I am letting go.

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Going home

All of my babies are sleeping and so too should I be. Instead I am wondering why we let this apartment run out of chocolate and eating coconut cream straight from the can. Hopefully, I will also write a little.

Yesterday my husband and I made it, be-masked, through the airport with one preschooler, two infants, and nine items of luggage; including three giant totes, three carseats, a moving box, a duffel, and an arthritic dog in kennel. The Alaska airlines agent kindly let Talus fly on an expired vet certificate (the date on which I attempted to forge). Things could’ve gone worse.

One leg of travel down, one more to go. We will spend three nights in our Juneau apartment and then hop a ferry home to our little town in the rainforest. The interim holds two days of doctors, dentists, and the DMV. With all of my babies in tow, I will catch up on everything I put off since the beginning of COVID-19 and begin to learn what my new life holds.

It is my first night and day of parenting without grandma, grandpa, auntie, and cousins to help things flow smoothly. Avery and my husband are closed off behind a curtain in the bedroom we’ve always shared. I sleep on our fold-out couch in the living room with the boys next to me in a pack and play. Apologies to every guest who has ever slept on this thing. You are all very, very good sports.

This rental is small, and if one person in our family is awake then everyone is pretty much awake. We are up early.

After the morning circus of nursing and diaper changes I haul the boys in their carseats up sixty stairs to our parked car. The walkway is too narrow for me to take it head on so I do a side-winding shuffle with the carseats bump-bump- bumping all the way up. While I’m away Avery puts on her clothes, rain suit, and boots as instructed and is ready to go when I come back down. Love this girl.

I’ve had enough support that much of #twinlife + #covidlife remains to be figured out. What I know, is that I will wear this ergo baby carrier from sun-up to sundown.I need a safe place to set a baby available at all times. My backpack must hold water, snacks, diapers, clothing changes, and raingear and must never be more than an arms reach away. Also, it is possible to do almost anything one-handed.

Today, I wrack my brain for a fun thing to do and end up taking everyone to Whale Beach Park. I still haven’t figured out the attachments for my double stroller, or how to take everyone for a walk, but this place is compact enough that Avery can bike around on the concrete pad, and I can wear one baby while the other baby sleeps in the car. I’m shooting for possible, not optimal.

Things I don’t yet understand include what to do with Avery on rainy days, what to ask for when neighbors offer help, and how to make a phone call without everyone falling apart. September will be a month for learning.

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The lamb and the lion

Like a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toren Ambrose was born on July 29, 2020 with his eyes open, giving the impression of one who is patient, thoughtful, and cautiously optimistic. His water had been broken ten hours prior and, as the finale to a long induction and longer pregnancy, he waited in the birth canal for two hours before my epidural faded enough for me to push him out.

Twenty minutes later, Eirik Axel came into the world red-faced and roaring. It was his privilege to wait out the entire labor with his water still in-tact. I offered him a breast before he was cleaned off or the cord was cut, and he took it.

I wouldn’t hear Toren cry for a week. At 6 lbs 5 oz, he was a full pound-and-a-half smaller than his brother. Big for a twin, it was two hours before a nurse noticed that he was small for a full-term baby and sent him to NICU.

Eirik and I were moved upstairs to the mother-baby recovery ward. At 7 lbs 9 oz, he was larger than our singleton and came with all of the upgrades: chubby cheeks, a full head of hair, eyelashes. I spent the next two sleepless days nursing him, charmed by him.

I made the trip down to see Toren for about 90 minutes at the beginning of each day and again at the end. A major design flaw of this hospital is that NICU is too far from mother-baby for a woman who has just given birth to walk there. On the first day a nurse pushed me down in a wheelchair. The next day I went on my own, pushing the wheelchair like a walker.

Toren had an IV with a glucose drip and later a feeding tube by which a nurse put 50 mL of milk through his nose and into his stomach every three hours. I held him and tried not to upset his tubes and wires. When offered the breast, he would smile at my nipple and fall asleep with it in his eye.

I did not spend enough time with Toren in those first days. The constant revolving door of nurses and doctors kept me busy upstairs. I was too hungry to be gone from my room (access to food delivery) for very long. And caring for my lion, being tangibly needed by him, felt more pressing than the needs of my lamb. My main expression of love for Toren in those first days was pumping. In training my body to provide milk for two babies instead of one, I pumped my breasts eight times a day. Whenever I fed Eirik, I pumped for Toren.

My husband, M, became the short-term NICU super-dad. He attended Toren’s feedings and came up with goals for him. He got to know the nurses and talked with them about how to get Toren out of there.

Eirik and I were discharged on a Friday. After three sleepless nights in the hospital, our family decided to go home to our daughter and a real bed rather than room in with Toren on a fold-out couch. Covid-19 restrictions meant that Eirik would not be allowed to return to the hospital once we left. M would likely continue on as Toren’s primary parent until his discharge. We didn’t think it would take very long.

Our family visited the NICU on our way out to tell him goodbye. We kept it short. It was evening, and I pretended we were going back up to our room to sleep instead of driving to a home 20 minutes away. Love you, Toren. See you in the morning.

Walking out of the hospital with one twin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. M stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to a nurse while I pushed the cart of our belongings out to the curb. Eirik, in his carseat, was perched on top.

As I walked through the lobby, stranger after stranger turned a masked face up to offer me heart-felt congratulations. This was not your standard new baby well-wishing: At one point they almost broke into spontaneous applause. I felt sad, private, and confused by the happy attention. Finally I realized: I was leaving NICU with a baby. It’s kind of a big deal. How could I tell them? This is not what you think it is.

The next day Toren had a nurse named Steve who was our game changer. ”This kid doesn’t belong in NICU,” he told my husband. Steve pulled the feeding tube and got Toren’s required feedings reduced to 30 mL every three hours. As long as Toren could keep up with those quantities, maybe he could go. M sat with Toren swaddled against his arm and patiently bottle-fed him. Steve worked down the NICU discharge checklist; including having Toren sit for 90 minutes in a carseat. Thanks, Steve.

In the morning a doctor called and said we could come get our boy. He was five days old. By day 10 he was entirely breast fed. By day 14 he had gained more weight than Eirik. Today is day 50 and you would never know he had a rough start at all. How did the birth go? you ask. Everything went great.

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