When we think about pregnancy, we picture an instant connection to our babies — but what if it doesn’t materialize right away?
"What's wrong? Do you see it?" I asked the doctor. She rubbed my tummy with a white wand as if she were casting some sort of incantation. She hunched forward, peering too closely at the screen of the ultrasound machine with a furrowed brow and squint.
She laughed. "Yes. Wow. I do see. And you're going to be very busy."
"You're going to be busy because you have two in there."
I was pregnant with twins. While I was immediately excited, driving home too fast, my husband was not. In fact, his first words as he closed the refrigerator were "Oh nooooo.” His sister had twins, and he'd observed how challenging they can be on all fronts.
A closet optimist, I thought this was a horrific reaction. It seemed unduly depressing. It seemed completely immune to the magic of doubling. It cast a pall over my enjoyment. But as my twin pregnancy progressed, I started to realize how hard everything would be after that point, and I came to understand his initial reaction, but it wasn’t for the reason that most people think of.
Finding out I was pregnant with boy twins (during a time when I was also writing a novel about boy twins), seemed like a magical coincidence.
I'm someone for whom love has always come quickly, intuitively, stupidly. It did with my husband who I had crushed on from the moment I saw him. It did with my daughter.
I always wanted to be a twin. It wasn't that I wanted to be identical to someone else, although, truthfully, as the odd man out in pretty much everything, having someone, anyone, who was similar to me would have been a relief. As a congenitally lonely kid, in spite of having friends, I became convinced that nothing could be more comforting than having someone similar to be with me always.
So it was shocking to me that I didn't feel an instant connection when my twins were born.
I've always assumed the first shoots of a deep connection show up in the first moments of meeting someone. Perhaps they're small, green and unformed, only a hint, but at least they're there. I'm someone for whom love has always come quickly, intuitively, stupidly. It did with my husband who I had crushed on from the moment I saw him. It did with my daughter, who I fell in love with at first sight of her utterly perplexed and astonished face when she was handed to me for nursing within moments of an arduous natural birth.
The twins were high-risk and were born by planned c-section at almost 37 weeks. The day started as scheduled, but while being administered regional anesthesia, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life. One of the babies suffered a sudden and dramatic drop in heart rate, seemingly in response. I could hear the doctor's panic, but I couldn't see past the blue curtain to my organs being displaced. The doctors yanked him out, even before calling my husband into the room, in fear for the baby's life, and my husband walked into what looked like a murder scene with doctors slipping around in blood. Afterward, a nurse held each one up for me to see from a foot away. They were tiny and looked identical, I felt disembodied, unable to feel anything, except relieved to be done with my panic.
The night after the twins were born, I was in excruciating pain as I tried to walk around to keep blood clots from forming. Nobody told me how painful a c-section is to recover from. I leaned over the twins in their beige trays and tried to make sense of who was who. Beyond the pain and feeling of swimming in a hormonal soup, was another sensation, a strangeness.
During the first year of having twins, I felt lost in their uncanny resemblance to each other, like I was wandering through a philosophical French film, feeling an overwhelming dread, seeing double. In an essay, Freud dubbed the uncanny (or "unheimlich") as "that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar." The uncanny mixes the strange and the familiar, often cued by visual similarities.
Love came in jolts with the twins. I often felt dizzy, unable to focus long enough to connect with either one as an individual.
As the primary breadwinner of my family, I had returned to work within a week of my c-section, ghostwriting around the clock. Nearly every hour, I breastfed the twins on a gigantic dotted nursing pillow while simultaneously typing on a laptop propped behind their heads. I'd underestimated the different challenges of trying to love two brand new babies at once, with love not being only a feeling, but also a deeper connection, a desire to perform a long sequence of acts. One challenge in particular: nobody tells you how much two babies poop — the odor of mountains of diapers trailed me around.
Instead of a big rush, as with my husband and my daughter, love came in jolts with the twins. I often felt dizzy, unable to focus long enough to connect with either one as an individual. I would try to gaze at one to parse what was different, and quickly be distracted by the other's colicky howling. At all times, somebody needed me, but couldn't have me. I felt I was a constant disappointment. I didn't have the capacity to lift them simultaneously due to the c-section. Every night, around 6 p.m., the two of them would howl for almost an hour, their keening like the warning cries of banshees.
I'd gone from one child to three. I'd actually enjoyed attachment parenting with my first child, but now that seemed a ridiculous luxury. So much of the connection to a child in his first year is composed of one-on-one moments. There were almost no such moments with the twins in their first year.
Parents of singletons and nonparents nearly always gushed and cooed about twins being a double blessing from the moment they learned I was pregnant. This only intensified after I gave birth. They had no empathy, nor any desire to understand the stress I felt. I wanted to run away from them all screaming, and I didn’t have the words to explain why. My husband never experienced a sense of the uncanny with the twins, or didn't admit to it. And adding to my feeling of being under water, my husband fell into a depression, exacerbated by constant, debilitating pain, partly from lifting the twins so many times, before eventually undergoing two back surgeries. I had no one to commiserate with.
At first, the twins' personality differences only amplified the uncanniness for me. How could they be so different in temperament and yet look the same? Which one was a repeat of the other? Neither, of course. The one older by minutes was fussy, intense, and highly sensitive. He howled so wolfishly, so disconsolately that I nearly always gave into him. Meanwhile, the younger was laid back, serene, more prone to a series of quieter, choked sobs. As a result, I more frequently set him down, but I also doted on him more generously in the good moments because he never fatigued me. As they grew, however, the agreeable one quickly learned that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and became a Machiavellian, crying over any little thing to achieve his goals. The older one became less frequently hysterical, but sometimes I hear echoes of his intensity.
Around their first birthday, when my husband and I helped them to blow out the candles on their shared root beer float cake, I realized the foreboding sense of the uncanny had started to diminish. I could tell them apart. I was no longer haunted by their visual similarity. Love for each of them as two real and individual people — deep, real, all-consuming, die-for-you love— had crept up on me while I was doing all the ordinary tasks of taking care of them.
Who was that person, that perpetually horrified person I became right after their births when faced with double vision?
The other day we were in a rare moment of being just us three. Unlike 2-year-old singletons, they play with each other, not parallel. The younger one sauntered around in a patch of sunshine with a stuffed bunny, hips thrust forward, unduly pleased. Meanwhile the older one raised his arms over his head like a monster, shouting about nothing. They remain temperamentally similar to who they were when they were born, but it now seems almost unthinkable to me that I didn't immediately connect with them. Who was that person, that perpetually horrified person I became right after their births when faced with double vision? The horror of the uncanny always lies in the person perceiving rather than the figures themselves.
As I watched their gleeful storming about the room, euphoria rushed through my blood. It occurred to me, for the first time in my 40s, that love need not be sensed quickly, but can be grown in a far more humble way, deepened by simply paying attention, by undertaking the tedious and difficult motions of care. It was in that way that the twins became to me what they'd always been without my gaze — a double blessing.