The hospital orderly who took my wife Nola to her room for her first night as a new mother was an emaciated junkie with eyelids that fluttered while her head nodded. I should have known then that this would be a hell of a year.
But I didn’t know anything the night my twin daughters Una and Esme were born. I was bubbling over with joy and adrenaline. My mind was a complete blank.
No matter what sort of books you read, classes you take, training you think you’re doing, nothing prepares you for being a parent. There’s no transition. You fully aren’t a parent, then: BAM! You are. It’s like becoming a different creature. You feel like Gregor Samsa.
A better insect analogy: you’re a fly, whizzing free and aimless through the air. Then, suddenly, you’re an ant–ready and willing to trudge slowly, carrying a hundred times your own weight on your back.
Pregnancy is no preparation. Pregnancy is its own thing–an existence that’s like neither the one you had before, nor the one to come. It’s purgatory on Earth. And it lasts forever. Pregnancy is not like any 9-month period I’ve ever experienced. Those lasted 9 months. This took 15 years.
My wife’s C-section, however, was literally 8 minutes—slightly less than the album version of “Purple Rain.” The strings would have still been going by the time Nola and I became parents of 2 screaming, kicking, glistening, 5-pound aubergine people. Purple rain, indeed.
The doctors showed us Una and Esme–take a good look, parents, get that terrified expression off your faces–then whisked delirious Nola to a “recovery” room, where they allowed her to “recover” for a few minutes. Or until they could locate a junkie orderly.
A side note: The difference between dayshift and night shift workers at the maternity ward is like the difference between, well, day and night. The dayshifters keep your newborn alive with pizzazz and aplomb while perfectly explaining to you how they are doing so. They are loving, understanding, calm, and efficient in dealing with the hysteria of brand-new life and brand-new parents.
Nightshifters…not so much. It wasn’t just the junkie. It was also the angry, muttering nurse who felt it necessary to barge into Nola’s room multiple times nightly to turn on the lights and move stuff around. (The one thing she didn’t do was turn off the 20 minute English-language instructional newborn care video that was on an all-night loop for the Hispanic woman in the next bed who spoke no English.)
When we took our babies home from the hospital, all hell broke loose. What are the first few months with twins like? Imagine two people screaming in your ear all day and night. Now imagine being required to keep those people as close to you as possible. I loved Una and Esme immediately and completely. But I still spent many days wondering when the next bus left for Atlantic City.
Nola and I also had our unique dramas. For example, my exploding lip incident. One night, when the babies were 20 days old, and they were finally asleep, we watched Gran Torino. It was such a pleasure to watch a film that I barely noticed my mouth getting numb. I paid more attention a half-hour later in the bathroom, when I saw my upper lip was literally four times its normal size. But for being white, I was a living 19th century racist cartoon. Drawn by the biggest racist ever.
I got whisked through ER triage–that’s how bad it looked–and told I had acute angioedema. If this allergic reaction had spread to my throat I could have stopped breathing, which often leads to death. It took two weeks for my lip to return to normal size.
A month later I had another, milder, angioedemic reaction. I went to a number of allergy specialists, who noted I didn’t seem allergic to anything.
I offered that the Internet told me these reactions could be triggered by stress.
“That’s possible, but unlikely,” they all said. “Had there been a major change in your life prior to this episode?”
I wondered, Am I allergic to fatherhood?
Two months later something far worse happened. I dropped Una. It was Father’s day weekend (I know, the irony) and we were at my family’s country house—a rustic log cabin in a charming state of disrepair. I tripped over a crack in the stone walkway and pitched forward with my 12-week old girl in my arms. I had her all the way until my left knee hit the walkway, and, rather than breaking my fall with an infant, I released her.
Una fell face first. Then she just lay there. She looked up, bleeding from her cheekbone, and silently stared at me. I was relieved when she started crying, since I already was.
Nola rushed Una to the nearest hospital, Putnam County, which is, I believe, the hospital other countries cite when denigrating the American health care system. Putnam’s star doctor was a literally a dwarf with eyes set so close together they almost overlapped. He ordered a number of X-rays, the last set of which revealed what appeared to be bleeding on Una’s brain. They’d have to keep her overnight. A nurse told Nola she’d pray for her child. My wife called me sobbing.
Later that day, Doc Closeeyes said that, while he was pretty sure that it was a brain bleed, perhaps they’d better take the ambulance 30 miles to Westchester Children’s Hospital, where “they have much better facilities.” (And, he neglected to mention, much better doctors. Wise is the man who knows he knows nothing.) Tiny Una was strapped to a gurney, plugged with IVs, and carried to the ambulance by huge paramedics who did their best to console Nola.
I met my wife and baby at Westchester Hospital. Una was strangely calm and casual, smiling even. (Baby, your brain is bleeding!) The doctor, who was not a dwarf and whose eyes were appropriately distanced, ate an ice cream sandwich. He smiled and said everything was fine. He strongly doubted there was any brain bleeding, but they’d do an x-ray just to be sure.
“Nope,” he said, when he returned 20 gut-wrenching minutes later. “No bleeding on her brain.”
No? So what is it?
“Well, lil’ Una does have a pretty nasty scrape on her cheek.”
He told us that what Putnam’s doctor thought was a brain bleed was likely “a smudge.” Or possibly “some blurring.”
“I’m not sure what he thinks he saw,” said the doctor. “You know, Putnam doesn’t have great facilities.”
We managed to avoid any more ambulances for the rest of the year. The babies, healthy and thriving, have settled into being cute little identical twins who drive strangers apeshit.
If you don’t like talking to strangers, don’t have identical twins. The endless comments are not all positive. That old standby, “Double trouble!” (always delivered with a chuckle, like it’s so clever because it rhymes) is actually a crappy thing to say. Who would point at a single baby and yell “Trouble!” at her parents?
“Double trouble” is a comment that often comes from the African-American community, who, besides that and the occasional “You got your hands full!,” are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to identical twins. This is a good thing, because, right before we found out Nola was pregnant, we moved into a not-quite-legal sublet in Harlem. If you want to be illegally subletting white gentrifiers in Harlem, don’t have identical twins. They’re not known for their inconspicuousness.
Still, it was nice to receive a warm reaction in the neighborhood. The girls even got some fans. One woman, who always smiled and said hello when she saw Una and Esme, one day shouted across the street (while jumping and clapping) “Are those my babies? Those are my babies!”
Hispanic people are the undisputed best when it comes to identical twins. Everyone smiles. A high percentage offer: “Awwww” or “So cute!” And several times a day, we get a “God bless you.” That’s the clincher. Even if you don’t believe in God, who doesn’t want to be blessed by Him?
White people, on the other hand, suck. Twins frighten white people. Here are some of the comments we’ve received:
“It must be so hard.”
“Sooo hard.” (Literally, many white people have just uttered those two syllables.)
“I bet you’re exhausted.”
“How do you do it?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“I don’t envy you.”
It seems many Caucasians see twins as punishment. One woman, as she walked past us, turned to her friend and remarked: “My God, I would never want twins!” Apparently thinking part of our twin punishment was losing our hearing.
And everyone, of all races, wants to know two things:
1) Can you tell them apart?”
Yes. Always. They look very different to us, even if they don’t to you.
2) “Are they different?”
Well, yeah. They’re two different people.
But even I was surprised at just how different Una and Esme, from the beginning, have been. Una is affectionate with her parents but reticent with strangers. Esme flirts with everybody and squirms when her we pick her up. Una can sit quietly for long periods of time. Esme charges all over the place, often emitting high-pitched squeals. Una sometimes refuses to go back to sleep in the middle of the night just so she can spend an hour cuddling with her mother. Esme likes to try to catapult off things.
One of our friends described their differences as internality (Una) vs externality (Esme). That sounds about right, at least for now. My fears for the future are that Una will have her heart broken and Esme will run into the street without looking.
What our girls they have in common is that they couldn’t care less about most baby toys. For this simple reason: baby toys are bullshit. Brightly colored, plastic, fake bullshit, when babies just want what’s real. Here are my daughters’ favorite things to play with:
1. An empty tube of Neosporin
2. Any remote control
3. Empty diaper boxes
6. Their parents’ and grandparents’ faces
7. Anything they’re not supposed to have
Their desire for the forbidden is all-encompassing and doesn’t bode well. This is the beginning of mischief, a concept they’ve grasped early. How do they know throwing things they’re not supposed to throw is funny? What keen senses of humor!
Of course, with all of this throwing, grabbing, and high-speed crawling in opposite directions, Nola and I, who vowed not to be nervous parents, find ourselves constantly chasing, bending, and reaching for our children to prevent them from doing the horrible things we envision them doing to themselves. It makes the muscles ache.
Then there’s all the baby gear we have to carry or push. Which leads to the most important lesson of new parenting: If you have small children, don’t expect to be comfortable unless they’re in daycare or with a nanny. Comfort is the stuff of dreams. My biggest fantasy has nothing to do with a woman. It’s a pitch-black, silent room, a cool breeze, and a California King bed with a firm mattress. Reality is lugging around a gigantic stroller, my raw thighs chafing, a river running through my ass cleavage.
The quixotic quest for comfort leads new parents to dress the way we do: maternal leggings, paternal sweatpants. This is precisely what we swore we wouldn’t wear in public when we were in our 20s and didn’t recognize the garments as parental uniforms.
With this much stuff to do, inevitably, Nola and I learned some things. Over time, we developed systems for caring for our daughters. I’d share some of these systems, but parents’ choices are not that interesting unless they’re horrible. Besides, I don’t want to share our secrets because Nola and I are competing with other parents who have their own secrets. This is terrible but true – as much as we try to not think of this as a race, we do.
Our kids are bigger, but their kid walks already.
But our kids say more words.
“Is ‘ba ba ba’ a word?”
“Yes! Count it!”
Our winning systems got us through Una and Esme’s first year. Then, a week after our children celebrated their first birthday by slathering chocolate cake all over their adorable little faces, I got the whole family kicked out of our home. How? By yelling back at the angry, unreasonable old lady downstairs, who promptly reported us to the landlord, just as she had threatened to do.
Some might say “Don’t scream at the ancient, frail downstairs neighbor when you’re subletting illegally,” and those people might technically be right, but I live by the sword and I die by the sword. Whatever. She was mean and she yelled first.
And our new place is bigger and better than our old place, so there. We Kalishes keep on rolling.
We’ve rolled through more than one year together now, Nola, Una, Esme, and I. Throughout the year Nola and I have said things we never thought we’d say. Ridiculous things, like “Daddy’s going toilet now,” and “Want some milky-poo? Or some na-na?”
There have been countless conversations about who defecated when–even more than before I had children.
We’ve spent our days lugging and schlepping until we thought we could lug or schlep no more. We’ve passed out, jumped up, changed diapers half-asleep, passed out, then jumped up again when the babies did their business in the brand-new diapers.
In exchange, we’ve gotten to spend the last 13 months with two magical little girls.
Many of the commentators on the street, especially the ones who have twins themselves, say “It gets easier.” It has to, right? We made it through the wilderness. (Somehow we made it through-ooh-ooooh.) Now my wife and I just have to raise two functional, intelligent, self-sufficient, well-adjusted, caring human beings. Hell, we did the first year. All that’s left is a lifetime. That’s nothing.