Life lessons from an unexpected high risk pregnancy
11 MINUTE READ
“Have you been on any programs? Because there’s three of them.”
This is how the ultrasound technician broke the news that I was expecting triplets.
I had, in fact, naively taken one round of Clomid. The doctor had seen me twice and done a few tests that found nothing wrong, before prescribing. He assured me that the possibility of multiples was slim, and literature around the drug ambiguous.
There was no ambiguity on the photo I took home to show my husband.
At the next ultrasound, a technician I had never met, excitedly told me she had a copy of the photo on the inside door of her work locker.
My reproductive system had become a curiosity.
And with curiosity came questions. Lots of them. “Wow! How did you cope?” “Are they identical?” (“No, we have two boys and a girl.”) “Yes, but they look alike. Aren’t they identical?” (“No, they’re siblings.”) “What’s it like to be a triplet?” “Were you huge?” “Did you breastfeed?”
I actually don’t mind answering most of the questions. I understand that it’s not an everyday thing. “I’ve never met anyone who had triplets before” is a fair enough comment. The one question I have always struggled with, though, is anything to do with why we had triplets. “Was it natural?” “Did you do IVF?” “Does it run in the family?” I have a bunch of different answers (all true, but with different levels of revelation). I’ve never wanted to make people feel bad about their curiosity by telling them it’s none of their business. But it really is quite a personal question. Sometimes I just inform people that my husband is an identical twin – true, but a cheeky out.
“I’ve never wanted to make people feel bad about their curiosity by telling them it’s none of their business.”
I think my uneasiness comes from feelings of foolishness. Why did I take a drug that had a notoriety for causing multiples? I feel like I should have known better, should have gotten a second opinion, done my research. Had I tried to force God’s hand to give me children on my timeline, instead of his? Was this God teaching me a lesson? Of course, the answer is no. And yes. God uses everything for my good to make me more like Jesus. Everything in life is a lesson.
Then I realised that behind the curiosity was an attitude that triplets are a curse. (I have never thought that.) But comments like “You’ve birthed a litter” and “You poor thing” have an innate negativity. Even the doctor who was to potentially deliver them, and keen for a natural process, had likened their impending birth to “pulling rabbits out of a hat”. (They weren’t, and he didn’t, but it did make me feel like a freak show.) And the doctor who prescribed Clomid in the first place, euphemistically offered “selective reduction” as a solution to the “problem” he had helped create. I told him that I was a Christian and that this wasn’t an option we would consider. Every human life is precious from the moment of conception. His concern was evident when, during consult number 3, he described my pregnancy to a colleague over the phone as a “high risk geriatric pregnancy”. I had just turned 30 and felt instantly older.
As I became aware of the risks of having a triplet pregnancy – premature birth, cerebral palsy, death… a level of fear set in. We prayed as we checked the weeks off during the pregnancy in milestones. More likely to survive. Less likely to have cerebral palsy. More developed lungs. Less time in NICU. God was very kind to us during those days. We were stressed, but calm. Every week was a blessing.
Our babies were born just shy of 32 weeks. During contractions, I was informed that they didn’t have any ventilators available in NSW, so, most likely one baby would be sent to Melbourne, one to Brisbane and one to Canberra, if needed. God’s kindness reigned again, when a ventilator was found where we were. Only one of the babies was ventilated – for about a week. One had CPAP for the same amount of time and one had healthy lungs and let everyone know it. I appreciated a visit from the presiding professor telling me that I had three healthy babies who would have no long-term consequences from their prematurity. They spent five weeks in NICU before being discharged. I was terrified of bringing them home. I thought I’d never sleep again.
If ever there was a good place to have triplets, we lived there. My husband was in his fourth year at theological college and we were blessed to live on campus. That community was amazing! We had dinner supplied for seven months. There were rosters for bath time, hanging the washing out, feeding babies once solids were started. We had breakfast at a cafe once a week while someone came and watched the babies. Our church pitched in and bought us a year’s supply of nappies. We didn’t even know all the people who showed such kindness to us. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to sing the praises of God’s people when I’ve been asked that “How did you cope?” question over the years.
My darling mum (the sole grandparent) was excited and horrified that I was having triplets. She came to stay for six months and poured her love out on us. She truly was “Super-Nan” and she insisted on keeping me company during the early morning feeds, and getting to know her grandchildren. Life was a happy blur of feed, change, sleep, repeat.
When the babies were 10 months old, we moved away from that amazing support network to a regional city. We made some lovely friends at our new church. But as I’ve reflected on the years that ensued, I’ve realised that I was pretty cranky most of the time. It was with sadness that I listened to one of the kids tell me recently that a psychologist had commented that it must have been hard for them to find safety as a child, having parents under such a high degree of prolonged stress, due to raising triplets.
“…it must have been hard for them to find safety as a child, having parents under such a high degree of prolonged stress, due to raising triplets.”
In fact, as the years have gone on, and I’ve learned more about attachment theory, I’ve had a growing awareness of the toll of being born premature and spending those early weeks in NICU, not to mention have the divided attention of sleep deprived and stressed parents. No-one has the perfect childhood, but my guilt kicks in when I think that these things could have been lessened or avoided entirely if I hadn’t taken Clomid all those years ago. Even so, it’s not what I would have chosen, but I wouldn’t choose anything else.
The professor in my hospital room back in 1999 mustn’t have known of the subtle issues that might arise in the future. In the years that followed, we learnt that oxygen deprivation at birth could cause executive function deficit and ADHD. The science of epigenetics revealed that the risk of anxiety and depression were more likely than the general population for premmie babies. Our naturally highly sensitive kids were possibly more sensitive due to being wrenched from the womb and placed in a loud and sterile environment, unable to experience human touch. Not to mention the trauma of being separated from the individuals that had been such an intimate part of their in-utero months – each other. We spent considerable time going to paediatricians and other doctors to minimize the effects of prematurity. I’ve always been thankful for a sympathetic GP and a generous public health system that has provided us with a wealth of interventions over the years. We’ve had programs coming out our ears and prayers answered in abundance.
Keeping three toddlers safe was a big job. They all knocked themselves out at least once. I used to carry hyperfix with me everywhere in case someone fell over and cut something open. When we went to the shopping centre as a family (why did we do that?) we’d stop off and buy three helium balloons and attach one to each child so we could see where they were if they ran ahead in the crowd. Being different personalities, one of them loved this, one didn’t comment and one cried at the fact that it kept floating “up”. Despite this, we still managed to lose one of them occasionally and God very kindly kept them safe until they were found again. Once, this involved following the trail of match box cars to the trolley where the rest of the booty had been optimistically deposited.
We’ve always marvelled at how unique and different our kids are from each other. I remember just having had an OT do an assessment and explaining to me that I had one child who sought out stimulation and another who sought to reduce it. I was watching them sit on the lounge together that afternoon. Stimulation child was “whooping” at the top of his lungs whilst “unstimulation” had his fingers in his ears trying to drown out the noise. It was a great opportunity to teach them how to be kind and understanding towards each other in their difference.
When I was pregnant I knew a young woman who had been born one of quads. It was a great lesson for me to hear from her that she had always felt like a quarter of a person and felt she had been viewed as a group, rather than an individual. I was determined to make sure my children were seen as persons, rather than thirds. We never referred to them as “The triplets”, but always by their names. They always had their own birthday cake, bringing us to the brink of diabetes every January. We began the tradition of “special days” where each child got a day off school with a parent to do one on one activities. One of these days fell on the same day our fourth child was born (no we weren’t scared of having triplets again) and needed some tweaking to fit it in. I loved those days. They were always different and tailored to each child’s interests. One of them taught me how to dance to High 5, one wanted to make animals out of pom-poms. One wanted to swim at the beach in July. Sometimes we used to go to the PlayStation demo at Big W and play Super Mario until they asked us to leave. We were into cheap fun in those days.
Despite these and other efforts, I think that they were occasionally viewed as a group during their school years. Sometimes there was presumption about what each of them was like, if another was already known. Once nicknamed “the three ones”, people didn’t feel they could invite one, and not three, for play dates or to birthday parties. And three was a bit too much to handle. I appreciated the honesty of friends who would openly discuss this with me and ask for input. On the flip side, we had all-in birthday parties (I couldn’t manage three in a row when they were little) that were a blast. Massive water fight afternoons and a carnival theme are a couple of highlights that come to mind.
The teenage years were hard, as issues from prematurity came to the fore. Mental health became a concern on a number of occasions and our stress levels were higher than ever. Still, God provided and brought us all through some difficult years. We celebrated each child’s 18th birthday separately, inviting adults that had been significant to them over the years to share the joys of knowing them, and pray for their future.
“The teenage years were hard, as issues from prematurity came to the fore. Mental health became a concern on a number of occasions and our stress levels were higher than ever.”
As an aside, our youngest child is about to turn 18 and we will celebrate in the same way with him. As I’ve been writing this, he told me that he’s lived in a constant state of FOMO being 5 years younger than all his siblings and trying to keep up with them. Sigh.
Now 22 and choosing their own paths, I’m so proud of these guys. God has uniquely blessed each of them with a creative and persevering spirit. All three of them have had their struggles (and to different degrees, still do). But they are each maturing into compassionate and resilient adults, making their way in the world. We have an artist, a writer and a film maker, who may end up being poor in the eyes of the world, but, we pray, will be rich in the eyes of God.
In all of these experiences, through the ups and downs that family life has brought, one Scripture, in particular, comes to mind:
Psalm 127: 3-5a
Children are a heritage from the LORD,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
I may have been a geriatric when my children were born, but God has blessed me as they keep my heart young and my life full.
Donna Allen Donna Allen is married to Dave and mum to Joel, Hugh, Hannah and Matt. She works as a chaplain in aged care and enjoys her friends and finding ways for her garden and two Border Collies to coexist.