This was originally published by MOST member Riley D. Smith in Supertwins magazine’s Father’s Forum.
For several years now I have wanted to put into writing what my personal journey as the father of a wonderful set of quadruplets has entailed. It seems that I just never really had the time, or, more likely, had not known just what I really wanted to convey. I actually did, over the course of the last eight years, sit down several times and start to write it all down, but my attempts (for whatever reason) quickly became either blocked or rapidly got bogged down in the details of this pretty hectic life we lead! Finally I decided that what I really wanted to talk about was what I personally went through, how I coped (or didn’t cope so well) with the numerous issues we were confronted with, and how I might help some of the other fathers (and fathers-to-be) meet and perhaps understand these challenges. Along the way, I was hoping that I might even learn a bit more about myself and the “how and whys” that life as the father of higher-order multiples has changed me and the way I view myself as well as life in general.
As those of you who have taken this journey know, there is much I am leaving out. I don’t believe that a person can really cover the myriad of things which the parents of multiples go through in anything less than a novel, but as I said, my goals here are pretty specific. Although I am certainly not wanting to “scare” new parents (or soon to be ones!), or add any worries to an often already full plate, I am going to be very open and honest about what I wish I had known prior to having multiples, how I felt after we did, and how I feel at the current point in my life. I also wish to offer a disclaimer early in this article. Moms: I am not trying to leave you out. I am not trying to downplay your importance. You all hold a place of unbelievably high esteem in my eyes. Mothers of high order multiples are, I honestly believe, chosen by a higher power because of very special qualities they possess that are required from an HOM mother. However, the perspective of a father is, as I have discovered, so very different from that of a mother in so many ways.
My wife Cindi and I had tried for nearly six years to have children. We dealt with a couple of heart wrenching miscarriages along the way. As a husband and partner, I never realized just how traumatic, both physically and emotionally, a miscarriage could be for a woman. Although I obviously had a fairly important role in the creation of that small life, the attachment I felt was far removed from that which my wife had. When we lost two, although I was certainly disappointed, I did not have the deep emotional distress that I felt I should have had. There were feelings of guilt attached when I saw just how deeply my wife, my partner, was hurt, and I didn’t feel the same level of loss. The only thing I really could do at that time was be there for her, to listen when she wanted to talk, and to support her when she didn’t want to discuss things. Encouraging that line of communication was important for me since it let me actually do something.
After transferring from Dallas to Jacksonville, we finally found a great endocrinologist who was able to diagnose and treat internal problems that were causing the miscarriages. After she healed from the surgery (there were some cysts on the outside of her ovaries) we began the process of trying to get pregnant again. Man, did we ever! I never knew that there could be so many different ways to try to get pregnant. Schedules, counting days, consulting calendars, doing dances around a bonfire in the driveway while wearing pampers and waving a baby bottle! OK, maybe that is a bit far fetched. We didn’t have to wear pampers. Just regular underwear. Gents, you will find out (or you already did) that there are times when it is just the time! It was not always the most romantic or frankly, exciting, but if you want to add spontaneity to your private life then this is the way! There were times when (ladies…please hold the laughter) I felt like I was just the sperm donor in this whole conceptual process. Then again, I suppose there were times when that is what I actually was! Ha. And, as I finally realized, that’s not a bad thing. For those couples that are having troubles getting pregnant, just accept the fact that at times, a “process” is exactly what it will be. We finally resorted to medications that I had to give her (via injection…boy wasn’t that fun) to help produce healthy eggs. I never really liked doing that because (a) I personally can’t stand needles, (b) I never liked to hurt my wife, and (c) I am not a nurse or a doctor. But it worked, although I can’t vouch for my proficiency as a medical assistant! After the first cycle (where we had five eggs and none took) I had accepted that we were not going to have children. Cindi was nearly there as well, I think. She had been through so many mental ups and downs, not to mention the physical stress, that she was just about worn out. Not to mention that neither of us was getting any younger (I was 40 and she was 38). But, after some more discussion we decided to give it just one more try.
I remember the day that we went to see our doctor so clearly. We were excited because we had done an at home test and were pretty sure she was pregnant again. As we both watched him perform the ultrasound I asked, “So doc, do you see a heartbeat?” and he replied,” Yes, actually I do. And here is a second. It looks like here is a third. And I believe there just might be another one, but it is a bit to hard to see right now.” Stunned silence. Triplets? Maybe quadruplets? You have got to be kidding right? Nope. Not kidding at all. I don’t remember if we had our initial discussion about what to expect and what options might be at our disposal that day or if it was at the next visit. I do remember leaving the office with a really funny grin and not really knowing quite what to make of the news. We went to a nice open air restaurant on the river (we were in Jacksonville, FL) and had lunch. We had to tell somebody, so we told the waitress. I had a beer. I then had another. I was feeling joy, relief, anticipation, and a little fright. We had not expected to be told we might be having quads. I don’t think we ever really discussed it much (if at all) prior to or during the treatments and stuff. One thing that really needs to be an open discussion when seeking fertility treatment (prior to getting pregnant) is the very real possibility of having higher-order multiples as a result. Included in this discussion, both with your spouse and her doctor, should be at least an examination of the possible complications that could arise due to a very probable early birth. It might or might not affect your decision to continue but I believe it should at least be addressed.
Cindi was put on bed-rest right around her 16th week. She had a cerclage performed right around week 20 due to some early labor issues and was admitted to the hospital for good just days after that. I was in the Navy at the time working some pretty typical 10-12 hour days. As soon as I got off work, I shot down to the hospital to spend time with my wife. After staying at the hospital until it was time for her to go to bed (make sure she gets enough rest!) the routine was to head home, slap together some dinner and hit the rack. One thing that a husband should do during this time is to make absolutely certain that his employer and/or any other pertinent people know how critical this time is for both your spouse and yourself. You really have to be able to drop what you are doing at a moments notice if you get a phone call saying, “Something’s come up, we need you down here right away.” I found that even in the military (or maybe it is “especially” in the military) my superiors were more than supportive and helped in whatever way possible. Of course all jobs have company rules and regulations, but they need to be aware of how this pregnancy differs from most normal singleton births. If it would help, of course you can have your doctor contact them.
October 28, 1998. Cindi had been having problems since the previous day with preterm labor. They had her on magnesium sulfate (and maybe some other medications…I can’t remember) to try and control the contractions. Not pleasant stuff. The “mag-sulfate” had her feeling really hot…sweat was just rolling off. We could not keep the room cold enough for her. By mid-day on the 28th things had settled down a little although the contractions had not completely stopped. Towards evening I had been at the hospital pretty much all day, so around 9:30 pm I asked our doctor if he thought I had time to go home for a shower and change. He told me now was as good as it was going to be so off I went. I had just left the drive through window at a Wendy’s on my way home when my cell phone rang. It was Cindi and all she could say is “Get back down here, we are having the babies.” We made it to the 25th week of her pregnancy. Not what we had hoped for, but the babies were not giving us much choice. I was pretty scared but did not let that show because that is the last thing Cindi needed at that point. I honestly did not know what to expect or quite how to feel as they wheeled her off to the delivery room. I do think that my training in the Navy paid off some that night in that I was able to remain (mostly) calm under a pretty stressful situation. That was my wife and children they just took out of here! I quickly donned my surgical gown, cap, and mask and headed to delivery. When I arrived she had been prepped and they were getting ready to start the emergency C-section.
The babies were delivered in short order after that. I believe it was just after 11:15 pm when they arrived into this world about 2 minutes apart. Faith was followed by Hope, Taylor (boy), and Lauren. When the nurses quickly held them in front of our eyes before rushing them off to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) my emotions were still in turmoil. I was proud. I was scared and maybe a little lost. I just did not quite know what to feel. It had all happened so very quickly. After the babies were delivered I went back to wait on Cindi in her room. It was not long before she was returned and the staff had set me up with a roll away cot. One of the nurses brought some Polaroid pictures taken right after the babies were all in the NICU and stabilized. I remember thinking that they reminded me of little featherless birds, and to be honest, they were not much bigger than that. They looked so tiny and so helpless. I am still filled with such mixed emotions when I look at those pictures today because we (and they) just did not know the long days, weeks, and months that were ahead. Even though, as I listen to them playing in the background right now while I type, I can smile knowing we are all still here and healthy.
We spent the next four months living one day at a time. Sometimes we were not even looking further than one or two hours ahead. We were told of the “roller coaster” ride that our stay in the NICU would be. I always have thought that was a very safe and generic way to describe life in the NICU (and I think everyone gets told that same thing) but I suppose it was as close as you can get if you have not experienced it. Gains and triumphs were often measured in one or two of the babies gaining a gram of body weight (yes, we dealt in grams not pounds). Sometimes “good” was classified by an increase in their feedings by one or two cc’s. Many days were considered “good days” just because nothing bad happened and we “held what we had.” It always seemed (to a father on the outside at least) that the bad came more often and in larger packages. My wife and I kept a NICU diary in a spiral notebook the entire time we were there. It served several purposes. First, it helped us keep track of what all was going on, who people were, phone numbers, and other vital data. It also provided an outlet for our emotions while we sat quietly in a rocker next to one child or another (the four were usually not next to each other). We were so overloaded with information from one day to the next that without that notebook we would have been lost. It became our confessional, our personal repository of thoughts and emotions.
The NICU staff was very generous with letting us stay close and we learned how to stay out of the way and “live quietly.” Dinging chimes, the soft hissing of ventilators, the hushed conversations of nurses going about the job of watching over these precious lives around the clock; all of this became our very existence. One of the hardest things as a new father was to accept that for now, there was absolutely nothing I could do to physically or mentally help my little babies. Of course I was doing everything I could for Cindi and that helped some. But when it came to those little sub-two pound babies I was helpless. Not a familiar or a good place for me and very nearly impossible to accept. What I discovered was that by arming myself with information on every little (or big) thing that happened I could at least understand and have some gauge to judge things by as they occurred. Comfort for me at least came hand in hand with knowledge. During our quadruplets stay in the NICU we were confronted with a large portion of the things that could befall them. Staph infections, BPD (chronic lung disease), various eye issues (ROP) that resulted in our son losing his sight and the girls all having varying degrees of vision issues, CP to varying degrees (although we have been extremely fortunate that it did not manifest in serious mental defects), brain bleeds, our son developing NEC and having to have major abdominal surgery the very day he finally made it to two pounds in body weight. I am sure there is some stuff that eludes me at the moment.
The reason I bring it up is not to scare anyone but to show just how much these little preemie babies can overcome. We stood by week after week wishing there was something that my wife and I could do. About all we had at our disposal was prayer and we did a lot of that. We had just joined a wonderful church and the help we received from them was immeasurable. Our pastor was a strong, God filled woman named Barbara Riddle. Her support and guidance often came when we were at our lowest. One of the initial reactions (and quite a natural one I believe) that most people have when they see these tiny little babies surrounded by machines and tubes is one of shock. It is hard to hide (and not offensive to the parents…. we understand!) those emotions. But the first thing that Barbara said, with honesty, awe and reverence beaming through was, “Why, just look at those little miracles of God.” I don’t believe any of us could have said it any better. She saw past the doctors and nurses, past the ventilators and feeding tubes, past the lights treating for jaundice. What that great woman saw, what she focused on was four precious little children. What she saw was life. And I believe that she helped my wife and me to begin gaining the courage to start looking a little further ahead. She helped us take those first tentative steps towards trusting in the future.
The girls all came home within a week of each other after three months in the NICU. Taylor came home a little less than one month later. We had two on heart monitors and one of those on oxygen as well. Our nights and days were filled with feedings every three hours, changing diapers constantly, monitoring health, doctor visits, on and on. Our days and nights ran together. We were constantly sleep deprived. But the babies kept getting better and bigger. When they were one, they all (except Taylor) had to get glasses. That was an adventure in itself…trying to keep glasses on three 1-year-old babies. We were extremely cautious about anyone that was around them. Their immune systems were so fragile. For the first year we lived with them pretty much in isolation. Taylor had another eye surgery (cryo surgery this time) to no avail. His retinas had just sustained too much damage due to the ROP and were nearly entirely detached. It took me awhile to accept that my little boy was blind. He was also quite a bit delayed developmentally compared to his sisters due to all of the complications that he had endured in his short life. I spent many hours just looking at him, thinking of so many things he and I would not be able to do that “normal” fathers and sons get to do. My relationship with my own father was a great one…I worked for him for many years. He taught me to drive, to fish, how to smack a baseball, and how to shoe a horse (he was a true cowboy). We went camping together. But as the years continued to roll on I realized that the things that a father really teaches and shares with his son were things that don’t require sight. My dad taught me honesty, the importance of hard work, ethics, and just how to be a man. Taylor will have all of that and more. Our relationship is really not much different than any other father and son. I know that the most important thing is that Taylor is still here. He is a healthy, rambunctious 8-year-old that loves to wrestle, listen to the radio, and (for whatever reason)…listen to the daily news on the television. We adults could take a lesson in the simplicity of true happiness from him.
Over the course of the six years that followed we transferred twice, I retired from the Navy in 2005, the children started preschool, then kindergarten, and then regular elementary school all on time. We have had constant therapy of one sort or another for them since they came home from the hospital. There has been a couple more eye surgeries, two have had major hip surgery to correct some physical problems resulting from the CP, there have been casts, colds, bronchitis with regular breathing treatments when winter arrives (due to Lauren’s bouts with BPD), and the standard list of bumps and bruises that any family with kids have. There have been some very bleak hours. My marriage has had its share of bumps and bruises along the way as well (as most do). But she and I signed on “for better or worse” and we know that at the end of the day we are still going to be here for each other. And just as importantly, for our quadruplets.
However, there have been birthday parties, five a.m. Christmas morning risings filled with a wonderment that only a child can bring. My daughter Faith learning to ride a bike (her mother taught her!). Hope taking her first tentative steps at the age of nearly four after only being able to “walk” on her knees until then due to CP. Lauren looking at a “V” of geese flying by in the crisp fall air and asking, “Why do they fly in the shape of a letter?” Taylor deciphering all those dots on the Braille paper and reading to me. Dozens of masterpieces drawn/ colored/created just for us. Those late night moments that only a parent can steal when you check on the kids before going to bed. When the whole house is silent (finally) and you just stare at their angelic faces so pure while lost in their dreams. The great times far outnumber the bad. And if that is not enough, all I have to do is look at four 8-year-olds who have beaten all the odds. When I look at those little “preemie” diapers and then look at my kids now, it is hard to even picture how they started their lives. Those little featherless birds.
Yes, there are times when you just want to quit. But you won’t. When you just want to walk out the door and take a month off without telling a soul where you are going. But you don’t. When your wife (or husband) would rather toss you out on your …. er……ear. But you never would. It is then that you have got to remember that it is OK to let someone know how you feel. Holding everything inside is not the way to solve any problems. Especially in the demanding world of higher-order multiple birth parenting. These are the times that maybe starting a personal journal should be undertaken. Or giving your wife a Mom’s Day off (maybe even asking her out on a date!). There is one other thing that I have to work very hard at, and at which I am still not very good. Although there are times when it happens. Most often very late at night, when the house is still and I am the only one awake. Dads, here it is. My one great pearl of wisdom. Don’t ever forget that when the chips are down, when your back is against the wall, and you just need to release some emotion. Because believe me. There will be times. Remember. No matter what anyone says, it’s OK to cry.