Aylesford, New York
Hanna Bright puts little Teddy in his baby swing on the front porch and sits down to read her novel. It's going to get hot later, but in the morning it's nice here on the porch, out of the sun. She notices two cars parked at the house across the street and a couple of doors down. The house is for sale; someone must be looking to buy.
She soon becomes engrossed in her novel, but looks up a little while later when she senses movement across the street. A heavy-set man in a suit whom Hanna recognizes as the real estate agent is in the driveway talking to a woman. Hanna watches them, idly wondering if she is a serious buyer. The house hasn't been on the market for long, and this is a desirable neighborhood; she imagines it will sell fairly quickly. She hopes it goes to a young family-she wants lots of friends for Teddy, who's six months old. There's a pair of four-month-old twins with a really nice mom-Stephanie-directly across the street whom Hanna's become friends with. This woman looks to be alone-no husband or kids in tow.
With a final handshake, the woman turns away from the agent and heads for her parked car. As she reaches the street, she looks over at Hanna on her porch and stops. Then, to Hanna's surprise, she crosses the street and walks toward her house. What does she want? Hanna wonders.
"Hi there," the woman calls out in a friendly voice.
Hanna can see that she's probably in her early thirties and is certainly attractive. She has shoulder-length blond hair, a good figure, and enviable posture. After a quick glance to check that Teddy is content, Hanna stands up and walks down her porch steps. "Hi, can I help you?" she asks politely.
"I was just looking at the house across the street," the other woman says, making her way up the drive. Hanna walks over to meet her, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. "Do you mind if I ask you a bit about the neighborhood?" the woman asks.
So, she's a serious buyer then, Hanna thinks, a bit disappointed. "Sure," she says.
"My husband and I are interested in this area-is it a good place to raise children, do you think?" She nods toward the baby swing on the porch and smiles. "I see you've got a baby."
Hanna warms to her then and describes the neighborhood with enthusiasm. Maybe the woman is already pregnant, but not showing yet.
At the end of their chat, the woman thanks her and walks back to her car. Hanna realizes she didn't get her name. Oh well. Plenty of time for that if she does buy the house. Something niggles at the back of her mind, but she doesn't know what. Teddy starts to cry then, and as she lifts the baby out of the swing, she realizes what it is. The woman hadn't been wearing a wedding ring. No matter-lots of people have families without getting married these days, although she'd mentioned a husband. But who looks at a house without her spouse?
Stephanie Kilgour has put the twins down in their cribs upstairs for their morning nap. Now she sits down on the living-room sofa for a moment and leans back and closes her eyes. SheÕs so tired that she doesnÕt know how she actually manages to get up when the babies start crying for her at 6:00 a.m. Nothing-and no one-could have prepared her for this.
She relaxes for a moment, letting her exhausted body sink into the cushions, her head heavy against the pillows. She lets herself go slack. If she's not careful, she might fall asleep just sitting here. And that wouldn't be good-the twins only go down for about half an hour in the morning, and the difficulty of rousing herself after such a short time won't be worth it. She'll get her own rest when the twins have their longer nap in the afternoon.
Her baby girls, Emma and Jackie, are the best thing that ever happened to her. But she had no idea it would be this hard. Had no sense of the toll it would take on her body, and on her mind too. The effects of protracted sleeplessness are catching up with her. People who knew she was expecting twins-she hadn't made a secret of it-had joked with her about how much more difficult twins would be. She'd merely smiled, delighted with her pregnancy, and was even secretly smug at how good she felt, how easily her body was handling the changes.
Stephanie had always been a little bit of a control freak, and she'd spent a lot of time on her birth plan, wanting everything to go just right. She wasn't so complacent that she thought she could do it without drugs, but she wanted to have a normal birth, even with twins.
Once they were in the labor suite, though, the plan soon went out the window. She'd ended up with two babies in distress and an emergency C-section. Instead of soothing music, low lighting, and controlled breathing, it was all beeping machines, dropping heart rates, swarming medical staff, and being wheeled hurriedly into the operating room. She remembers her husband, Patrick, holding her hand, his face white with fear. What she remembers most, besides her panic as the babies were whisked away to intensive care before she could even hold them, was the convulsive shivering and nausea after the birth. Fortunately, both babies had been fine-healthy and a good weight.
It was hard not to feel like a failure in those early days, struggling with sleeplessness, the pain of the C-section recovery, and the frustration of breastfeeding two babies, seemingly all the time. . . . Those first couple of weeks after the twins were born were the most difficult of Stephanie's life. The babies soon began nursing well, but she often thinks about how stressful the C-section had been-for everyone. We don't always get to choose, she reminds herself. The important thing is that she and the girls were healthy. Now, Stephanie is astonished at how naive she was before the birth. Control is an illusion.
And then, the colic . . . the babies didn't sleep well from the outset, and then around the age of six weeks, it got worse. They cried and fussed and wouldn't go down to sleep. Her pediatrician, Dr. Prashad, told her that it would probably ease at about twelve weeks. That was more than a month ago, and it hasn't gotten any better. These days Stephanie-and Patrick-seem to be operating on pure willpower. They haven't had a good night's sleep since the twins were born. The fussing starts in the early evening and lasts until about one or two in the morning. Then they're up again at six. Brutal is the only way to describe it.
Now, Stephanie's breathing slows and in mere moments, she's out cold.
Suddenly a piercing sound-a loud, insistent beep, beep, beep-wakes Stephanie with a start. She's disoriented, her thoughts muddled. It's the smoke alarm-there's smoke in the house-she can smell it. She lurches to her feet, eyes wide with fear. It's coming from the kitchen. Momentarily paralyzed, she thinks of the twins upstairs, then she runs to the kitchen. There's a frying pan on the stove, and it has erupted into flames. For a moment she stands in the doorway, stupefied, because she can't remember putting anything on the stove. Quickly, she enters the kitchen and reaches frantically for the fire extinguisher in an upper cupboard near the stove. In her panic, she can't remember how to work it. She turns to face the fire and the flames are higher now, licking toward the ceiling, but the ceiling hasn't yet caught fire. She can hear the whooshing sound of the flames, and the heat is almost unbearable. Her heart is pounding frantically as she has a moment of indecision. Should she stay here, wasting precious seconds trying to work the extinguisher, or run upstairs to get the babies? Would she even have enough time to get them out? Should she call 911 first? Then all at once she knows what to do-she wrenches open a bottom cupboard and grabs a metal lid, then slides it onto the frying pan. Deprived of oxygen, the fire is smothered and quickly goes out. She grabs an oven mitt and reaches over and turns off the burner.
Stephanie sags with relief. The room smells of smoke. Her eyes are stinging and tearing up, and she leans back against the counter, shaking now that the danger is past. The alarm is still shrieking, but it's not the one in the kitchen that's going off, she realizes-it's the alarm upstairs. She turns on the fan over the stove, opens the window above the kitchen sink, and runs upstairs. She has to grab the footstool out of the bedroom to reach the screeching smoke detector in the hall. She finally disables it with shaking hands. In the sudden silence, she can hear the babies wailing, startled awake by the alarm.
She hurries into the nursery, whispering shhh, shhhh. . . . She picks each baby up, one at a time, soothing them, kissing their soft cheeks. They won't go back to sleep now; they're too riled up. She carries Jackie and then Emma downstairs and places them both in the playpen in the living room with some of their favorite toys, and returns to the kitchen.
The air is clear but it still reeks of smoke. She stares at the frying pan sitting on the burner as if she's still frightened of it. She grabs the oven mitt and lifts the lid. It looks like there was just oil in the pan. Was she going to fry something? She can't remember. How could she have put a pan on the stove and forgotten about it and let herself fall asleep? She thinks with horror about how quickly the fire might have spread.
Still shaken, she returns to the living room and sits on the rug with her back against the sofa, cuddling both babies to her chest. She kisses the tops of their soft heads and strokes their cheeks, holding back tears. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry . . ." she whispers.
She must remember to get Patrick to look at the smoke detector in the kitchen when he gets home tonight.
On Monday, just after lunch, Stephanie stares blankly at the wall in the pediatrician's office, fatigue glazing her eyes. The previous night had been particularly difficult. The twins are still buckled, squirming, into their double stroller; it's the easiest way to contain them. She hopes the doctor won't be too much longer. One thing Stephanie's learned as a first-time mother is that timing is everything. She hopes to keep the girls awake long enough to make it through the appointment, and then they can fall asleep in the car on the short drive home. She'll carry them inside for their afternoon nap, still asleep, one after the other, leaving one alone in the locked car while she carries the other in. . . .
The door opens abruptly and Dr. Prashad smiles at her. Stephanie knows that she's a mother, too, that she understands what it's like, although she doesn't have twins.
"How are we doing?" the doctor asks sympathetically.
She might well ask. This is an unscheduled appointment, but it's not Stephanie's first unannounced visit like this.
"Not great," Stephanie admits, giving a wobbly smile. She can feel her eyes immediately welling up. Shit. Why is it that the slightest bit of sympathy can bring her to tears these days? It's sleep deprivation, that's what it is, pure and simple. If she doesn't start getting more sleep soon, she's going to lose it.
She glances away from the doctor to her babies.
Dr. Prashad looks at her with concern. "Colic is really tough," she says. "I can't imagine what it must be like with two at once."
"It's hell," Stephanie admits with a weak smile. "They're both awake crying from about seven p.m. until one or two in the morning. Every. Single. Day. Patrick and I have to put them in the swings and listen to them crying just to bolt down some supper. And then we carry them in circles around the living room for hours." She rubs her eyes with her hands. "I've read all the parenting books, we've tried everything, but nothing works." She hesitates. "Are you sure there's nothing wrong with them? I mean . . . could we have missed something?" She doesn't want to accuse the doctor, but . . .
The doctor sighs and says, "They're healthy babies. They've been fully checked. I know it doesn't make it any easier that we don't know much about colic, but I promise it will pass."
Stephanie steels herself and asks, "But when? How much longer is this going to go on?" She can hear the exhaustion-even despair-in her voice and hates herself for it. She sounds so whiny, like she can't cope. She can't stand women like that. She has always been someone who copes, and copes well.
The doctor shakes her head. "There's no way to know, I'm afraid. It usually stops pretty suddenly. They'll outgrow it. Like I told you before, most babies get over it at around three months, but it can last up to around nine months. I've never heard of a two-year-old with colic."
Stephanie can't bring herself to tell the doctor what prompted this sudden visit. She'd almost burned the house down while her husband was at work. Patrick had been beside himself when she told him. She can't even remember putting the pan on the stove. What if Dr. Prashad thinks she's an unfit mother?
She doesn't know why she bothered coming. Of course the doctor wouldn't be able to help-Dr. Prashad gave her the same spiel the last time she visited. "Am I doing something wrong?" Stephanie asks, rather hopelessly.
"No. Not by the sound of it. You've told me what your routines are. You're doing everything right. You're just unlucky, that's all." Dr. Prashad's voice softens. "This will pass." Stephanie nods wearily. "The important thing is that you take care of yourself during this time. Is there anyone who can help out? Can you get a sitter or a family member to watch the babies for a night-or even for a few hours-so you can get some sleep?"
"We tried that. But I couldn't sleep through the noise." The sound of her babies wailing in distress creates a visceral reaction in her that she simply can't ignore. She glances at them now. The twins are fidgeting less in their stroller, starting to look drowsy. She has to leave soon so she can get them home and have a nap herself. The two or three hours she gets in the afternoon and the four hours between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. are all she can count on. Most nights she sends her protesting, sheepish husband to bed by midnight and tries to handle the girls on her own so that he is able to go to work and function the next day.