Today, I saw a mum out with her young baby. She was alone, pushing her little one in a pram through a busy shop, and had probably left the house with the expectation of a pleasant, enjoyable hour out of the house. But her baby was screaming, and I mean LOUDLY. Nothing she did would appease her infant and I could tell she was close to the end of her tether. She was exhausted, overwhelmed and fighting back tears. This was probably not an isolated incident for her. She had probably endured screaming in the car all the way there. She had probably been up half the night feeding and cradling her baby, desperate for a moment’s rest. It had probably taken all the energy she had left simply to get dressed and leave the house. My heart ached for her and the look of sheer desperation, exhaustion and despair in her face felt uncomfortably familiar. I know that feeling very well.
Maternity leave with my twin baby boys was the toughest experience I’ve ever endured. For the first six months of their lives, they screamed. And I don’t just mean screaming when hungry or tired, I mean screaming all the time. Non-stop. For no apparent reason. As the weeks and months of constant sobbing rolled by, I grew desperate, trapped in an endless pit of baby grumpiness. I lost count of the times I asked doctors, health visitors and other mums about the constant crying, each time hoping they’d have the answers. Instead, the experts would conclude there was nothing medically wrong with them. ‘It’s colic,’ they’d answer confidently; their young digestive systems getting used to the outside world. Well, I’m calling bullshit on colic. It’s a made-up diagnosis to fob-off desperate, exhausted parents. It’s simply another way of saying ‘I have absolutely no earthly idea why your baby is crying and there’s nothing I can do for you.’ I’d be met with sympathetic nods and assurances that it would get better. It didn’t.
I tried everything: Infacol, Colief, Gripe Water; all were useless and little more than placebos. You’ll find that family members from a certain generation are obsessed with Gripe Water, ignoring you when you try to explain that, when they used it on little Johnny 30 odd years ago, it was laced with alcohol and essentially sedated them. While very appealing, us modern parents can’t get away with that and now Gripe Water is little more than…well, water.
“What was the point in even trying? I was hanging on by the flimsiest of threads.”
There was no magic potion. Week after week of constant screaming would roll by and I would tell myself it would suddenly all slot into place and I’d have two sleepy angels. It didn’t. I was terrified and too exhausted, both physically and mentally, to leave the house. The times I did were a disaster and only made me feel more desperate, more alone, and more like a failure and I’d leg it home to the sound of screaming in stereo. Most twin mums are familiar with the sudden ‘celebrity’ that comes with having two babies – everyone wants to comment on them, to stop and stare. Well, if your twin boys happen to be screaming like banshees, the attention is tenfold. Some make comments (‘double trouble!’ ‘You’ve got your hands full!’, ‘Rather you than me!’), while others simply stared in a mixture of horror and deep relief that it wasn’t them. Their glares burned into my soul and their comments only made me feel more desperate. On one occasion I drove half hour to a shopping centre, enduring screams in the car, only to rush home after ten miserable minutes. All I had to show for it was a shitty Greggs cheese and bean bake. What was the point in even trying? I was hanging on by the flimsiest of threads.
In my previous life, I was calm, in control. But here I was on mat leave with two inconsolable babies who had reduced me to a complete mess – I felt like I was one screaming fit away from losing my mind. I was alone at home with the babies every day and the isolation was crippling. My four-year-old daughter spent her time either with her grandparents or at nursery when it became clear that I simply couldn’t look after all three of them at the same time.
“I felt like I was in the eye of a tornado being swept up and thrown around. Everyone wanted and needed something from me…”
The four-month mark was the toughest stage (heard of the four-month sleep-regression, anyone??) One particularly tough day, the boys hadn’t stopped screaming since my husband left for work. My daughter hadn’t been picked up by her grandmother yet, so I had all three on my hands. My little girl had weed herself, needed changing and a puddle of wee was waiting to be cleaned up. What do you do with two screaming, needy babies while you’re doing this? My urine-soaked daughter needing sorting and both boys were sobbing uncontrollably. I felt like I was in the eye of a tornado being swept up and thrown around. Everyone wanted and needed something from me but I just couldn’t meet their needs. I was still in my pyjamas – looking and feeling like a mess. With each scream I felt my despair growing deeper and deeper. I just couldn’t do it. My mother-in-law turned up and saw the bedlam unfolding, and with two babies screaming and a toddler running around half soaked in wee, it must have been a chaotic sight. She laughed and said ‘I don’t know how you cope.’ How could I tell her that I couldn’t cope, and that I was close to falling down? I felt ashamed, that I had failed on a most basic level of being able to care for my beautiful children, who I loved more than anything in the world. So, I fought back the tears, joined in with the joke and let her go on her way.
“I wanted to run away and leave this mess to someone else. Could it be that I actually couldn’t do this?”
The screaming continued. I tried everything; individual breast feeds, tandem breastfeeds formula in a bottle. All were futile. I tried to hold both boys at the same time as they screamed, which only added to their hysteria. I tried to get them to sleep but, naturally, one couldn’t fall asleep while the other one screamed the house down. So, at last I just stopped. I physically fell down. Finally letting go and allowing my tears to flow, I’d never felt as low as I did in that moment. I wanted to run away and leave this mess to someone else. Could it be that I actually couldn’t do this? Would I have to return to work and entrust the boys to people more qualified and able than me? Slumped on the floor in despair, I hit rock bottom. So I did the only thing I could do in that moment and called my husband – my best friend and my rock. Sobbing down the phone to him I said I couldn’t do it anymore. He understood instantly. He knew how hard it was having struggled with the boys alongside me. Within ten minutes, he’d left his own demanding job to be by my side. His mum came round too and suddenly I had the support I needed. But again, I felt shame. Did my husband’s colleagues know why he’d left work? Do they think I can’t cope? That I’m incapable, or a bad mother? None of that matters my husband assured me, everyone understands how hard it is to care for multiples and no one was judging me. But no one was a harsher critic of myself than I was. I felt such an intense shame in struggling, like it was something to hide from the world. All I wanted was to be able to manage by myself, be a one woman army, but it was just impossible.
The reality was that, with two new-borns, I was almost completely housebound and had no social outlet. I felt incredibly vulnerable allowing people to see me at my worst, to see my calm exterior slip and be replaced by someone who wasn’t managing. I didn’t want to have to call in help, no matter how well-intentioned it was – I wanted to be in a bubble with just me and the babies. I would tell people I was going insane and they’d laugh. It was no joke. Caring for multiples often feels like the hardest thing in the world and you’ll never really know the reality of being a twin parent until you’ve lived it. My Facebook page was full of proud pictures of me with my beautiful children (on a day where we’re all washed and presentable, of course), but it masked the reality. What you didn’t see is me getting to 3pm before realising I hadn’t eaten. That, at least three times that day, I’d uttered the words ‘is it possible to give one back?’, not really sure if I was joking or not. That I’d break down in tears because I just couldn’t figure out why one baby was crying or the other wouldn’t feed from me, and that yet again, I was doing something wrong or simply wasn’t good enough.
“my husband and I were trying to do it alone. It was time to turn to our village and finally accept help from family and friends”
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but my husband and I were trying to do it alone. It was time to turn to our village and finally accept help from family and friends. With their help, I was able to get through those really tough early months and, slowly but surely, it became steadily easier – not easy, but easier. Now, taking the boys out by myself has become routine and not something to be feared. As a parent, you’ll find many different tactics and tricks (crisps/books/toys – anything to distract them from screaming!) to make it possible. It might seem like nothing to a passer-by, but taking them out alone for any length of time had seemed unachievable to me once. But, what seems impossible today may not be impossible tomorrow.
Yes, my house is a mess and I can’t keep up with the ironing, my hair hasn’t been washed and I rely on a heavy dose of industrial-strength under-eye concealer. But it doesn’t matter because my children are happy and loved. Parenting is not a science. There is no test that you pass or fail. Simply doing the best for your kids is all you can do and having a baby – whether that’s one, two or more – is one of the biggest adjustments a woman will go through. I got through it and lived to tell the tale and I’m stronger for it. To the desperate mum with a screaming baby: you will find strength you never knew you had and you will get through this. Accept help wherever you can and know that it will get better. I’ve got this, and so do you.
Mums could make multitasking an Olympic sport. We can breastfeed both babies while online shopping; we can entertain not one but TWO teething babies for hours on end when all they want to do is cry and bury their heads in your chest. We go to the ends of the earth to ensure their elder sibling doesn’t feel left out and always feels included and loved. We play/read/sing/dance when we haze zero energy left to spare. The problem is we’re usually too busy dwelling on what we’re not doing, or what we’re failing at, to recognise that we’re knocking it out of the park on a daily basis. We’ve got the toughest, most challenging job there is. If you’re a mum or dad going through a rough patch, do me a favour; give yourself a break. Pour yourself a glass of wine and repeat after me: ‘I’ve got this.’