Oh, what a year this has been

My sweet baby boys are nearing their first birthday. In a couple days they will stuff their chubby little hands into some homemade banana cake with cream cheese frosting. We will sing and clap and they will make us all smile.

Our babies. Leo Thomas and Callum Robert.

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Photos by Ashley Daigle

They are so much more than twins. They are two distinct individuals with unique personalities. Callum is vocal and active, with strong, burly legs. Leo, often sucking two fingers, has a quieter disposition and so content to play on his own. His squeal of delight is contagious. Holding them both at once, while they nuzzle my lap or my neck, makes my heart swell out of my chest. They are each their own person, but they give us double the love – and double the challenge.

By some fluke of nature or by some grand plan, we were given these twins. Was it a test of strength and will? Was it a gift of pure joy? However it came about, we had to find a way. We had to wrap our minds, our family of three, around how-do-we-do-this, how do we become a family of five? How do we care for two tiny, helpless human beings at the same time — while our oldest, then three, still needed us so?

I grew those babies, and that was hard enough. And we were so, so fortunate to see them enter this world at full-term. Pink and beautiful. They latched on and joined me on a journey of struggle, which eventually became somewhat pleasant, in breastfeeding. Hardest thing I’ve ever done, but happy to do this one small thing for my sons.

They slept, sometimes. I probably stressed about it less than I did with Silas. Partly because I was too tired to care. I let them cry a little, and they slept and actually napped better than their older brother ever did.

Still, it was oh-so-difficult the first few weeks and months of their lives. For the first few weeks, they would only sleep on my chest. I remember falling asleep while my mom talked to me. I felt a new kind of tired. Like, absolutely wrecked. And yet, three little humans still needed almost non-stop.

I can handle being tired, but what got me some days was when I felt time and control over my world and my home was spinning away on me, and it was so hard to enjoy my little boys. It’s hard to take in the moments when you aren’t feeling great. I found that when I started getting out, exercising and of course, when I got more sleep, it really helped. Trying not to sweat the small stuff. And thank goodness for everyone who helped us during those early days.

Seeing any baby grow and change is pure magic. But there is something special about twins. They see each other – smile, laugh, head butt, steal toys and food – like no other babies do. They shared a womb for nine months, a crib for a few more months, and a room for longer. They are happy and relaxed in each other’s presence.

There were many days a few months ago when I wondered how I could possibly get through this year. I’m sure Mark felt the same. But one hour, one day at a time, we did it. We really did it!

The sun always came up tomorrow, and there was always more coffee to drink, more snuggles to steal.

And I will keep snuggling these beautiful boys, all three of them, until they won’t let me anymore.

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Organized chaos: how the gym makes me feel more human

From the moment I peel open my eyes in the morning until those sweet first seconds of uninterrupted sleep at night, I am running on all cylinders. I am like a mommy octopus, feeding babies with two tentacles, wiping butts with the other, cleaning up, grocery shopping, you name it.

And hey, I may have six-month-old twins and a three-year-old but I am not so different from many busy mothers out there, and I know it. In fact in the past few months I have gained even more mad respect for all the stay-at-home moms I know who toil through these emotional and tedious and beautiful days for years on end.

I am also blessed to have loads of help, with part-time childcare for Silas, and my husband’s shifts allowing him to be home during the day.

But for me, one of the hardest things about maternity leave is when the fatigue and the feeling of being needed 24/7 wears you down so that you stop caring. You stop caring about what you look like, what you are putting in your mouth, and how much you are exercising. Two babies crying frantically can raise anyone’s blood pressure. Add a “Mooooommmm! I need you!” and burning supper, and you suddenly find yourself mindlessly pounding Skittles or Decadent cookies and pouring yet another coffee.

Getting myself on a workout routine and eating better has absolutely changed how I respect and care for my body and my health. It has been about so much more than losing pounds or inches, it has been about taking control over one aspect of my life when most others are truly dictated by my children and their ever-evolving needs.

Over the past three weeks, I have cut all the garbage and “treats” I had started to lean on way too much to get through the day (and night). Filling up on veggies, protein, complex carbs and healthy fats has provided me with stable energy throughout the day, and I rarely feel ravenous!

Taking part in HIIT workouts at 3rd Degree Training gets me out of the house and into an energy-filled environment where it’s impossible not to leave in a better mood. By attending just four classes a week since late February, I am already starting to feel stronger. I’m excited to see how much progress I make by the end of this eight-week bootcamp.

My goal is not to be skinny; it’s to be a happy, healthy mom better able to take the ups and downs of parenting three young children. I love myself more when I feel healthy and strong. These days with my three little ones are fleeting and I don’t want to waste them in a fog, if I can help it.

It takes a village

For many days and nights, the thought haunted me: I could not handle taking care of my three children on my own.

Holding one tender newborn in your arms can feel daunting, let alone two. But I had to figure out how to do it, while tending to our three-year-old, Silas — who was not only needy but, predictably, acting out now that the twins were home.

After the babies no longer needed top-ups at about 2.5 weeks old, I was on my own with breastfeeding. This meant my body was regulating exactly how much our twins needed. It also meant cluster-feeding. Translation: I was on the couch with those babes almost non-stop. If they fell asleep on my nursing pillow, I could rarely manage to transition them to a bassinet or crib without waking them. So I spent most of my time either holding or nursing babies.

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Catching some 💤 #momlife #twins #callumandleo

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It was both beautiful and exhausting. Simultaneously joyful and dreadful.

As much as the twins needed me, Silas needed me too.

His world had just been turned upside down. His mom, dad, even his beloved Nanny became engrossed in tending to those babies. He was left trying to make sense of this new reality. All while be urged to “hurry up,” “eat your breakfast,” “get in the bath,” “go watch your videos,” “go to sleep” and “DON’T WAKE THE BABIES.” No wonder he decided to fight back once in awhile.

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I used to be the one who would read Silas several stories at bedtime followed by a discussion about “our day,” and cuddling until he fell asleep. Now, with Mark back to work in the evenings, I could no longer do this without babies literally strapped to me in a twin baby carrier — a back-breaking thing that brought some semblance of sanity to our evenings for almost three months.

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Survival mode.

I felt sad that I could no longer provide the same level of attention to Silas. I wanted to hold him close but I also needed others to step in to care for him so I could focus on my newborns. It was hard for Silas to adjust to all these new realities but I had to hope that eventually, he would be better for it.

I am not sure how we would have survived the period from early October until Christmas without the steady stream of loved ones who arrived on our doorsteps: my mom and dad, my sister and my aunt, all from Ontario, all staying one week at a time. My mother-in-law, who would come evenings when Mark went to work to help get Silas to bed, even taking him trick-or-treating on Halloween and putting food in my mouth when my hands were full. Friends who made us freezer meals and friends who took Silas for the afternoon. Our child-care provider and our community preschool.

Holding and rocking babies, making nutritious food and giving us love and support went a long way. But late at night, it was all me. All three kids needed me, and I was having trouble figuring out how to handle it.

The problem was that since I couldn’t manage to peel the babies off me at night, I found the easiest way to sleep was to just lean back on the couch and close my eyes. It wasn’t good quality sleep but it was enough to get by. Silas knew I was out in the living room and he kept waking in the night, crying for me. I was stuck and if I tried to move, I would either wake the babies or disrupt their feeding. Even though Mark tried to escort Silas back to bed, he would fight it, cry, tantrum. Exhausted, we gave up, and let Silas pass out next to me on the couch. The next morning would be rough because we would all be tired, and barely make it through the day. I would put Silas to bed praying for a better night.

I was a human pacifier for all three kids. Silas needed to hold my hand to fall asleep and if he woke up, he needed it again. I knew I needed to teach Silas to fall asleep on his own, but the thought of going through “sleep training” with a 3.5-year-old sounded like hell on wheels.

I remember dropping Silas off at his child care provider one morning and asking her, with tears in my eyes, if she ever dealt with these problems with her boys. I was just trying to hold it together, but it was still so hard.

Eventually we did figure it out, using a series of sticker charts, a timer on my phone for cuddles, weekly donut rewards and lots of praise, but Silas is still a finicky sleeper and I think it’s just the way he is. I try not to beat myself up for not laying the groundwork for better sleep habits before the twins were born, because I believe Silas was going through so many changes that all this may have happened anyway.

Thank goodness for grandparents who take our little guy for sleepovers every once in a while, allowing us a little extra shut eye and fewer renditions of musical beds.

Early days with twins

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Leo and Callum

One of the things that seemed most daunting during my twin pregnancy was breastfeeding. I knew I wanted to at least attempt to nurse both of my babies. I had spoken to enough brave, strong women who had done so and encouraged me. I had been through the wringer with Silas, but I had learned a thing or two since then, so I knew I wanted to give it a go.

Breastfeeding two newborns is not for the faint of heart. The first night in hospital was fine because I was still on a high. The second night, the babies wanted to cluster feed — eat non-stop. That is difficult with one baby, but with two, for lack of a better word, it’s hell. I didn’t sleep, and although the babies were latching pretty well, I was in a lot of discomfort.

Sometime in the middle of that second night, nurses weighed the babies and found they had each lost nearly 10 per cent of their body weight. While this is quite common, it was enough that I needed to consider supplementing them with formula.

The nurse asked me if I had anything against using formula. I said no, so she brought some in the room and showed me how to get started. She also arranged for a lactation nurse to come visit us to help us figure out a new system.

Although this made perfect sense at the time, emotionally, I was crestfallen. As soon as the nurse left the room, I fell into a mess of tears. I tried to explain it to Mark as though it was like someone told me I wasn’t able to care for my babies on my own. Of course that wasn’t true, but it’s how I felt.

Of course, at that moment, I was going through the typical low feelings many mothers feel during the days after childbirth, known as the baby blues. You go from riding the wave of bringing a new life into the world, to feeling like the worst mother on earth, all in the matter of hours. Or at least that’s how I felt. Times two.

My family doctor, Dr. Ross, who is wonderful, came to visit me and the babies around the same time as my OB, Dr. Patterson. I was crying and couldn’t control it, and I felt so embarrassed. I felt disappointed that I, an experienced mother, could not produce enough on my own to feed my babies. While it’s true that there wasn’t enough for those little baby boys in the early hours, I didn’t realize that with help, I could produce enough — and I would! All I thought was my hopes of feeding the boys on my own had been quashed.

I know this all may seem silly. Just give them a bottle already! But it’s hard to explain how important this was to me. It almost felt primal.

Luckily, we had Rayma from the Saint John Regional Hospital’s Mother/Baby Clinic. She came to my room and noticed tears were at the surface. “This is your sad day,” she said. She allowed me to have it. Then I would be on my way to bringing two healthy baby boys home!

Rayma showed us a way to nurse and bottle feed each baby followed by a pumping session for me. It was rigorous and needed to be done every three hours. But with another person, it could all be done under an hour. And the best part was, with formula filling their tummies, that babies would sleep well between feedings.

Formula was all new to me, but my husband and mother-in-law actually loved being a part of their early feedings. For weeks, we meticulously kept track of how much they ate, how long they nursed, what time and what was in their diapers. We returned to the mother/baby clinic every day for a week following the twins’ births. While it was annoying to pack up the babies and go to the hospital every day, it was so much better than staying there. Rayma patiently answered all my questions about the pump, which intimidated me. We adjusted the babies’ top-ups daily based on how much they were gaining and taking from me.

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One day I remember leaving the clinic and Rayma was on the phone providing updates to Dr. Ross. My doctor must have asked Rayma if we handling everything OK as parents. Rayma, “They’re rocking this thing, being twin parents.” It made me smile, even though I was still scared as hell, and I think Mark was too.

Eventually we were allowed to bring a scale home, so we could continue daily weigh-ins without having to trek to the hospital. It became a numbers game. We could figured out exactly how much a baby took in breastmilk by weighing them before and after a feeding, then determine exactly how much they needed in formula. Then, I would pump to continue to build supply. Every time I pumped, I would set aside that milk for the next feeding.

Rayma was my lifeline. She called to check in every day, even on Thanksgiving weekend. I looked forward to her call. She made me feel secure in what we were doing, and that my babies were going to be OK.

Eventually the top-ups were all breast-milk instead of formula. That’s when we knew we didn’t need the formula anymore.

“Go home and feed your babies,” Rayma said. It was music to my ears. Especially the idea of not having to be hooked up to a machine every three hours. But I was cautious. I knew it meant we would be off our three-hour schedule, and back to “on-demand” since we would no longer know exactly how much they getting during a nursing. That also meant cluster-feeding would likely be back in the picture (so exhausting!).

Through the same period, Rayma was encouraging me to tandem feed whenever possible. This means feeding the babies at the same time, holding one under each arm like a football, resting on a big pillow surrounding my body. It was intense, but the most efficient way to go. Tandem feeding on demand meant I was back to taking on feeding my babies on my own, which was great, but also exhausting.

So our breastfeeding journey was over the first hump. The babies were gaining well, healthy and at home. While it was surely a beautiful thing, my stress didn’t waver. We still had a three-year-old to entertain and care for, and I still wasn’t sleeping much. I knew it would get better, but it was still so hard. Especially when I couldn’t get the babies to sleep other than on my chest, and Silas starting waking in the night demanding my attention, refusing to settle down with his father.

Yes, we were in the thick of it, still. Parenting 2.0.

 

 

The Farm Family Grows

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Connie Clark reading her new children’s book to her great-nieces, Joy and Claire Cunningham, in the same kitchen she grew up in.

It’s next to impossible for my aunt, Connie Clark, to have a conversation with her 85-year-old mother without reminiscing about farm life on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.  

Whether it was dragging eight kids out to a dirt field to pick stones before spring planting, another cow breaking a fence, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through their country kitchen, or the little hands that carried splashing pails of sap through the bush during maple syrup season, the memories are nearly endless, Clark says.

“I don’t know how I did it with all eight of you kids,” her mother, Hester Cunningham, always says.

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Hester Cunningham

One day, after a long chat with her mom, Clark, an early childhood educator in Lions Head, Ont., started writing down some of those memories.

“It was a dark Saturday morning, the hydro was off, and I was still in my housecoat,” says Clark, a mother of three and grandmother of six. “I just started putting together some rhymes. Within about 20 minutes, I had written a little ditty.”

That ditty is now in the form of her first children’s book: The Farm Family Grows, with illustrations by artist Stuart Burgess.

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Printed locally by the Tobermory Press, the self-published book came off the presses just in time for Cunningham’s 85th birthday in December. Clark was also able to present the book as a gift to her seven siblings, their children and grandchildren — a family that has now grown to include 96 people.

“I was just so thrilled,” she says. “I wanted to give the book to my family before it was released publicly because it was about them, for them.”

The book turned out to be one of the most special Christmas gifts ever, bringing tears to the eyes of her siblings and joy to the faces of her many young great-nieces and nephews.

“I wanted to make it fun and light, but it still moves me when I read it to the children, because every page I turn to I feel like I could tell them a story.”

The counting book starts out with a pair in love, Hester and Tom Cunningham, who died in 2008. The rhythmic story follows the growth of their family from one to eight children, and the farming adventures they experience along the way.  

“They raised pigs and cows, and tapped maple trees. Along came Jimmy, to make a family of three,” the story reads.

Clark says one of many fond memories includes being a little girl, gathering sap out in the bush.

“I remember Dad — he was such a quiet, gentle man — he’d wink at you and get you to taste the sap. My feet were freezing and my hands were in wool mittens, it was cold but the sun was out and it was exciting,” Clark says. “I’d step into the snow and fall to my waist. I remember the smell of the old snowmobile, and as spring got closer, the ruts from the tractor driving through the mud.”

Clark says she always feels so blessed to have been raised in a rural setting, learning and growing while spending so much time outdoors. She hopes to pass on the same values to her own children and grandchildren.

Now she has the chance to share those fond memories with the next generation of kindergarten children in the classroom — the same cohort who gave her story a test run long before it went to print.

“I took it to school and used it as a counting activity,” she says. “I would read the story and pull out little Fisher-Price people every time I read the next verse and the farm family grew. The children were really involved — they loved it.”

Clark says after reading countless children’s books as part of her job, she always had ambitions of writing one herself. After getting the stamp of approval from her class, she eventually approached Burgess, who agreed to illustrate the book.

She later spoke to staff at the Tobermory Press, who helped her take the next step in making her dream a reality.

The book is now available at McKenzie’s Pharmacy in Wiarton and Peninsula Pharmacy in Lions Head. Copies are also available for order by contacting Clark at wcclark@amtelecom.net.

Not only is the story a personal one, but Clark believes it reflects an important part of rural Canada and its history — one that is slowly fading.

“I am very proud of my heritage,” she says. “We all can’t be farmers anymore and no one can make a living off a few hundred acres like my father did. It’s the true Canadian lifestyle we’re losing.”

Penned in 2012, Clark laughs the tale is already out of date.

“One by one, they expanded more and more. Now the family of 10 has reached 84!” the last page reads. Clark says that number has now reached 96 — all people who have roots in rural Ontario farm life.

“To anyone else, it’s a children’s book,” she says. “But to us, it’s a big piece of our lives.”

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The Cunningham family farm in Adamsville, Ont, where Hester and Tom raised their eight children, and where son Ron Cunningham (my dad) continues to farm with his sons today.

Thank you, Mom.

Motherhood. It’s just so huge. There is so much love around that word: mom.

And motherhood is not something you can pin down. It is every day. In every breath.

It is my life now, and I love it. It is waking up when you want to sleep longer, and cleaning, rocking, feeding and laughing. It is exhausting and wonderful.

All of this, I learned from my mom. Our home was always filled with her love and warmth. She was always attentive and encouraging. She let us make our own mistakes. She wouldn’t let me quit piano lessons. She trusted me and showed me how to care for my younger siblings.

She is the most selfless person I know.

She is so beautiful.

And I can only hope to be half the mother she is.

Thank you, Mom.

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Baby sleep, and how I can’t seem to figure it out

Silas, 6.5 months old, having too much fun to sleep!
Silas, 6.5 months old, having too much fun to sleep!

It’s really hard not to stress about baby sleep, especially as a first-time mom not getting optimal sleep yourself.

In fact, it always seems like the prime topic of conversation among my other mom friends. And I’m sure it will be for some time. I remember the chorus of parents saying “get sleep now while you can!” in the final weeks of my pregnancy. Now I know why…

Baby sleep is like a puzzle, because every baby is different. And as soon as you think you’ve got it figured out, they change.

For us, the big change came around the start of December when Silas was five months old. He was teething and drooling like crazy. He was also probably in a developmental leap, learning about cause and effect and realizing when mom was not next to him.

For background: This baby’s sleep patterns has been like a yo-yo. At first, he would only sleep at night while being held. Then he would sleep in his crib but wake up the typical three to five times a night. Then… seemingly out of nowhere, he started to sleep through the night – those magical words every parent longs to hear.

But just as quickly as it started, it stopped. At five months, just as Christmas was starting to ramp up, Silas couldn’t seem to settle for the night. He would fall asleep, but after 20 minutes to an hour, be awake again. It was very tricky to get him down to sleep again. Since we were busy through the holidays, we ended up keeping him awake till we all went to bed (in the same bed). It’s a sleeping arrangement that leaves no one with a good night’s rest.

Just as I thought we were getting back into a good pattern, we had a horrible evening two nights ago. Silas seemed genuinely afraid to fall asleep.

Now I just assume I will spend most evenings going in and out of his room 100 times, rocking him in the dark. Or, laying on the bed next to him for a few hours until I can oh-so-carefully transfer him to his crib, where he might sleep a few hours before waking, and everything starts all over again.

It can be difficult when you’re in the trenches. You try to enjoy the baby snuggles, the baby’s heaviness and peacefulness. But you also worry about helping them to sleep on their own.

Yes, there are the so-called cry-it-out methods, but we’re not ready for that. I also worry that he’s crying because he’s hungry (from not eating enough in the daytime), teething or in pain. And I have a suspicion it wouldn’t work anyway.

All I know is that everything seems to be a phase, and I hope this is one we figure out soon.