I’ll never forget our first night together. The details are hazy, but I chalk that up to extreme sleep deprivation. I mean, I definitely know that I was awake all night, on our first night together. And I’m pretty sure that I never sat down. Except for when I was feeding a baby. Which was almost all night. Okay, so I guess I was sitting down for most of the night, that first night. Feeding babies. That much I know for sure. Everything else is a blur.
Our babies were 16 days old on our family’s first night together. Up until then, the strict rules of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) had required us to scrub in every time we wanted to see our babies and to put on sterile, yellow-striped gowns before we could hold them. For the first few days, their little faces were hidden behind bulky CPAP tubes and under black bilirubin masks, both of which prevented us from even seeing what our tiny new humans looked like (so much for waiting to name them until we saw them!). Feedings—at first via nasogastric (NG) tubes that snaked through their noses and down into their bellies, and later with itty-bitty, slow-flow bottles—were supervised by neonatal nurses, as were diaper changes and sponge baths and everything else. The whole time the babies were in the NICU, my husband and I felt more like visitors than parents.
And who could blame us? It’s hard to bond when you don’t even know when you’ll be able to bring someone home. Ever since the (earth-shaking) day when we first saw those four heartbeats on the ultrasound screen (yes, we were surprised; no, we didn’t do IVF), the doctors had told us that NICU stays for quadruplets—if they survived—could last for weeks, months, maybe even a year or more, depending on what challenges the babies faced once they were born. And they said that the severity of those challenges would depend heavily on how long I could keep them cooking (that’s the technical term, right?).
Like any expectant mother, I wanted our family’s first night together to be as close as possible to my due date—even if I was carrying a litter, as many people liked to call it. So, with my (shell-shocked) husband’s support, I did everything that my doctors instructed me to do. They told us that my first goal was to get to at least 24 weeks (the threshold for viability outside the womb). The next was 28 weeks (when viability exponentially increases), and then every week after that, all the way up to 34 weeks (which they said was pretty much as “full term” as a shorty like me can get), would be a bonus.
Reaching these milestones was easier said than done. My first big step, after turning down the recommendation to “reduce” the pregnancy to just one or two babies (a legitimately difficult decision for some, but a no-brainer for us), was to undergo major surgery at 12 weeks in order to permanently “block the exit” with a transabdominal cerclage—an unusual procedure that required my surgeon to actually take out my uterus full of babies and set it on top of my prone body as he worked. Six weeks later, I stopped going in to work and went on home bed rest. I drank tons of water, learned how to install a terbutaline pump in my thigh to ward off preterm labor, hooked myself up to a contraction monitor several times a day so that the home nurses could keep a remote eye on me, and ate as much as possible (the surprisingly unachievable recommended daily goal for a quadruplet pregnancy? 4,000 calories). I did everything that the doctors told me to do, but it wasn’t enough. At just 25 weeks, the home nurses told me to go to the emergency room because I was having a dangerous number of contractions.
My husband and I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first night in the hospital would be our last night together until the babies were born. As soon as I was admitted to the high-risk labor and delivery unit, I was given steroid injections (to hasten the babies’ lung development) and hooked up to an IV of magnesium sulfate, a round-the-clock drip that was intended to minimize contractions by keeping my uterus relaxed. Unfortunately, the mag (that’s what the cool kids call it) also made me feel so unbearably hot that—despite the fact that it was freezing outside—I wanted the heater turned off and the windows open. After spending just one night in my new digs, my husband determined that he just couldn’t sleep in such a cold environment, which meant that my second night in the hospital was the first of many nights alone—alone with the four very tiny, very active people in my belly. Lying awake in my hospital bed, night after sleepless night, it was scary to think that these babies (whom I got to see every single day when the residents rolled in with their ultrasound machine) could be born at any time, way too early to survive without serious medical problems. Perhaps too early to survive at all.
Leaving the hospital for our first night together two months after I initially went in was just as terrifying, although in an entirely different way. Our babies, born just five days shy of my 34-week goal, were completely healthy and whole (praise God!), but there were just so many of them! As we prepared to leave the NICU for the last time, it felt like it took me forever to get each of them dressed in their preemie-sized going-home outfits (amazingly, still too big for them), and then it seemed like another lifetime passed before my husband succeeded in strapping their tiny bodies snugly into their infant carriers. Clearly, we were totally unprepared to take care of these four little people—but then is anyone ever really ready to bring home quadruplets?!
Once we were finally all ready to go, I remember slowly making our way downstairs in an elevator crammed to the max with nurses and babies. Our caravan paused so that we could pose for pictures in front of the fireplace in the lobby, smiling and answering random strangers’ questions, before parading our new family of six into our brand-new minivan. What a spectacle we created! The only thing missing was a red carpet. My in-laws asked us, “Do you want us to come help you tonight?” No, we said. We wanted to see what it was like to take care of these babies all by ourselves.
We wanted to feel like real parents for the first time, on our first night together, but we very quickly learned that there’s nothing like suddenly being solely responsible for four poop-and-pee machines that cry to be fed every three hours to make you feel like … well, not really like parents at all. Maybe more like nurses. Nurses at the beginning of an 18-year shift. Later, when the babies weren’t so tiny and we were more experienced, one person would be able to feed two (and sometimes even three) at once, but on that first night, with each of us feeding and burping only one baby at a time, the entire process of feeding four preemies (who tired quickly and had only just learned to suck) took a full two hours. This left the two of us with about an hour to change diapers (so. many. diapers), wash bottles, prepare more formula, do loads of laundry, take out the trash, use the bathroom, and maybe—maybe—eat a bite before it was time to do it all over again. Any illusions about heeding the oft-repeated advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” were shattered. There was no time to even feel sleepy, let alone to actually sleep!
I have no idea which baby we fed first (perhaps the one that was crying the loudest?), where they slept (cribs or car seats?), or how many diapers we went through that first night (gotta be at least a dozen). Yet, somehow, all six of us survived. (Literally. We kept four babies alive all by ourselves! Yay for us!) The next morning, the first thing I did was to call in reinforcements so that my husband and I could crash. My closest cousin (herself the mother of a nursing infant and a preschooler at the time) asked no questions and dropped everything to come with her mom and spell us for a few hours (bless them!). I slept while my husband ran errands, and before we knew it, a dear friend had organized the rest of our family, friends, church people, coworkers, acquaintances, friends of friends, and more to rescue us from ever having to pull another solo all-nighter with our four very small, very high-maintenance roommates (but that’s a whole other blog post).
Do I wish I could remember more specifics about that first night, when my husband and I proved to ourselves that we could do it alone? Yes! But over the past decade, I’ve come to realize that the details aren’t what’s important in this story. What really matters is that our family’s first night together even happened at all. And that’s something I’ll never forget.
Suzy Thompson survived the baby years and is now a homeschooling mom of four fourth-graders. She lives in Houston with her husband, kids, and parents in a multi-generational, increasingly bilingual, busting-at-the-seams home.
In her spare time, she holds down a part-time job at a local hospital, freelance edits for friends, and subs in the kids’ ministry at church. She is addicted to the Beatles and Diet Coke.
For a glimpse at the early years with quads, hop on over to her long-neglected blog at four-by-two.blogspot.com.