By Allison Berryhill
Harrison is nursing, content in his ownership of me. He is wholly mine, the center of my world. Anne Morrow Lindbergh called it “the magical closed circle…two people existing only for each other.” Breastfeeding mothers since the beginning of time have felt the sensation of completeness while nursing–two halves to a whole. But there is more to my story, an unexpected dimension, because nursing at my other breast, equally secure in his exclusive rights to his mother, is Harrison’s twin brother, Stuart. “Do you nurse both twins at the same time?” the dental assistant asked as she reclined my chair and clipped the bib over my huge postpartum bust. Her question rang with the same chipper professionalism as “Do you floss after brushing?” Perhaps it was her timing, as the dentist walked in. Or maybe it was my prone position, the blue bib perched lightly atop the subject of our discussion. It was too easy to imagine my babies suckling away at my economy-sized chest. I felt a wave of unexpected embarrassment as I stammered yes, sometimes I do. What I didn’t tell her was that nursing twins is frequently a circus, at times an altar, occasionally a battle zone, always a reunion.
I have since answered the dental assistant’s question many times. There is something about nursing two babes at once that stirs curiosity. As my husband sweetly put it one evening when we were all fairly new at this, breasts and blankets and babies a jumble on my lap, “That doesn’t look very natural.”
The physicality of breastfeeding twins does take some getting used to. Early on, the positioning was the tough part. One boy would slide off his nipple while I was getting his brother latched on. Their loose, wiggling bodies gave me the sensation of balancing six-pound water balloons. Breastfeeding two babies requires a lot of nighttime nursing, and figuring out ways to get the three of us hooked up while lying down has taken some ingenuity. When my babies were still small, I could swaddle them, then stack them like bricks, with a pillow serving as mortar, facing me as I lay on my side. Top baby liked this best.
As they grew, our nighttime nursing arrangements became increasingly complicated. If I positioned my babies between my husband and me, with their feet toward each other and their heads at opposite ends of the bed, I could flip back and forth–head to headboard, head to footboard–nursing whoever seemed hungriest throughout the night. Is there any way, I asked myself in the middle of our topsy-turvy nights, that I could explain this to an expectant mother of twins and convince her that breastfeeding is a good idea?
The fact is that caring for two infants at once is not the ideal. Any method of feeding twins is going to be more involved than feeding one baby. Breastfeeding is no exception. But my greatest worry as I faced the prospect of twins was not the physical logistics so much as the emotional question: How could I fall in love with two babies at once? Establishing a relationship with one baby is all-consuming. What is left when all is taken? Surely one of my boys would not get his share. Wanting both babies desperately, I wished my twins could have been singletons, to receive the gift of mother-to-himself that each baby deserves.
If breastfeeding is important for bonding with one baby, I found it imperative for bonding with twins. It was not possible for me to get to the end of an afternoon and wonder if I had held each boy; nursing assured it. It was my security against the temptation to confuse priorities in the hectic swirl of our days. As a nursing mother, I was required, every few hours, to sit down, pull my boys onto my lap, and hold them against my skin.
It was while breastfeeding that I first discovered Stuart’s wrinkle of a dimple on the right side of his smile. It was while stroking their downy heads as they suckled that I began to see the subtle differences in the slant of their foreheads, the whisper of veins across an eyelid, that help me distinguish between my identical boys. In the dark I could sometimes tell who was who by their nursing styles. Stuart was casual, almost careless; Harrison nursed with the single-mindedness of an IRS auditor. Breastfeeding allowed–it demanded–that I spend hours gazing at my babies, drinking them in, confirming our sense of ourselves as a unit of three, while solidifying our dual relationships as well.
After the first six months or so, my boys usually nursed individually. Unless they were both very tired and hungry (and ready to get down to business), nursing two rambunctious babies simultaneously would often turn into a free-for-all. I was amazed at my twins’ tolerance of each other’s curious poking and jabbing, blurring any boundaries of personal space. But gentle overtures might escalate to wrestling and tumbling without warning. My shoulders ached as I pried Stuart’s foot out of Harrison’s face. One evening, bitten once too often, I’d had enough. “Weaned! And weaned!” I proclaimed as I plucked each boy from my chest. I had been climbed on and tugged at and gnawed on past the point of human endurance. I handed each boy a fistful of Cheerios and started supper for the rest of the family. For 45 minutes I lived the life of a non-nursing mother. And at 6:15 we sat down to nurse again.
Breastfeeding doesn’t guarantee good mothering, nor does bottle-feeding preclude it. But nursing served as the central activity of my babies’ attachments, both to me and to each other. It was our fount of unification, where we learned how to belong to one another. It served as the physical expression of our entwined relationships, our interdependence. I belonged to each baby; I belonged to both babies: two pairs and a trio. And when Harrison and Stuart were both sleepy, nursing intently, I could hear the rhythm of their swallows, in synchrony. With their hands clasped, their feet together, they formed a heart shape across my lap, a magical closed circle of three.
Allison Berryhill is a wife, mother of six, and freelance writer based in Iowa. Her personal essays and articles have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Des Moines Register, and Better Homes and Gardens. She writes a regular humor column for Twins magazine.