Shazaf Fatima Haider
The following is an excerpt from an essay first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 6 (2022). Excerpt curated by digital guest editor Taha Kehar.
As a parent of twins and a little girl, I am often asked how I manage. I’m not sure, to be honest. All I know is that through the process, I’ve gained a lot of weight and lost a lot of hair.
Before the pandemic, I had a daughter who was sweet and sassy, who watched a lot of television and fed herself and was so independent that I sometimes forgot she was in the house. Now, two years later, I have gained twins, a stepson and an ulcer. I haven’t slept for four consecutive hours since the summer of 2019. Today I caught myself combing my teeth and brushing my hair while trying to prevent my toddlers from killing each other as my daughter systematically took out ALL the clothes from the wardrobe and rearranged them on my bed in a bid to create ‘the softest soft play’.
I knew how hard parenthood was about to become the moment the ultrasound technician told me she saw two lovely heartbeats. After confirming that it was not one baby with two hearts but twins, she was horrified to see me cover my face and weep.
I still cry on most days. Because I’m tired. Because I am angry. Because the boys fight a lot. Because the pandemic has prevented me from introducing them to my family and everyone I care about has missed seeing them grow up. Because I feel lost. Because just today, my youngest (by two minutes) reached into his diaper and pulled out a beautifully formed turd and grinned at me.
I also weep because despite all the chaos, it’s still bloody wonderful.
Not the non-sleeping, constant-crying, never-being-able-to-sit-down part. That’s horrible and I cannot be persuaded that it is anything but. But every day, there comes a point when my children come at me for a snuggle. Little hands curl around my rotund belly and two heads settle on my breast and one more on my chest. At that moment, we four are like a human octopus, fused together, limbs rearranged around us on the bed as we listen to each other breathe. It is thirty seconds of pure heaven. Inevitably, the sharp nails on the little fingers begin to claw at my skin, and we are back in the purgatory of parenting multiple children.
The only thing that trumped my terror at having twins was my egotistical desire for excessive public attention. In every twin book I read, I was told to be patient with people who would stop me in the street to wonder at the marvel I had given birth to. I was told it would get tiresome. I couldn’t wait. I had visions of being the famous twin mum who had perfect little boys buckled in a double buggy and a four year-old scootering carefully in front. Look upon my kids, ye mighty, and despair and all that sort of thing. It was the only consolation that kept me going through six months of nausea and two more months of chronic back pain.
Two things, however, prevented my dreams of fame and glory from coming to pass.
First—I live in a town with one of the highest incidences of twin births in the country. It might be the water or the fact that women can sniff each other’s hormones and produce multiple offspring—I don’t know. But chances are you’ll see at least two or three other mummies wheeling their twins when you go out for a walk, so that the sight of double buggies are commonplace and not worthy of much note here. Ten months ago, I took the boys out into the market dressed in identical ‘I’m with stupid’ rompers. No one looked, no one cooed, no one took notice. To add insult to injury, a couple carrying a dachshund puppy crossed in front of us and was immediately besieged by a crowd of people, ooohing and aahing like nobody’s business. I was highly offended.
My friend Charlotte didn’t help matters. She announced her pregnancy around the same time as me, but she was having triplets. And she went and had them, and they are adorable and eat independently while my boys still throw their fries on the floor and try to squirt yoghurt up their nose. Mums on other mum-groups on Facebook refer to her as a ‘Mum Wonder’ because she has been spotted several times wheeling her tremendous trio while giving her four-year-old son a piggy back ride, all with a wide smile on her face. She is stopped ALL the time on the street and EVERYONE coos at her babies. If she weren’t one of my closest friends, you could say I hated her. I don’t, however, because she’s nice enough to be occasionally contrite about having thrown some serious shade at me.
So now that Charlotte and a dachshund puppy have stolen the show, I am left with none of the glory and all of the daily slog of being a stay-at-home parent during the pandemic. And apart from our evening Octopus Moment, it’s hard work. I’m always on the move and honestly, I don’t know why I’m not skinny. I think it’s the tubs of ice-cream I consume in the hour when everyone is asleep. I eat a lot of carbs—at lunch and dinnertime you will find me on the floor, picking up all the food my kids have thrown and stuffing it into my mouth. I began to do this because my mouth was closer than the bin, but I soon discovered it was a good way of tidying up and feeding myself at the same time—killing three birds with one stone: they get fed, I get fed AND I tidy up.
It’s soul crushing work, some days. I feel like my beleaguered bonsai tree which my daughter picks at sometimes in order to make pretend salad It used to thrive on the windowsill, basking in the golden glow of sunlight but now it’s been moved to the top of a shelf where there is mostly darkness. It is alive but it looks bedraggled and depressed. Like me, it’s just hanging on.
Shazaf Fatima Haider is the author of How It Happened and A Firefly in the Dark. She is currently writing her third novel on marriage and divorce. She lives with her husband and four children in St. Albans.
The featured artist, Shehryar Amin, lives and works in Lahore.