Meet my friend Kit. She is tough as nails, gets things done and rocks at being a momma. Honestly, she has so much grace for people. I am still shocked to this day that she ever wanted to be my friend. You see, my husband is a photographer and is always looking for new stories to tell. He was introduced to Kit and went to photograph her at work in her happy place- her kitchen. I heard there was free food and quite famished as I was pregnant with twins, so I stopped by the photo shoot.
Not knowing anything about her journey, or her story, I just couldn't help but talk about myself and admit that I had no idea what motherhood would be like, if I was cut out for it, and that we were shocked to find out we were pregnant, much less with twins.
She never said a thing about her own struggles, doubts or challenges. She immediately opened her home to me, hosted my baby shower and showed up. As you read her story, and I hope you will take the time to read every last word, you will come to know that she is good and kind and strong and humble and willing to let God work it all out, despite the hardships.
I have learned a lot from Kit. I have learned to shut up and listen to others. I have learned that food makes things better. I have learned that God can transform us in ways that are more powerful and impactful then we could ever imagine. Thank you, Kit for sharing your story. You, my friend, deserve all the happiness in the world.
Name: Kristen Hallberg Reavis [Editor's Note: I call her Kit, because that's what we do in the Midwest, we go by nicknames.]
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Occupation: I've been a project engineer at ExxonMobil, a Development/Communications Director for a large charter school network in Texas (YES Prep Public Schools), and served a very brief stint as a managing director at Teach for America. Currently my full time job is raising my 8 month old twins - Peter and Esmé - and trying to remember to brush my teeth at least once a day. [Editor's Note: She is the definition of a boss.]
You're wicked smart, an amazing chef and a mom to twins. Tell us your secret? You flatter me. I definitely struggle to believe those things to be true about myself (minus the part about being a mom to twins - the two adorable babies and massive dark circles under my eyes confirm that to be true). No secrets here. I just try to be gritty and tenacious in all that I tackle - to fail fast, be coachable, and be a humble leader (anyone who has ever worked in the Ed Reform space is laughing at how canned this answer sounds, but it's true!) I love details and feedback - "Okay so you thought my chocolate chip cookies were "good" - good how? What specifically did you like about them? How could they be improved next time?" [Editor's Note: You're speaking my love language!]
But seriously, you have traveled the world for your career, worked to improve the education system in the United States and on top of that, just casually whip up squash pop tarts for friends. How have these experiences shaped who you are as a mom? My honest answer is that I'm still figuring that out! My engineering brain really wants to answer the question in bullet points, so here is my best attempt at some prose...
Never in a million years did I think I would be where I am today (married, home with two kids, living in the south, the list goes on.) I had many plans in mind for myself and my future and not one of them included the things that shape and define my life today. And you know what? I have never felt happier, more challenged, or more fulfilled. Where I have been has taught me that it does not need to dictate where I am going, and I want to share that freedom with my children. I want them to embrace challenges and not be afraid to work hard, and I also want them to feel the freedom to make choices, take risks, and sometimes just embrace circumstances in which they find themselves that don't fit into a story they are trying to write. Actually, I want them to feel the freedom to not have to write the story! To love and grow and look back one day and look at the beautiful way it all unfolded. I guess what I am trying to say is that I'm learning that God is the playwright, not me. I'm the actor, and sometimes the script I'm handed seems wacko, and I'm going to try my best to act my heart out and take home a Tony award (DID I MENTION I'M ALSO REALLY COMPETITIVE? I'm working on that...)
Would you be willing to share your story about how you and James overcame challenge after challenge to bring these two precious little ones into the world? It's always hard to know the right level of detail to share here - as anyone who has struggled with infertility knows - there is enough struggle, pain and suffering, triumphs, setbacks, anger, joy, and shame in each family's unique story to fill volumes. So I'll start by saying this: I try to be an open book as a way of eliminating my own shame and hopefully relieving pressure on others as well. If anyone reading this would like to chat more, I'm happy to! Also, in sharing our story, I like to start by acknowledging that I know we are some of the lucky ones for whom IVF worked and we now have two beautiful babies. While we still have a lot of baggage from the process, I know our outcome isn't a guarantee, and we feel very lucky.
When James and I decided we were ready to start our family, what comes easily to some couples just didn't happen for us. Every month was more anxiety ridden and painful than the last. For me, personally, it took a long time for me to feel open to having children, and when I finally got there, infertility felt like an affirmation of my biggest fear: that I just wasn't cut out to be a mom. That I was kind of a shitty person who wouldn't be good at caring for others. It was hard. It felt like hell most days.
We decided to go to a reproductive endocrinology clinic for an intake appointment to see if there was a clear medical reason causing our infertility. That day, we learned we had both male and female factors influencing our infertility and that while it would be practically impossible for us to become pregnant naturally, IVF could have a high success rate. I remember feeling so angry, feeling like I wanted to vomit, and also finally feeling some hope that there were answers and there was a possible solution. I think something changed in me that day. With the support of my husband and a great physician, I was able to view infertility as a disease and not something I caused or deserved. And James and I decided to take this challenge on together and fight for the thing we knew we wanted more than anything in the world: a family.
We tried two IUIs with ovulation induction (I injected myself with hormones to coax my body to release more than 1 egg each cycle) and both failed. Our doctor advised us to move on to IVF, and so we did. (For those of you wondering - yes, we did pursue adoption. IVF is the path that ultimately led us to our family. For now.)
Again, I could write a novel here about the entire experience of IVF, but here's what I'll say about it: it was hard. So hard. Now I can say that it was worth it, but that was impossible to see at the time. I wish I could say we prayed a lot and trusted the process and whatever, but honestly it was just unbelievably physically painful and emotionally taxing and it was a dark time. I didn't really feel God working through it at the time and it was a pretty dark and intense period. I felt like I was fighting a war and I was determined to win. I didn't meditate on Bible verses. Instead, I thought a lot about this quote from Will Smith (yes, the actor Will Smith): "The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. If we get on the treadmill together, there's two things: You're getting off first, or I'm going to die. It's really that simple."
That's how I thought about infertility. No lie. It was "I'm either going to become a mom or die trying. There's nothing in between."
Fertility drugs affect different women in different ways and I was sick as a dog. Most days, I didn't get out of bed. Horrible nausea and vomiting and headaches for the duration of what is called the "stimulation" cycle. Then came the egg retrieval surgery. What is supposed to be a quick and mild outpatient procedure with side effects that can be managed with ibuprofen was not. I had complications that caused the surgery to last an hour and required multiple physicians, my husband sitting in the waiting room worrying as the time passed. The result was not at all what we hoped for - we were only able to retrieve a small number of eggs, thus lowering our chances of success this round. I was in so much pain and felt completely broken. I remember James helping me out of the car and back into our house to get into bed, and the second I walked in the house the flood gates opened. I hurled my purse at the wall and screamed and then felt searing pain due to the exertion and I just fell to the floor and sobbed.
I had to let my body recover for a little over a month before we were able to move forward with the next step in the process. In the end, we had two good embryos and our doctor advised us to transfer both. On March 26th, I was reunited with two five-day-old embryos. Ten days later, I went to the clinic for a blood test and later that day my doctor called to give us the amazing news - I was pregnant! Two weeks after that I had my first ultrasound and we found out it was twins!
We spent the next few months feeling cautiously optimistic until we reached the second trimester. I think that's when it really hit me: maybe, finally, I was really going to be a mom. Then, at 18 weeks pregnant, we had an anatomy scan and learned that one of our babies wasn't growing "appropriately" and there were indicators for Trisomy 13, a syndrome which has fatal outcomes for infants in the first few weeks of life. Fortunately, we were able to rule this out through a free cell DNA test, but that still left us and our team of physicians with a lot of questions. One of our babies was diagnosed as Intrauterine Growth Restricted, or IUGR, which is basically a blanket diagnosis for "we don't know what is happening but your baby isn't growing appropriately." What followed was a very stressful and anxiety ridden pregnancy in which we were monitored very closely - two ultrasounds a week until the third trimester, then ultrasounds and non stress tests every other day. Throw in a car accident at 21 weeks and pre-term labor at 28 weeks and my pregnancy was filled with about as much anxiety as I could handle.
At 34 weeks and 2 days gestation, our little miracle babies entered the world via c-section. I didn't get to meet them or hold them right away because they were whisked away to the level 3 NICU to be stabilized, but they were here! And they were OK! And we had some amazing friends who stayed at the hospital all through the night to support us and friends came in droves over the coming days to visit us in the hospital and meet our precious children.
I don't remember much from the first few days because it was a blur of doctors and friends and lactations consultants and exhaustion, but I remember the first time I held my babies. It was 6 hours after my C section and I demanded that I be let out of my bed so I could walk to see my babies (who were in the NICU on another floor of the hospital - at our hospital the NICU is a tight space and moms have to be able to walk to go visit their babies). Our first nurse said no, but I had cleared this timing with my doctor ahead of time. So, I paged my doctor, "fired" the first nurse, and a new, supportive nurse swooped in and was my greatest cheerleader as she helped me up and on my way to meet my children. We got up to the NICU and I saw my two little ones on their warming beds. I remember asking a nurse if I could hold them (nervous that the answer would be no) and she said "of course!" I sat nervously as she brought each baby to me, careful to avoid their little IV tubes and the wires for their heart and respiratory monitors, and placed them in my arms. And I remember looking at them and seeing how absolutely perfect they were and saying "oh hello, it's you!" and feeling like I had known them and been loving them my whole life. And all of a sudden the whole world went from black and white to Technicolor. I looked up at my husband and said "I'd do the whole thing over again in a heartbeat." [Editor's Note: I. AM. DONE. Phew, all the tears.]
What was it like fighting for your little ones while they were in the NICU? (I often think this is a topic no one really talks about, but it's so important- would love for you to share more on this if you're comfortable with it.) Honestly, although we tried our best to prepare ourselves for our twins being in the NICU, we had no idea how much we would really have to fight for them. We learned early on that we are our children's best advocate, and while we had a wonderful medical team, we were the ones watching our babies 24/7 and our observations and the type of care we desired mattered.
Our babies were in the NICU for 5 weeks and I do think it's possible they would have been home sooner if we had been more informed about the role we were "allowed" to play as parents in the NICU. We also chose to move them after a few weeks from the hospital they were born in (a public teaching hospital with excellent care) to a private hospital with a nicer facility that was closer to our house and more easily accessible. In retrospect, I am not sure we would make that decision again. We ached for our medical team that we left behind and the level of support and empowerment they provided.
I also struggled with feeling inadequate as a mom as I sat by and watched a new nurse care for my babies every day in their first weeks of life. I wish I knew earlier to advocate for myself and the level of involvement I wanted with my babies. Eventually, my husband and I ended up having a "conference" with one of the neonatologists and sharing our struggles - she said there was no reason we couldn't play the role of the nurses at this point. That was so liberating to hear! Once we had the OK, we started to be the ones to cue up their feeds in their NG tubes, chart their temperatures and diapers, reset their machines after their oxygen desaturation alarms went off, change their leads when the stickiness wore off.
When we neared the finish line, we noticed that our babies always seemed to be doing so well and seemed "so close" to checking all of the boxes on their list of discharge requirements when we were around, but then would sort of tank on the overnight shift when we left to go home to sleep. It was so disheartening to get back to the NICU each morning and learn from the nurse that the clock had re-set on the babies going home because they didn't do well overnight. We decided it was time we took matters into our own hands, and that we would keep vigil by their bedsides and be the only ones to hold and feed them and provide care to them until they went home. 48 hours after we made this decision (and basically 48 hours of little to no sleep at all) - Esmé was discharged! I went home with Esmé and my husband stayed behind to care for Peter. 48 hours after that, Peter joined us at home! I honestly believe they would have been in the hospital for several additional weeks if we hadn't decided to intervene.
Our babies went home on heart and respiratory monitors, which meant they were confined to one room of our house and it was a cluttered mess of tripping hazards with machines and wires all around. The original recommendation was that they stay on these machines for close to 3 months. This seemed bizarre and unnecessary to me - I could see that my babies were thriving, and the equipment was causing our family tremendous stress. I reached out to my college roommate who was finishing her pediatrics residency at Vanderbilt at the time, and she helped point me towards the latest research regarding premature babies and this type of equipment. I educated myself on the issues, sought second and third opinions, and my husband and I formulated the best plan for our family. We presented our preferred plan to their physician and were able to compromise on a path forward that we were all comfortable with. In the end, they stayed on these machines for one month. [Editor's Note: Girl, your story is going to CHANGE LIVES. This was so empowering to read. Never, ever, ever give up- just keep fighting.]
Twin mom to twin mom, it ain't easy. How has having twins changed your life? I used to place tremendous value on getting stuff done - now I place tremendous value on finishing each day with two happy, healthy children. I used to have miles long to do lists and I loved crossing everything off at the end of each day. Now, I have learned to set the bar really low in terms of what I can do on a given day. I limit myself to just one small thing above and beyond giving my children the time and attention they deserve. For instance, one day my "thing" might be cleaning some clothes out of my closet to give to Goodwill or trying to call an old friend to catch up for 20 minutes during nap time. I have found that if I have two non-baby care related things on my to do list in a given day, I end up feeling stressed and overwhelmed and frustrated with the twins when they don't nap on the same schedule. I think my babies pick up on my stress and my husband certainly does when he gets home from work and I am crying real tears on the couch over how I just want to eat a sandwich but it's too hard to make one. So, one thing a day, one carefully planned outing a week, and lots of deep breaths and looking in the mirror and saying "Just don't stress out! What's the point?! Soak up this time while your babies are small and squeezable!" [Editor's Note: I'm taking notes, this is SO GOOD and something that I fail at daily.]
Name an adventure you are excited to take your kids on one day? I am excited to go on THEIR adventures (if they'll have me!) I can't wait to discover what makes them feel alive and in love with the world around them. I can't wait to say "tell me your biggest hopes and dreams for the future" and then, no matter how wild, to say to them... LET'S GO DO THAT!
What is one thing you would like your kids to learn from you? I really hope they are adventurous eaters and that they appreciate the joy that comes from cooking for and nourishing others. I love time around the table with friends and family - it fills my tank in a way that nothing else does. I hope that they will share in this joy.
What is your favorite thing to cook/bake? At the moment I am more into baking because it's so precise! I don't have the mental capacity to improvise in the kitchen right now. I also crave sugar constantly. One of my favorite things to bake is Canelé - it's unlike any other dessert. At the same time cake but also custard, a deeply caramelized exterior, not too sweet, goes great with coffee for breakfast or with ice cream for a late night snack.
I also love making yeasted waffles with crispy edges and custard-like centers on Saturday mornings. [Editor's Note: I too like waffles, what time did you say they will be ready?]