Raising Twin Girls, and Building a Future in a New Home

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Two years ago, Rachel managed a popular upscale restaurant in Charlottesville, Va. and spent most of her free time writing, partying and hanging out near the booths where Rob, an old friend who’d become a new boyfriend, would DJ. Today, she’s balancing work with play of a different kind—she’s a homeowner, a wife-to-be, and a mother of 18-month-old identical twin girls. Recently, I talked to Rachel, 27, about this whirlwind two years, and what changes and stays the same when you’re catapulted into a state of new responsibility.
 
Rachel! So it’s midday and the girls just went down for a nap. What’s their schedule like these days?
 
They wake up around 7:30 a.m., and after I make an enormous pot of coffee I feed them and we do our morning thing—today we planted some seeds, dug in the dirt, introduced ourselves to earthworms—and then they’ll have lunch and nap around 1 p.m. After that it’s usually a solid 6 hours of playtime and snacking, with a light dinner around 5 p.m. They go down between 7 and 8.
 
Are you telling me about your twins or reading me a GOOP newsletter?
 
Both! Of course, sometimes they’re cutting a tooth or something and the schedule gets super awful and out of whack.  
 
They’re 18 months old. What does that mean for the baby-uninitiated?
 
Eighteen months old means they’re walking unassisted, starting to self-wean and eating more like tiny humans (spoons and forks!) rather than infants. They’re transitioning from baby signs to actually stringing words together, and they’re starting to grasp abstract concepts—they say “hurt” when they feel hurt, etc. They make lots of associations, too—they know animal noises, and Iris was looking at her Hungry Caterpillar book the other day and made the hissing sound she makes for a snake!
 
Is this your favorite stage so far?
 
I do miss certain things about their infancy—the long naps, the wordless snuggling—but toddlers are easier to connect with. They give you kisses and hugs and pats on the back, stuff like that. But also toddlers are exhausting. Anyone who says it’s easier is lying!
 
Well, you’ve also got two of them. So, you recently went back to work at the restaurant? Tell me about that.
 
I was a stay-at-home mom with sporadic freelance work for the first 15 months or so, which was awesome—I really enjoyed it, and also there was just no other option, because the girls were so sick at first. We had at least two or three doctor’s appointments every week for the first year of their life.
 
While this was happening, Rob was working steadily but seasonally—he’s a musician with a lot of freelance work as well as a position at a major venue in town, which means some months he’s got 20 events on the calendar, other months just four. We made ends meet, kind of, but it was paycheck to paycheck and I exhausted a lot of savings. Come this February, we started to have some fights about finances, and finally he looked at me and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to go back to work.”
 
I got mad at first, like, “Why aren’t we looking at what you’re doing?” And then about fifteen minutes later I said, “Wait, yeah, I actually would love to go back to work.” So I started back up at the restaurant, gradually, just three daytime shifts per day—but then two of our managers gave their notice, and they offered me the general manager position. It was a six-week turnaround from working 15 hours a week to being the boss, but I love this restaurant so much and couldn’t imagine anyone coming in from the outside to run it. Also, a huge factor was that they offered full insurance benefits for me and the twins.
 
And, you know, it’s great! I was worried that I would feel torn, or always be distracted thinking about the girls, but I love it. Because of our industries, Rob and I get to be at home in the mornings and balance our schedules in a more flexible way. We have a babysitter at night usually two days a week, and most weeks we have Monday and Tuesday off as a family together.
 
How had you dealt with health insurance before?
 
When the pregnancy test came back positive, I was insured under my parents but had just turned down my maternity rider option. So we paid for all my prenatal care out of pocket, which included a lot of ultrasounds ($1,500 each, and 5-6 of them!) and other precautions because twin pregnancies carry extra risks. It was probably 10 grand out of pocket?
 
That is a lot of money.
 
It is! I worked until I was 29 weeks pregnant and totally enormous, and when I stopped working I filed for Medicaid hoping that I’d be able to get coverage before the girls came. Luckily, the benefits came through three days before my water broke.
 
And this was an unexpectedly early delivery.
 
Yeah, the twins came at 31 weeks, which is 9 weeks early. Thankfully, Medicaid covered my delivery and recovery and the girls’ prolonged stay in the NICU. With the NICU, really, unless you literally make five million dollars a year, you end up on Medicaid. The girls spent a combined 100 days in the hospital, and the total bill was close to three-quarters of a million.
 
Holy crap.
 
Yeah. I’m paging through a stack of bills right now and it’s sort of sickening. Iris was unable to eat normally for the first seven weeks of her life—she was fed via synthetic nutrients, straight to her blood stream—and she had to undergo two surgeries, be put in a medically induced coma and generally exist in this very precarious state.
 
It was such an intense ordeal. Even when Fiona was released, I was splitting my time between caring for her and going to the NICU every day for Iris, seeing all these tiny babies with uncertain futures and their moms who are scared about everything. And all the while everyone’s reminding you gently that every physician visit and procedure is just more money, money, money.
 
This is all happening just half a year after you found out you were pregnant. Was this the point that you felt “officially” like a mother? When did your sense of yourself as a parent develop?
 
Well, any surprise pregnancy is surreal, and it takes longer to feel like reality than if you’d been trying for a long time. But I think as soon as I started feeling movement, I felt so protective of what was going on in utero. And seeing their bodies on the ultrasound, finding out that they were girls, naming them—knowing that they were twins, knowing that we were going to meet them soon because they were probably going to come early.
 
Certainly, though, when Rob and I were thrown into this quasi-emergency situation, everything else evaporated. We were instantly, fiercely, a family.
 
Tell me about going into early labor.
 
They’d just put me on bed rest. I’d gone to my parents’ house in Northern Virginia to wait it out while Rob pulled a bunch of extra shifts at work. I was watching a Woody Allen movie with my mom and outside it started snowing. I’ve heard from doctors that the barometric pressure could have made a difference—I was not the only person who went into sharp, sudden labor that day—and all of a sudden my water broke.
 
A mythical weather birth!
 
Yeah! So my mom and I drove to Charlottesville as the contractions were coming on incredibly fast, and I couldn’t deliver at the hospital I had planned to, because the twins were so premature—I had to deliver at the University of Virginia hospital.
 
We got to the ER with a police escort, and I could barely talk, and I tried to tell them that I thought the baby’s head was right there, and they said “Oh honey, we know it feels like that,” but then it was true—I got to the OR and Fiona was born four minutes later. Iris came 45 minutes after that. From start to finish, it took four hours, no time for painkillers or epidural. The doctors immediately identified the medical complications with Iris, and the girls were just swept straight into the NICU. Totally, totally surreal.
 
I cannot even imagine. Okay, let’s go back, say, a decade. What were your ambitions when you started college, your sense of where you’d be at this age? How did you get started in the restaurant business?
 
I came to UVA very ambitious, I got good grades, was very involved. Then I started working at a restaurant on the Corner—
 
THE restaurant.
 
Haha, yes. I liked the lifestyle and the pace, the scene, all of it—though it wasn’t terribly conducive to studying. I kept at it as a full-time student while working several nights a week, but then eventually I decided to take some time off and just work. I was good at what I was doing and, frankly, I made a lot of money. We used to call it Corner Rich—you’d walk out after a football game with $800 cash in your pocket, and some of it stays, but too much of it goes.
 
So I saved some money, but with no real direction about what I was saving for. If I’d known that three years down the road I’d have two little beauties to take care of, I would’ve put away half of what I earned or more. But I don’t regret it, living life and being briefly extravagant. And I don’t need to buy clothes ever again!
 
After you found out you were pregnant, did you worry that having kids would stop you from doing what you want career-wise?
 
I still worry about that. I always wanted to write—and I do write, and I want to keep doing it—but also I really love working in restaurants, and right now it’s a good fit for what we need with our family. And I’m 27, I’ve got some years left. I don’t discount the possibility that I could pursue other things in the future.
 
Also, I always wanted to be a younger mom, and I actually can’t imagine going through this physical ordeal if I were older and had less energy—Rob and I are both frequently so exhausted, we’ve already aged a lot. I take comfort in the fact that we’ve both lived a lot of life. He served in the military for 6 years, we’ve had our crazy young adulthood, we lived life without being terribly responsible, and we don’t really have any desire to do that again.
 
How did it feel transitioning a casual relationship to this lifetime partnership?
 
It felt surprisingly natural. Rob and I had been friends for years, and clearly, you know, one thing has just led to another. Sometimes I think back to 2007, when he would DJ at the restaurant next to mine, and he’d come in and order mac & cheese and a beer before each gig, and he’d sit at the bar and tell me stories. I remember having to work on my birthday, and nobody remembered except for Rob, who got on the microphone and announced to the whole place that we had something to celebrate.
 
So it’s definitely felt fast, but it’s felt right—we were dealt an outrageous hand, and we wanted to go all in. And I’m not the only person who would say that you fall newly in love with your partner when you see him as a parent. We were in love before, but not like this.
 
And you’re engaged now, right?
 
Yes! My mom gave Rob an heirloom ring while I was pregnant—my great-grandmother’s really stunning, delicate Art Deco engagement ring—and basically said that she and my dad didn’t care whether he and I ever got married, but that they wanted Rob to not have to consider money as a factor if he wanted to acquire a ring for me.
 
It was such a generous gesture, and I wear the jewel as an engagement ring, although we haven’t set a date or anything. Until very recently, it was better financially for us to remain separate legal entities, and even though now we have more flexibility with our money, I wouldn’t describe getting married as a priority. My heart is already wed to his, and we have already been through quite a bit of richer and poorer, sickness and health—and honestly, it’s a little strange and sad for me to think about having my partnership recognized when that right is not granted to everyone in Virginia.
 
Still, I imagine by the time the girls are school-aged, we’ll have done the damn thing. Now that we own a home and are properly building an adult life together, it would probably be smart for us to get hitched.
 
Tell me about the house!
 
This is another case in which my parents have been stunningly generous. They helped contribute to the down payment, helped us orchestrate the financing. But the mortgage is ours, and I weirdly love having it—it’s a really nice thing to not throw away money on rent, to write every check knowing that it’s going toward our future.
 
The house is sweet and small and in a great school district, and because it wasn’t quite curb-ready (asbestos in the basement, etc) it was a bargain—the asking price was $175,000 and we paid $170,000, as-is. We’d only looked at two or three others, but it was just the right situation. We were paying $1,400 monthly to rent a townhouse before, which is a lot if you’re not accruing equity.
 
Does the expense of having kids scare you? Thinking about college and all that?
 
Even thinking about kids in preschool is pretty scary! There are sliding scales for tuition, but now with two incomes we’re pretty middle-of-the-road, and we’re looking at $5-10K a year for each of them.
 
But yeah, I’m investigating 529 savings plans for the girls, things like that. It’s a balance between thinking about the future and dealing with our day-to-day expenses, which are… serious. So many diapers! I considered using cloth diapers to save some money, and then I thought about how much time I already spend on laundry, and how much it was worth it to me to not spend a lot of time scrubbing out poop.
 
How much has the way you think about money changed?
 
It’s changed a lot. I’m much more financially savvy now. Before, I’d just paid everything with cash or debit, but now I have credit, I use Mint.com, I have the mentality of “Can we justify going out to dinner when we could just cook at home?” This year, I had to withdraw from my Roth IRA, but I’m now putting money back in, and Rob just started one too. Thinking about money is stressful in big moments, but I think I’ve got my eyes on the prize when it comes to savings, which makes a lot of difference—to save for something or someone, rather than just save.
 
My parents are a big example for me. They were very frugal and financially intelligent. We had a lot of secondhand clothes growing up, which the girls definitely do, and we went to a subsidized private school, and they were really conscious about using things up and making do. They were never extravagant. And now they have small businesses of their own and are in a very enviable financial position—they’re both about to retire, now, at 53 years old.
 
Wow. 53!
 
Yeah. Jia, they’re going to move to Charlottesville!
 
Oh, no way. That is so wonderful.
 
I know. This thing that would have horrified me four years ago—this stasis, in Virginia—is now the best thing I can imagine.

 

Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor, has a tumblr.

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