A shoe organizer in the upstairs bathroom holds four colorful electronic toothbrushes and individual tubes of toothpaste — one each for Brendan, 6; Emma, 3; Owen, 3; and Claire, 3.
A laundry basket sits in front of the downstairs closet, a small mass of centralized chaos waiting to be sorted. The basement is a playroom. Large totes sit beside the TV and inside the closet. One for cars. Another for Legos.
The iCal calendar on the iMac is color-coded: blue for father Darran, purple for mother Tanya, red for Brendan and green for the triplets. The color coding helps them keep track of where they need to be and when.
The Albertys have a system. They have to, just like all the other parents of the more than 135,000 multiple births in the United States that occur each year. Multiples account for just 3 percent of total births, putting them, and their parents, in a small and often chaotic club.
In Columbia, that club is the Columbia Mothers of Multiples, or MOMS. Tanya Alberty, 32, is the president. She joins each month with 65 other women to celebrate and escape the exponentially hectic life of raising families that double, or more, overnight.
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. For Tanya, it will be a day to hold hands with her husband and four children in the dark audience of a ballet performed by the Mid-Missouri Dance Theatre Company. She is praying they’ll make it to intermission – a few hours of quiet grace in the acrobatic dance she does every day as the mother of multiple-birth children.
Tanya Alberty was 19 weeks into her second pregnancy when she started having slight contractions. Her doctor insisted on a sonogram.
The image was a shock: three little heads.
Darran Alberty had tried to call several times during the procedure, wondering why things were taking so long. When Tanya finally answered her phone, she was crying.
“I need to see you,” she said.
Darran asked if the baby was OK. She told him everything was fine but that she needed to see him. Now. He pressed for details.
“Are we having twins?” he asked, knowing there was a history of twins in Tanya’s family.
“No ... not exactly,” she said.
Then she told him.
“You’re not kidding, are you?”
Looking back, that day was a blur.
“I wasn’t sad; I wasn’t thrilled,” Tanya says now. “The whole thing at first was just surreal, that it’s even possible or that it could have happened to us.”
A wave of slight panic gripped the Albertys as they realized the life they had settled into was about to change.
Tanya and Darran met when they were both students at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. They sat next to each other in biology and were members of Kappa Psi, a co-ed pharmacy fraternity. They fell in love, married and moved to Columbia, where Tanya worked in the pharmacy for University Hospital and Darran went to work with his father, a co-owner of D&H Drugstore.
From the beginning, they planned on having two, maybe three, children. Two years after they were married, Tanya was pregnant with Brendan. “We were excited and ready,” she says. “Family was something we always knew we wanted from the get-go.”
Now Brendan was 2, and they were excited about giving him a brother or sister. Their 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house on Columbia’s south side would be a bit crowded and they considered moving, but they figured they could make it work.
A bigger house was now a must. As Tanya prepared for the stresses and chaos of finding a new house and moving, she also tried to prepare for the unknown of triplets. As she had done when she was pregnant with Brendan, she read everything she could find.
Thus, she found Columbia’s Mothers of Multiples Club — MOMS.
The women meet the first Thursday of every month to share excitements and worries, fears and victories. They celebrate success in potty training and offer advice on round-the-clock breast-feeding. They arrange speakers, take care packages to new mothers and their infants, and share many things, from books to discount coupons.
Their members include the range of multiple moms: women like Tanya Alberty who had planned to have a child and were surprised when one became two, or more; women who turned to fertility drugs to help them conceive; women with supportive husbands at home and those who are raising children alone; women whose children have special needs; and those who have lost one or more of their babies.
While the club is primarily for the moms, it provides opportunities to have multiple-birth children interact in play groups and for families in similar situations to come together.
And it provides a welcome break for the moms from the whirlwind of raising multiples.
“I just knew that I needed to meet women who had been through what I was going through,” Tanya says. “Women who might have some advice that could get me through the first few months.”
Sept. 3, 2003.
Tanya was 29 weeks into her pregnancy when she was ordered to the hospital for bed rest. Doctors feared she would deliver prematurely and wanted to give the babies as much time as possible to develop in the womb, increasing their chances of being born healthy. A week-and-a-half later, when it was obvious they could no longer delay the birth, they scheduled a Caesarean section.
“It was very strange seeing Tanya on the operating room table,” Darran says. “There were probably 15 to 20 people. Each child had its own team of three or four people at least, and they had an extra team standing by in case we had missed one. ...
“They were pulling kids out left and right.”
Tanya and Darran had not asked about the babies’ sexes before they were born. With so much out of their control, they wanted to protect something that was just theirs.
A girl came first, at 10:54 p.m.: Emma.
Then, a minute later, a boy: Owen.
Finally, seconds after Owen, another girl: Claire.
“Claire was really the tiebreaker,” Darran says. “There was a little bit of suspense.”
Born nine weeks premature, the babies hadn’t developed a sucking mechanism. They also were tiny: Emma and Owen each weighed 3 pounds, 5 ounces. Claire was only 3 pounds, 1 ounce.
Tanya went home from the hospital after five days; the babies would stay for five weeks. Despite her years as a pharmacist and her knowledge of medical realities, Tanya found she wasn’t prepared for the anguish of those first weeks apart.
“I felt guilty when I was in the hospital. I felt guilty when I wasn’t,” she says. “I was really torn.”
When Brendan was born, Tanya left her job at the hospital to join her husband at D&H, where she could work part time so they didn’t have to put him in day care. Now she was taking long hours away from her toddler to be with the triplets. Every night, she ran home from the hospital to tuck Brendan into bed. Then she would call the hospital one more time to check on the weight of the triplets.
“(The nurses) told me that Brendan is the one who is going to remember where I was” — not the newborns, she says.
Just a week before the triplets were scheduled to leave the hospital, the Albertys closed on their new home, a spacious country house on 20 acres, with ample room for the children to play. It would have been hectic enough if things had gone well — just a week to unpack, settle in and prepare a new bedroom for Brendan and a nursery for the triplets. But when the Albertys walked into the house, it was a mess, with nothing cleaned, junk left behind and food rotting in the refrigerator. The Albertys enlisted relatives for a blitz cleaning campaign and hired a painter to do the bedrooms.
“It was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience,” Tanya says. “But I couldn’t let myself get too upset about it. I had other things to do.”
Those other things were multiplied by three. The Albertys remember the first year with the triplets as an endless stream of diaper changes and feedings, lost weight and lost nights.
“I had no idea what to do,” Tanya says. “It wasn’t like I had someone to move in with me for two months.”
It seems she always had a child in her arms. She became skilled at functioning with one hand and turned to Brendan for help with little chores. The living room was turned over to the reality of babies, with soft couches and furniture standing in as makeshift playpen walls. Fresh diapers were placed at ready throughout the house: in the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the living room.
And there was the crying. Lots of crying.
All three of the infants were colicky and had gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as acid reflux, making them reluctant to eat and prone to vomiting. Breast-feeding became a major challenge. Tanya had to watch her own diet carefully: The wrong food in her system would exacerbate the babies’ colic, sometimes causing them to cry for 24 hours at a stretch. One baby crying was manageable. Three babies crying was unbearable.
At night, Darran and Tanya took turns: One would tend to the babies while the other slept in their bedroom, under a loud fan that muffled the cries coming from the babies’ room. But Tanya had to be up whenever one of the triplets wanted to eat.
“Tanya was amazing,” Darran says. “There were times when she was up all night and still going strong the next day. I don’t know how she did it.”
After three months, bottles were added to the breast-feeding regimen so Darran, and even Brendan, could help. Tanya learned to prop up bottles so all three triplets could eat at the same time.
For the first few months, fellow congregants from Missouri United Methodist Church kept the Albertys stocked with meals. When those trailed off, they relied heavily on deliveries from the Schwan’s man.
“We lived off his frozen pizza,” Darran says with a laugh. “He loved us. Still does.”
Eventually, Tanya arranged to have Schnucks deliver groceries to their house, saving them the extra time of trips to the store. Anything to save time.
“Time was hard to come by,” Darran says of alone time for him and Tanya. “If we just had, like, breakfast together, we really kind of held on to those moments.”
Emma, Owen and Claire are 3½ now. Big brother Brendan is 6. The family has a routine, but it’s a complicated one.
Darran, 33, works 50 to 60 hours a week at D&H Drugstore, where he is now one of four owners, and is the president of the Missouri Pharmacy Association. He’s training to run the Chicago Marathon in October. He gives baths to the kids when he can and tucks them in the nights Tanya is away.
Tanya works Mondays at D&H, filling prescriptions and working on medication therapy with patients; the triplets stay with Darran’s parents while she works. She is in a freezer club that meets every few weeks to trade recipes and meals, serves on the parent board at Southwest Play School, and faithfully attends MOMS once a month. Her primary job is being a mother to her four children.
Brendan is in full-day kindergarten at Midway Elementary. On Tuesday and Thursday nights he plays T-ball.
Emma, Owen and Claire spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in preschool at Southwest Play School. Tuesday mornings find them in class at Bob’s Tumble Bee Gymnastics, then home for a nap before preschool.
Wednesdays are long days. The triplets don’t have any scheduled activities to keep them busy, so they play at home, with Tanya constantly on call, until Brendan comes home from kindergarten. Now that warm weather is here, they play outside more, on the swing set and with their dog, Sierra.
On the first and third Wednesdays of the month, the MOMS club hosts play dates for multiples at Lend and Learn, a free toy and equipment lending library for Boone County families with children ages birth to 5 years old. Wednesday evenings, it’s Brendan’s turn for gymnastics class.
Friday afternoons, a baby-sitter stays with the triplets while Tanya runs errands and gets some time to herself.
But Friday night, the Alberty family settles in, all together at home, for movie night. After dinner, the kids climb into their pajamas and pull their tiny comfy chairs close to the TV in the downstairs playroom. With two popcorn bowls placed in between them and M&Ms in their lap, they watch Disney favorites, such as “Peter Pan” or “Robin Hood.”
The four kids stare quietly at the screen, enthralled, until the M&Ms run out. Claire climbs into Tanya’s lap, sleepy-eyed. Owen takes the popcorn bowl away from Emma. Brendan shields his eyes from mushy romance. Before the end of the movie, only Brendan is sitting in his own chair. The other three are snuggled close with Tanya and Darran.
It’s their favorite night of the week.
The Albertys’ coffee table is stacked with books, as always. Over the years, the ones about what to expect when having a baby were replaced by ones about what to expect when having multiple babies. Now the books are about sibling rivalries, and how to raise children by giving them the freedom to make choices, then teaching them the consequences of those choices.
But while Tanya and Darran are trying to raise their four children with the same values and love, they also want to raise them as the individuals they are. With the exception of the green highlights on their computer’s iCal schedule, they rarely refer to Emma, Owen and Claire as “the triplets.”
The girls dress themselves and seldom wear matching outfits. Gifts at Christmas and birthdays are individual.
Not that it takes much effort to focus on the individual personalities. The triplets, and Brendan, couldn’t be more different.
Emma is stubborn. Even though just seconds separate her from Owen and Claire, she acts like the oldest — a born leader with a quick mind, a strong will and a smile that’s as wide as it is contagious.
Owen just learned to snap. Every chance he gets, he demonstrates his new skill. He’s what Tanya and Darran call “all boy,” a rough-and-tumbler who worships his older brother and cut his own and his sister Emma’s hair with a pair of kid’s craft scissors just a few days before Easter.
Claire is shy. The smallest of the four, she is sensitive and caring and snuggles against her mom whenever someone new is around.
Brendan is the unquestioned big brother. Patient and reserved, he speaks with a voice far more mature than his 6 years of age. He leads his three younger siblings and winds them down for bedtime. But the older he gets, the more he realizes he’s different from his brother and sisters.
Sometimes at Christmas, friends and family members will get the triplets similar gifts in different colors and give Brendan something completely distinct, trying to make him feel special. Sometimes the effort backfires.
“He wants whatever they have,” Tanya says. “Even if what he has is really cool, he feels left out.”
Now that diapers, bottles and high chairs are things of the past, Tanya and Darran are taking a bit of a breather — as much as possible with three toddlers and a kindergartener in the house, each with his or her own interests and needs. Tanya is planning some projects for the summer: planting a garden or perhaps building a playhouse.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place right now,” says Darran, looking at Tanya with a calm smile.
“I don’t have to feel like we all need to be in one place,” Tanya says. “I can pull up a chair and sit there, and they don’t need me to constantly be there.”
But they know those down times will be rare, and different stages of the kids’ lives will bring different challenges.
The next one looming is preparing the triplets for full-time school. And, as the kids grow and all get involved in school activities, there will be new demands on their time. The Albertys have already decided there will be limits. They want to be able to have dinner together as often as possible and spend time as a family.
“We don’t want it to be like we’re always on the go,” Tanya says.
As for the far future? Brendan, as the oldest, will pave the way, will find his own friends, will find interests that he pursues on his own, will start to drive, to date and to look at colleges. Emma, Owen and Claire will follow, as younger siblings do.
The difference — they will reach those stages at the same time. Three first days of school on the same day. Three proms on the same night. Three graduations at the same time.
And, unique as they each are, that will likely mean some things they will have to do together. For example, they probably will have to share a car.
“We’re going to have to referee that,” Darran says with a laugh.
And the Albertys have already started saving for college, though Darran says paying for four educations at once won’t be easy.
“We’re definitely already encouraging scholarship,” he says.
“We don’t want them living with us until they are, like, 30,” Tanya says with a laugh.
But that’s a problem for the future. Today, life comes sorted in the large plastic tubs — the magic system designed to keep a multiple batch of toys for a multiple batch of children in some sort of order.
Until you do a quick lift of the upstairs sofa cushions, and discover a plastic bulldozer and large coloring pads. A broken, mechanical snake slinks among the picture frames on the mantle above the fireplace. And Emma’s beloved gray teddy bear sits on the floor near the pantry door.