Hands-on for many births

The Tepper family in 1977. Photo supplied by Kathy Tepper.
Caring for a baby is never easy but imagine multiplying that infant by two, three or even four. Mikaela Turner reports.

When Lynne Dunoon walked into Kathy Tepper’s home, she was handed a baby. Then a second one. Kathy was breastfeeding a third baby while being pulled at by a toddler. A fourth baby was still in hospital.

At sixteen weeks pregnant, Kathy was told she was having triplets. At 21 weeks, a fourth baby was confirmed. Four weeks later and 15 weeks premature she gave birth to quadruplets.

The babies spend about three months in hospital before being taken home to rural Swan Hill. With a husband at work, Kathy was juggling caring for their three-year-old daughter and four newborn babies.

“It was overwhelming physically and emotionally,” says Kathy.

Lynne was living in the neighbourhood when she heard of Kathy’s story. She visited Kathy’s home and saw first-hand how much Kathy was dealing with. Despite having some help from her family, Lynne knew it was not enough. So, she decided to help.

Lynne recruited and organised 120 women volunteers to be hands-on help in Kathy’s home, as well as cooking meals and making clothes. It was the first step in what would become the Multiple Births Volunteer Support Foundation (MBVS).

“It made an enormous difference in my ability to cope,” says Kathy.

Seven months later, Lynne received a call from a mum in Wheelers Hill who had just had quadruplets and was in desperate need of help, but getting none from her local council or social worker.

“That was the beginning of a rippling effect that has never stopped,” says Lynne.

All of this happened in 1997. Thirteen years later and after a decade operating under the Australian Multiple Births Foundation, Lynne officially formed the MBVS.

For 21 years, Lynne and her volunteers have helped an estimated 200 families.

“I just realised that there was no one else doing this, and parents really needed the hands-on help,” says Lynne.

Often, multiples are born prematurely and have to be fed every three hours. With quadruplets, that is 24 feeds in 24 hours.

“A family can’t do that, it is physically impossible,” says Lynne.

Psychological issues arise out of lack of sleep, and as Lynne explains, there are more marriage breakdowns in multiple birth families than not.

“So what we are doing is maintaining their relationships, and keeping them healthy,” says Lynne.

Jill Lucas has been volunteering with the MBVS for about 18 months. She has assisted three families by being an extra set of hands, giving the mothers some reprieve.

Her first family, who she stills sees weekly, have a set of twin children and triplet babies. Having only two arms and three babies to keep track of is “just impossible”, says Jill.

“You’ll be playing with two… but then you look around and go, oh where is the other one? And you have to leave these ones even though if you leave them one of them will pinch the others toy and make them cry while you run and get the other one.”

“If you were on your own, I just feel like there would always be a baby crying,” says Jill.

The second family she helped out was a mother suffering from bipolar disorder who was not coping with twin babies and a severely autistic 15-year-old.

Her third family is an immigrant family of six originally from Egypt.

Ceza Omar was 36 weeks pregnant when she packed up her life in Abu Dhabi and moved her six-year-old daughter and three-year-old twin boy across the world. That was in April.

One month later, after the birth of their third son and fourth child, her husband returned to Abu Dhabi to finish his Masters. Since then, it has just been Ceza, her four kids, in a brand new country, every single day.

After a regular check up with her child health nurse, it was suggested she contact the MBVS.

“She learned that… I was all alone, she was very concerned. I was really in a miserable state, overwhelmed, so she felt that I needed help,” says Ceza.

Ceza, now has six volunteers coming into her home for 2-3 hours, five days a week meaning she can actually have some contact with the outside world.

Isolation is a serious problem for mothers of multiples. While other mothers can generally pop their one baby in a pram and go to lunch with a friend, Kathy explains just isn’t possible to take multiple babies out on your own.

The usually simple task of walking your child to school is just unmanageable for Ceza. She would need to juggle a newborn, twin boys who are “constantly fighting” and her six-year-old daughter.

“I tried once, never again,” says Ceza with a laugh.

For these woman, having volunteers support means they are able to start to get their lives back. They can go shopping, go to the playground, or even just take a well-deserved nap, as Ceza sometimes does.

“You can do things together with the kids so you don’t feel isolated. With me that is important because I don’t have anyone here,” says Ceza.

Jill says, families need the physical help but it can be so much more. “The MBVS is there for people who haven’t got the support they need.”

The experience of having multiple babies and its impact on a family is widely unknown, says Lynne.

“It’s probably not a political gain to provide support for multiple births,” she says.

Kathy adds that, “there is not much support available… and not much awareness of the impact of multiple births on a family”.

Lynne, who celebrated her 80th birthday this year, is hoping that her recent membership into the Order of Australia will help the MBVS receive more funding so that the organisation can branch out further and reach more families in need.

She has never aspired to awards, her OAM “is more about that the organisation is worthy”.

Kathy Tepper is now the secretary at MBVS, giving back to the organisation that once did so much for her family. Her quadruplets celebrated their 21st birthdays in February.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2015 only 1.4 per cent of births resulted in twins and only 0.03 per cent produced triplets or higher order multiples. Yet, it is clear that the impact of multiple births on a family is clearly anything but small.