Justin Clark is a man who will have to do a lot of queuing up outside his own bathroom for at least the next 18 years.
He may have Toby the Labrador and Sox the cat as male allies, but there’s no doubt the 43-year-old is well and truly outnumbered by women these days. And he couldn’t be happier.
Just over a month ago, he and his wife Christine, 36, brought home their now three-month-old quadruplets – all girls – from the special care unit at Rotherham Hospital.
Proud parents: Justin and Caroline Clark brought their four three-month-old daughters home from a special care unit last month, and they’ve had their hands full ever since.
Miracle babies: Caroline, Darcy, Alexis, and Elisha were born at 30 weeks after their mother was hospitalized.
Caroline, Darcy, Alexis, and Elisha were born prematurely at 30 weeks, and they are very special babies indeed.
After nearly a decade of trying, the couple had almost given up hope of becoming parents and had resigned themselves to being childless. It was their first round of IVF that proved successful — quite spectacularly.
And that is not the only reason the quads are extraordinary. Incredibly, they are also the result of just one embryo after it split into three and then one of those embryos split into two.
The odds of one embryo creating four babies have never been calculated. “People have quoted odds of two million to one and even 70 million to one, but it’s simply not quantifiable as it’s never happened before,” says Justin.
“We’re the first people it’s happened to, and even some doctors find it hard to believe.”
To say the couple are shell-shocked is an understatement. Mothers of multiples often say parents of single babies ‘have absolutely no idea how hard it is.’
Having given birth to identical twin girls 11 months ago, I’ve said it myself through gritted teeth lots of times.
So it’s with a mixture of profound admiration, curiosity, and a tiny bit of commiseration for the sleep they will never regain that I meet Justin, a lorry driver, and Christine, a nurse, at their three-bedroom ‘but one’s only a box room’ semi-detached home in the South Yorkshire village of Brinsworth.
The only evidence of the babies’ presence are the dark circles under their parents’ eyes. But echoing from upstairs, there’s no mistaking the fragile bleating of a newborn demanding attention.
“Excuse the mess,” says Christine needlessly as she leads me into a room strewn with baby paraphernalia.
Long-awaited: The precious babies were the result of the couple’s first round of IVF. They are the result of just one embryo after it split into three and then one of those embryos split into two.
All four tiny girls, still weighing only around 5-6 lbs each, are snuggled up like dormice in one cot.
Three are fast asleep, but Alexis is testing her lungs to full capacity. Gently, Christine picks her up, cuddles her, and she calms down. Mom’s clearly a natural.
But then she and Justin have waited a long time to become parents.
“You wait nine years for one baby and then get four at once,” smiles Christine. “We’re just so lucky.”
Justin and Christine met in a pub 12 years ago and married three years later. Like most young, married couples, they longed to start a family.
“I’d always wanted to be a mom,” says Christine. “I don’t come from a big family, but children were always on the agenda. We started trying before we got married, but nothing happened.
“I was only 25, so I didn’t panic. But after two years, we went to our GP who did lots of tests. It turned out I had polycystic ovaries and would probably need help to get pregnant.
“It was very upsetting. Friends were getting pregnant, and while I was always happy for them and never jealous, I would be thinking, ‘Why isn’t it happening for us?'”
The couple tried several treatments, including the ovary-stimulating drug Clomid, but the side effects made Christine ill.
“IVF was really a last resort because we knew what a rollercoaster it could be,” she says.
“People don’t understand unless they’ve done it, and we discussed whether we wanted to put ourselves through it. It was our final hope.”
Justin and Christine were referred to Care Fertility in Sheffield and were offered two rounds of IVF on the NHS.
The couple’s fears were realized when only two of Christine’s eggs were collected for fertilization. Sadly, one of those eggs turned out to be too immature to be used.
“I was devastated,” says Christine. “I couldn’t believe that I’d put my body through so much to get only one chance. I know women who get about 12 eggs, and I had only one shot at it.
“There was a moment where I really did think, ‘What’s the point?’ But as our midwife told us, ‘You only need one egg.'”
Once the embryo had been implanted, Christine was told it would take 12 days before a pregnancy test confirmed whether it had worked. Perhaps inevitably, she couldn’t wait that long.
“I cheated and took the test on day ten, and I was absolutely shocked when it came out positive,” she says.
“In nine years of trying, I’d never had a positive pregnancy test. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“I took the test downstairs to Justin, who said, ‘What does that mean?’ I told him to read the box, and when he had, he was speechless.”
By this point, the couple dared to believe they were finally going to be parents — to one baby. It was seven weeks later that they were given the most astonishing piece of news.
“I was lying on the scanning bed, and the sonographer was looking at the screen, but not saying a word,” says Christine.
“I felt sick, thinking something had gone wrong, but she quickly reassured me that I was definitely pregnant. Then she said, ‘I can see three sacs — you’re having triplets.’
“I was in total shock. So was Justin. The sonographer wanted a second opinion, so she asked us to go to the waiting room, and she’d get a consultant to confirm it.”
Justin says: “We sat outside, and all we could hear were the staff buzzing around us, saying, ‘It’s triplets, it’s triplets!’ It seemed to be an eternity before we went back in that room.
“As the senior consultant Dr. Shakar scanned Christine, he looked closely at the screen and then said, ‘You’re not having triplets — it’s quads.’ We were gobsmacked. And so was he!
“We all saw four little heartbeats. I kept counting them in my head, ‘One, two, three, four,’ but it was too much to take in. We’d gone from having no babies to four babies in one go.”
Any multiple pregnancy is fraught with risk, but four fetuses meant four times the danger to mother and babies. The medical experts confronted the couple with a stark decision.
Fatherly love: Mr. Clark adores 11-week-old Alexis. He has quit his job as a lorry driver to take care of his four daughters.
“We were offered selective termination on several occasions, where the doctors would have aborted two of the babies to help the remaining two survive, but we were against it,” says Christine.
“We wouldn’t have had to choose which babies were terminated; the doctors would have done that for us. But Justin and I don’t believe in abortion. Even if there had been something seriously wrong with the babies, I don’t think I could have lived with getting rid of two of them.
“That’s also the reason why we didn’t take the test for Down’s syndrome. We knew it carried a risk. I had waited too long for children and didn’t care what happened to me. I was prepared to risk it.”
The pregnancy was far from easy, and Christine suffered from severe morning sickness.
“It was horrific,” she says. “People said to me after my 12-week scan, ‘You should be full of energy now,’ but I was being sick morning, noon, and night. I’d even wake up in the middle of the night and throw up.
“Justin wanted to find out the sex of the babies at 20 weeks, but I said, ‘No way.’ If the pregnancy was going to be this hard, I wanted to have a lovely surprise at the end of it.
“By this point, we’d got our heads around the fact that we were going to have four babies. We had no idea how we’d afford it. But people have been so generous and donated clothes, pillows, and even a rocking chair.”
Christine was admitted to the hospital for bed rest at 24 weeks, and the twins were delivered by Caesarean section at 30 weeks on March 25, weighing between 2lb and 3lb each.
“We had more than 42 staff and took up two surgical theaters,” she says. “Everyone wanted a front-row seat. When the babies came out, they were whisked into a side room, and Justin went with them.
“It was upsetting for me as I was desperate to see them, but I didn’t get anywhere near them for 24 hours. That was hard.
“Justin took 253 pictures of them to show me because I went straight to high dependency. The babies had bruised my lungs because they’d been kicking me so hard.”
Christine left the hospital a week later, but her daughters remained in special care for nine more weeks until they came home at the end of May. “I couldn’t wait to have them home,” Christine says. “I wanted to be their mother and look after them here.”
Now they have been home for more than a month, and life has changed beyond all recognition.
Justin has left his job to help care for his daughters and plans to be a full-time house husband.
“It’s pointless for me going back to work because my wages would not even cover the childcare,” he explains.
“I’m looking forward to it. After all, being a long-distance lorry driver and a full-time carer of quads is very similar. You’ve got to work long hours, the work is very monotonous, and you can’t take your eyes off the ball for a second in case there is an accident!
“I’m the chief nappy changer anyway — I changed more than 25 yesterday — and it doesn’t faze me.
“I know which girl is which because I memorize what they are wearing in the morning. But sometimes Christine tricks me by changing their top. I’ve been caught out a couple of times.”
The couple is not relying on state benefits apart from the statutory £60 a week child benefit.
After a year’s maternity leave, Christine plans to go back to work part-time because her salary is higher than her husband’s.
Today, they are surviving on snatches of sleep, the benevolence of family and friends, and hand-me-down clothes.
Volunteer nursery nurses are helping them care for the children too. The babies get through more than 200 nappies a week and at least one box of formula milk every 48 hours.
Admirably, Christine managed to express breast milk for the first seven weeks before an infection prevented her from continuing.
“The babies feed every four hours, but it takes at least an hour to feed all four of them, so by the time you’ve finished, you’ve only got two or three hours until the next feed,” says Christine.
“It’s tiring, of course, but it’s not the kind of tiredness that comes from work. It’s really worthwhile.”
Logistically, it’s a nightmare. Anyone with one baby will know that leaving the house can take forever. What’s it like with four?
“If we go out, we take two tandem prams, but if we have to drive, I take the four girls in the car, and Justin has to walk or get the bus! We went shopping the other day, and managed to get out of the house in just two hours!”
The comments the couple receives from strangers will be familiar to any mum of twins or triplets –
“You’ve got your hands full there” or “Oooh, double/triple/quadruple the trouble…”
“I love the fact that people come up to us and say nice things, but I do feel like saying: ‘Yes thanks, I know!'” smiles Christine.
“Someone asked me the other day if we were going to have any more children. I think the answer to that is absolutely not!”