Triplets: Three times the charm

She'd always longed for a baby. Then Cathy Koester gave birth to triplets. Now, she and her husband have swapped their carefree lifestyle for one of rigorous routines, military planning – and more fun than they'd ever thought possible

I am sitting on the living-room floor with three babies dotted around me. Six blue eyes are focused on me intently. They seem to be waiting for me to do something. I stick ABBA Gold into the CD player and fast- forward to "Take A Chance on Me". Three mouths open into huge smiles. I get up and start to dance. The babies all start to waggle around too. Encouraged, I throw in a few wild Saturday Night Fever moves.

My triplet girls bring out the diva in everyone. Friends who come round for a visit find themselves in the midst of this eager audience whose expectations for a performance is irresistible.

Molly, Rosie and Ivy were born in January this year. I had undergone IVF treatment after my husband Matt and I were unable to conceive a baby naturally. The first attempt at IVF didn't work, my 39th birthday was approaching, and we were beginning to accept that we would never have a child.

We decided to have a last-ditch attempt at IVF. Two embryos were implanted to boost our chance that at least one might result in a pregnancy. This time it really worked. Both embryos successfully implanted. By the time of my first scan, one of the embryos had split into an additional pair to give me surprise triplets. The chances of this happening were a mere two per cent.

In my wildest dreams I never envisaged triplets, with a set of identical twins thrown in for good measure. One question I am always asked is whether I can tell Molly and Rosie apart. Blimey, do they look alike. The honest answer is usually, but not always. Several times we've varnished one of Molly's fingernails as a way of distinguishing them. More recently, my mother-in-law noticed that Rosie has a slightly different shaped right ear, so that is the most reliable indicator now. Even so, we sometimes get it wrong. Matt once fed Molly twice by accident. He was mortified. She was delighted.

The older my daughters are getting, the easier it is to tell them apart by personality. Molly is fastest to flash her smile and boldest with strangers. Rosie is most advanced in her motor skills and is usually trying to wriggle her way into the narrowest opening under furniture. Ivy has always been preternaturally alert and intuitive. Even when she was born, tiny at only 3lb 9oz, she would sleep with one eye half-open. As soon as anyone approached her cot, both eyes would dart open and shine.

I never knew that babies were born with personalities of their own. I am amazed that my daughters are so different despite sharing the same age, experiences and genes. Sometimes they even swap roles. As a young baby Molly was quickest tempered and easily riled. Now she is chilled out and it is Rosie who gets indignant most often nowadays.

I cannot say I blame her. My babies have had to wait, take turns, and share everything from the word go. Placid behaviour doesn't win any prizes in our house. The noisier you are, the quicker you are likely to get your bottle. I constantly worry whether I am giving them each enough individual attention.

But the older they get, the more attention they give one another. The other day I sat and watched Ivy gaze indulgently at a fussing Rosie and reach out for her hand. I am sure Ivy was trying to comfort her. Sometimes I almost burst at their cuteness.

Something about three babies together of the exact same age is magical. Or ludicrous, as one friend put it. I have yet to go out with all three and not be approached by complete strangers transfixed by their multitudinous. Passers-by see a rather bizarre-looking pushchair with six legs dangling out and are gripped with amazement.

The identicalness of Molly and Rosie only adds to the marvel. Often the person who has stopped to peer at them will exclaim, "Oh look, one of them is laughing!" I know that will be Molly flirting again.

I take the babies out for a walk every day, but anything more ambitious than a walk in the park is impossible without help. Even the daily walk to the park is logistically challenging. There are two steps from our front door to the pavement. Before leaving the house I load all the babies in the pushchair and then ease the enormous contraption down the steps. The pushchair is too heavy to pull back up the steps when we return home. So I unload one baby, place her on the floor just inside the hallway, dash back outside to get the next baby, place her on the hallway floor, and then dash out for the third baby. Once all three babies are inside, I wrestle the enormous pushchair back up the steps and into the house before diving after Rosie who is trying to shimmy herself under the bookshelf.

Matt and I may blush at the attention our triplets have brought us, but there are benefits to being instantly recognisable. Should any of our girls ever find themselves in difficulty, our hope is that they will be so well-known to neighbours and local shopkeepers that help would always be close to hand.

I do value the neighbourliness that has sprung up since having triplets. I've never been very outgoing, but now I know most people on my street and a good number of the shopkeepers. I went to my local grocer a few weeks ago to pick up some essential items. I couldn't get the pushchair down the aisles so one of the men who works there volunteered to do my shopping for me. I hesitated, but then went ahead and asked him to fetch a packet of chocolate biscuits and a bottle of wine.

We chatted about the babies when I was paying the bill. He asked whether I feed them all. Yes, of course I feed them all, I said. He looked amazed. "With breast?"

It is, I am told, humanly possible to breast-feed triplets, but I personally was unable to produce nearly enough milk. In any case, I ended up expressing off most of my milk with an electric pump to give to Ivy. She was born with an anatomical defect which required major surgery and the doctors advised that she would most benefit from the healing properties of breast milk.

Molly and Rosie each got a go at my breast once a day. I was always squeamish about breast-feeding before having babies, and surprised myself at how much I wanted to be able to provide for them in that way. But having two babies suck milk at the same time from each breast was quite frankly a freakish sensation.

Now my daughters are being weaned, the feeding regime is even more elaborate. Molly and Rosie each have three milk feeds and three solid feeds. Ivy is fed milk by a tube that runs directly into her tummy by an electric pump that we rig up four times a day. She is also learning how to eat solids through her mouth, but needs her food completely pureed. That's 19 meals a day. Which leads, eventually, to a lot of nappies. We have a separate bin just for nappies which is full by the end of each day.

Before having babies I remember Matt lamenting to a friend about how queasy he is. Changing nappies was sure to make him gag. She told him that when it came to our own babies, we wouldn't feel that way. What a lie! One morning I was holding one of my babies on my lap when I felt the tremor of her bowels open. I went to lift her and instead scooped up a handful of poo. I retched.

Another question I get asked all the time is whether the babies sleep at the same time. The answer is yes they do. They nap together during the day and usually sleep through the night from 7pm to 5.30am.

I know many parents favour a "baby-led" approach to parenthood. One friend told me her philosophy was never to look at a clock. When her baby seemed hungry, she fed, day or night. Our babies keep to a schedule tight enough to make Gina Ford wince. For us, every minute of the day has its allotted purpose.

Such rigidity might seem a bit joyless, but it is a lifesaver.

With Matt at work and three young babies to care for, knowing what comes next at every moment means that I am always in control. I don't mean to sound sinister, but there is always something dark lurking just around the corner. Chaos. Becoming overwhelmed. Sheer exhaustion and the relentlessness of the daily demands mean that I am only just able to stay on top of things. Keeping a regime is not a matter of parenting style, it is a matter of survival.

Our regime also allows time for Matt and me. Every night we can count on several hours alone together after the girls' bedtime. This is precious. For many months after having the babies we didn't even sleep in the same room. We couldn't fit three cribs into our own bedroom so took turns sleeping in with the babies. With our focus so entirely consumed by our children, we could easily find ourselves drifting apart. At least that's what we tell Matt's parents when cajoling them into babysitting for us again so that we can go to the pub or catch a gig.

I've treasured this uninterrupted time with my babies, gruelling as it is. My maternity leave is coming to an end and soon I'll be back at my busy job, though on reduced hours. Finding childcare for triplets would have been an expensive nightmare, but we are very fortunate that Matt's parents retired early in order to look after the girls on the days that we are both at work. They are like our own Grandad and Nana Poppins.

But before returning to work, there is one final frontier to cross. I want to take all three babies for a visit to Kentucky where I was born and where my family still live. I should probably dread a transatlantic flight with three babies, but I can hardly wait to introduce them to my large family. Ivy's condition has so far made air travel impossible but we hope to get the green light soon and then nothing can stop us.

Becoming mother to an instant family of three at age 39 was a shock to the system, but at least I had no prior notion of parenthood. I may lack the wisdom that comes from experience, but I'm winging it with the boldness of the rookie.

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