STANDISH – When store clerks and other strangers ask if their babies are twins, Melissa and Llia Mackenzie say, “Yes.”
And if the questioner asks which one is older, they point to Jackson, the 6-month-old with the shock of brown hair.
But if the questioner wants to know how far apart their births were, Melissa and Llia look at each other before deciding how to reply. The fact of the matter is that Jackson and Samuel were born five weeks apart. Conceived from the same donor sperm, they are biological half brothers. Llia gave birth to Jackson last Oct. 20, while Melissa gave birth to Samuel a month later, on Nov. 25.
Their story is a testament to the enduring power of love and the belief that all things are possible in a loving, caring environment. It also shows – to borrow a line from John Lennon – that life is what happens when you’re making other plans.
“We always knew we both wanted to carry a child,” says Llia. “We never expected to do it together.”
Melissa and Llia – Standish residents who both graduated from Bonny Eagle High School and are both educators there – got married three years ago this July. It was a storybook wedding in a bucolic setting in New Hampshire with the two of them exchanging vows in stunningly beautiful, white wedding gowns. Their intention was to have a family of their own with the help of a donor bank. They narrowed their online search to a select few donor candidates from a California donor bank in the weeks beforehand, but finally made their decision on New Year’s Eve 2012 (because the prices were going up on Jan. 1.)
Once the three donor vials arrived, Melissa started monitoring her cycle. They fully expected they would take turns bearing their children over the next few years, with Melissa going first because, at 38, her biological clock was ticking a little louder.
When the first attempt didn’t take, Melissa hoped to try again in February. But she didn’t ovulate in February, and she began to wonder if she was showing the first signs of menopause. She decided that Llia should make the next attempt. Llia agreed on the condition that Melissa would also try again, since the chance that they would both become pregnant was about 4 percent.
But Melissa and Llia (or was it Samuel and Jackson) beat those odds. When their doctor at Coastal Women’s Health Care, Dr. Barbara Slager, found out they both were pregnant, she was so excited that she started crying.
“She kept saying, I’ve never done this before,” recalls Melissa.
Friends and family, while supportive, predicted the next nine months would not exactly be happily wedded bliss.
“Everyone said, ‘You’re going to claw each other’s eyes out,’ ” Melissa says. “But the emotionally cranky piece never happened.”
“Having your best friend by your side the entire time was wonderful,” says Llia. “One of us would wake up in the middle of the night with a calf cramp and the other one would say, ‘I have one, too. Flex your feet. Flex your feet!’”
While they worried about what would happen if they both went into labor at the same time, that became a non-issue as their due dates approached.
Llia had to be induced at 36 weeks on Oct. 20. Jackson was home for five weeks while Melissa continued to carry Samuel to term. He was born via C-section on Nov. 25, his due date, after it was discovered that she had developed gestational diabetes.
Once Sam came home, Melissa and Llia felt like they were nursing around the clock and tip-toeing and whispering whenever both boys fell asleep at the same time. They were able to give each other breaks from nursing once Melissa’s milk came in. When Melissa went back to work eight weeks after her C-section, Llia took over the daytime nursing altogether.
“Our heterosexual friends said, ‘I wish my husband could have nursed!’” Melissa says.
“I can’t imagine being the mother of twins all by myself,” Llia adds.
According to their longtime friend, Maura O’Connor, Melissa and Llia are strong-minded, independent women, who spent a lot of time researching the right car seats, strollers and other equipment for their boys. But she notes that the two moms also have taken full advantage of the “village” that sprung up around them before and after the boys came home. Melissa’s father made sure the pellet stove was pumping during those long, cold winter nights, and friends stopped by often with hot meals and offers to do errands. O’Connor says she has tag-teamed with Melissa’s mother to take the boys for a day. (She hasn’t had the courage to take them both by herself just yet).
“They have a large network of family and friends,” says O’Connor. “It’s great to see the support they’ve received.”
The two moms are also grateful to Slager, their obstetrician, who made a point of being available to both of them during their pregnancies. She also gave Melissa and Llia the connection with the nurse manager at Maine Medical Center to help set up their birth plans.
“She (Dr. Slager) has been a huge advocate for us,” Melissa says.
Jack and Sam, meanwhile, seem to be thriving. While they occasionally have “double meltdowns,” their moms say they enjoy each other’s company, holding hands from time to time, pulling each other’s hair, and taking turns babbling at each other. If one starts crying, the other one usually stops what he’s doing and listens.
With school vacation just a month away, Melissa is looking forward to being home with the boys for the whole summer. She says she felt a little guilty when she went back to work full time in January, leaving Llia to do all the diaper changing, nursing and rocking from 7 to 2:30. She also missed being there “live” for a few of the boys’ milestones, but thanks to the wonders of technology, she has been able to share the big moments before too much time has passed.
“Llia sends me a picture and a video every day,” Melissa says.
She is quick to project the pictures from her computer onto her classroom wall so that her students can share the moment, too.
“Kids want to know when the babies are coming in to visit,” Melissa says. “The support from school has been awesome.”
The Mackenzies have decided that Llia will carry their third child, hopefully in the fall of 2015. Melissa loved the experience of carrying Sam, and the “mind-blowing” knowledge that he “is a little piece of me.” But Llia, at age 25 is, admittedly, the madonna of the family.
“I love it. I had a wonderful pregnancy,” she says. “There are tough days, but since I was a teen, I’ve always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I could be pregnant my whole life.”
Melissa and Llia haven’t talked much about what they will tell their boys once they’re old enough to ask where they came from. Melissa, being a science teacher, will be able to explain the mechanics. But more than likely, they will focus on the lessons to be learned about life and the power of positive thinking.
“If I had gotten pregnant in January, we wouldn’t have Jackson,” says Melissa.
“Now they have a partner in crime,” says Llia. “They get to grow up together.”
May coverMelissa Mackenzie with Samuel and Llia Mackenzie with Jackson, at their home in Standish. Samuel Mackenzie, left, is 5 months old, while Jackson Mackenzie is the older brother at 6 months. Melissa and Llia Mackenzie on their wedding day in July 2011.