Harald, Maude, and the Himba: A letter to the twins

Dear Harold and Maude,

I know, I’d promised new names. We will get there—we still have five weeks to come up with them. Five weeks until you launch yourselves into the outside world. Five weeks until I hold you in my arms instead of in my belly.

Back before I knew I was having you, or even sure I wanted to try and have one of you, I always thought that the transformation of pregnancy would be something I’d love to undertake.  And now we’re eight months into this together and I have a belly that is an unworldly orb full of not one, but two lives.


8 Months Pregnant with Twins, photo by Anne Skidmore

We are in a three-person journey every millisecond of every day—but it is the nights I want to talk to you about.  It is the nights when I lie awake in the dark at eleven, one, three and four, and I wonder just what we’re all getting ourselves into. Those are the moments when I need to feel you kick and squirm, and yet those are the moments when you’re most silent. And so from now on, I’m going to knock.

Seven years ago, I met a Himba woman in northwestern Namibia. It was early evening in Marienfluss valley—that hour-long slice of time when the whitened grasslands are momentarily gold.  Your dad, Kate, and I had just climbed a consolation rock climbing route in the shade of a 113-degree day on a granite cliff that was the backdrop and backyard for a Himba family’s mud and grass home. We had no common language with the Himba. It was 2009 and we were 20 days into a 35-day expedition whose budget for a translator had evaporated with the global financial crisis. The Himba family had been watching our team climb, and we’d been living on their land. We had developed a system of pointing and gesturing to get by. One woman and I were particularly hitting it off that night. She reached for bright green rope I had as confirmation that we’d actually been the ones climbing on the face. I nodded, she shook her head.


Photo by Gabe Rogel

This woman had a baby on her back—six or eight months old, I guessed. Old enough to make faces at back at me when I made them to him. His mother and I switched soon from communicating about rock climbing, to communicating about babies. She turned to give me better access the little boy, and when she moved sideways in the light I saw her belly pushing against the orange and yellow blanket that covered her bare body below. I looked up at her and then together our eyes traveled back to her stomach. Within a moment she’d grabbed my hands and pulled them close. She flicked the woolen blanket out of the way with her elbows and settled my palms on the skin of her growing stomach. We kept them there her other baby kicked. The woman and I both smiled. And then she reached for my belly.

The Himba woman did not reach for me with an open palm, but rather she took her right hand and made it into a fist and paused with that first hovering above my navel. When she touched me, her knuckles brushed my skin as if knocking on a door. She rapped. Twice. She pointed at the rock face above with her other hand. She shook her head, rapped again. “No, no, no,” she said.

I’m sorry to say that I never got that woman’s name. In the year after meeting her I wrote about her knocking on my belly in the context of my clarity to be ok with not having children, and my comfort with the fact that my life and the travel, climbing, exploration, risk taking, and boundary pushing that comes with it did not necessarily predispose me to having children. And that this was alright—I could have an empty belly.

Life is ironic. You two might just be the largest ironies, and joys, of your dad and my lives. I’d like to tell you that I am excited, ready, and happy every moment as I prepare for your arrival. But I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t want you to expect total certainty from me as mom, or from yourselves if you should ever be expecting parents. The doubts and fear, for me, are worst at night. During those sleepless stretches in the dark I wonder and worry. And as I said, it’s those moments when I most want you to be kicking and flipping around to reassure me that you ok in my belly and that we will be ok when you’re out of it. And you two stinkers like to be silent then. So last week I started a new plan: when you’re silent, and I’m scared, I do what the Himba woman did. I knock. And now, you answer.