>Growing up, Hazel Bowden had a clear vision of how her life would be: she would have a good career, a nice home and no more than two children.
She certainly didn’t want to be one of those frazzled-looking mothers with unruly broods that she encountered in supermarkets.
But Hazel, 40, could never have foreseen just how off course her own life would go.
Today, she is the mother of not one, but two, sets of twins, who were born in the space of 12 months. She is thought to be the only woman in the UK to give birth to twins twice in a single year.
Hannah and Luke are now four and Sarah and Connor are three, and, for the first time since their birth, Hazel has the energy to take stock of her extraordinarily challenging and exhausting situation.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the strain of the situation pushed her marriage to the brink.
In January this year she and her husband Andy, 38, a computer engineer, who live in Lytham St Annes, Lancs, with Hazel’s nine-year-old daughter Charlotte, from a previous relationship, discussed divorce.
Driven to despair by sleep deprivation, their relationship seemed beyond repair.
‘At one point, Andy and I were preparing 24 bottles, getting through 35 nappies and doing four loads of washing every day,’ she says. ‘I got up eight times in the night and the day would start at 5.30am.
‘Even going to the loo was a struggle and I’d sometimes do it with two babies balanced on my lap and the other two in their rocking chairs next to me.
‘I used to take such pride in my appearance – but now all I had time to do was sling on some comfy clothes. I never bothered to look in the mirror as I never saw anyone except Andy and the children.
‘In fact, there were times when I went three weeks without leaving the house. There was no reprieve, no chance to sit down and relax for a second.
‘I know some women can’t have children and I should feel grateful for having been blessed with twins – twice – but the day-to-day reality was hell.
‘One of the worst moments was two years ago when all four of them had a viral infection. For three days they were constantly being sick and there wasn’t a clean towel in the house. I felt awful as they all wanted a cuddle, but it just wasn’t possible.
‘Then Charlotte and Andy fell ill. It was a miracle I didn’t, but I couldn’t afford to be ill, I had to care for everyone. Even now, it’s not easy. I know most mums with four kids have a tough time, but the problem is them all being so close to the same age.
‘One of them does something naughty and before I know it they are all copying. If we go to the park, one might run off. But unlike most mums, I can’t sprint after them, as that would mean leaving the other three.
‘One morning in January this year, I reached breaking point. I lay in bed curled up in a ball in tears, unable to go on.’
Today, thanks to marriage counselling, the couple say their lives are back on track.
Despite the challenges of having four such young children, Hazel and Andy have learnt to embrace their unique family situation.
‘I battled for a long time with not being able to continue my career as an accountant,’ Hazel says. ‘But Andy and I have realised we lucky are to have this big family.
‘We can’t change our circumstances but we did change our attitude. After months of rowing, we’ve got back the closeness we once had.’
When Hazel met Andy on a dating website in March 2003, she had no idea they would face such challenges. At the time Hazel had recently split with Charlotte’s father and was focusing on her career as an accountant.
She says: ‘I would have been happy not to have any more children had Andy not wanted them.’
In February 2005, Hazel and Andy discovered she was pregnant three days before their wedding in Florida.
The couple had been renovating their six bedroom Victorian home, which they had planned to sell to fund a move to Canada.
Shortly afterwards Hazel started to suffer intense morning sickness. ‘It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I remembered reading that morning sickness is more intense with multiple pregnancies.’
Her 14-week scan confirmed Hazel was expecting twins. While her grandmother had given birth to twins, there was not a strong history of it in the family.
‘I put a brave face on because any baby is a gift, but at the back of my mind I was scared,’ says Hazel.
On September 22, 2005, Hazel gave birth four weeks prematurely to Hannah and Luke, who weighed 4 lb 15oz and 4 lb 14oz respectively, at Blackpool Hospital.
Hazel recalls: ‘The first time I held them, I felt an indescribable mixture of joy and despair. I kept asking Andy how we would manage but he said: “We’ll find a way.”
‘When I came home, Andy was wonderful. We barely got any sleep for weeks, but once we’d got into a routine I felt silly for ever thinking we wouldn’t be able to manage.’
Eight weeks after the birth she went back on the contraceptive pill. So when, four months after the twins were born, Hazel missed a period she panicked.
A pregnancy test confirmed her worst fears. The pill had failed and, once again, Hazel was gripped by the most horrendous morning sickness. Surely, lightning couldn’t strike twice?
It could. ‘Before the birth, I’d always been on the combined pill, but this time I went on the mini pill,’ she says. ‘You have to take it at the same time every day.
‘I didn’t mess up the timings, but it didn’t work. I’ve heard its not as reliable as the combined pill. I was one of the small percentage for whom it failed.’
At Hazel’s 14 week scan in March 2006, she was told that she was expecting her second set of twins.
This time there was no brave face. ‘I broke down in floods of tears,’ says Hazel. ‘When we told the stenographer we’d just had twins, she looked at us like we were idiots.
‘On the drive home from the hospital Andy and I didn’t say a word. The thought of a termination crept into my mind, but when I mentioned it to Andy, he said it was something he couldn’t live with – I quickly realised I couldn’t either.’
Hazel and Andy traded in their Renault Clio for an eight-seater Mitsubishi, imported from Japan. To keep costs down, cots and baby clothes were purchased from eBay.
She says: ‘We tried to be light-hearted and joked about getting a mini bus, but there was no denying our future was irrevocably changed.
We would never be able to afford a holiday and our plans to do up and sell the house were impossible.
‘I became so big that I couldn’t look after Hannah and Luke. My bump stopped my arms reaching the changing table. When I was six months pregnant Andy had to stop working so he could help me, which made us worry about money.’
On September 19, 2006, Hazel gave birth five weeks early to Sarah and Connor, weighing 5lb 9oz and 5lb 12oz respectively.
On Hannah and Luke’s first birthday, three days later, Hazel was still in hospital. Missing such a milestone in her babies’ lives only drove home how difficult balancing the needs of all her children would prove.
She says: ‘I lay there in tears, feeling I was neglecting the first twins. I blamed myself that Charlotte, too, would suffer and none of them would ever have a normal life.’
On top of everything, Hazel calculated that it would cost £660 a week for all of them to attend nursery full-time, which added up to nearly £35,000 a year – about what she had been earning – so there was no point in her going back to work.
She says: ‘Being a parent means you lose your freedom, but suddenly I couldn’t go out without it becoming a military operation. When we did go out as a family strangers seemed to be condemning me for having so many babies.
‘One time an old lady actually came up to Andy and I and said: “Did no one tell you about contraception?” She pointed at Andy and said: “I hope he’s going to have a vasectomy.” I couldn’t believe it.’
Instead of such comments uniting Hazel and Andy, the pressure affected their relationship. By the time Sarah and Connor were eight months old they were arguing.
Hazel recalls: ‘Usually our rows were about money. The babies were costing us a fortune as we were spending £160 on nappies and £80 on formula a month.
‘We moved Hannah and Luke onto cow’s milk to save money as soon as possible and Sarah and Connor wore their hand-me-down clothes.
But we still spent £140 on shoes and £40 on wellies every three months. Our electricity bill is now £120 a month. It used to be £60.
‘Some mornings I woke up wishing I was in a different house with a different family. Looking back I can admit now that I was depressed but I was trying to be superwoman.’
In August last year Hazel and Andy talked about separating. She says: ‘While a part of me wished I’d never met Andy and unfairly blamed him for what had happened, I still loved him and wanted to have our old relationship back.
‘I also didn’t want our children to grow up in a broken home and knew that Andy and I owed it to them to try and sort things out.’
In November last year, Hazel and Andy agreed to see a marriage counsellor. ‘We needed to spend time together without talking about the children, but it was easier said than done,’ says Hazel.
‘Even when we reached a point when all four slept through the night, when the youngest were four months old, all I wanted to do was climb into bed and sleep. Finding time for romance was impossible.’
As the twins all get older, life is becoming easier, says Hazel. ‘All four twins have started going to nursery in the mornings, which gives me a chance to try to catch up with things that I’ve been wanting to do for years.
‘Now, we are happy with the little things we achieve as a family. Just making it to my mum’s house for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon is an achievement, as is Andy and I making time for a walk, just the two of us.
‘The twins are incredible. They’ve had to be very independent because it wasn’t possible for me to baby them.
Hannah and Sarah love emptying the dishwasher, which is unheard of in most families. They have such a strong bond that they don’t really need other friends.
‘They all adore their big sister Charlotte and they’re always saying they wish she had a twin too. We might have had teething problems but Andy and I love our unusual family and we are stronger for it.’
While Hazel and Andy have found happiness with their unique family, they are adamant it won’t be added to. Andy, taking the old lady’s advice has had a vasectomy.
Lightning will definitely not be striking for a third time.