Lauren Kamnik always knew that she was meant to be a mum. For as long as she could remember, she'd been envisioning the chubby feet and the tiny outfits and the happy chaos of a house with kids.
"I wanted to be a mother more than anything in the world," she says.
She also knew, somewhere deep in her bones, that she would have trouble conceiving.
Her mother had had a difficult time having children. And Lauren struggled for years with anorexia that wreaked havoc on her body.
So after she and Joe Kamnik married in 2006 and spent a year trying to have a baby the old-fashioned way, they turned to a specialist and entered the particular hell of fertility treatments. Injections. Expectations. Despair. Three rounds of intrauterine insemination, three rounds of in vitro fertilization. Nothing worked.
"They told me I was never going to get pregnant," she recalls. They told her it was time to move on.
Lauren, then 29, had a brother who had been adopted, so she wanted to pursue that path. Joe wanted to keep trying for a biological child. So they did both, beginning the paperwork for adoption and seeking out a gestational surrogate. Each process could take years, the Arlington, Virginia, couple was warned, and neither was guaranteed to work.
In 2008, they found a nearby surrogate, in whom the first of their four remaining embryos was implanted. And then, because it didn't take, with the second. And then the third. None resulted in a pregnancy.
In February 2009, after a series of home visits, the Kamniks were approved to adopt a child. Three days later, at a nail salon, Lauren got a call telling her that a newborn was waiting for them in Jacksonville, Florida. She suspects that because she and Joe hadn't specified a race or gender and weren't averse to a baby who may have been exposed to drugs, they'd moved to the top of the list.
That night, with no time to prepare, they drove to the Florida home of a social worker caring for a two-day-old boy. "He was just perfect," Lauren says. "I remember we walked in and it was just this little baby. And I was like, 'This is it. This is our child.' "
After two weeks, they came home with Oliver, an interracial child with hair the color of steamed carrots.
Four months later, they decided to try implanting the final embryo with the surrogate. They were confident that it wouldn't take, but they didn't want to wonder, "What if?" Two weeks after the procedure, the surrogate reported that she was pregnant.
"We were so happy. They'd be a little more than a year apart, so we knew it would be really tough, but totally manageable," Lauren remembers. "After all these years, we now have two! We have a family."
During a trip to the beach two weeks later, Lauren began to feel "a little off." The feeling persisted until a friend convinced her to take a pregnancy test. And there it was: two lines. She bought two more tests. Each came back positive.
Lauren was placed on bed rest for much of her pregnancy and went into labor four weeks early. As she lay in the hospital bed with newborn Wesley in her arms, Joe's cellphone rang. It was the surrogate. She was in labor and heading to a different hospital. Thirteen hours later, Vivienne came into the world.
Almost as soon as they were all home, the Kamniks headed back to the hospital with Wesley, who wouldn't eat. He would remain in the hospital for a month and be in and out for much of his first year. He was very sick, although no one could say exactly what was wrong.
"For the first two years, I thought he was going to die," Lauren says. She and Joe took turns staying at the hospital with him and relied on an au pair to help with the babies at home.
Wesley needed a feeding tube and remained developmentally delayed. He was 4 when the Kamniks finally received a diagnosis - a genetic disorder so rare that it doesn't really have a name. Only seven people in the world are known to have it. Wesley, they were told, would never walk, talk or eat.
"I was really angry and really sad for a really long time," Lauren says. "And then my husband said to me, 'All we really want for our kids is for them to be happy. And he is just the happiest child. Just a happy, happy, happy kid.'"
Wesley has been in speech and physical therapy for years, and despite doctors' predictions, he began to walk on his own last year. Today, with a little help, he can climb stairs and eat pureed foods.
"Vivienne and Oliver worship him," Lauren says. "They wouldn't let anything happen to him. He's just adored by them."
The Kamniks' day begins before dawn. No matter what time he's put to bed, Oliver, now in kindergarten, wakes up at 4am. Soon the morning rush is underway, with breakfast to fix and shoes to tie, the au pair emerging from her room in the basement and a nurse showing up to help with Wesley's feeding tube.
It's actually easier now that the kids are a little older - Oliver is 5, the other two are 4 - and they all go off to school or preschool for at least a few hours a day.
But still, it's a struggle for Lauren to take all three kids out for shopping trips by herself and the family often attracts curious stares.
When people hear that Wesley and Vivienne were born within hours of each other, they assume that the two are twins. "Kind of?" Lauren responds. "I guess so. Sometimes it's worth explaining because it's fun to see their reactions."
It's a struggle to keep up with Wesley's therapy appointments and the other kids' activities, to pay all the bills and maintain a marriage and some semblance of sanity. On a recent afternoon, Oliver and a friend played hide-and-seek while Vivienne fixed a new Barbie's hair and Wesley pealed with laughter as Lauren picked up a plastic dinosaur and roared. The downstairs playroom was covered in toys, as it often is, and somehow the mess-makers have a way of disappearing just in time for cleanup.
"I'm still just kind of in shock," Lauren says.
"We went from just being so sad and so in despair and thinking we're never going to have children to having three - overnight, it feels like. It's so fun. It's exhausting, but it's fun."
Once the toys are back in their bins, it's time for dinner, baths and corralling three little bodies into their own separate beds.
And then, for a while, the chaos recedes.
"In the middle of it, it's like, 'What am I doing? How did I get here?' And then you go to bed at the end of the day and it's like, 'How lucky am I?' " Lauren says.
"This is what I wanted."