Don't let the twins’ cheery chuckles fool you – that cooing cuteness can turn into an ear-piercing wail in a flash, their mom says.
But each time Karen Swanepoel (45) hears the word “Mommy” it makes the drama and hecticness of having a pair of busy toddlers all worth it.
“Isn’t it the most beautiful word ever?” she says. “It melts my heart every time.”
The two-year-olds are her greatest blessing, she says. They’re her miracle babies after years of heartache and part of a wonderful new chapter in her life.
Eight years ago, life she knew it was shattered when her family was obliterated in a catastrophic car crash on the N1 between Kathu and Bloemfontein.
She was the only survivor – her husband, Schalk, died along with her children, Jeanelle (5) and Juan (2).
For years she longed to hold a baby in her arms again, to feel the soft, warm weight of the little body against hers.
“It was so hard being a mom at heart but having no children to shower with love.” Then, five years ago, her life changed: she found new love with André Swanepoel (49) and they got married.
But it was a long time before she felt ready to welcome more children in her life. “For six years, all the love I’d once given my kids crashed like waves on dry land,” she says.
She’ll always miss her first family, she says, and the pain of that loss will never go away. But her heart is full of joy and life has felt whole again since Reynhard and Desiré arrived.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t look at them in amazement. I thought I’d run out of chances, that I’d never experience that kind of joy again,” she says. “Now I realise every dat that they are the embodiment of grace.”
The twins keep her on her toes, Karen says. She thought she knew it all having been a mom before, “but let me tell you something, these two taught me a lesson”.
The family live in Mossel Bay and during our video chat two little heads often pop into view, always running around, always on the go.
“They taught me that you can never be in complete control. They have us wrapped around their little fingers. And they’re a handful! This is a whole new ball game.”
Karen, a dietician, and André, who runs a debt collection business, came up with a strategy. He would get up at night if Reynhard cried, while Karen would attend to Desiré if she woke up.
“But they were having none of it,” Karen says, chuckling. Before long, Reynhard was her responsibility and Desiré was her dad’s.
“I must admit they made a better choice. Reynhard and I have similar personalities – though he’s physically active, he has a calm soul. And he loves sleeping, just like his mom.
“His sister is a daredevil, like her dad – he used to go parachuting when he was younger. Reynie is still cautious on the swings but she can’t swing high or long enough and she’s always first to wake up in the morning.”
The twins have helped her to move on, Karen says. “You still carry the pain with you every day, but I’ve learnt to live and appreciate life again.”
Karen’s husband and daughter died at the scene of their horror crash on 10 January 2012. Little Juan passed away in hospital shortly afterwards.
Karen was sedated for 10 days before a family member broke the news to her.
Back then, she couldn’t imagine becoming a mom again. “I was afraid I’d be betraying my children.”
After becoming involved with André – they met in a restaurant in Mossel Bay in 2014 – the couple decided they wanted another shot at parenthood.
“When André divorced his first wife, his son Nandré was just a year old so André missed some of his milestones. He wanted that experience again and I longed to hold a baby in my arms.”
When the twins arrived, Karen experienced “seriously mixed emotions”.
“I worried that I was being disloyal to my first children,” she says. “But I don’t feel like that anymore. The twins are so different. Their personalities are worlds removed from Juan and Jeanelle’s.”
It’s important to her not to compare the twins with her late children.
“Of course there are days I miss them – like when a friend with children visits and I suddenly realise how much my children would’ve grown by now. And on birthdays, Mother’s Day and the anniversary of the accident.
“But Reynhard and Desiré are people in their own right and it would be unfair to brand them as someone they’re not.”
It's no small task raising twins at 45 and juggling it with a busy dietician’s practice.
“But I wouldn’t trade their busy little bodies for anything,” Karen says.She thought she’d enjoy a bit of peace after the twins recently started crèche but she misses having them around.
Getting them ready for school is a feat in itself. “Let me tell you, they relish testing their mom and dad. We struggle to get them dressed in the mornings – they run all over the house. Now I have a plan: I catch one of them and brush their hair, then I do the same with the other. Then I go back to catching the first one to dress them, and so on.”
One of her greatest joys is the way André has embraced fatherhood.
“He baths them, changes nappies and does daddy duty. He enjoys being a dad and is wonderful at it.”
Karen is now documenting her painful loss and journey towards healing. “In essence, it’s the story of how I searched for answers as to why I was the only one to survive. I want to offer others hope.
”These days, she derives pleasure from little things and the magnitude of her loss has made her realise the importance of embracing every day.
“The point is, God let me live again. I have a second chance at happiness and that’s something I’ll always cherish.”