When Robert Tolbert got home from work on a Thursday in August, he found a gift bag on his bed from his wife, Nia, who had just left for a girls' weekend. Inside the bag was a card that said "please accept this gift from me and God" and a printout of a sonogram.
It was three times the length of a typical sonogram image.
"Wait a minute — why is it so long?" Robert remembers wondering as he retrieved a printout as long as a CVS receipt. Then he noticed that the gift bag also contained three onesies with the numbers 1, 2 and 3 on them.
Not only was Nia pregnant with triplets, it was not the first set of multiples for the young couple from Waldorf, Md. They are already the parents of twin boys, Alexander and Riley, born in 2015, as well as their first child, a son named Shai, born in 2011.
"It was a surprise. We were not planning on having any more children after the twins," Nia said. "This was a very, very, very big surprise."
After they got over the shock, Nia, a 28-year-old yoga instructor and wellness coach, and Robert, a 31-year old project manager for a government contractor, began preparing for the girls due in March.
"We're expecting the normal adjustment that any household makes when a new family member comes into the picture," Nia said. "We're just expecting it times three."
The Tolberts are planning to buy a larger car for their eight-person household. They also need to convert one of their three bedrooms into a "girl-oriented" nursery, Robert said.
And then there are the child-care logistics. Nia cares for Shai and the twins during the day while Robert works. He takes over in the evening while she works on her yoga and coaching business. They plan to continue that schedule once the triplets arrive. They'll also seek reinforcements from family and friends; Robert's mother will babysit on some weekends.
"For a lot of people, us having a lot of kids and being so young is perceived possibly as being bad . . . we just look at it as a blessing," Nia said.
Robert says it's a chance to demonstrate their strengths. "It's good to be able to show other people that, as a young couple, we can handle so much," he said.
The two met in 2007 through their best friends, who worked together at the same gym, Robert said. They dated for seven years before marrying in 2014.
When they had the twins, Robert couldn't believe it then, either. Nia said, "He broke out in hives and he had to take a little walk."
Now, the two are "past that point of apprehension and just excited and . . . living in the blessing of what's about to happen," Nia said.
Both Nia and Robert have multiples in their family; Robert has two cousins who each have triplet girls and a pair of aunts who are twins.
"That's pretty rare," said Thomas Price, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Duke Fertility Center, when told about the Tolbert family. "That's a pretty interesting statistical aberration." The odds of having natural twins is "about one in 70" and the odds of having natural triplets is "at least one in 1000 or higher," he said.
The risk of premature delivery of triplets is high — about 90 percent are born before term, Price said. But "there is some evidence that, if you've (already) had a baby, that multiple babies have a little bit better odds of going further in pregnancy. So she's probably a little bit better off if she's done it in that order," he said.
Birth of multiples is at an all-time high. In 2014, 3.5 percent of all babies born were twins, triplets or higher-order multiples, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. It also found that multiples are more common among African Americans, with 4.1 percent having multiples compared with 3.8 percent of whites, 2.5 percent of Hispanics and 3.2 percent of Asians.
A 2011 study found that the highest rate of twins in the world occurs in Benin, a small country in West Africa where the rate is 29.1 per 1,000 births. Countries in West Africa tend to have the highest rates of multiples.
Nia is from New Orleans and Robert is Liberian. "We have a very good understanding of the culture of what family is, in general," Nia said.
"It'll be a different experience from having all the boys," said Nia. "That in itself is exciting because it's not going to be the same old experience of having multiples and having multiple boys."
Nia "finally gets to buy all the dresses," Robert said.