Twins – the joys and the challenges

Being a parent of multiples is special. I can’t deny that it feels good to be noticed and commended on how clever, brave or amazing you are. But it wanes. As your children grow, you lose your identity as parents of multiples, because they tend to lose theirs as a ‘twin’ set.

My girls are 10, and these days it is very rare to be asked if they are twins. It usually comes up when I have to fill in forms with their dates of birth and some serious official points out that I have made a mistake and repeated the same birth date.

I know that for them I should celebrate the fact that the rest of the world now identifies them as individuals, not as a set, but the separateness also diminishes some aspects of who they are. It does matter that they are twins who have known a particular experience of growing up, and it should continue to matter to us.

“But you’ve got two nipples and we already have a van,” was the matter-of-fact and enthusiastic response when my then four-year-old daughter discovered that I was expecting twins and that our family was about to double in size from two to four children.

I learned that I was to join the ranks of parents of multiples when, at nine weeks pregnant, I was in hospital – on a drip, having been unable to keep anything down for nine days. A routine scan revealed not just one, but two healthy babies. My husband received the news via a phone call I made from the chief radiographer’s office. “Are you sitting down?” I asked, as he heard the news that our life was about to change forever.

My inbuilt ‘coping’ mechanism in a crisis is to consume printed matter. So I immediately requested and read every book in the Auckland City Library system on multiple births and parenting. Most of them were at odds with our excitement. It seemed they were out to scare us and they were loaded with horror stories. I became determined to breastfeed my babies after reading a particularly disturbing chapter on bottle feeding multiples which began, “First take your sterilised bucket…”

We took on board our four year old’s cheerfulness and optimistically ventured forth on this unexpected journey. We soon discovered we weren’t alone. One in approximately 80 births in New Zealand is a multiple. Increasing maternal age, improved fertility technology and a healthy dose of genetics has seen the multiple birth numbers rise.

We joined the Auckland Central Multiple Birth Club – a life-enhancing decision and one I would recommend to all parents of twins or triplets. It gives you and your twins the chance to blend in as opposed to standing out. This was highlighted for me when I pulled up to the multiple birth playgroup one morning, unloaded one baby in her capsule and was getting my bag and second baby from the car. A preschooler the other side of the car park remarked, “Look, mummy! That lady’s only got one baby!” Yes, I thought, here I am just the ‘norm’. These people understand.

My babies arrived at 32 weeks, but were strong and healthy enough to come home when they were seven days old. Although I had two babies, it was scary to have the full responsibility of these tiny girls.

What we learned

From day one, if one baby was hungry, I fed them both. And if one was tired, they both went to bed. It was a matter of survival for me. My feet were off the floor at 7.30pm every night. Juggling school and extra-curricular activities for the older children was hard work and our twins learned to sleep in their car seats and buggy from birth.

I had to learn to share the babies as it was simply not possible to do everything alone. My husband and extended family got a lot more cuddles than they had when our older children were tiny. My husband, David’s, favourite line was, “I’ll take the spare baby – this one needs feeding/changing/settling etc.” The other new experience for me as a mum was that, with these babies. I was to be only the second most important person in my children’s lives, behind their twin.

Twins and individuality

Generally accepted wisdom says that twins should be treated entirely as individuals. So we never referred to them as ‘the twins’. Of course, we simply replaced it with terms such as ‘the babies’, ‘the girls’, or more commonly, ‘the smidgets’ (small midgets). And even now I struggle with the T word. But I don’t know that that was necessarily the best course of action.

You are told not to compare. Yeah, right! As people we compare ourselves and others constantly, and to have two babies lying side-by-side, eating from the same spoon and responding very differently, it’s impossible not to! And who declared that comparison always has to be a negative thing?

Individuality has never been a major problem for my fraternal girls and in a family where half of the 12 grandchildren are twins, their twinship is not what singles them out. My brother and younger sister also have twins, even though there is no history in our family tree.

Schools often have a policy of placing twins in separate classes. When challenged, they will counter with the line that ‘no other child has their sibling in the same class as them’. The simple fact is that not many other children were conceived together or had to share a womb. Multiples, in fact, are not the same as other children.

We have been extremely fortunate that the principal of our primary school has been particularly sensitive to the needs of the twins in his care. For example, I was approached to see if I felt they should be honoured as ‘special persons’ together or separately. I try to use the golden rule of, “What would I expect if they were my two older single children?” I chose ‘separately’.

However, that’s not always the right question. Multiples are not the same as singletons. (Other parents of multiples have ‘singletons’, everyone else just has children).

The challenges

The most testing time for me as a parent of twins came 18 months ago. Our primary school selects House Captains, who are elected form the ranks of the incoming Year Six class. The principal called me aside to say that one of the twins had been elected and one was first runner-up, but that meant she lost! We both recognised it was a far-from-ideal situation, but neither he nor I were in a position to change it.

I cried, I lost sleep. This was not a one-off event – this was a year of badge-wearing and special duties. And it was to be announced in public at prize giving on the second-to-last day of school. So the best we could do was to be there for the one who missed out.

On the night Victoria’s name was called out first, my heart went out to Eleanor – the names of her two closest friends followed, as they too were named leaders of their respective houses. I was so proud – she smiled and congratulated everyone, but as she climbed in the car to go home, she broke down and sobbed for hours.

Nothing I could say or do was going to make it better. All I could do was hold her in heartbreak. She calmed down enough to say how sorry she was for ruining her twin’s special day and that she was truly happy for Victoria. But it was something she wanted with all her heart. After many more tears, they fell asleep arm-in-arm in Eleanor’s bunk. (I so envy that absolute closeness, security and love they share). It was a difficult time for all the family and families of their friends. Everyone rightly congratulated Victoria but were sensitive to Eleanor’s position. Yes, other children were disappointed that night, but they didn’t have to live side-by-side with the badge-wearer for a whole year!

We had been there before. In their very first week of school, the cross-country race was held. Victoria was placed third and Eleanor fifth. All well and good. Coming third meant getting a ribbon, but coming fifth didn’t. At this point Eleanor was distressed at missing out.

On arriving home, my mother and I made a lovely fifth place ribbon with gold writing and presented it with much aplomb. It was thrown back in my face and more tears followed. Eleanor was over it, and I was just prolonging it for her. I have tried to learn from that mistake. You can’t always make it better – don’t prolong the agony.

We had been through scenarios like this before with our older two and various events and prize-givings. But they were in separate events, classes and activities, so not in direct competition with each other. This just wouldn’t happen in singletons. Yes, the disappointment may  be there but a singleton wouldn’t have to live with it every day as a constant reminder that your best mate in the whole world has moved to a place you can’t follow. On that fateful night, Eleanor did receive the award for academic success in Year Five – but in no way did it compensate for the year of status and badge-wearing.

Where are we at now?

After years of sharing swimming, netball, dancing, speech and drama, flippaball and a variety of other activities, both by choice and for parental convenience, the twins have now gone their separate ways. One does rhythmic gymnastics, while the other does swimming squad. One does hip hop and the other learns guitar. They have different timetables, they travel home independently, but still are in the same netball (selected on ability) and water polo teams.

So what is it like being a family of multiples? It’s different and special. The journeys you share are very different to those you share with your single-born children, but they definitely spread just as much light and enjoyment into your lives.