Double Trouble

1st April 2011

A new arrival in the family… Ten tiny fingers, ten tiny toes… Perfect. But what’s life like when you’re looking at twenty of each, or thirty, or more?

Heather Harris reveals all…

“Are they identical?”

It’s the first question that anyone seems to ask when faced with twin babies even if, like ours, they are clearly different sexes. I’m always tempted to point out that if they did indeed look the same, I’d either have a very butch girl or a very feminine boy.

But that’s the thing with multiple births. They confuse people. Despite 12,595 pairs of twins, 172 sets of triplets and five sets of quads being born in the UK last year, they still have the capacity to intrigue. A spokeswoman from the Twins and Multiple Births Association (Tamba), describes being the parents of multiples as “belonging to an elite club where only its members truly understand all the implications – good and bad – of having more than one child at one time.”

Caroline, whose girl twins are now 11, echoes that. “When I was pregnant I was always irritated by other mothers of twins’ refusal to say anything of use. I now find that I do the same, as having twins is a very individual experience.”

Tamba represents 24,000 multiple birth families in the UK and 140 local Twins Clubs. It concerns itself not only with the day-to-day challenges of having one pair of hands and two or more babies, but also campaigns to change government policy to reflect the unique needs of its members.

A prime example is school admissions. Having survived the horrors of double breastfeeding, toilet training times two and negotiating John Lewis escalators with an extra-wide buggy, the prospect of the children starting school was, for me, the light at the end of a tunnel squinted at through sleep deprived eyes…

…until the letter arrived announcing that ‘due to over-capacity’ my twins had been allocated places at two different nursery schools a village apart. And I wasn’t alone; all over the country parents were faced with the prospect of cloning themselves to be at two school gates simultaneously or of putting their four year olds on public transport, pocket money in hand.

Fourteen years – and multiple letters to the Education Authorities – later, and the previous Secretary of State for Education finally had the Ed Balls to change policy so that such a ridiculous state of affairs could no longer prevail.

The Tamba Chief Executive, Keith Reed, recently announced, “Tens of thousands of multiple birth parents across the country will be celebrating his promise to update the admissions code. This will ensure the splitting of twins, triplets or more across different schools against their will becomes a thing of the past.”

Education is arguably twice as important for twins (and three times so for triplets) because their development can be affected by being a multiple. Twins are more likely than singletons to be delayed in language development; boys more so than girls. According to statistics from the Multiple Births Foundation (MPF), up to 40 per cent of twins also develop a private language, known as idioglossia or cryptophasia…

…and believe me there’s nothing more frustrating – and guaranteed to generate paranoia – than living with two tiny people who are permanently sharing an in-joke.

Jo Robinson, mother of teenage twins, recalls their infancy: “They had their own little world. It was hard enough for us to penetrate, so impossible for other children and teachers!”

For many parents, the answer is not just Speech Therapy, but something far more drastic.

“We had to force them apart. At nursery Rebecca would literally hang onto George’s coat and they’d go around like a little train. They’d either chat to each other or George would speak, so on the advice of the school we split them up.”

Ironically, while I was fighting to get my two into the same school other mothers were choosing to keep their twins apart..
“In the long term,” Jo explains, “it helped Rebecca academically and socially, but the initial effect was devastating. The school said it took her over a year to get over the shock of her twin not being there…”

Eleven-year-old twins Laura and Josie Haddan are identical, and, on the advice of Tamba, were also sent to separate Primary Schools.

And they prefer it. As Laura explains, “I like going to a different school because I’m not with Josie all the time and you have different friends.” Her sister agrees with her. “Everybody thinks you're the same person, but you're not, you're different, so it’s better to be at a different school to Laura.” Whereas many twins rely on each other to the exclusion of everyone else, Laura adds cheerfully, “I think it's made me more confident, because I've done something without Josie”.

Certainly, in the long term, many twins show a degree of resourcefulness and adaptability that many single children lack.

As Kathy Rance, mother of 13-year-old twin boys, told me, “Everyone comments on how my boys will eat anything. That’s because I was too exhausted to pander to them at mealtimes. If they didn’t like what was on offer there wasn’t an alternative.”

Chinot Thompson, who gave birth to twins just 17 months after having her first child, recalls, “When my eldest cried I would immediately run to him. When one of the twins cried I’d just convince myself it was good for their lungs! I think having three so close together has made all of them more independent.”

One of the main topics of conversation at Twins Clubs is family dynamics. Is it best to have twins as your first children or your second, third or even fourth? All my friends and I had our first babies together, and everyone seemed to find motherhood a nightmare, so I thought that having two was clearly not that much different… until I had my third and I wanted to ring them all up and tell them I’d discovered the truth – life with just one baby was so much easier!

For Caroline and Chinot, both mothers already, experience meant they viewed the arrival of twins more pragmatically. No rose-tinted glasses there, and “…the reality didn’t come so much of a shock.”

With twins as your only children, every childhood milestone is over in a flash. As Jo explains, “Rebecca and George’s first day at school, their GCSE results and, heaven forbid, the first moment of leaving home all happen simultaneously. It’s hard for them and us.”

These sort of conversations are what bonds parents of multiples. There’s also the ribbing between the mothers of twins and triplets, and the mothers of triplets and quads, as we all compare notes. We have one mum of triplets who, as well as ringing the fantastic Tamba helpline, also logs onto a blog from a mum of quads – to cheer herself up!

The friends I made at Twins Club remain some of my closest. We clung together in those early days, filling our houses with our multiple babies as we drank strong coffee and grilled fish fingers by the tray full.

As other mothers with single children went to Mum and Toddler Groups and Baby Massage classes, we were simply too exhausted to contemplate getting ourselves and two or more children out of the door by 10am. And anyway it was impossible to do ‘Row, Row, Row the Boat’ with two pairs of eager toddler hands – and trying to massage two babies always resulted in two people in tears – usually the mother and one of them.

We also didn’t have the money to go on adventurous days out. Double the joy also means double the cost. ‘Buy one, get one free’ doesn’t work with multiple births.

Darren Howes, father of five year old twins, observes, “My wife and I love our children more than life itself but having a multiple birth has been a financial nightmare. We were prepared for one baby, but the cost of childcare for two made it impossible for my wife to work.”

The recent Government Welfare reforms will hit multiple birth families more than most, according to Keith Reed at Tamba, who says “They will be disproportionately affected by these reforms including the freeze on child benefit”.

Life is certainly not easy having more than one child at once. It’s a financial, emotional and practical strain – but then, it’s like that with just one child, too. And despite the exhausting early years, few of us would deny that there is a tiny feeling of superiority about the words, “No, they’re not identical but yes, they are twins.”

For some multiple births, the outcome is rather bleaker, though. What those cute advertising posters of shiny smiley twins in neat matching outfits don’t show is the high percentage of health problems. A spokeswoman from the MBF explains, “Although there are many joys, far less well known are the higher risk for mothers and babies. Prematurity and low birth weight are the main reason for increased mortality and disability for these children”.

It’s for this reason that the Foundation, along with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), has been looking seriously at the whole issue of fertility treatment and its influence on multiple births. The triplet rate in the UK, for example, used to be about one in 10,000 pregnancies – but between 1970 and 1998 this more than quadrupled, due to fertility treatment. It has fallen annually since then, however, due to a reduction in the number of embryos which can now be transferred in an IVF cycle, and that’s really a very good thing. To desperate would-be parents it may seem cruel, as it's reducing the already slim odds of getting pregnant even more – but it is also increasing their chance of having one or two healthy babies rather than three with serious problems.

It’s a sombre note to end on, certainly, but it would be naive to deny that while multiple children can bring you three or four times the pleasure, they can also bring you three or four times the pain…

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