STRESS: A constraining force or influence; a physical, chemical, or emotional factor or event that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.
Raising twins or other multiple-birth children is exhausting, fatiguing, physically and emotionally draining… But is it stressful?
Parents interviewed for this article admitted they sometimes feel overwhelming exhaustion, but denied that double or triple-duty roles cause stress. They may simply be too tired to recognize the symptoms. Or more likely, they quickly learn to adapt their behavior in order to cope with their multi-task assignment as parents of multiples.
Take Sandy and Jeff Thelen of Farmington, Minnesota, for example. Stressful situations are rare for the parents of 12-year-old, Chard, and 11-year-old twins, Eric and Linda, according to Sandy. “The twins were always easy, in that they took their naps and went to bed without any problems,” she said. They were born at 30 weeks, and the tiny infants’ premature birth and accompanying medical problems—especially Eric, who had hydrocephalus—dominated their parents’ lives and was anything but easy.
“They were in the hospital for two months, and Eric had nine surgeries in the first year or so. We learned to take things day by day and week by week,” Sandy recalls. “I think it helped us learn to deal with the things as they grew up.”
Like most parents of multiples, she found that putting the tiny pair and their year-old brother on a schedule and sticking to it was critical for family stability. “Naptime was a necessity. It gave me an hour and half to do things I needed to do.”
As the three siblings grew, they grew into a routine of their own afternoon crankiness. “It always seemed like they became crabby right when Jeff came home and they would cling to me, which was hard on both of us since Jeff was bone all day and he also needed to bond with them.” After spending a full day with three toddlers, Sandy needed time away from the children and household duties.
The solution was simple, “I would go somewhere once a week and that was Jeff’s time with the kids.” It was a special time for everyone; dad alone with Chad, Eric, and Linda, and Mom getting together with friends, shopping or bowling.
“Establishing and maintaining a schedule is critical for parents of multiples,” said Eileen Pearlman, Ph.D., who is a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica, California, and a twin herself. She specializes in counseling twins and parents of twins.
A consistent schedule gives parents time to enjoy their children, Dr. Pearlman explained. Often the parents of multiples are so busy they don’t have time to experience the joy of their children, and years later, they regret it.
“It’s really important to take time to sit back and just observe your children—watch how they play with each other and talk to each other,” Dr. Pearlman said. “Not only is this an opportunity to learn about your twins and how they interact, but it’s also a chance to take pleasure in them,” she added.
“Get help. As much as you can, however you can,” Dr. Pearlman urged. If you can afford it, hire someone to come in for a few hours each day or week to help out with housework and chores that need to be done, she suggested. For many families, finances prohibit this, so joining or forming a playgroup or parents’ cooperative gives mom or dad some free time on a regular basis.
One Arizona mother of twins has a neighbor who comes over for a few hours once a week, giving her time to “take a bath, or just read a book.”
Parents can seek help or advice from other parents of multiples. “Talking with others who are dealing with the same things you are helps to normalize the situation,” Dr. Pearlman said. “You begin to see that behaviors or situations that seem atypical to parents of singletons are perfectly routine when you’re dealing with more than one child of the same age.”
Prioritizing tasks according to what’s really important can significantly reduce self-imposed stress. One mother of very active twin toddler boys found herself constantly picking up toys, wiping down walls, and cleaning the house, all in between diaper changes, feedings (with baby food made from scratch), and regularly recording her tots’ progress in a journal.
“I tried to be supermom,“ she said. “Instead, I was grouchy mom because I was so tired all the time.” Today her house may be messy and the baby food comes in jars but “we’re all much happier,” she said.
Nancy and Glen Masterson of Gilbert, Arizona, are parents of 5-year-old twins, Emily and Austin. Nancy admitted that the first few years as a new mother of twins tested her endurance. She quit her teaching job to stay home with Emily and Austin. “The day I was manually pumping my breasts while driving my stick-shift car to work was when I realized I was trying to do too much,” she recalled. Her firefighter husband worked extra shifts to maintain their income, but this meant that sometimes he worked four days straight—and when he came home, he went right to sleep.
“I cried a lot,” Nancy said with a laugh. But eventually, she came up with a routine that helped. “I started the day by putting the kids in the stroller and taking them for a walk, and usually I’d run into other moms and we’d talk. I would end the day the same way.” She also planned at least one outing a day, even if it was just a short trip to the supermarket. To minimize potential problems, she always made sure the twins were fed and their diapers changed before she left the house.
Now that the Mastersons’ children are older, “I really don’t feel stress,” Nancy said. Frustration? Yes. Especially on the first day of kindergarten this year, when Austin put his blanket over his head and proclaimed that he wasn’t going. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to find my sister,” he announced. Nancy teaches kindergarten herself but at a different school, so it was daddy who walked the twins to school and allayed Austin’s concerns about losing Emily.
Separation anxiety can be a problem for any youngster, but the potential increases when twins have never spent time alone or away from their sibling, according to Dr. Pearlman, and that can be stressful for the parents. She encourages parents of twins to provide opportunities for each child to be alone, independent of his or her mate. “It’s important for them to learn who they are as individuals,” she said.
The parents of Emily and Drew Rutter in Tucson, Arizona, echo Dr. Pearlman’s advice. Jill and Chris Rutter found that giving each child a special evening alone once a month became a positive event for the parent and child. “It was eye-opening for us. They emerged as individuals to us,” Jill said, adding that the individual time was a solution to the stress both parents felt when the twins were younger. “We couldn’t spend enough time with each of them, after having given our undivided attention to Scott, their older brother.”
“Just being aware that one of them is more needy than the other at different times has eliminated some of the concern we had about treating them as individuals,” Chris noted.
Regardless of how parents label the demands of multiple parenting, stress management experts suggest that it is not the events that are stressful, but rather how you react to them. “Just being aware” may be the first step in reacting positively to the challenges of multiples and enjoying them as individuals who are alike yet different.