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Twins: A Survivor's Manual

I sometimes forget that I didn't decide to have twins. It's so like me: I've been a lifetime subscriber to the if-one's-good-two-are-better philosophy of living.

I took a double course load in graduate school; I drink double lattes; I spent years racing triathlons (oops, that's three). So when the doctor said, "Wow, you're awfully big for 11 weeks," and then, while moving warm goo across my belly and staring at the monitor, continued with, "You knew you were having twins?", my response was a deep laugh. I felt a surge of adrenaline that I think was joy mixed with fear, yet something seemed right about it too. After all, if I could've chosen to have twins, I probably would have.

But having survived those first few months of my sons' lives, I now know that mothering twins is very different from all of those other twos I took on. I always had the option of dropping physics midquarter, or going on the caffeine wagon, or walking the last leg of a triathlon. But once I learned I was carrying twins, I was committed. And the truth is, caring for two newborns was far more overwhelming and far more difficult than 22 upper-division credits. Think motherhood is intense? Motherhood times two is unbelievably intense. Herewith, some tenets that helped me to not only survive those early months, but also to enjoy my beautiful newborn sons.

Go Ahead. Panic.

I know it's trendy to believe that we don't have to give anything up to be parents. And some parents, even some parents of twins, go a long way to prove this. I have friends who, upon learning they were pregnant with two, started buying double sets of outdoor baby gear and mapping out trails for family wilderness excursions. Two months after the birth, they went cross-country skiing, pulling their babies behind them in a toboggan. But to tell you the truth, they didn't look as if they were having fun. I imagine they were just as tired as I was, only cold and wet, too.

To make it through our first few months of almost constant nursing and very little sleep, I had to accept the fact that life would be different. Birth, like death, is dramatic. It happens all the time, but it's still a big deal when it happens to you. Just as no one gets over the death of a loved one during two days of bereavement leave, I was not going to adjust to the birth of twins in the allotted six-week time frame.

What worked for me was surrendering to the idea that my life was going to be out of my control some of the time. I had to admit that I was going to feel overwhelmed—overwhelmed by fears, overwhelmed by diapers, overwhelmed by love. When I let go of the expectation that my life was going to resemble its previous form, I could put the pieces together slowly and in a way that I actually liked. In some ways, having twins gave me more opportunity to do that than a singleton pregnancy would have. People consider giving birth to one baby a normal thing, and therefore expect new moms to be able to handle it. The fact that I had twins gave me permission to completely freak out.

Send up the Flares.

A crucial tenet: Everyone who wants to help gets to do so. Many people offered to babysit during those early days, having no idea what they would be in for. Occasionally we'd take them up on it, always doubling up on sitters. But in the beginning, what I needed more than sitters was help accomplishing simple, everyday tasks.

For the first few weeks, my mom stayed with us, which meant all I needed to do was feed the babies and sleep when I could. All my husband needed to do was go to work during the day and hold me or the babies when we cried at night. The problem was, after my mom left, those "duties" were still all we could handle. Even simple errands had become complicated; the logistics of getting two babies ready and into the car took all the planning most people allow for a week-long vacation.

So, I retrained myself. When people offered to help, rather than saying "No, thank you, we're fine" (a lie), I started saying "Yes, thank you" and offering options. For example, I needed someone to assist me when I went grocery shopping, or I'd ask someone to mail a package or pick up a carton of milk. Other friends helped by weeding the garden, doing the dishes, or folding laundry, which would otherwise have become a permanent mountain on our bed. I even asked the next-door neighbor to come over one day so that I could take an uninterrupted shower.

While these requests seemed huge to me, they were but small favors for my invaluable friends, who emerged into two distinct sets. The first group has children. They understand. The second group doesn't have children. They have time. Today, both groups have become a community of adults who consider my boys to be special because they helped take care of them way back in the beginning, when they were babies.

Gear Up.

If you have twins, people will ask you whether you are going to dress them alike as though it's your biggest concern. Most of the time I dressed my sons in whatever I could grab from the shelf while I nursed one baby and kept the other from rolling off the changing table. I used similar criteria to select my own clothes, although I tried to avoid black because it really highlights spit-up.

Like most new moms, I received three or four catalogs a day describing the latest baby gear. To sort it all out, I found it helpful to talk to other mothers of twins. They told me which items truly saved time or effort. For instance, when selecting strollers, it's important to have not only two seats, but two seats that recline, for those weeks when the twins are too young to sit up on their own.

Some gear that offers convenience for singletons diminishes in usefulness with twins. For instance, the infant car seats that double as carriers become a bit burdensome with two babies. Besides, taking twins into a restaurant with the expectation of sitting through a nice dinner would take an incredible degree of optimism. Parents of twins are much more likely to opt for pizza. Delivered.

Everyone Eats at Once. Everyone Sleeps at Once.

Many pediatricians recommend feeding infants on demand during the first couple of months. We followed this recommendation with one amendment: When one demanded, both ate. This rule was particularly crucial in the middle of the night. Though it was tempting at first to let one baby sleep peacefully when the other woke up crying for food, I didn't do it often. When I did, my sleeping child would begin crying not ten minutes after my satisfied boy had drifted back to sleep. So instead, when one woke, my husband would wake the other, and I'd feed both simultaneously. Then we'd change both diapers and put them back to bed. This increased our chances of having a full hour of uninterrupted sleep.

During the day, this rule applied to me as well. When both babies drifted off to sleep at the same time, there was only one wise thing for me to do, and it was not clean house. Nothing increased my ability to cope more than a few extra moments of sleep.

The rule of everyone eating at once worked for the whole family, too. I needed a lot of fuel and a lot of water to make enough milk for twins. Before sitting down to nurse the babies, I'd grab a pitcher of ice water and a simple meal and place them next to the couch where I nursed. While mothers of singletons can often feed on the run, mothers of twins have nursing stations, complete with food, drink, reading material, a telephone, and a remote control.

Hang on to You.

The first time I left my boys for a day, was to go to a writing conference. I was preoccupied by the odd sensation of both hands being free when a women told me she liked the necklace I was wearing. I was startled by the comment, and it occurred to me how long it had been since anyone had noticed anything about me besides my babies.

I love being a mom. I cherish the experiences it has brought, and the way it has changed and deepened me. But at times the connection between my sons and myself has been so powerful that I felt I barely existed apart from them, and I needed to remind myself that I was a whole person all on my own. This desire didn't drive me back to what had fulfilled me before my sons' arrival, though, because my needs had changed. For instance, before having twins my idea of a good time was to go for a run in the foothills by myself. But during those first few months with the babies, I craved adult conversation more than anything. So it made more sense to go for a walk with a friend.

Eventually I realized that exactly what I did to acknowledge myself wasn't nearly so important as the fact that I did something at all. Every woman has different activities that nourish her. I went to the coffee shop for steamed almond milk with friends. I read for pleasure, though it took me months to make it through Snow Falling on Cedars at the pace of four lines per night. And once I got into this habit, I saw how valuable it was to my own well-being and to my relationship with my sons.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel is Not a Train.

The other day a store clerk gave me an odd look when I approached the counter with six pairs of new size 5 jeans. "I have twin boys, and they just outgrew all of their old ones," I explained.

"Twin boys," she said. "How do you handle it?"

"It's easier than one at a time," I answered. And at that moment, I realized that I meant it.

The good news about having multiples is that nothing is ever as hard as the first few months. When people tell you otherwise, don't listen. They've forgotten. Nothing overwhelms like two babies who don't sleep through the night, not even a pair of toddlers in their terrible twos. In fact, just about the time they turn 2, the balance starts to tip and twins actually become easier to raise than different-aged siblings. For example, my sons were ready to learn new skills at the same time, like how to use the potty and how to dress themselves. And once they learned to put on their own shoes and buckle their own car seats, I felt like I had it made.

At 4, Gabe and Dylan entertain each other for hours at a time. They create imaginary worlds, they sing preschool songs, they teach each other things. And this speaks to one of the sweetest blessings of having twins. My sons have a head start on some traits that are sorely needed in this world, like empathy, compassion, and tolerance. To them, even sharing comes easy. They have done it their whole lives.