I laughed long and loud when the ultrasound technician for my second pregnancy said, "I see two babies here, not one."
Just like Sarah in the Old Testament story, it seemed impossible.
With my first pregnancy I had had trouble conceiving until the doctor gave me Clomid, a fertility drug that regulates ovulation. The result? Fraternal twins: James and Emily.
When they were about 5½ years old, my husband, Bruce, suggested trying for one more child. I agreed, but with one stipulation. No fertility drugs. Though I was deeply grateful for Emily and James, I certainly didn't want to care for multiple infants again. Thus the humor in getting what I sought to avoid.
Now that our second set of fraternal twins, Helen and Grace, are 6½ years old (and about to start first grade), I feel blessed with such bounty.
Recently, I met another local mother equally blessed with two sets of fraternal twins, and we compared notes on coping with the chaos.
Michelle Testoni and Frank Dorn's twins are closer in age than ours; Rachel and Conor are 5½ years old, and Emma and Aidan are 2 years old.
But before I go any further, you may be wondering what's causing this twin epidemic. Is there something in the water?
Why so many twins?
According to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of twins has risen 67 percent and the twin birth rate has increased by 53 percent since 1980. This astounding change has two explanations.
Many women are postponing child bearing until their 30s. These happen to be the years when women are most likely to have twins. In fact, we are most vulnerable between the ages of 35 and 39 because of higher levels of gona-dotropin hormones. These little buggers cause more eggs to mature and be released by our ovaries.
Testoni was 31 and 34 when she had her double whammy, while I was 30 and 37. One third of the rise in multiple births is due to the 30s factor.
The other cause is increased use of assisted reproduction techniques, including drugs to induce ovulation (such as Clomid) and in vitro fertilization (implanting one or more embryos). Two thirds of the increase in twins is caused by this factor.
Keep in mind, this is entirely an increase in the rate of fraternal twins, which are created from two separate eggs fertilized by two separate sperm. The incidence of identical twins, created from one fertilized egg that divides, has remained constant at 4 per 1,000 births throughout history. Its cause is unknown.
Life in the trenches
Which brings us back to Testoni and me. We were in our 30s, but some women also carry a gene for hyperovulation. This may be true for both of us since we have
relatives and ancestors with fraternal twins.
If this is true, all our daughters will have a 17 percent chance of giving birth to twins. Just a happy thought.
Testoni and I have taken entirely different approaches to coping with four underlings. In our quest to survive, we turned to the experts, only we chose polar opposites.
Basing her parenting approach on Gary Ezzo and Robert Buckham's book, On Becoming Babywise, Testoni created a schedule for feeding, naps and bedtime.
"For the first two months after Conor and Rachel were born I was going crazy. It was just constant, never knowing what to expect. A friend of mine had followed Babywise. It was basically about getting them on a schedule, not nursing them to sleep, not rocking them to sleep. So we did all that, and within a few weeks there was just a huge change. They napped regularly. It just made such a difference."
Testoni breast fed her first set of twins for about six months. "I would alternate feedings, nurse one and give a bottle of formula to the other. For the first feeding in the morning I would nurse them both at the same time with the double nursing pillow. But for me the biggest saving grace was being on a schedule. It just worked for us."
My parenting guru, on the other hand, was Dr. William Sears, author of Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep, among other books. Sears promotes "attachment parenting" and extended breast feeding, encouraging mothers to nurse for years rather than months.
While each set of twins was small I nursed on demand and brought them to bed with us at night rather than relegating them to their cribs. If either one awoke hungry, I simply rolled over and nursed that twin while I was semiconscious. Was this the lazy route? Maybe. But it worked for us.
Whatever parenting style you choose, husbands are critical to its success. Dorn and my husband have been supportive with our respective choices as well as supportive financially for their burgeoning families. Dorn is a software architect for a company that does stock market trading, and Bruce is a systems consultant for a credit bureau.
"You have more kids, you have less time to go to work, and yet you have more financial obligations," Testoni commiserated.
She returned to work full time for a real estate developer when Rachel and Conor were 6 months old. Fortunately, she was able to work from home much of the time with the help of a full-time nanny. When Aidan and Emma arrived, she cut back to working two mornings each week.
I quit my full time public relations gig when James and Emily were close to being born, and then continued freelance writing and editing, sometimes not at all and other times quite a bit.
Testoni and I both feel as though we're running a restaurant (and laundromat) from our homes. "The whole day revolves around nothing but meals." she said, with a laugh. "You finish one and then it's time for the next one." (I knew all that waitress experience in my youth would come in handy some day.)
Relying on family and friends for help is essential with two sets of twins. Testoni's mother lives nearby and often invites one of the older twins to an overnight at her house, which makes each feel special. She also helps out by watching Emma and Aidan.
Though my family lives several states away, I had a great deal of help from my sainted sister who lived with us for three months after James and Emily were born, and then did the same for one month after Grace and Helen arrived. What a trooper. She made a darn good tuna sandwich, too. I still miss her.
There are, indeed, advantages to having twins. By the time they are 2 years old they notice they have a built-in playmate, for good or ill.
Testoni explained a common dilemma in their River Forest home. "We put Emma and Aidan to bed with a clean diaper, clean pajamas, and then within 15 minutes they're stark naked. We cannot get them to keep their pajamas on. Now we've started putting clear packaging tape on the diapers so they can't take them off at night."
That reminded me of the time I had just bathed Grace and Helen when they were about 3. They were clean, dressed and then promptly ran out the back door. A dirty gutter on our garage was spilling over with black water, so they both cheerfully decided to give themselves a second bath.
"There is a definite mob mentality. They feed off each other," Testoni added. "The other day they found a large Ziploc bag full of crackers and thought it would be funny to dump them all over the living room floor and then dance all over them to make millions of crumbs. They laughed and laughed, until my husband discovered them."
Once they start school, there is always the question of whether or not to separate twins. Emily and James, my oldest, didn't have a choice because they attend Grace Lutheran School in River Forest, where there is only one class per grade.
Surprisingly, this has worked beautifully because beginning in about first grade, James wanted to play exclusively with boys, and Emily wanted to play with only girls. And never the twain shall meet . . . until middle school.
Their twin relationship works a little like a marriage in that each one compensates for the other's weaknesses and relies on the other's strengths. James helps Emily with math problems, while Emily helps James keep track of assignments and stay organized.
Grace and Helen will start first grade this year at Grace Lutheran School. We plan to evaluate how they are getting along academically and socially, and then make a decision year by year as whether or not they should stay in the same class or be separated in different schools.
Testoni was glad to have Rachel and Conor separated in different classrooms when they started preschool at Intercultura Montessori. Now they attend Oak Park Montessori, a small school with only one class per grade, and all is going well so far.
Mothers of multiples
A wonderful local resource for families blessed with two or more babies at once is the West Suburban Mothers of Multiples (WSMOMS). Founded by Karen Brammer in October 1997, just as the twin baby boom came into full swing, WSMOMS serves approximately 100 families in Oak Park, River Forest and surrounding suburbs.
The group meets every second Wednesday of the month (except December) from 7:15 to 9 p.m. at the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave. They invite guest speakers and have time for an exchange of questions and ideas between expectant and veteran twin moms and dads. Topics covered range from toilet training to immunizations to separation in school.
"My experience of having twins was about the most stressful thing I faced in my entire life." Brammer said. "When I finally surfaced out of that, when my twins were 2, I just felt motivated to try to do something that would be a support for people going through this." Brammer already had three children, ages 7, 5 and 3, when she gave birth to fraternal twins, Melina and Kendra.
Purely fun events are scheduled throughout the year: a moms' night out in May and November, a Kiddieland escapade in June, and a twin family picnic in August. This year's picnic will be Sunday, Aug. 21, from 4 p.m. to dusk at Taylor Park. Bring a side dish and dessert. WSMOMS will provide the rest. We hope to see you there.