When my identical twin sister and I were born, my mother was thrilled to have my grandmother make the trek across the Atlantic to live with us. Together with Nonna, Mom and Dad survived the challenges of two babies, mastering the feeding-changing-sleeping-times-two routine, navigating the double stroller and squeezing in a little time for our big brother.
My twin and I were three years old by the time Nonna finally got on a plane to return to Italy. Our parents felt that the hardest part was behind them, but they know better now: Some of the biggest challenges of raising multiples were just beginning.
Today there are more than 4,000 multiple births in Canada per year, an increase of more than 35 percent in the past 25 years. For parents who are blessed with twins, triplets or quads, the road may get smoother after the sleep deprivation and endless diapers of the first few years, but there are plenty of potholes ahead. Imagine finding two or three child care placements together, and keeping everyone in clothes without the benefit of hand-me-downs. Here’s what it’s really like, from survivors who have been there.
“The first 2½ years were the hardest, until they were really mobile and talking,” says Sharon Walker* of Saskatoon, whose triplets turn eight this month. “It got a bit easier again when they were potty trained and when they were old enough for playgroups, library storytimes and preschool activities. Still, where it used to take me 45 minutes to get them all changed and dressed to go out, now it takes me 45 minutes to convince them to get changed and dressed and out the door.”
Walker relies on ironclad organization systems. She keeps baskets for mittens, hats and scarves, designated places for backpacks, magazine files for school work, a file box for school library books and a big calendar with colour-coded activities for each family member.
“Sometimes somebody still manages to forget their backpack in the living room or leaves some important book behind,” says Walker. “So then I resolve to start getting ready a few minutes earlier, or to pack things the night before. It’s still often a matter of learning from our mistakes!”
Lucy and John Lalousis, parents to three six-year-old boys and a nine-year-old girl, know the drill all too well. With more kids than adult hands, getting them from point A to B can be stressful. Having everything the same — clothes, backpacks, toys — is the only way to keep the kids on schedule, says Lucy; there’s no time for fighting over wanting one thing over the other.
Even when they’re out the door, chauffeuring her brood about is a challenge, says the Toronto mom. “Sometimes I feel like we need a yellow bus to get around.”
To cut down on trips and stress, Lucy limits the boys’ extracurricular activities to one sport, typically T-ball in the summer, all on one team if possible. “Sometimes we can’t do it all. So we try to do a lot more at home.”
Adele Kostiuk of Calgary agrees that logistics can be daunting when tackling outside activities with her three-year-old triplet sons and their brother, five. “For parent-and-tot swim classes, for example, unless Grandma and Grandpa can come, we can’t go.” She says some centres are now offering family sessions — where two adults and their children can attend — to accommodate families in this situation.
*Name changed by request.
For families who can afford it, hiring an extra pair of hands or buying themselves a little more space can ease the stress of raising multiples. The Lalousis family, for example, traded the sedan for a minivan, and moved up to a larger, five-bedroom house. But what about families who don’t have those options?
Diane Myers, a mother of six — 17-year-old quadruplets and a 15- and 19-year-old — quit working when the quads arrived because she couldn’t afford daycare for five. (Even when daycare is an option, finding two, three or four spaces in a quality facility can be impossible.) Making do on her husband’s paycheque, the family continued to live in a small home — the foursome slept in the dining room in two cribs; later six kids shared three bedrooms until three years ago. They never went on vacation and took out a loan to cover basic living expenses and overnight nannies; it has just been paid off.
Myers, now executive director of the Family Education Centre in Brampton, Ont., says even with older kids, finances are still top of mind — between school trips and sports gear, not to mention looming university bills. “We need to balance that with ensuring our kids get the same opportunities as other children their age.”
“People think it’s three kids, so it’s three times the cost,” says Kostiuk, a support coordinator for the Twins, Triplets & More Association of Calgary. But she says the real cost of multiples can be a lot higher, especially for those families who can’t get around without a minivan or triple stroller. Items like a top-quality breast pump and numerous change tables throughout the house can really increase the expense, she says.
Many local multiple associations help by organizing clothing and equipment sales and swaps, and may loan out big-ticket items. Kostiuk’s group, for example, lends triple strollers, which can cost about $1,300.
Even if they’re holding it together on the home front and making ends meet, parents of multiples face the task of helping their kids develop as individuals, so they’re appreciated for their unique qualities, not just as part of a set.
While dressing their triplets alike is a time-saving strategy for the Lalousis family, other parents, like Donna MacDougall of Halifax, insist on unique looks to help their kids differentiate from one another. “I really want them to be three individuals,” says MacDougall of her three seven-year-olds, a boy and two girls. But it’s hard. “When they were small, it was impossible to give each baby his or her own time on my lap.” She’d put all three, along with her older son, in their high chairs for storytime and other activities. “We did a lot of things together. That’s what they thought was normal.”
“Parents struggle with fostering individuality,” agrees Lynda Haddon, past-president of Multiple Births Canada and a multiple birth educator. “The expectation of the public is that [multiples] do things in the exact same way.” Haddon, mother to 25-year-old twin daughters and a 27-year-old daughter, encourages parents to spend one-on-one time with each child whenever possible, for example, by bringing one twin to the grocery store while the other stays home with the other parent. She suggests that parents help their kids cultivate separate interests — maybe it’s swimming for one and soccer for the other. “Don’t compare them to each other, and think twice before giving them rhyming names or dressing them alike.”
Kindergarten presents a dilemma for parents: Do the multiples head for separate classes or stay together? “Many schools have a system where multiples are separated,” says Haddon. But this isn’t always ideal for kids dealing with the “firsts” of kindergarten, she adds. “They have to leave mom and dad, there’s the noise, the rules, taking turns…it’s scary and traumatic for young children. Then they’re separated from each other.” Haddon favours keeping multiples together for the first few years.
The question becomes more complicated if there are more siblings than classes, says Kostiuk. With triplets, “if you have only two classrooms, who do you decide gets split up?” Walker’s triplets were placed in the same kindergarten class, but headed for three separate classrooms in grade one. “It has helped to reduce a bit of their sibling rivalry,” she says. “It’s been enriching for our family — they come home and tell their own stories.”
For some multiples families, the everyday challenges are complicated by special needs, a higher risk with two, three or more babies. Myers’ quads were born at just 27 weeks — one of them has severe hearing loss and another mild cerebral palsy. “It takes getting used to all the other people who become part of your life, for example, the therapists and specialists,” says Myers. She says tackling problems early helped her kids reach their potential and get comfortable with who they are.
Walker’s two girls and boy, born at 30 weeks, faced developmental hurdles that made them lag behind other children in their early years. They caught up by the time they turned four.
The other sibling
What about the singletons who hover at the edge of the family spotlight, with few moments of their own to shine? I have many photos of my big brother posing with his arms wrapped around us, ever so thrilled to show off his twin sisters. Even though chaperoning us meant less time with his buddies, he took great pride in the responsibility (and received a handsome payoff during times like Halloween when he was awarded half our candy for taking us around the neighbourhood). His experience later paid off further because my brother is now dad to eight-year-old twins.
John Lalousis recognizes how the stage can get crowded for his eldest. “When we get out as a family, the boys seem to attract a lot of attention,” he says. “I’m commonly asked ‘Who is older?’ and I’ll pull out my daughter and say, ‘Annamaria, she’s not a triplet, she’s the big sister and Mommy’s right hand.’ So I elevate her position and importance in the family.”
There’s an important point here that often gets buried along with the multitude of laundry loads and mealtime plans. While moms and dads of multiples help fill their children’s social calendars, their own needs can take a very distant back seat. “I had no outside hobbies or activities for the first three years,” says Walker, who at least had lots of visits from friends and family. “We appreciated the gift of time and normal conversation.”
Haddon suggests parents think about making time for themselves as planning for their future. “Treat yourself like a savings account. If you’re constantly taking out, then you’ll have no money left. But when you put some savings in there, you’ll feel better.”
Because of the isolation that plagues families of multiples like piles of dirty dishes, organizations, such as the Twins, Triplets & More Association of Calgary, play host to inexpensive playgroups, coffee nights, annual picnics and other events to help parents stay connected. “We get out and support one another,” says Kostiuk.
That support is essential, especially in a partner. Says MacDougall: “For the first time in five years after kids, my husband and I went away on a cruise with each other. I found out I still like my husband.” In turn, she says, a better partnership makes them better parents.
“Now I look at the kids in pictures and say, ‘Wow, how did we do that?’” says MacDougall. “With every year and every phase, there are milestones and it gets better. No one can say enough that raising multiples is a challenge, but I love every minute of it.”