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Twin Fathers Need Help Too
Over the years most calls from parents to the TWINLINE have been from expectant and new mothers of young twins. They speak of feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and exhausted from lack of sleep because of giving the constant care their multiples demand. All these are serious difficulties—caring for twins is often too much for one person.
Fathers call less often than mothers, but they too need someone to turn to with their feelings of inadequacy as parents or providers, their exhaustion from long hours and little sleep, and possibly their own mixed feelings about being parents of twins.
Fathers' reactions to the event of twin birth range from ecstasy to depression. Some fathers learn gradually to adjust to life with their young twins, but have a rough time coping in the beginning. A number of physical, psychological, and sociological factors affect their ability to adjust.
According to "Fathering Multiples" (Double Feature 8:1), "The sheer number of hours necessary to care for two or three babies interrupts the couple relationship for first-time parents, and astonishes fathers who've had only single baby experience. As one father put it, I gained two children but lost my wife, and I didn't particularly like this zombie who looked like her but had no time for me or our marriage. It took me about three weeks to realize that if we were to keep our marriage intact, I'd better pitch in and be a partner. Once that brilliant thought was turned into action, I became a zombie too, but at least now we were a matched set again!"
This change in the couple's relationship may be one of the most difficult adjustments for first-time parents. According to one mother of one-month-old twins, who was interviewed by Canadian researchers Beverly and Arnette Anderson, "My husband and I are looking at each other in a completely different light as we adjust to our new roles as parents. Now I see him as a father first, and my husband second, and I'm sure he's seeing me in much the same way."
When both parents are under the extreme stress of meeting the demands of two or more infants, even those who felt a very supportive relationship with their partner may begin to feel that support system breaking down from the wear and tear of caring for two babies. Peter, now the proud father of ten-year-old twins, says, "I can't believe we all made it. I thought my wife and I had a few problems before the babies, but when the twins hit, so did everything else. Suddenly we had no time for each other or anything but babies—and neither of us slept more than two hours a night. It was incredible."
The stress of having twins can exacerbate any difficulties that already exist between the parents. In addition, "Fatigue, and the imminent possibility of a baby or two crying, often leads to a reduction in sexual activity after twins. It took time, patience, communication, and a sense of humor to get most couples through this period" (Double Feature: August 1988).
In addition to pressures at home social pressures can contribute to fathers "twinshock." For one thing, extended families aren't around as they were forty years ago. Without grandparents, uncles and aunts on hand to help with childcare and household duties, it's up to the father alone to hold up half the sky at home. Sometimes the father is the only one available to help with the babies, and it's often his help that means the most to the babies' mother. Eight out of ten mothers of month-old twins interviewed in the Anderson study said that they appreciated their husbands' help with baby care more than any other help they received.
But in most families the father's time and energy are divided between home and work. Add to the sudden tightening of finances that two, three, or more new babies bring, the fact that most employed mothers need a-long maternity leave (which is often unpaid), and you can imagine the kinds of financial pressures dads might feel. To further increase the burden, the high cost of childcare for twins often makes the mother's return to work economically impractical. So the father is often caught in a double bind: feeling that he needs to be fully involved at home and, at the same time, that he needs to work more to make money to support the family.
There are few societal supports for new parents: Paternity leave is rare, if it exists at all, and maternity leave is usually unpaid. People in general and employers in particular do not tend to be sympathetic to the needs of fathers or of multiple birth families. Both parents are under extreme stress for the first months: The mother spends all day and evening caring for the babies; the father works at his job all day and helps with the babies in the evening, and neither parent gets much sleep. Says one well-rested father of five-year-olds, "l could fall asleep anywhere during the first three months—unfortunately even at work, standing up in a meeting!"
Even experienced fathers with other singleton children undergo twinshock. Adjustment co multiples may be especially stressful for this group, because they have been parents before and are stunned by how much harder it is with twins, especially during the infant stage. The need for the couple to be co-parents is acute in the first months with newborn multiples, the father may find himself deluged with much more responsibility for infant care, household chores, care of siblings, and finances than he had with his singleton(s).
The most critical time in the early months with multiples is when the father realizes he must become an equal co-parent; if he isn't able to accept this challenge, he often bows out of the family picture emotionally or physically (although there are cases in which the father is the one abandoned). Unfortunately, in so doing he overlooks the fact that his partner may also be overwhelmed; but doesn't have the choice of "running" from the situation (Double Feature, August 1988).
A typical scenario is this: New babies arrive, both parents feel overwhelmed, father responds by working longer hours and/or neglecting mother and babies, and feels guilty about it. This initial guilt reaction can set the stage for either the father's further involvement with, or disassociation from, his family as a coparent. "I felt like I was going crazy," says George, a father of undiagnosed twins, who experienced severe twinshock. "I would come home from work every night to find the house a mess and my wife in tears, and have two screaming babies thrust into my arms. I started working later and later, and tried to stay out of the house on weekends."
While this kind of situation is a temporary stage for most families that experience it, the father who can't find a way to cope effectively with his stress runs the risk of losing an opportunity for connecting with his children, as father, and his partner, as co-parent.
"Being a father of twins isn't easy, but it has its rewards," said one dad. "There's nothing like coming home from work to have two chubby faces and two sets of chubby arms held up to me, pleading, 'Daddy, hold you! Daddy, hold you!"
As one father put it, "Twins are a hard happiness."
The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice. Please consult with your health care advisor about specific questions or problems.
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