Double Take

Dea Birkett
Wednesday June 27, 2001


I’m a freak. I get accosted when I go shopping, harassed as I stroll along the street, and cars have been known to draw up to the side of the road to get a good look. I have been the victim of this curious gaze of strangers for months, and all because I have become a mother again. I gave birth to twins. One in 35 pregnancies are twin, and the numbers are increasing all the time, but we are still regarded as slightly odd.

My boy and girl are three months old. According to medical classifications and children’s clothing labels, they have now ceased to be new-born. It’s time for the celebrations to wind up. The dead and papery flowers that I have refused to throw away must be taken from their vases, the cards (“Double the trouble/Double the pleasure/Two sweet babies/For you to treasure”) taken down. The twins are no longer an extraordinary event in my life, but becoming part of my ordinary routine. Soon I doubt I’ll be able to remember what it was like before they arrived.

For these first 12 weeks with my new children, I have had an acute sense of time passing: I know I’ll never have twins again. I shared the world’s wonder at them. Often I longed to keep everything as it was, at that moment in that darkened room, with these tiny, fleshy babies. Determined to halt time, I discarded my watch.

In that time that we spent cocooned in our own time zone, I learned to be what the books call “a mother of multiples”. First I had to face the challenge of breastfeeding them both at the same time. The problem wasn’t arranging two wriggling babies about my waist without injuring any of us, although that did have its difficulties. It was my own revulsion. I looked at stark black and white photos in Mothering Multiples of a beatific woman with a baby on each breast, and turned away. The woman looked too close to a milk cow. I tried but could not bring myself to copy her, remembering the advice from one book that if you “haven’t found another mammal to identify with, consider the she-wolf that fed Romulus and Remus”. Breastfeeding multiples is known as “the litter phenomenon”. Have I really become part woman, part beast? Soon even I think I’m a freak.

Twins are unnatural. As my obstetrician told me early on in pregnancy, smearing the ultrasound jelly over my premature stretch marks, Homo sapiens is designed to bear singletons; it’s only other species that have multiple births. There are those whose sport it is to spot and track down us strange creatures as we wander around our urban habitat. They smile furtively as they pass us in the street, as if claiming to be extremely clever in identifying that it’s a double buggy. They nudge their neighbour and mutter, “Ahhhh. Bless.”

Although few people have twins, everyone is an expert. I have frequently been intercepted at the checkout by someone eager to give me advice on how to tell my own two children apart. (Like all twin mothers, I have a great fear of confusion, even though they look nothing like each other.) One woman told me the correct method was to check the way their hair spirals on the crown of their head. This method was doomed, as unfortunately only the girl has any hair – a fact the woman seemed not to notice.

The stalkers’ most frequently asked questions are: “Are they identical?” (My answer: “No. He has a penis. She doesn’t”) and “Are there twins in the family?” This second question is a sneaky demand to know more about you than someone who just happens to be walking along the same side of a street should (25% of twins are the result of fertility treatment). It took me some time to search out an appropriate snub: “Why do I have twins?” I retort. “Because I had lots of great sex.”

It took almost two months to realise that there was something I could do about our local celebrity status. I had been dressing the twins in clothes received as gifts. There is a primitive satisfaction in the symmetry of shopping for twins, and nearly everyone buys them matching outfits – one pink, one blue. It was the pink-blue, girl-boy thing that especially got people going. Once I dressed them in different shades of dull beige, the number of gawkers decreased dramatically.

All this may seem very uncharitable. People undoubtedly mean well; many are quick to part on the pavement to allow our ungainly physical presence to pass through. But it is extremely irritating, with the timetable of life so full, to be spending precious moments pleasing strangers when I could be loading a supermarket trolley. It’s even more churlish of me to complain because I know they only hanker after a piece of what I have. The most frequent comment is: “I always wanted twins.”

That’s just a romantic dream; no one would wish such sleeplessness on anyone. But the trouble with twins is that they are too often seen as a problem to be solved rather than a joy to be had. We are told, as if to cheer us on our own modest successes in overcoming chaos, that parents of twins are far more likely to suffer drug and alcohol abuse, family violence and divorce. The mother-of-twins is five times more likely to have postnatal depression. We must watch out for “preferential attachment” (preferring one child to another) and “unit bonding” (relating only to the twins together, never as individuals), and encourage “differentiation” rather than “comparison”.

It’s true that when I look at one, I first see the other. Staring into his eyes, I don’t notice that they are beautiful and large, but simply that they are larger than hers. Touching her lips, I don’t see the kissable rosebud shape, but that they are more pouty than his. Her feet are larger, her thighs fatter, her chatter quieter, her skin more sallow. Instead of the superlatives of the singleton, the language of the mother-of-twins is chock-a-block with comparatives. My boy is never “the prettiest baby in the world”, only “prettier”. Despite all the warnings of the long-term damage I am inflicting, I find it impossible to see each child in isolation.

I recently confessed this to a questionnaire. Requests to take part in twin studies have already come through the post. But I don’t need any academic research – I can conduct a detailed social experiment within my own home. Is the boy exhibiting different behaviour to the girl? Do I treat them differently on grounds of gender? What effect is this having? Do they act differently despite how I treat them? My own sitting room – sequestered from the adults by the invasion of two cots, two baby gyms, two play mats and two cradle seats – is a laboratory for the nurture-versus-nature debate.

The truth is, I like being a celebrity mum. Increasingly, venturing out alone, I am miffed at being once again just one of the city crowd. Why doesn’t everybody move out of the way for me? Why is no one interested in me? Can’t they see I’m special?

But of course they can’t, because I’m not. Time passes, and the new-borns have become babies. Soon they will look and act so differently that no one will notice that they are twins. What was extraordinary is becoming ordinary.

Yesterday, I put my watch back on.

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