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Staying Sane Under Twin Stress

  Reproduced with permission from Twin Services,
Parent Education Series 200: #230.

"Sometimes I feel like screaming!" "I hit my child much harder than I meant to." "Some days I feel like throwing my babies away."  Comments like these are distress signals from frantic mothers of twins. While they may not always feel this way, these mothers have something in common: they are suffering from stress. Although the heavy demands of caring for multiples makes parents especially susceptible to stress, there are measures that can help to reduce the strains of double duty. Following are some suggestions that may help you recognize and cope with the physical, emotional, environmental and financial pressures of raising multiples.

First, just what is stress? The physical, mental and emotional strain or tension that we call stress is the body and mind's way of telling us that we're overloading our coping mechanisms. The mothers quoted above all feel overwhelmed. They may have enough energy and nurturing love to give to one baby, but splitting it among two, three, four or more is more than they can cope with, and they react with a fairly typical "fight or flight" response-they get angry, or they want to escape from the source of stress, their babies. They love their babies, but at the times they hate them, too, and these conflicting emotions contribute further to the stress they're feeling. For instance, the mother who unintentionally hits her child too hard because of her anger and frustration then feels intense guilt. And the mother who "feels like throwing her babies away" may really be longing for release from the overwhelming demands of caring for the babies and feeling resentful that her efforts are unappreciated. So, in addition to being physically exhausted, these women may be emotionally drained from feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, depression or self-pity.

Though fathers may not express their emotions as readily as mothers, they too may be suffering from stress. It's common for fathers of multiples to feel neglected, somewhat jealous of the attention showered on the babies, and pressured by the extra financial demands. They may, however, be able to escape these stresses in a way their wives cannot-by spending extra hours at their workplace. Unfortunately, this places even more demands on their wives, who need their cooperation and help at home more than ever.

Whatever the specific cause or response to stress, both parents often experience sinking energy and lowered self-esteem, which make stress doubly difficult to dispel. But as negative as all these reactions may seem, it's very important to realize that they are normal responses to the stress of caring for twins and other multiples. And it's equally important to develop positive coping skills to lighten your double load.

Physical Stress

In the early weeks and months, a major cause of physical stress among parents of multiples may be lack of sleep and exercise, and irregular meals. Even with sufficient time to rest, handling an around-the-clock cycle of feeding and diapering babies and doing laundry is hard enough, especially if there are other siblings to care for. But trying to do all this while you're deprived of your own physical needs is like losing the oil-drain plug on your car at 60 m.p.h. everything comes-to a screeching halt!

While there are no magic remedies for the physical stress of caring for multiples, especially newborns, a first necessity is finding help. Don't be afraid to ask relatives and friends or regular baby-sitters to provide relief. If you are a single parent, you might discover some resources by reaching out to your community services. Remember that it will be easier for anyone to help you if you suggest specific tasks, such as feeding or bathing one of the babies, taking them out for a stroll, shopping, cleaning the kitchen, or preparing a meal.

Other helpful coping techniques include taking naps when getting a full night's sleep seems impossible, or eating small, more frequent meals when there's no time to prepare a full meal. Although resting when the children are napping may mean sacrificing the satisfaction of "getting things done" you'll be rewarded with renewed energy. And it is possible to maintain good nutrition with frequent snacks of cheese, raw vegetables and fruits, whole grain sandwiches, eggs or soup. Just don't fall into the trap of relying on coffee, cola and junk foods high in sugar and fat to keep yourself going. Adequate vitamin intake, especially of the B-complex vitamins, has been linked to stress reduction, but beware of substituting supplements for balanced nutrition.

Physical exercise may not appeal to you when you're exhausted, but regular activities such as a walking, jogging, stretching, yoga, swimming, bicycling and aerobics can actually be energizing. Meditation also can reduce stress and increase your energy level. Whatever you choose, make it something you enjoy, rather than just one more obligation, and try to keep the emphasis on relaxation and realistic expectations. Then make a "sacred" time for that activity on a daily or weekly basis. With appropriate exercise, you may find your sleep and appetite improving as well as your energy level.

Emotional Issues

Physical exhaustion often translates into emotional stress. When parents feel depleted but children's demands are on-going, depression, irritability, and a sense of inadequacy are common responses. The mother of twins who says, "I'd feel great if only I could get out or get some sleep," will probably feel the emotional doldrums lifting when her physical needs are met.

But sometimes the stress of caring for multiples can call into question emotional issues that run deeper. If parents assume they should always feel boundless "natural" or "instinctive" love, they may experience self-doubt when the demands of young children exceed their emotional supply, according to a counselor who works with mothers of twins. She says it's not unusual for parents of multiples in this situation to experience a guilt-laden secret wish for a single child instead.

The mother whose self-image is modeled on Superwoman may also be a high-stress candidate. The Supermom of television advertising may be able to handle all crises perfectly at all times, but such expectations in real life are usually a recipe for disaster, especially with multiples. When the demands of twins upset fixed schedules and efficiency, a "Supermom" may find herself resenting her children for "sabotaging" her best-laid plans. If her idea of being a good mother means always being well-organized and in control, loosening her grip may seem like losing a precious part of herself.

Adjusting unrealistic expectations to fit reality can help ease such emotional stresses as the ones just described. While to acknowledge one's own limits may at first seem like admitting failure, reaming this skill is a key to coping with twins and other multiples. However, if you are experiencing persistent problems, you might want to talk to a counselor about how to handle the stress of parenting multiples.

Finding time to be alone-to rediscover oneself apart from the roles of mother, father, wife, husband, provider, cook or housekeeper-is essential in reducing emotional stress of any kind.

As soon as parents and children feel comfortable being away from each other, it's wise to arrange periods of separate time. Perhaps parents can relieve one another, or exchange services with friends or family to get some respite time. If you can afford it, paying for childcare is well worth the cost. Allowing someone else to care for you is a well-deserved way to alleviate the stress of constant nurturing. One mother of twins found that the relaxation of a regular massage and trip to the hairdresser made her feel "mothered." Being waited on at home or in a restaurant can have a similar effect. Whatever the activity, you don't need to justify such self-nurturing when you're meeting the double demands of multiples!

Many parents of multiples say their greatest resources are flexibility, humor, endurance and, again, the ability to ask for help. The support of friends, family, playgroups, sitters or community services can be an emotional lifeline as well as a source of physical relief. Often, just talking with other parents of twins, either informally or in a support group, provides emotional release and a chance to exchange useful tips. Even if problems differ from family to family, it's comforting to know you're not alone.

Environmental Pressures

Although the environmental stress of parenting multiples may be less obvious than the physical drain, it too takes its toll. The arrival of any new baby often results in more cramped living space, increased noise and constant interruptions. Even rural serenity can close in on new parents when their nearest neighbor is 20 miles away. But magnify these common parenting stresses by the arrival of twins or more, especially if there are other young siblings close in age, and you can see how parents can quickly feel trapped.

Fortunately, many of these stressors are controllable. You can cut down interruptions by unplugging the phone or using an answering machine during mealtimes and naps. Limit TV time or move the tube to another room if you find it irritating-don't overexpose yourself to the world's crises when you're in the middle of your own. But do choose your own time to keep up on outside events so you won't feel entirely isolated.

Some simple checks of your home can avert disasters-waiting-to happen. When toddlers are around, that dangling phone cord, an iron left on, sharp objects and spillables are invitations to accidents and their resulting stress. One way to minimize such hazards is to make a habit of finishing one task before starting another. In short, by controlling some of the potential stressors, you'll increase your sense of well-being and your confidence for other challenges.

Financial Burdens

Financial pressures further complicate life for parents of multiples- two or more babies simply cannot live as cheaply as one! Parents can economize, however, by having twins share such big items as cribs during early infancy, buying quality used equipment and clothing, and swapping outgrown items with other families. The financial burden cannot be completely solved by efforts to economize, however. Parents must still buy multiples of many things. In addition, child care costs more and is hard to find. This presents a special dilemma for the woman who would like to continue a career. Although the family may desperately need a second paycheck, her potential income may barely justify the costs, and she is needed just as desperately at home. In such a situation, women experience tremendous conflict. Fathers need to be sensitive to these issues when the double load of mothering makes their wives feel as if they are losing out on both worlds.

Practical options in this Catch22 are difficult to come by, but realistic financial planning can sometimes reveal solutions that relieve worry. A first step before deciding to return to work is to weigh the dollars-and-cents gain against all expenses, including the hidden cost of stress on family members.

Whether or not mothers hold paid jobs, the sharing of housework and childcare seems to be the greatest point of contention in most households. One way to make your endless unpaid labor more visible is to make up a daily list of all the household chores, from shopping to vacuuming, to feeding the babies and running the dog. Then either assign chores to each able family member or let them choose their own. The checklist provides a sense of accomplishment for everyone as well as a more equal distribution of labor.

One vital stress reducer is getting recognition for one's work, regardless of its nature or whether the family roles are traditional or nontraditional. A simple "thanks for trying" to the parent on night duty goes further and accomplishes more than criticism, even when your babies are still wailing at 3 am.

In fact, showing appreciation for each other's efforts and sensitivity to each other's needs helps make all the other stress more bearable. At times, of course, even the best stress-control techniques may seem of little use. As one harried mother remarked, "It's hard work to relax!" Much as we might wish, there are simply no instant formulas for perfect peace of mind. But the process of discovering what works for you and your family can transform stress into strength and trauma into triumph.

Do's and Don'ts


 1. Schedule a consultation with a parenting counselor. 2. Ask for help from friends, relatives, sitters, community services and other families with multiples. 3. Sleep whenever you can. 4. Eat well. 5. Get regular exercise. Try walking, jogging, swimming, yoga, aerobics, dancing, or anything else you enjoy. 6. Take "sacred" time for yourself, on a daily or weekly basis. 7. Keep expectations realistic and flexible. 8.Finish one task before starting others. 9.Trust yourself.


 1. Isolate yourself at home. 2. Depend on drugs or alcohol. 3. Blame yourself or your partner for feelings of stress. 4. Try to be a Supermom, striving to cope with everything all alone. 5. Sacrifice fun and enjoyment for the sake of perfect efficiency. 6. Use your "sacred time" to do chores, errands or grocery shopping. 7. Expect your needs to be magically met without asking. 8. And DON'T GIVE UP!

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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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