Friday, May 29, 2009

Multiple musings

Multiples have always fascinated me. I think it stems from three things: first, all the Bobbsey Twins books we read when we were kids (we inherited my mother's & uncle's old volumes -- like the one shown here -- complete with watermelon-eating black servants!!).

Second, my sister & I were close enough in age (21 months apart) & looked sufficiently alike (especially when were little, although we never really saw it -- and our personalities were certainly not the same) and, when we were younger, dressed alike, that many people would mistake us for each other & ask whether we were twins.

Third, being Canadian, I was brought up hearing stories about the Dionne Quintuplets of North Bay, Ontario. I read The Dionne Years by Pierre Berton (perhaps Canada's greatest popular historian), as well as the Quints' own memoir, We Were Five.

When I was in journalism school 25 years ago, and looking for story fodder, I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a meeting of the local Parents of Multiple Births organization. I called the number and wound up doing both a print and a radio feature on the challenges of raising multiples. I attended several meetings of the group (the kind-hearted women who ran it even gave the carless student rides to & from the meeting place), including one that featured a panel discussion. The panellists included (older/teenaged) identical boys, identical girls, fraternal boys, fraternal girls and fraternal boy-girl twins on hand to talk about what it was like growing up as a twin & what they wished their parents would have done differently. One of the women attending was pregnant at the time with triplets. She herself was one of quadruplet sisters, local celebrities when they were younger. It was fascinating stuff.

When I was doing infertility treatment, I knew that multiples were a distinct possibility. I felt that I could handle twins, but anything else, I wasn't so sure about. Like so many other people, I figured I would cross that bridge when we got there. Leading up to one IUI, I had four promising follicles. After the IUI was done, my excitement turned to horror as I realized that I could possibly wind up with quadruplets. I sobbed all the way home in the car. What had we done??

I'm not alone in my fascination with multiples. Case in point: the Gosselin family of Pennsylvania, i.e., Jon & Kate Plus 8. Dh & I have watched on & off for the last year or two. The kids are adorable & while I know many people can't stand Kate's bossiness, I keep thinking that you probably have to be that way in order to manage a household with 8 very young children and still retain some semblance of sanity.

Much has been said this past week about the show and the couple's marital problems, being played out on the TV screen for the world to see. Earlier this week, the Toronto Star ran an article about the stress that multiples place on marriages.

The Globe and Mail's acid-penned television critic, John Doyle, wrote about the show's season opener on Monday night, calling it "A sick freak show you must stop watching... reality TV of the vilest sort." I'm not sure I'd go quite that far... but I think he hit the nail on the head in several respects. For instance:
Jon, who looks like someone on the verge of a breakdown, said he never “cheated” on Kate. Then Kate said, “this is not where we're supposed to be,” and wept. And she described the couple as “two very different people.” Right now, she told the cameras, “life is just so hard.”

What both are talking about is the fame, and the attention. They're not talking about raising eight kids.
And also this astute observation (although I would say that public obsession with pregnancy & babies is certainly not limited to the United States):

In the U.S. popular culture there's an abiding, sick obsession with pregnancy, babies, families and the accumulation of as many cute tykes as possible.

The infamous Octomom understated this intuitively when she decided to become famous by having a whole passel of babies. Those tabloid magazines currently obsessed with Jon and Kate Gosselin usually spend their time telling readers – and there are tens of millions of readers – about some female celebrity having a “bump,” which suggests she's knocked-up. There is a continuing obsession with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and their large brood of kids.
(He noticed!! lol)

Coincidentally (or perhaps not?) the Dionne Quintuplets were born 75 years ago this week. No fertility treatments back then. The odds of giving birth to naturally conceived identical quintuplets is estimated at one in 57 million. The odds of their survival in northern Ontario in 1934 were astronomical. The babies were born two months premature and were kept alive by the midwives placing them in a wicker basket by the open woodstove to keep them warm.

A few months later, alarmed by their father's plans to exhibit then at the World's Fair for money, the Ontario government made the girls wards of the province -- and then, bowing to public demand to see the famous babies, put them on display in a playground that attracted three million visitors between 1936 and 1943. Eventually, the parents won custody of their daughters back -- but the long separation had caused irreparable damage to the girls' relationships with the rest of their family.

Only two of the sisters are alive today, & today's Globe & Mail had an interesting article about the Dionnes & our ongoing obsession with multiples -- albeit with some modern twists.

The article notes that, "While adoration for the Dionnes has spanned decades, that kind of easy approval has given way to condemnation for many modern-day multiples... Because modern-day multiples are increasingly viewed as a choice, parents of multiples are facing more criticism from a disapproving public who see their decision as selfish, even immoral." (Of course, if people decide not to have ANY children, for whatever reason, they are ALSO viewed as selfish & immoral... but, I digress....)

While they have not commented on the Jon & Kate situation, nor on the California "Octomom" whose octuplets made headlines earlier this year (& who apparently has expressed interest in a reality show of her own), a recent Canadian Press article noted the surviving sisters did offer some advice to the McCaughey family, whose septuplets were born in 1997.
"We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children," Annette, Cecile and Yvonne Dionne wrote in an open letter published in Time magazine. "Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products."
Another article from yesterday's National Post, titled "The danger of commodifying children," also quoted from the Dionnes' message:

"We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. ... We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose."
Sound advice from some people who have been there, done that, & know better than most of us that public fascination is not always worth feeding. Are you listening, Jon & Kate? Octomom?


  1. I saw that Globe article today and wondered if you'd write about it. Interesting connection between the Dionnes and the current Gosselin 'crisis.' I hope people listen to the Dionne women's warnings, but I doubt that will happen.

  2. Such an interesting post. Like everyone else, I thought twins were interesting growing up. But it is a hard balance to both treat them as individuals and any other set of siblings AND respect the bond they share. I always tell people to treat the kids like any other set of best friends--you would allow them to be together, allow them to comfort each other, allow them to share their special friendship even amongst other kids around them BUT you'd also separate them if they were disruptive and being "best friends" is never an excuse for crappy, exclusionary behaviour. And, like all other best friends, you wouldn't stop them in the food store to ask which is the smarter one (yes, we get this daily) or gawk at them.

    I haven't seen Jon and Kate Plus 8 beyond an episode. But I just read the People magazine article about them.

  3. Wow, I will definitely read all the articles you linked. As the sister of identical twins and the parent of fraternal twins, I feel, like our dear Anne Shirley, that I can't get away from twins. : )

    I have a book from a late-80s Scholastic Book Club order called "Sister of the Quints." The narrator is the 13-yr-old half-sister of 1-yr-old quintuplets, and her crush object, who just moved to the States from Quebec, immediately references the Dionnes. (I think the writer made him a Canadian just for that reason!) I still have all my young-adult books and read this one during my twin pregnancy.

    OK, I said on my blog a couple of weeks ago that I have no opinion of the Jon & Kate issues, but after reading her interview in People 2 weeks ago I was very troubled by her insistence that she can't give up the TV show, she's doing this all for her kids, etc. The financial security is obviously her motive. It's not healthy, period, to "do everything for the kids." That's a New Mommyism that is psyche- and marriage-destroying.

    The higher-divorce-rate statistic is somewhat misleading. It is often cited but appears to be based on only one actual study, which found that parents of twins have a higher divorce rate than parents of singletons but no higher than parents of two non-twin children. But I wouldn't disagree that having multiples is a real strain on a marriage. D. and I are OK so far, but it is hard for us to get a break individually or together, away from the twins. We have had exactly six meals away from the babies and 3 evenings out. And the medical bills are pretty high, even with no NICU stay. A Jon & Kate premiere post on one of my twin blogs generated a ton of comments; the majority of people said that they were having problems in their marriage.

    I re-read a couple of chapters on multiple birth in Liza Mundy's "Everything Conceivable" and felt very anxious. Most of the triplet moms she interviewed were on antidepressants. I can believe that.

  4. My family is inundated by twins. I never expected that things would turn out quite this way. Both sides all had twins so we, my cousins and I, thought that that was just normal.

    Higher order multiples are very related to the misuse of ART. I am not going to advocate that any new regulations be put into place because of that. They are doing a lot already to mitigate that.

    I am mostly disturbed by the voyeuristic nature of much of reality TV. I am not a fan of the Gosselins, but am guilty of watching Wife Swap and Supernanny. Both of those, however, have a very limited time frame in which the family's life is being invaded. There is something distasteful about parents who would put cameras on their children 24/7 for the whole world to see.

    As PJ has said in the past, where are my fashion disasters? Why are we watching for Baby Bumps? Isn't that the private business of the person/couple?

  5. I personally can't stand Jon and Kate but that was way before I became pg with Sam. That haircut...yikes. Always like your links to other sites, thanks for sharing

  6. loved this post.

    I too am fascinated with multiples, for no particular reason, I just am.

  7. Excellent post. Very interesting. We were asked if we would consider adopting twins but having seen a friend have them, I thought no way. Cause I have a choice now.

    People have to realize that these reality shows pay people to film their lives, you see them go on vacations and do things that the production company pays for. It's like a time share - you sit through this long seminar and we'll give you a free dinner and TV sort of thing. And for some strange reason, it's like an occupation for some people. Can't make enough money sitting at a desk - how about having a TV film crew film your family 24/7 - then everyone can saw just how tough your life is AND you get paid.

  8. Jon and Kate are currently under investigation for child labor law issues. It's exploitation of precious children, and legal or not, don't these parents have some kind of moral compass?

    I can say first-hand that I am SO sick of hearing people ask me at the grocery store, "what's next? sextuplets?" or "hey at least you didn't have eight kids like the california lady". Irritating is a severe understatement.

    I always found twins fascinating and commonly opted for research papers on conjoined twins in high school. Never in a million years did I think I'd have twins. Never even crossed my mind. But now that I do, it's less fascinating.

    My twins are b/g and are just over 2 1/2 years old. I have always treated them as "twins" or an item. What I do for one, I do the exact same for the other. For clothes, shoes, hygiene, toys, meals, etc. I feel like I'm being watched by two little people to make sure I'm completely unbiased and fair and so I try to be. I've noticed over the last couple of months that they really have started taking on more caring roles toward eachother. If boy twin gets himself a sippy from the fridge, he won't walk away without the pink one for his sister. They will refuse to go to the store alone with us, they yell for the other one "are you coming?"

    This approach, I would assume, does not work for every family. But for ours -- it does. We'll see what the teenage years have in store for us though :)

  9. Great post. I don't get why the magazines are fascinated with "bumps". Most "bumps" in these pix are invisible to me. Talk about giving a woman a complex about her weight!

  10. What a great post. Want to read through all the links.

    I remember hearing about the quints in my childhood. And then a couple in my church had quints in the 90s.

    Can't imagine juggling all that. And it's unTHINKable to try doing that in the public eye.