4 Things I Found Toughest, and what helped!
"Just to test, we did on occasion try to introduce a bit more “flex” and just went with the twins prompts, but when we did, within hours, everyone was sad and confused about what to do next!"
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1. There were 4 things I found toughest to manage in the first year or so.
2. We relied on routine a lot to give the twins a structure that kept them largely in sync, and also kept them calmer as they knew what was coming, when.
3. Keeping this routine up to date was tough, as the twins developed quickly, and usually as soon as we thought you had it nailed, something changed that made us feel like we had taken a step or two backwards until we figured out how to adapt.
4. As a whole, this process could be mentally tough, as it challenged our confidence and energy levels, but did get easier with time as the pace of change slowed, and we got better at noticing when things needed to change.
5. I traditionally used a lot of “ass kicking” self-talk to motivate myself, but once the twins arrived, I just didn't have enough control of things, or energy, to respond well to this.
6. I had to develop a much more compassionate self-talk that recognised what I had achieved to date, and used much smaller, more realistic goals to keep chipping away at the longer term objective.
7. Patience was not a strength of mine, but was critical to ensure I gave the twins as many learning opportunities as possible in a calm environment, and I didn’t not show up stressed out and in a rush.
8. Planning in more time was critical to manage my own impatience, and also focussing on what the twins were learning, not the clock, really helped.
9. Often, giving the twins more time didn’t actually mean we needed a lot more. Not having to rush through the twins' activities means I showed up in a better state to tackle whatever was next, and as the twins got older, they could use what they had learned to carry on independently whilst we got ourselves sorted at the same time.
10. Sleep deprivation was the toughest thing to deal with. We put a lot of effort into getting the twins to sleep well (which worked sometimes, and not others..).
11. In general my mood with the twins wasn’t impacted by lack of sleep, but it certainly was with adults…😣🤬
12. Having worked through our parenting choices with my wife in advance saved our bacon, as even when I was tough to be around, we always made good and constructive decisions when it came to the twins, as we had done all the hard work up front.
(TG = Twin Girl, TB = Twin Boy)
I have written in quite a lot of detail about a variety of things on the site, so I wanted to take a step back and think about the things I had to work on the most in the first 18 months or so for anyone that wants a broader view.
These are things that in some cases I saw coming and took some action to try to prevent any negative impact on the family, but in other cases, were a surprise. I suspect this is going to be the way it is for most parents, after all, every family is different and will have different quirks and circumstances that may or may not push your buttons!
Weather or not below resonates with you, the most important point to take away is the benefit I found from taking some time to think about who I am, and how this meant I was likely to show up as a parent, especially given the likely circumstances I might find myself in. There were plenty of amazing times of joy and laughter 🥰, and there were tougher times too, where I felt tired, unsure or overwhelmed 😵. In these moments, having already considered how I might react, and if this is a good thing or not for the rest of the family, helped me knock on the head any bad habits and behaviours more often.
As always, I hope by sharing the process I went through to figure them out, and what showed up for me, it helps others!
Flexibility vs Routine
As someone who was really content with a nice structured routine before the twins arrived, I selfishly embraced the advice we got from many (especially twin parents) to get super militant about routine with the twins. This would in theory mean that they fed, napped and slept at roughly the same time, and were generally more chilled as they knew what to expect each day. I know some parents go with the flow, but they are definitely made of different stuff to me! To test, we did on occasion try to introduce a bit more “flex” and went with the twins prompts, but when we did, within hours, everyone was sad and confused about what to do next!
Taken in isolation, a consistent routine would make parenting simpler, no? Well, for sure I would happily recommend the structured routine approach, especially for parents of multiples. When this went well (and there were plenty of times it didn't), there was still precious little time and energy for other things, so just the thought of trying to accommodate two babies napping and sleeping at different times blows my mind! But, even though this routine gave us so many advantages, it could sometimes be a bit of a trap.
The thing is, the routine would work really well, until one day, it just didn’t any more. Initially, due to the pace that the twins were changing, and also our lack of experience, this would creep up on us. Usually just as we were breathing a collective sigh of relief for having gotten both twins settled into the current routine! To see a routine we had wrestled with for a couple of weeks finally settle, and then get thrown out a few days later, and as parents feeling like we had just taken a backward step while we figured things out, could be really heart-breaking and made us feel like we had very little control! Practically this often meant the difference between having an hour or so of free time in the day to catch up on chores or work or not, and also impacted how well the twins fed and how well they napped and slept.
The pace of change did gradually slow though, and as we got to know the twins more, we were better able to notice signs that things were about to change, like drinking less milk, or taking longer to get down for a nap. This meant that we could both mentally and practically prepare and do things like phase naps or feeds for a while which saved a lot of effort trying to get both babies to stay on routine when it was clear that one wanted to do things differently! In fact, I’d say we got a little overenthusiastic and began to change things too quickly, switching to a new routine just because a twin skipped a nap, when in fact they had just, um, skipped a nap!
There was a constant tug of war between maintaining the existing, precious, working routine, vs being on the ball enough to spot changes, before the twins decided to change things for us! This lasted until the twins were about 14 months or so when most of the major milestones were out of the way (e.g. weaning, walking, a few words etc), at which point it started to feel a lot more like we were in control and could pick and choose how we moved the routine on.
I found those first few months of backwards and forwards really tough, constantly feeling like we were on the back foot and questioning if we were doing the right thing. By the time we got to about 6 months I had learnt and accepted that this was the way it was, and that whilst routine was still key for us, we had to respect the fact the twins were growing up, and their needs were changing. Even when it felt like things had gone backwards, I began to feel much more confident that “this too will pass” and we would get back on top again. If I could have learnt that lesson earlier, it would have made the early days a lot less stressful!
(Not that kind, don’t worry…🤣) Compared to some of the other topics, I think this one might be more of a me problem (and…this also now sounds weird…😮). Historically, my self-talk and general method of self motivation was to give myself a hard time, tell myself it’s not good enough, that I need to work harder or smarter, to stop whinging to myself about things, to take accountability and go and take action! This makes my head a tough place to be sometimes, but, over time I have gotten used to it, and to be honest, quite like it - it's a no BS environment! I value that it does exactly what I need it to, which is to motivate me to keep going. And, at the end of the day, if you can’t kick your own ass, who can, right?! 🤔
The problem was that once the twins joined the party, and I realised (eventually…) the lack of control I would sometimes have, and level of flexibility I would need to accommodate to keep us all on track without my head exploding, there were times where I found I could not personally push any harder (physically, or mentally, or both!). Using my normal “that's not good enough” approach for the first time ever made me feel overwhelmed, rather than inspired and motivated. In some cases I would just end up pushing way too hard and getting wiped out, not a great recipe for showing up as the best version of myself for the family the next day! This would likely also cause some kind of subsequent carnage that would actually set me back more than if I had just accepted whatever limit I was trying to overcome, and chipped away at it a bit more steadily.
Over time, I have had to change my self-talk to focus much more on giving credit for what I have managed to do to date, and accepting the need to park some things while I get myself in the right shape to handle them. That's not to say the internal ass kicking has stopped, but following a bit of “self love” I am in a much better state to take the positives from it, rather than be overwhelmed.
I wish I had done more to pre-empt this, as it turned some perfectly happy mornings into hard work. I would wrestle with beating myself up for not waking up and getting something done at 5am, having only gotten to sleep at 4am after a tough night with the twins!
Interestingly, there was one area I had recognised in advance was going to be a problem, and had made plans to avoid the mental car crash. This was exercise - I have been working out forever, and especially in the past few years have relied on it as much for stress relief and giving myself some “me time” as I have for keeping physically fit. I knew I had to keep this up for me to show up as the best version of myself, even with the time and energy challenges that I knew were to come. I already knew from experience how much lack of sleep and low energy had on my ability to perform, and whilst I had been unforgiving in the past, forcing myself to keep pushing regardless of how I felt, i knew this probably wouldn't work when the twins arrived, and I was going to be tired day after day. So, I created a new exercise plan that was super simple, could be performed in 5min sessions with whatever intensity I could manage (I christened these “Gorilla” workouts 🦍 and had to scream this at the top of my voice every time I did one, an addition from my wife 😆). I didn’t set any other goals than managing to complete one session a day. This made a huge difference to how I saw success compared to my usual bar of crawling out of the gym exhausted with at least 1 personal best smashed to consider it a “decent” session.
This worked fantastically well! I would, regardless of how tired or under time pressure I felt, be able to drag myself into the garage (gym) and manage one session. No matter how little I did, even if most of my effort was spent trying not to fall asleep, I would feel like I had achieved something. Most days, I managed something resembling exercise, this cleared my head, made me feel better, and I usually made it back for a few more sessions that day, feeling good about life 💪.
In hindsight, how I wish I had taken this approach with other aspects of my life! Of course, some things were not in my control, but it was a really simple formula for making it easier to feel like I had achieved something, and continue to have the motivation to keep working at it:
Breaking things down into really small manageable chunks that I could REALISTICALLY achieve given other expected demands. Realistically needed to be constantly assessed, as the twins changed, so did how I felt and my ability to get things done.
Giving myself some credit for what has been achieved so far (no matter how small).
Keep going, every day, even if the end goal seemed a long way off!
I am not sure that I will every be able to cut myself a lot of slack, it’s just not how I am wired, but I can totally see now how starting from a place of positivity and compassion about what has been achieved is a much better foundation to avoid feelings of overwhelm. This shouldn’t be a surprise, many books have been written on the power of positivity, but in hindsight it took me a bit too long to get it and make changes!
Slowly but surely I am getting better at putting positive framing and self love into practice daily. The most important thing as ever is that rather than the family having to deal with me muttering to myself like Muttley from wacky races as I stomp around making breakfast, they get a much calmer and more positive daddy, whilst I still keep making progress with the things I need to.
Patience is sadly not a strength of mine. If impatience was considered a strength, then in fact, that would be a massive strength of mine 😆
Because of this, throughout my career I have, with some success, gone out of my way to try develop patience. A necessity for not spending every day irate due to my own ridiculous and unrealistic expectations! Sadly though, I had never really cracked how to apply that skill to myself, or more importantly, those I was closest to outside of work. I knew though that the irate, super impatient side of me wasn’t something I wanted the twins exposed to, so I had to figure out how to show up with a lot more patience on tap, even when I was tired 😯.
I also knew that the more time we could give them to explore, learn and do things at their own pace, the more independent and confident they would be, especially as the reality is, if you want things done at adult speed, 90% of the time you are going to have to do it for them…
It's said unhappiness is the gap between expectations and reality, and I think this applies especially to someone like me who is impatient. I knew if I prepared myself in advance for things to take longer, then it wouldn’t bother me as much. So, I took the time before and after the twins arrived to really think through how long I thought things like getting out of the house, eating breakfast and getting us all dressed would take, double it, and then add a bit on, and this would be my baseline! I also thought hard about what lessons the twins could be learning during these activities, and tried to really focus on these, rather than time, so even if it was taking aaaaages, it felt valuable as the twins were learning and having fun.
Even with these expectations in place, there were still plenty of times where we ultimately had to (or chose to!) nudge things along a little bit. Over time though we really noticed that doing things in a rush may well get us over the line quicker, but in the long term we were making things harder for ourselves by missing out on learning opportunities for the twins.
A great example of this was a recent issue with TB getting in the bath. After waking up to a bit of a situation one morning, we had to urgently bathe TB...😮 He wasn't best pleased, and when we went to bathe him as per normal in the evening, he really didn’t want to get into the bath. Up to that point bathing had been a really fun experience for everyone, with no major dramas, so this was a worrying development. We muddled through by sponge bathing him and getting him out ASAP. Luckily, the next bath we had, my wife was in charge, not grumpy tired me, so she just sat with TB and gradually got him playing with the bath toys from the side of the bath, and eventually after about 10 minutes we got him in by asking him to go in and “give rubber ducky a good wash” 🦆. After this he was back to his old self, happily splashing about. I am sure if we had just gotten impatient and forced him into the bath, we would have had a repeat of the fear and upset from him at every subsequent bath, and even made his fear worse, creating a bigger problem.
Similarly, we usually let the twins have a good go at getting their own shoes on. When they were younger, this had zero chance of success, but over time we saw them gradually realising where their feet were, figuring out roughly which way round a shoe went, and eventually getting to the point where they could slip them on to the correct foot! This all added minutes to the time it took us to get out of the door (I’m not going to lie, we didn't do it every time), but we did it enough to really see them learn and progress in a way that they might not for some time if we had been determined to get out the door ASAP ASAP every time. It's now great to see them knowing where to get/put their shoes, and they can usually slip them on and off themselves, which saves frustration when there is only one parent to help them both out if needed.
I’d be lying if I said there weren't times where life demanded we needed to get a move on, or I was losing my mind slightly with how long these things took, but this was pretty rare, especially considering how impatient I am. I went out of my way to plan in enough time to complete anything we were trying to do at “twin speed”, this meant getting ready to leave the house 10 minutes before we needed to, not 2 minutes, or trying not to book commitments around meal times and other childcare activities, so if they took a bit longer, we didn’t feel under pressure.
This was a tough pill to swallow sometimes, after all, it's not like as a parent you have lots of spare time! But, especially as the twins grew and became more independent, the extra time needed could actually be used by us to sort ourselves out or do chores, whilst the twins cracked on. Going back to the shoes example, as they got super focused on putting them on themselves, we could happily give them some time to have a go whilst we got ourselves ready, which meant overall it didn’t really take much extra time at all. I also realised after a while that when I rushed less with the twins' activities, whatever I was doing subsequently often went better (and got done quicker), as I wasn't rocking up to that task frustrated or distracted.
Even putting all of this aside for a minute, for me at least, the reduction in mental stress from not feeling on the back foot all the time meant that even if things did take a little longer, I wasn't frustrated or trying to rush, which most importantly meant that I was better able to relax and have fun with the twins, give them plenty of opportunities to learn and hopefully showed up as a much better version of myself than my old impatient rage beast!
Sorry to harp on about this, but as someone who relied on a good 7 - 8 hours sleep a night to feel human(ish), and having struggled with sleep for many years, finally getting it right just before the twins arrived…the lack of sleep was, and still is, one of the toughest things to deal with.
It is hard to describe how it can feel. As a veteran of many festivals, I describe it to people as “on a bad night, it feels like you have just got back from a festival, having not slept the night before, and not much the few nights before that, and are handed a couple of babies to look after, when you just want to get under a duvet and sleep…!”, and “on a good night, it feels like the day after that, where you are a little more rested, but still trying to get a grip on who you are and what you should be doing”. For those who didn't spend as much time at festivals, just insert some other event that required you to stay up all night, and then imagine having two babies to look after the next day and you get the idea.
This repeated, potentially night after night, does build up some resilience, but also over time drained our batteries, so even when we had periods of good sleep, we still didn’t wake up feeling rested. As I write this we are around 19 months, have probably had now a good 2 months of fairly consistent sleeping through, and I feel like I am at best waking up about 70% refreshed. This is miles better than the last 18 months so I can’t complain, but I suspect it's going to take many months of clearish nights for me to feel “normal” again!
Knowing all of this was likely to be the case, I thought a lot before the twins arrived about how I could try to avoid negative behaviours that I knew would pop up because I was tired, like irritability, lack of patience and lack of empathy - not things I wanted to be passing on to or exposing the twins to!
Firstly, we put a lot of work into (and I worried a lot about!) sleep arrangements for the twins, and how we could make sure that we were all getting a good night's sleep, there is lots on this in our Practical Parenting “Sleep” page.
Secondly, I prepared myself to focus on how I was showing up at a given time, even when tired, and to push myself to reset to what I thought the twins needed, not whatever a lack of sleep was driving me to. This worked better than I hoped, with very little spill over to the twins (other than perhaps a bit more sitting and lying down in the playroom on the really bad days, but hey, the twins loved daddy climbing frame!). The consequence of this though, was that most of the negative energy that was created was unintentionally funnelled into any other adults who were unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. This wasn’t pleasant for anyone, and I wish I could have been a bigger person and kept my chin up on all fronts, but I felt the twins had to be the priority and so that is where my energy flowed.
What helped to at least soften this for my wife, who sadly had nowhere else to escape to, was the work we had done as a couple to agree on our parenting choices before the twins arrived, so that misunderstandings could be avoided, and especially where tiredness was driving things more than rational thought, we could nip it in the bud quickly by going back to the principles we had agreed on. I was so grateful we had done this in advance rather than having to figure it out on the fly - in a sleep deprived state, I suspect this would have been a recipe for disaster!
I would love to say there was some magic trick for dealing with sleep deprivation, but we certainly never found it - we never even managed to find time to nap in the day when the opportunity arose, which I am sure would have helped. For me, the wrap up of all the things I did to try and deal with the other 3 things I found tough - flexibility vs routine, patience and self love especially, meant that no matter how tired I was feeling, I had to put some faith in the fact that I was doing everything I could to show up as the best version of myself.