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"How It Feels To Be The Father Of Twins" from American Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from American Magazine
How It Feels To Be The Father Of Twins
by Ellis Parker Butler

As a matter of fact, after one gets used to it, being the father of twins is no more exciting than being in a railway collision, or falling down an elevator shaft. The first few minutes, just after the doctor has said, "Well, old man, congratulations -- two fine girls this time!" may be a little worse; but if a man just takes hold of a door frame, or some other thing that is permanent and steady, and holds fast until the first spasms are over and he gets his wind again, he's as likely as not to recover fully and to show no permanent damage.

Ellis Parker Butler, distinguished humorist, and his twin daughters, Jean and Marjorie.

My twins were born on Christmas Eve while I was decorating a Christmas tree for their sister. At least, she wasn't their sister then, because there weren't any twins yet, but she would be as soon as there were any twins for her to be a sister to. What I remember best is what an awful interruption to the decorating the twins were. When a man is expecting to have more family any minute, he is likely to be more or less nervous. And a nervous man is no man to be hanging big silver soapbubble affairs on the upper branches of a Christmas tree. He hangs too many on branches that are not there.

I'll admit that that Christmas tree was the most inartistic one I ever decorated. But how can a man do a good job of Christmas tree decorating when every time he starts to hang up a golden globe, or a tinsel star, some nurse, or doctor, or somebody, sticks a head in at the door and says, "Well, you're a father again," or "One more now," or, "Cheer up; only two so far." A man can't concentrate on his job when someone is coming in every few minutes to announce another twin.

While I cannot say that I was not surprised when my twins were born, I can see now that I should have expected something of the sort. Naturally, the whole world was looking to me to place America on a par with England, one of her writers who is fully as well known as I am having been the father of twins. I mean Shakespeare. We now have Shakespeare in England, and Butler in America. I may not yet be as well known as Shakespeare is, but I have as many twins as he had. When any Englishman begins bragging around and saying, "Ah, yes, old top, but you have no Shakespeare, don't you know!" we Americans can look him straight in the eye and say gently, "But we have a Butler -- he had twins, too." And then watch him shrivel!

The general opinion seems to be that twins must be a terrible nuisance to have on hand in an otherwise well-regulated home, particularly while they are very young. People spoke to us of the twins as if we had acquired a couple of full-grown alligators or a pair of African elephants. They seemed to take it for granted that we would be completely incapacitated for the ordinary human activities for ten or twenty years at least.

I blame Shakespeare for this widely spread notion. One of the cyclopedias says of Shakespeare, "Susanna was born May 26th, 1583, and on Feb. 2d, 1585, twins -- Hamnet and Judith. About 1587 Shakespeare went to London." This sounds as if he went to London because he could not stand the twins; but I don't believe it. It only means that the twins were old enough to wear shoes and Shakespeare had to earn more money.

If it had not been for the twins, Shakespeare might have loafed around Stratford all the rest of his life, and never have amounted to anything much. What he probably said was, "Anne, I've fixed it up with John Blount to give us credit for two pairs of shoes for the twins; but I can see right now that I've got to go up to London and be the world's greatest dramatist. I've got to earn a pot of money, or we'll all have to go barefoot." If that is so, we owe a great deal to Shakespeare's twins. For one, I certainly don't believe he ever spoke of them as "those alligators." There is, of course, one place in his Sonnet XXVIII, where he may be referring to the twins:

How can I, then, return in happy plight.
That am debarr'd the benefit of rest?
When day's oppression is not eas'd by night...

This sounds as if Hamnet and Judith cried all night. Now, there is nothing that knocks out a high-class literary man like having to walk up and down the floor all night long with a howling twin on each arm. I can't think of a worse preparation for a day in which a man means to dash off some merry little play like "Romeo and Juliet," or "Love's Labour's Lost." I know I never spoke of my twins as "those alligators," and I seem to have a much harder time writing my pieces than Shakespeare had.

(Photo at right) A sad moment in the early life of the Butler twins. The one shaking her left foot is either Jean or Marjorie; and the other one is either Marjorie or Jean. (Below) On the outside looking in. The Butler twins got all turned 'round when this picture was being made. The one with the black shoes, white socks, white dress and cute little hat is Jean; while the one with the cute little hat, white dress, white socks and black shoes is Marjorie.

A sad moment in the early life of the Butler twins.

The most annoying thing about having twins -- indeed, the only annoying thing -- is that everyone seems to consider the twins some sort of joke on Papa. There are 306 twin jokes, all as ancient as the pyramids, and I had to hear each of them two hundred and six times, and pretend to be confused and amused. As a matter of fact, after the first half-hour or so, having twins seemed as natural as having the grocer's bill come every week.

One of the forms the twin joke took was in the way of suggested names. The most popular combination was "Kate" and "Duplicate." This was suggested by everyone in Flushing and New York City, and by a few outsiders who wrote and telegraphed. I heard that witty suggestion so often that when anyone said, "Have you named them yet?" I screwed up my face into a painful grin, and cried "Ha! Ha!" before the dear friend had time to say, "Why don't you call them Kate and Duplicate?" I knew what was coming.

As soon as the twins were born, one of my friends began sending us "twin" books. He started, as I remember it, with a set of books called "The Bobbsey Twins." There were ten or a dozen of these: "The Bobbsey Twins at School," "The Bobbsey Twins in Camp," and so on. Then came a long series: "The Japanese Twins," "The Irish Twins," and so forth. There were six in our family, counting my father, and at every Christmas and on every birthday for years, each of us received from one to six "twin" books. I have hundreds of them now. It is amazing how many books have twins in them; for years it seemed as if every book that came out was about twins. And this friend found them all.

Teasing me about the twins became one of the great national sports. I was a member of a lunch club in New York, composed of authors and editors, which met at a restaurant each Tuesday. One day I was notified to be sure to be at the next luncheon, as we were to have a guest, a distinguished Russian author. I had never heard of the fellow -- he had a queer name, like Burgus D. Smoontch, or something of the sort -- but all Russian authors are distinguished, and hungry. When I reached the restaurant, there was no Russian. The luncheon was in honor of my being the father of twins. There was a large poster: "Twins is Twins, the latest production of Ellis Parker Butler, America's Most Prolific Author," and so on. You can see for yourself that it was all very witty.

Then each member of the club had two gifts for my twins -- duplicates. These presents ranged all the way from nursing bottles to toy wagons. And dolls -- Kate and Duplicate, of course. Someone made a speech, but I forget who it was or what he said. I only remember that I grinned painfully for about an hour, trying to give one and all the impression that I recognized that twins are a joke, and that the joke was on me. Then I went across to the old Thirty-fourth Street ferry with my arms full of nursing bottles, and toy dogs, and Kate and Duplicate dolls, and toy wagons hanging down my back, and teething rings in my vest pockets.

From that day onward, for over fourteen years, I have continued to be considered something rather unusually amusing in the way of fathers. Men to whom I would otherwise be nothing whatever hunt me out in the crowds and tell me, with eagerness, "I know a man in Decatur who has twins too." It is easy to see that in the speaker's eyes both the man in Decatur and I are heroic figures -- funny-heroic -- like the giant in the side show or the two-headed ox. Women I have never met before say, the moment we are introduced, "You have twins, haven't you, Mr. Butler? My grandfather had twins, too." I don't know whether they say this in envy or as consolation.

I can say, in the first place, that, like most men, I am proud of everything I am father of -- either singles or doubles. After the first surprise is over, and the papa discovers that the coming of twins does not cause Reason to totter on her throne, the parent quickly realizes that a pair of twins is composed of two individuals, exactly as any other pair of children would be.

At the end of three or four years, let us say, it is no longer important to Papa that the twins are twins. The important thing is whether they are good children or bad children, stupid children or bright children, well children or sick children.

In nearly every case of twins of which I have any knowledge, the members of the dual alliance begin to develop easily noticed personal characteristics almost as soon as they are born. By the time they are six months old, although they may look as like as two peas, their parents can tell them apart by their moods, actions, and likes. By the time the twins are three years old, their habits and customs are so different that they might be of entirely different crops. Presently they begin to read, let us say, or one begins to read, and the other does not care for it yet -- and the difference is quite likely to be as great between the twins as between children born a year apart.

Of course, there are problems that immediately confront Papa when the twins are born. He may have decided that the child was to be a boy, and have chosen the name of Hezekiah Adolphus for him. When Hezekiah Adolphus turns out to be two girls the name does not fit very well.

Immediately there has to be a great hustling for names, unless one wants to take the simple plan of calling one twin Hezekiah and the other Adolphus, and let it go at that. Or call one Hezekianna, and the other Adolphina. Promptly comes someone with the Kate and Duplicate suggestion. Others, not so waggish, suggest Holly and Mistletoe, or May and June, or Pearl and Coral. Personally, I did not care for these names, and said I did not. Someone suggests something like Ina and Una, or Eva and Ive. "Yes, or Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum," I say scornfully. Why, indeed, should the personalities of twins be suppressed by such names?

When one conies to think of it seriously, the naming of twins is not such a simple matter. It will always be known that they are twins; their names will always be heard with a knowledge that they are twins.

It will not do to give one the name of a dearly beloved sister May, and then hand the other a two-for-five-cents pick-up name, chosen any old how. In later years, when one twin says, "You named May for Aunt May; where did you get my name?" you can't say to her, "Well, dearie, you didn't amount to much, so we just took a lot of names and drew them out of a hat." Neither can you give one a great long name like Aphrodite and the other a bobtailed name like Ann.

I remember that I cast several ballots for Ann and Jane before we went into parental caucus and decided on Marjorie and Jean. It was exhausting work, but it was worth the expenditure of effort. After a few days, it becomes confusing to call the twins "This One" and "That One, " particularly as the nurse is likely to put This One on That One's side of the crib, so that This One is That One, and That One is This One. Of course, if the job of giving names must be postponed until Uncle Prentiss, who has so much money, is heard from, one can be called Fatty and the other Thinny for a while, one twin usually being lighter than the other to begin with. But, even so, the names should not be withheld too long -- Fatty is likely to be thinner than Thinny, and Thinny fatter than Fatty, it all depending on how their little stomachs work.

The second great problem that presented itself was what sort of baby carriage to buy. This was a matter of tremendous importance. Even with a single baby, the cab question has come near to wrecking many a family. Shall it be a high-slung wicker cab, or a low-slung one; a high-slung varnished cab or a low-slung one? Shall it be a cab with a lever to step on that turns it into a high chair, or a cab of an obstinate sort that stays put, and has as its motto "Once a cab always a cab?" All this fades to nothing before the far more important problem of whether the cab for the twins shall be a wide one with room for the twins side by side, or a long narrow one with the twins foot to foot.

By the time a few hundred expert opinions have been received from people who have no twins, but know people who have, nobody knows what to do, and the only sort of cab that seems reasonable is a two-story one, built like the upper and lower berths in a sleeping car; and there are no such cabs. One can be built for five hundred dollars, but that does not include the wheels.

The trouble seems to be that if the twins are put side by side, and one wants to sleep, the other slashes out with an arm and jabs it in the eye. Then the jabbed twin -- called B in the specifications -- cries, and this sets the unjabbed twin -- called A in the by-laws -- to crying, and then they both -- A and B -- cry. Whereupon Mrs. C and Miss D stop in their promenade, and say, "Oh, how wonderful! You have twins, haven't you!" And by the time that conversation is ended, the twins never do get to sleep, and dinner is late, and the world practically comes to an end.

On the other hand, if an end-to-end cab is bought, we are informed, and the aforesaid and above-mentioned twin known as B goes peacefully to sleep, the twin A will remain awake and kick the feet of B, awakening B, who then cries, thus angering A, who also cries. This creates an A-plus-B cry that induces Mrs. C and Miss D to stop and say, "Oh, how wonderful! You have twins, haven't you!" And by the time that conversation is ended, the twins never do go to sleep, and dinner is late, and the world practically comes to an end.

I forgot which sort of cab we got finally, but it was not a two-story one, and we never had any trouble with one twin awakening the other. I hate to spoil a good humorous topic, but our twins were less trouble in that respect than a single child. They did less crying than any babies I have ever known. Almost from their first week, they amused each other; they gurgled each other to sleep; when side by side, with their feet in the air, they played with each other's toes.

When one was asleep, the other wanted to be asleep too, and went to sleep. When they awakened, instead of crying for human companionship as a single baby must, they were satisfied with each other.

I might add here, to calm those who may be in terror of having twins drop in on them for life, that two times one does not always make two. Nor even three, as some suppose. There is a general opinion that one baby is a great deal of extra work, and that two must mean twice or three times the work that one means. Our twins, as a pair, were little more work than a single baby would have been, and my wife will second this statement. The big job with a baby is not feeding it, bathing it, and so on, but getting ready to feed it, getting ready to bathe it, and so forth. It is very little more trouble to get ready to feed and bathe two than it is to get ready to feed and bathe one. Our twins were so much company for each other that their self-entertainment fully equalized the extra work.

When a man buys an ostrich he learns a lot about ostriches that he never knew or guessed before. Doubtless this is because a man seldom begins life expecting to own an ostrich, and so he does not study up on ostriches in advance. It is the same with twins; they are more or less unexpected. I remember a story -- one of the 306 "twin" jokes that brightened Christmas and New Year's for me as 1909 faded and 1910 burst on a world that had a pair of new Butler twins in it -- of a young man who came home from calling on his best girl considerably downcast.

"What's the matter, Joe?" his brother asked him. "Did you propose to Milly and get thrown down?"

"Well, no, Ed," Joe said gloomily. "No, I didn't get as far as that. I was going to, but she sort of didn't encourage me."

"What'd she say, Joe?"

"Well, it wasn't much," Joe said. "We were sitting there on the porch, and she spoke up and said she was a twin. Then she said her father and her mother had been twins. And then she said all her grandparents had been twins. So I came on home. It didn't seem to me like she was encouraging me."

That young man, I should say, had fair warning; but most parents come up against the twin situation with only one outfit of baby garments ready. Twins arrive like a Charleston earthquake -- they are likely to happen anywhere on the earth's crust, but they are not expected in advance. As soon as they happen, however, there is an amazing lot of information immediately available. People you hardly know at all stop you and tell you all about it.

One of the bits of information is that one of the twins is always weaker than the other. This may be so, but my observations lead me to believe that there is no more difference between twins than there is likely to be the case with two babies born the same day in the same town. At the present time, the elder of my twins is able to take her brother by the hair and throw him across the lot. And the other twin is able to catch him when he alights and take him by the hair and throw him back. You may call that feebleness, but their brother does not. Another thing we learned was that there are two kinds of twins -- typical and atypical. This information was usually given us with a solemn air of immense scientific knowledge; but all it means is that some twins look alike, and some don't. I could have guessed that with both eyes shut and my hands tied behind my back. It is just about the same as saying "Some brothers and sisters look alike, and some don't."

The kernel of the thing is that excitable ladies who like to get excited over anything whatever like to have a mother of twins exclaim, "Yes, actually, sometimes I don't know which is which!" These excitable ladies love to say, "How do you ever tell them apart? Do you tie a blue ribbon on one, and a red ribbon on the other?" Mothers of twins -- rather more than fathers, I believe -- play up to this gentle foible of their friends. They dress the twins alike, do their hair the same way, make them look as much alike as possible, and get a lot of glory out of it. There were, I will admit, moments when it was almost impossible for us to tell our twins apart. Their coloring was the same; they came to be the same general size; at times they did look exactly alike. But there was one saving peculiarity: A could look exactly like B, but B never looked exactly like A. This is true today, when they are much older and have developed personal characteristics to a much greater degree: A can make herself look like B, but B cannot make herself look like A.

Until a very few months ago, they could fool me almost any time. If A took B's place at the table and made herself look like B, I was completely taken in. The trick was possible because A from the first developed a somewhat slenderer face than B -- or one had a jaw like her mother and the other a jaw like mine. I don't know which it was. I don't know now that I am right about this at all; I don't know surely whether it is A that can look like B, or B that can look like A.

From the first day, however, the twins began to develop entirely distinct personalities and there was never any danger of actually mistaking one for the other -- one was more placid, the other more active. Even when asleep, one slept placidly and the other actively.

This thing of observing the gradual development of the personal characteristics of the twins was delightful from the beginning, and is no less so now. It is a treat that none but the parents of twins can have. Twins are born at the same time; but they begin to develop these differing characteristics immediately. Our twins were "typical" at birth, but before they were a month old, one "looked like" members of one branch of the family, and the other "looked like" members of the other branch. These likenesses have increased with the years.

We have never observed any signs of any mystic union of mind or spirit in the twins. This is a point often emphasized in novels dealing with twins, and, I understand, is thoroughly believed by many who are interested in psychological matters. I have been told a story -- supposedly true -- of twins, one of whom was in New York, and the other in India. It seems that when the New York twin was injured in an accident, the India twin felt the pain and cabled to know what had happened. That sort of thing is what I mean by mystic connection. Our twins seem to be no more "connected," mystically or otherwise, than any other sisters would be.

Up to a certain age, our twins were dressed alike, the idea being that they were "cuter" that way -- and so they were. Also, I imagine, it was a bit easier to plan one style of outfit than to plan two. Neither did the twins care what they wore, being at the age when exterior decoration is ignored and regular meals are the important things. Then the time came when more ready-made articles were needed -- shoes, hats, coats, and so on -- and you would be surprised by the vast indifference to twins shown by the great stores of New York! I have gone into a shop that occupied an entire city block front and ran away back on both sides -- big enough to be a town in itself -- with millions of dollars' worth of goods on sale, and simply thousands of coats, let us say, for six-year-old girls. Yet when one coat had been chosen to fit one twin's size and looks, I would learn that there was not another coat of the same size and. style in the entire United States of America, probably not in the world. "I'm sorry," I would say with my sad, sweet smile, "I must have two just alike -- they're twins." The lady clerk would then scratch her head with the point of her pencil -- the secret signal of the craft to convey the words, "Mamie, I've got another lemon" -- and say, indifferently, "I can give you the same coat in a year older size." "Two of them?" I would ask hopefully. "No, I'm sorry; we have only one of a size."

Those were her words; but her tone said, "You ought to be ashamed to upset a department store by having twins, you poor fish, you!"

It was a glad day, I can tell you, when one of the twins began wearing a shoe half a size larger than the other twin; but what do you know about life, Edgar? It was exactly then that the twins refused to have anything that looked the least alike! If one twin wanted a pale blue hat that turned up in front, the other would have nothing but a dark brown one that turned down.

And immediately every shop in New York had nothing but pale blue hats for girls of that age. We could get pale blue hats that turned up, and pale blue hats that turned down, and pale blue hats that looked like soup bowls, and coal scuttles, and pie pans; but it was evident that there was a law that any shop manager who offered for sale a dark brown hat should be shot at sunrise. And the managers were taking no chances.

Since that period of distress, the twins have simplified matters by growing out of the child-size stage. They still prefer to dress dissimilarly, not just to be dissimilar, but because each has her own likes, which are not the likes of her sister twin. All of which is quite proper.

From all this, you can get an idea how it feels to be the father of twins some fifteen years after their arrival. I have an older daughter and a younger son. With the twins as they are, I feel that I have four distinct, satisfactory, and adorable children. If the twins were as alike as two cans of corn, I might feel as if I had only three children -- or three and a half at most. I wouldn't like that so well, because I think four children is just about the ideal family. It increases the race -- not too much, but enough. If a father and mother have but two children, the race is left where it was when the parents die -- two gone and two to replace them. Three is an odd number, and for some reason I always feel more comfortable among the even numbers. But four is ideal. I know, because I have tried it.

The present status of the twin business in the Butler family is that the twins considerably dislike to be grouped and referred to as twins. However, their mother and I still refer to them as twins, and often call one or the other "Twinny," which is an awful thing to call anyone. I am gradually breaking away from this by calling both of them "Sister" -- which is almost worse. Now and then I call one "Jean," but it is often Marjorie; and when I call one "Marjorie" she answers sweetly, "This is Jean." This is rank laziness on my part, because if I took the trouble to look, I would know which was which. Usually.

The twin thing is usually trotted out by visitors -- "Now, wait a minute; I can tell which is which. This is Marjorie." "No, I'm Jean" -- but otherwise we don't work it very hard. We don't sit around the table when there is no company and spend the evening guessing which twin is which. But we do marvel at them now and then -- not at their likeness but at their difference. My wife will say, "I went in town today and bought two dresses, and when I reached home I gave A her choice. When B came I asked her which she liked best, and she chose the other dress. They always do."

So, if you ask me how it feels to be the father of twins, I'll say, "It feels fine!" I'll say what I have said to a hundred married folks: "Until you've had twins you'll never know how mighty interesting children can be. " As they say in the business district, I'm sold on the twin proposition one hundred per cent!



Saturday, October 07 at 1:11:31am USA Central
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