- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

Hey, are those twins?

It's a question Alexandria residents Jennifer and Mich-ael Powell get day after day, whenever they take their 18-month-old babies, Eileen and Max, out of the house to the grocery store, the pediatrician's office, the playground, the mall.

"People always come up to us," says Ms. Powell, a free-lance graphic designer. "All kinds of people. Wherever we go, everytime we go. They always relate their own stories. People who aren't parents will say, 'Oh, I want twins.' People with kids will say, 'That's neat, but better you than me.' "

People come out with some strange comments, too, says big sister Lauren, 12.

Some people will say, "I thought they might be twins because they look alike," Lauren says. "And even people we've met before will say, 'Are you sure they're twins?'"

Twins have been imbued with mystery from the time of Remus and Romulus, the legendary brothers said to have built Rome. This intrigue hasn't always been a good thing, though. The Yoruba of Nigeria, for example, traditionally destroyed twins upon birth, and sometimes their mother as well, believing the twins to be either an evil omen or proof that the mother had consorted with two men.

Despite a sharp rise in twins and higher-order births during the past two decades, America still heralds multiples. Witness Ashley and Mary Kate Olson, the identical teenage television sensations; the front-page-news McCaughey septuplets of Carlisle, Iowa; and the Twins Days festival held every August in Twinsburg, Ohio.

Multiples always will retain their cache, says Mary Adcock, executive vice president of the National Organization of the Mothers of Twins Club. Ms. Adcock is an educator who lives in Hutchinson, Kan., with her husband, David, 12-year-old "singleton" Rachel and 10-year-old identical twins Holly and Noel.

"In the eyes of the public, it's still something special," she says. "When you go out especially when you have infant twins it's like being a star in your own right. It's still a very unique situation biologically."

Twin births come in two basic forms. Fraternal, or dizygotic, twins develop from two eggs that have been fertilized by two sperm. The fertilized eggs develop separately, with their own unique genes. They are no more alike genetically than other brothers and sisters.

Identical, or monozygotic, twins develop from one fertilized egg. This egg divides into two individuals who are genetic clones of each other. Therefore, they always will be the same sex and have identical features, eye and hair color.

Dr. Louis Keith, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, has been studying multiples for 25 years. He's president of the Center for Study of Multiple Birth, affiliated with the university, and is centering his research on the recent "epidemic" of triplets, as he calls it, and the consequences.

Himself a twin, Dr. Keith says his mother was well-known in her day 1935 as the mother of the twins when she strolled him and his brother down a busy Chicago thoroughfare.

"Today that's not the case," he says. "They're everywhere. I walk into the center of the city, and I see twins in strollers all the time. Whereas an individual set of triplets once was special, today it isn't."

Statistics back up the doctor's observations.

In 1980, 68,339 live babies were born as twins and 1,337 individuals entered the world as triplet or higher-order births, says Jeff Lancashire, a spokesman at the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, 118,916 twin individuals were born; 14,067 babies were triplets or higher-order births.

These figures reflect a 74 percent increase in the occurrence of twins during the past 20 years. Triplet births and above increased tenfold during the same period.

Many people believe assisted reproduction technology, or ART, is the force behind this baby boom. In fact, the landmark birth of Louise Brown England's "test-tube baby" in 1978 blazed the path for a revolution in medical treatments for infertility.

In 1999, the latest year for which ART figures were released jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, staffs at 370 clinics around the country performed 86,822 ART cycles, resulting in 30,285 babies.

"We are over 150,000 children since the advent of IVF [in the United States] in 1982," says ASRM spokesman Sean Tipton, referring to in vitro fertilization.

Dr. Keith explains the link between the availability of ART and multiples.

"At the same time, the numbers of women having their first pregnancy over the age of 35 increased dramatically," he says. "These women are good candidates for needing assisted reproduction technology. So which came first, the chicken or the egg? ART was on the market, older women were able to use it, and they did, and they got the most common side effect of ART, which is multiple births."

A unique experience?

The Mothers of Twins clubs around the country are feeling the boost. The national organization serves 23,000 members in about 430 regional clubs. Mothers of Twins offers support, advice and fellowship to parents of multiples on everything from breast-feeding instruction to clothing sales to education advocacy.

Silver Spring resident Jeanne Taylor serves as the telephone contact for the Montgomery County club. She and her husband, Frank, have a 4-year-old son, Jack. They also are the parents of 3-year-olds Maranda and Michael.

The Montgomery County branch has about 200 active member families, and they just keep coming, Ms. Taylor says.

"Every week I do the club phone," she says. "I get calls every week from expectant parents. We also get calls from the hospital about it. Tons of them."

Multiples abound in her own family.

Ms. Taylor's aunt was a twin. Her mother-in-law miscarried twins. Her sister has a pair of identical twins.

She says people still are very intrigued by her twins.

"We get tons of attention," she says. "It is wonderful. A year or two ago, we were at the beach walking down the boardwalk. Some people would literally stop and gape. You get all kinds of questions. People are still just fascinated."

The phenomenon of multiple births is so compelling to Susan Kohl that she decided to write a book about the emotional, physical and psychological dimensions of twins. A former journalist and author, she lives in Twain Harte, Calif., with her husband, Doug, their 12-year-old son, Frank, and their 8-year-old twins, Sam and Max.

Ms. Kohl's research for "Twin Stories: Their Mysterious and Unique Bond," brought her in August 2000 to the small town of Twinsburg for the annual three-day Twins Days festival.

There she encountered nearly 3,000 sets of twins, most of them dressed identically. She spoke with 40 sets (among a total of 150 individuals for her book) and says they all feel twin-ness is "a special thing.

"All the people I talked to felt they were special. Lots of times they're treated as celebrities, really. Even now, definitely. It's that whole, 'Oh, are you twins?' kind of thing. People love to see them and love to hear twin stories about growing up, getting in trouble, switching, romance. I still think that they're real attention getters."

Debbie Brennan knows all about getting attention.

She and her husband, Tom, who live in Manassas, are the parents of Justin, 17, and Sean, 15. Fourteen-year-old identical twins Patrick and Matthew and 10-year-old fraternal twins Katelyn and brother T.J. round out the family.

"Having six is amazing, and then when people look at the ages they just don't expect to hear that someone has two sets of twins," Ms. Brennan says. "What do people think? People still think it's neat. It doesn't matter how often it happens."

But always, there are the questions.

"If you have twins, people always ask you, 'Did you have in vitro or fertility drugs?' It doesn't bother me. You get 'Are you Catholic, or are you Mormon?' The other, bigger question we get is are they his, hers or ours? I usually will laugh it off, but those are the questions you get. People just look at you and say, 'Well, why would you have two sets of twins?'"

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