“I don’t know how you do it,” comments Lorraine, my mother-in-law, on her first visit to her triplet granddaughters: Deirdre, Maeve, and Kiera, born in December 1987. The following June, she has flown from southeastern Wisconsin all the way to Montreal for this visit. Now she’s standing in the kitchen doorway watching me spoon spinach mush, tofu mush, then apple sauce into the girls’ mouths.
“So cute. They open their mouths just like baby birds. I have to take a picture.”
Maybe she could come into the kitchen, pick up a spoon, and help me? She’d raised seven children on a struggling family farm, so I hadn’t expected her to be that impressed with my three. Before they were born, she already had seventeen grandchildren.
But somehow the idea of three at once overwhelms her.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Lorraine repeats to her son Norman as she takes advantage of the photo op.
]I shrug. By that time I’m used to the performative nature of triplet childcare. For months, people I barely know have been calling, begging to see the triplets.
“I love babies,” asserts a colleague I’d hardly spoken to before.
But really I don’t mind the attention. For more than four months during the pregnancy, I’d been alone at home on bed rest. After the girls came home from six weeks in neonatal intensive care, it was still winter and difficult to get out. So I’m grateful for the friendly visits, ready to treat my life as spectacle if it guarantees me some company as well as some distraction.
“I dine out on stories of you and your family,” one friend laughs.
I think of Mr. Bennett in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and to laugh at them in our turn?”
No family members live near us, but during the first two years, friends take turns helping on outings to parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens. Since I’m an anxious parent, I imagine we need one adult per toddler to leave the house. What if all three start running in different directions?
When the girls are two and a half, we move to northeast Ohio, then the following summer we drive to Elkhorn, Wisconsin where my mother-in-law has a small house.
Lorraine sets up a croquet game in her back yard to amuse the triplets. She shows them cloth story books her mother made years before they were born. She plays her ukulele and sings to them. But the game they find most compelling is watching her remove her new false teeth, clean them, put them back.
“Just a partial bridge,” she tells them. “The dentist made it last year. Cost $500,” she adds to Norman.
During the four days we stay with her, Lorraine invites all her friends, neighbors, cousins, nieces, nephews to marvel at the spectacle – three toddlers who look so much alike!
“Can you really tell them apart?” each one asks me. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“She color codes them,” insists Lorraine. “See – Deirdre’s in blue, Maeve’s in red, Kiera’s in yellow.”
Lorraine basks in the reflected attention and admiration. But on the morning we’re scheduled to leave, there’s a crisis: she can’t find her $500 teeth.
She questions each of the girls. We diligently look through their bags of toys, suitcases of clothes. We search under the beds, remove the sheets and blankets. We peer under all the furniture, take apart the sofa, look all over the yard. Then do everything once again. No teeth.
Meanwhile, Lorraine cross-examines each of the girls.
“Where’s my bridge? What did you do with my teeth?”
A horrible idea seems to enter her mind as she’s interrogating Deirdre for the third time.
“Did you flush them down the toilet?”
What can you expect from a three and a half-year-old who has only begun using the toilet about six months before and is still fascinated by the magic of flush?
No one blames Deirdre or suggests punishing her, but her transgression casts a pall over our good-byes and the drive home.
I’m more embarrassed than angry as I wonder how we’ll come up with the $500 for Lorraine to get new teeth. And I feel guilty – bad mom – can’t supervise her children properly or train them not to touch other people’s stuff. Instead of Supermom, I’m the idiot who got promoted to a job above her competence level.
Three days after we arrive home, we get a call from Lorraine. This time she’s the one who’s embarrassed.
“I found my teeth. Behind the bathroom door. They must have fallen off the counter after I cleaned them.”
Why did Deirdre “confess”?
I’ve read stories of false confessions to more serious offenses: robbery, even murder. Is it the power of suggestion? Exhaustion? The wish that the questioner would just stop? Go away?
At the time, I thought Deirdre picked up on what her grandmother wanted her to say. Or maybe she just thought: “Hey – what a cool idea – if only I’d come up with that!”
This post is part of a series of essays by the contributors to our second anthology, Multiples Illuminated: Life with Twins and Triplets, the Toddler to Twin Years. Subscribe to get new posts on your favorite reader as and when they’re published.
Eileen C. Manion grew up in New York and moved to Montreal in 1969 where she got her Ph.D. in English at McGill University. Since the mid-1970s, she has been teaching English at Dawson College in Montreal. In 1987, she had triplet daughters, one of whom currently lives in Canada, while the other two are in the U.S.