Have you seen more twins in recent years? It's not your imagination. Multiple births are on the way up in Australia - 4550 sets were born in 2013, which is a jump of 36 per cent since 1991. That's a lot more mums nervously watching the screen as the ultrasound technician detects more than one tiny heartbeat. It also means there are a lot more dads hurriedly looking into buying a larger family vehicle.
Of course, fathers of multiples have much more to contribute than expertise in choosing a car, but in all the excitement and preparation, they can sometimes be almost forgotten or ignored.
Dads or expecting fathers of twins can also struggle to find support in female-dominated online forums, as Neil Ward discovered. He's a state manager for a retail IT company, and in 2013 he and his wife learnt they were about to have twins.
"My first reaction was shock. We were really excited though, as we previously believed we were unable to have children," he says. "One child would have been an absolute blessing; two was totally perfect in our world."
As soon as the word 'twins' entered their personal vocabulary, Neil and his wife looked up the local club for the Australian Multiple Birth Association. They were soon meeting other parents expecting multiples. When their two boys arrived, their mother's experience as a special education teacher meant she already knew the value of establishing a routine, while Neil looked for additional support online. He wanted someone to talk to who shared a dad's point of view.
"I joined four multiple-birth Facebook groups but there were very few fathers that were active," he says. "When a dad did post, the mums may have had good intentions but their reactions often came across like 'Well, what would a father know?' That's why I left a lot of those Facebook groups – when a dad had a practical question he was met with an emotional response."
Neil remained in one unisex multiples group, where the dads were a bit more 'hands on'. One night he was chatting to some female members and mentioned his struggles as a dad in online support groups. "There's nothing out there for my husband," one woman said, and another dozen mums agreed. That's when Neil decided it was time to act.
"I said 'bugger it' on the spur of the moment, and within half an hour I had a 'dads of multiples' Facebook page up and running," he says.
Neil called the group The Multiple Dads Sanctuary and hoped it might offer tips, tricks and ideas. He also hoped it would support the mental health of fathers of multiples; Beyond Blue has reported that mothers of multiples have almost double the rate of PND than mums of single babies, while more than half of their partners will also suffer depression. Neil says the divorce rate amongst multiple families is also a lot higher due to the stress.
Now he sometimes refers dads in the group to organisations like Relationships Australia and Mensline. "We also have lawyers, child psychologists, youth workers, and three male midwives in the group. They'll sometimes jump in when one of the members cries out for help."
Mr Ward says the dads in the group are also helpful with more practical challenges. "There are plenty of questions about which pram fits in which car. And washing machines, there's a big one – with the amount of washing families of multiples have to do, soon dad's saying 'our washer's gone kaput, what do we buy?'" he explains. Forum members live in Australia, Canada, the USA, UK, New Zealand, Ireland and many more countries – yet despite their differences, Neil's never had to ban a member or delete a single post. "The level of respect shown to other dads is phenomenal," he observes.
Neil hoped The Multiple Dads Sanctuary might grow to 50 members, but after only 14 months it now boasts around 550 fathers. One person unsurprised by its success is Ali Mountifield, communications officer for The Australian Multiple Birth Association. "There's a gap there and we know it, but unfortunately the majority of our volunteers are women," Ali says. "It just took someone like Neil to say 'Hey, we need this'."
As a mother of triplets who's struggled to conduct adult conversations at 'real world' gatherings, Ali sees the value of online support groups. "It's really positive, especially for parents of multiples who just can't get out of the house, or for people in rural areas where the clubs aren't nearby. You can ask a question and come back in your own time to read three, 10 or even 30 responses."
If you've just received the news that you've got 'more than one' on the way, Neil Ward has these parting words: "Don't panic, there's help available. There's someone out there who understands and can help you. Join your local AMBA group. Join The Dad's Sanctuary. Talk to us."
This week is Multiple Birth Awareness Week, and this year's theme is TEAMS: your family, your friends, your medical team, your community. If you're a parent/expectant parent of multiples you'll find a world of information and support at The Australian Multiple Birth Association, including links to local groups and events happening this week around Australia.
And if you're a dad/dad-to-be of multiples you're welcome to join The Multiple Dads Sanctuary, a dads-only private group which allows fathers a safe place to vent, share and discuss men's ideas, issues, health, tips and opinions.