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Taking the big plunge with both feet

Coming in part way to the parenting game has its pros and cons. Taking on twins at the nine-year mark means I got to avoid diaper changes, projectile vomiting and -- for the most part -- temper tantrums and lost sleep. But like parents with a newborn, when the package(s) arrived, no crash course on parenting techniques in the universe could have prepared me for the entrance of these energetic, demanding and constantly evolving little people.

Our two-year courtship has given us time to wade in on weekends, define roles, make some trial-and-error adjustments and get to know one another before taking the true plunge. (We plan on moving in together in June.) Vanessa comes into our relationship with many survival skills, acquired in order to survive, I suppose. Multi-tasking is second nature, she can sleep through deafening noise (including recycling trucks and screaming sirens, though the slightest peep from a kid with a scratch bolts her from bed), she has Stern Voice-Activation when needed, and can take on at least two dramatic lives while talking on her cell phone, driving and sipping a latte. I cannot. (Note to self: Acquire these skills ASAP.)

The noise will be something I'll need to filter (with earplugs if necessary), the emotional roller-coaster something to watch but not ride, and the fighting something to walk away from. Being the youngest of three myself, that's a tough one: Can't everyone just get along? (Weird thing about twins is that they're fighting to the death one moment, and playing a new huggy-game the next.)

For the kids, it's about exploration and fun, and for Vanessa, it's about family: having a real family with family meals, family outings and family meetings. I'm excited about these agendas, no question, but at this point for me it's mainly about boundaries. I want to participate, but I also want to retain pieces of my prior independence, which includes a regimented -- and uninterrupted -- schedule of perusing the news, getting jacked up on caffeine, and making deadlines. For the last decade, my entire house has been an office, with various rooms to chill, cocktail, read and re-energize. That comfort zone is about to shrink, big-time. I now thank God for the small office with a door -- and soon a deadbolt, no doubt. (There are things in my drawers -- adult things -- that no child should uncover and no grown-up should have to explain...)

We're remodeling to make the house work for all four of us: The bar is being turned into a kitchen, the spare bedroom into a giant closet for my future bride, and the basement is being outfitted with two twin rooms and bathroom. Sadly, the rec room, indoor gym, playhouse and maid's quarters are temporarily on hold.

We'll all learn, I suppose, how to co-habit, but it will take work and talking -- lots of talking. I'm not sure my three incoming housemates know much about privacy or individual play time. (Like some freaked out, overly protective sheep dog, Riley constantly lurks outside the bathroom door, wanting to maintain eye contact with each member of the pack at all times.)

Whereas I can teach the value of solitude (which should never been seen as a punishment, confined or otherwise), I'll learn the benefits of intense bonding, group-decision making, and having children around to walk on my back for chiropractic aid. (I actually wish they weighed more, because between the two of them they only add up to 106 pounds...) In all of this, what I thought would be my biggest liability has become an unexpected asset. Not knowing what kids are supposed to do at a given age (share, multiply, ponder, make a sandwich or their own beds) means the sky is the limit. I have an adult perspective on relating to the young ones, and living my life. No baby talk, no getting down on anyone's level that doesn't elevate the process. I'm simply unable -- or unwilling -- to stoop to babbling.

I'm direct, sarcastic, expect a lot and am constantly shocked in return by the cognitive ability and creative notions of Rachel and Riley. They invent games that should be marketed to Parker Brothers executives, have the (selective) memories of elephants and crave the structure of Camp Cupcake. They're also appreciative of my neurotic, eccentric, artistic way, which is crucial, and a compliment to their mother. Though I'm not treating them as fully functional adults (is there such a thing?), I'm not willing to accept they can't have steep learning curves that include respect, a mature sense of humor, cleaning up after themselves and shining my shoes for a buck (a pair). On the flip side, they don't exactly know what to expect from me; neither does my fiancee. And that's freeing as hell. I can BE a more straightforward, honest, thoughtful individual (so much for the stealing, lying and cheating portion of my life...). I can demand down time, zany time, random singing and constant hugs. I can be enriched by this process -- if only I remember to be myself.

Apparently, they're taking it all in, sleeping on some stuff and often coming back with follow-up questions (and unplanned sneak attacks). The other morning -- with the help of well-placed bowls of cereal and a SpongeBob DVD -- Vanessa and I slept in and eventually made our way downstairs to visit. The twins had created a written schedule of events for the morning (snack time, reading, obstacle course, video, more snacks, fort-building, etc.), and were plugging along with the board game portion of the program when we showed up. Looks like they're gonna be my kids after all . . .

The Accidental Parent is a new column about a lifelong bachelor, Michael Stusser, who recently became engaged to Vanessa, the mother of 9-year-old twins. The essays will follow his pending marriage, cohabitation and blending into a new insta-family. Be advised, this is NOT an advice column. Think of it as watching a roller-coaster. All you have to do is sit back and listen to the laughter -- and a little screaming.

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