Lisa Ingrassia/San Francisco
March 12, 2007 12:00 PM

It was the extraordinary moment Patrick Dempsey had been awaiting for nearly nine months: the birth of his twin sons. And yet as wife Jillian was readied for her cesarean section at an L.A.-area hospital, Dempsey couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the whole scene was oddly familiar. “It was funny because the doctor asked if I wanted to help with the delivery,” says Dempsey, who’s used to scrubbing in thanks to his role as Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd on ABC’s smash medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. The new dad cut the cords—both of them!—and kept his cool throughout. “I was watching everything that was going on [with the doctors], and you see a lot of that in the show,” he says. “It was a bit surreal.” So was the twins’ big debut. “When Darby came out, he had short blonde hair and a wider face,” says Jillian. “Sullivan has Sid Vicious black, punk-rock hair.” And yes, the tots’ tiny follicles are already beginning to develop a telltale curl. “They already have my hair,” says the proud dad. “That’s a good thing.”

Even better is day-to-day life for Dempsey, 41, since the Feb. 1 arrival of fraternal twins Sullivan Patrick and Darby Galen. The boys join big sister Talula, 5—and their dad is still adjusting to his tripled brood. Returning home from the hospital, “I felt like we’d outgrown the house already, and we just moved in!” says the actor, sipping a mid-afternoon mimosa during a break from a fundraiser in San Francisco for Breakaway from Cancer (see box), an organization he became involved with after his mom’s triumphant battle with the disease. Appearing surprisingly well-rested in jeans and a blazer (and showing off family photos on his PDA), Dempsey hardly looks like a man in the throes of new-dad exhaustion. What’s his secret? “It’s much harder for my wife than for me because she’s having to pump or nurse,” says the actor, who gifted Jillian, 41, with diamond studs after the birth. Plus, having been through the newborn cycle once, “with Talula she was colicky, and we didn’t know what to do. These guys,” he says of the quick-to-snooze twins, “are amazing.”

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been some adjustments. When the couple first learned they were expecting two, “I was a little overwhelmed,” admits Dempsey. And even with the boys now home, the new dad still needs the occasional practical reminder. “I think sometimes he forgets that when babies are first born they don’t have any neck muscles,” says Jillian, “and I’m like, ‘Whoa! Baby head wobbling down to your feet!'”

Dempsey himself acknowledges that the newborn phase isn’t his specialty. “Certainly for the first four or five months, the husband is really kind of a houseboy,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of guys and I think it’s a hard transition, because you lose your wife for a while. She’s putting all her energy into your children. When the babies get a little older I do much better.”

Still, the twins—who were born two weeks early—have quickly settled into a familiar routine and matching schedules. “Here’s the cycle: They wake up, they cry, they go to the breast, they eat, they poo or pee, you change a diaper and they go back to sleep,” says Dempsey. “This happens every two to three hours.” Even so, there’s one thing the new father of sons hasn’t quite adjusted to: diaper duty for boys. “That’s a whole different technique!” he says. “Fortunately I’ve been working so much that I haven’t had to change too many diapers.”

In fact, the long hours required by Grey’s have been challenging for Dempsey, who had to get right back into McDreamy mode the day after the twins’ birth. “What are you going to do?” he says of the speedy turnaround. “The show doesn’t wait, and you have to put your life on hold.” The family has the help of a nanny, notes Dempsey, which “makes a huge difference.”

Although the new little guys—their parents haven’t bestowed any McNicknames because “it’s so widely used now,” says Dad—are too small to receive many visitors at this point, Dempsey’s Grey’s colleagues “have been very supportive and loving,” says the actor. “Ellen [Pompeo] calls daily to find out when she can come meet them.” And Justin Chambers, who plays Dr. Alex Karev on the show, has offered his own two cents as both a twin himself and the father of twins. “He said, ‘They’re weird—twins are weird. Take it from me,'” Dempsey says with a laugh. He also got advice from the twin actors who played conjoined twins on an episode of Grey’s this season. “They were like, ‘Give them their own rooms!'” recalls Dempsey. “I think the thing is to support their individuality and not lump them together.”

For now, though, the boys happily share a crib. “They will latch onto each other’s arms; it’s the most beautiful thing to watch,” says Jillian, a makeup artist and hairstylist who met Dempsey in 1994 when he turned up at her L.A. salon for a haircut. But close as they are, the boys’ emerging personalities couldn’t be more distinct. “Sullivan will probably read this article in 20 years and say, ‘What did you say about me?’ He’s sort of the grumpy old man,” says Dempsey. “And then Darby is very much the peaceful, quiet little Buddha.”

Not only is their big sister Talula “very excited and very good about taking care of her brothers,” says Dempsey, but she’s also the one who designated their names. “We had the names picked and then Talula helped us determine who was who.” (Significance of the names? Just “names we liked,” he says.) Since the boys’ arrival, father and daughter have been bonding by bicycling together and watching movies like The Sound of Music and the Japanese anime film Howl’s Moving Castle. As the dad of a 5-year-old, “I’m learning. Some days you feel like you’re being a good parent, and some days you feel like you’re being a bad parent,” he admits. “I’m trying to be a consistent parent.”

So is the family set with three? “I think we’re done now,” says Dempsey. Looking ahead, the racing enthusiast—he has raced professionally and is co-owner of a team in the Indy Racing League—is already revved up about bringing the kids to the track. Racing “is such a family sport, and it’s nice to have boys now, and a girl—there are certainly a lot of female drivers, and there could be another one!” he says. “But it’s up to them. I’m not going to force them.”

For now, Dempsey continues to focus on his work with Breakaway from Cancer and on carving family time into his busy schedule: During his Grey’s hiatus this spring he’ll shoot the romantic comedy Made of Honor, and he will costar in the children’s fable Enchanted, due this fall. (“It’s the movie I did for my daughter.”) But mostly he’s just counting his blessings. “My mom has her health, and I have this great family and a great wife and my career is in a great place right now,” he says. “I’m very thankful.”

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