If you follow me at all on Twitter, you’ll see that I follow lots of New England sports sites, and lots of parents of multiples. I love following the other moms and dads of twins, triplets and quads. We commiserate, laugh and enjoy the fact that there are others out there who understand what raising multiples is really like. If you know me, you know that Annabelle and Isabelle are fraternal twins. They both have the same delicious chocolate brown eyes, but that’s where the similarities end. Annabelle is 2 inches taller and 5 pounds heavier than Isabelle, and her hair is darker too. Isabelle was a slow walker but speaks so well that at times I forgot she’s only 3. Annabelle colors as well as Megan, staying in the lines and using lots of detail. Annabelle loves to give hugs and tell me that she loves me, while Isabelle would rather snuggle a stuffed animal.
One of the other people I follow on Twitter is a twin herself. Abigail Pobegrin recently published a book called One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular. Abigail wrote to me recently and during our conversations, she sent me the following that, while directed toward twins, could also be applied to my situation as the mother of four:
Since my book about twins came out in October, I’ve been asked the same two questions over and over: How does being a twin affect my parenting, and what would I advise parents of twins, based on my two years of research, numerous interviews with adult twins, and my own twin experience?
My first answer is: spend separate time with each child. It may seem obvious, but so many parents of twins don’t do it because they see how happy their twins are together, because they don’t want to intrude on their effortless bond, or because it’s just plain easier to take two at a time. But listening to my sister Robin tell me that she’s not even sure to this day that our parents truly know us apart and that she has struggled with a sense of distinction in the world made me very clear that individual time can make the individual. I am now hyper-aware of spending separate time with my two children, who are 12 and 10 years old. I make sure to wander into each of their rooms at odd times, and just flop on the bed and see what they have to say, or to take just one of them out for a meal. I know how the rough-and-tumble of life often gets in the way of independent outings: we’re all rushing to the same activities or taking the same trips together. There isn’t always that open-ended time to just chat or take a walk with no particular destination in mind.
My sister admits in my book that one of the reasons she didn’t have a third child was because she missed separate memories with our parents and didn’t want to risk having too little time for too many kids. It should be said that we had a wonderful, colorful childhood, and I think Robin wouldn’t trade it. But the absence of undivided time resulted in a muddying of Robin’s sense of self, and now that I’ve spoken to so many experts, I understand how common and problematic that can be.
The other advice I’d offer is to resist comparisons. They’re so tempting, but so destructive. Believe me, siblings will inevitably measure themselves ceaselessly, without a parent’s prodding. So many of the twins I spoke to said they were aware of who was favored, or what their convenient labels were – “the athletic one,” “the brainy one.” All those tags did in the end was make them feel boxed in.
One of the major themes that came to me in the process of writing this book is that twins are also muffled by everyone’s investment in their perfection. Yes, twinship is a kind of utopian intimacy, but it isn’t always idyllic, and there has to be room for chinks and conflicts. Psychologist Joan Friedman talked about the pressure on twins to be constantly equal and constantly unambivalent about being twins, whereas that same expectation isn’t there for non-twin siblings. Sometimes one twin won’t get invited to the party and parents have to restrain themselves to try to “make it right” and get the other twin included. Life isn’t always fair, and twinship shouldn’t confer an unrealistic sense of the world. Robin and I were ill-prepared for imbalances and we sometimes didn’t know how to handle them when they happened.
So that’s my guidance from a front-row seat on twinship: Spend separate time. Don’t label. Don’t compare. And let the relationship be a real one – with all its bumps and disparities. Also – pick up a copy of One and the Same! It will give you the insights of adult twins who remember where things went right and wrong: I feel sure you’ll glean some invaluable guidance.
Being a twin emboldened me, supported me and protected me. But I understand now that it’s also more complex than some want to believe, and parents should be the first to let the complexities breathe. Your twins will be better adults for the honesty.
I also asked Abby a couple of questions and she was kind enough to answer:
What prompted you to write this book?
I had never read a book about twins that I thought really captured the reality of what it’s like to grow up as one. There were all kinds of parent-guides and of course, all those strange fictional stories or movies about odd or evil twins, but few that got at the depth of the intimacy or the hurdles that come with that kind of closeness. I wanted to understand twinship from a journalist’s perspective–from the outside looking in–but also from a twin’s perspective — from the inside looking in. What I found, after two years of research and interviews with every living expert and many twins, was much more complex and fascinating than I think most people presume about twins. I’m not saying my book is the definitive truth about twinship, but if I were a parent raising twins, I’d want to hear candid experiences from adult twins who have lived through the entire experience, in order to best understand how being a double really plays out over a lifetime.
My twins are very different little girls, even at 3. They look similar, but they are not identical. People are often surprised when I tell them that yes, they are twins. Do you think that identical twins have a disadvantage over fraternal same-sex or boy/girl twins, in that identical twins appear to be “one” where of course boy/girl twins or fraternal twins are just two kids born at the same time? For example~I almost never call my girls “twins”. I call them my “girlies” (as does their older brother). Does this make sense?
What you say makes a lot of sense, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: identical twins have a much greater challenge in terms of distinguishing themselves in the world and ultimately forging their own identities. Their relatives, friends, and teachers constantly — and lazily — confuse them, and often make a game out of telling them apart or comparing them, which is sometimes fun for the twins, but gets tiresome as they grow up. There are also so many presumptions about identical twins — that they have the ideal relationship, that there’s never any conflict, that they’re similar in every way or it’s odd if they’re not similar. It’s hard sometimes for them to feel the breathing room to be like other siblings. That said, I found that fraternal same-sex twins can still have identity issues because they’re also always being compared. The twins who have the easiest time in terms of feeling sure of their individuality are definitely boy/girl sets.
Finally, I’d say you also hit on an important point: so many psychologists I spoke to kept emphasizing the pitfalls of calling twins “The Twins,” or giving them cutesy names. They told me it’s crucial, especially as twins reach school age, that they hear their real names or nicknames that are clearly separate, distinct and specific to each of them, so they have no sense — even subliminally — that they have a shared identity instead of their own.
What Abby is saying is so very important. I want all my kids, including Annie and Izzie, to grow up feeling that they are individuals, with their own tastes, likes, dislikes. I’ll be the first to admit that it is incredibly easy to lump Annie and Izzie into “one”~for the longest time, we dressed them alike because quite frankly, it was cute. Now we’re buying clothes that may be the same pattern, but different colors (even though the girls always want to wear the same thing!) because they are not the same child. Now that they will be attending preschool in the fall, it’s even more important for me to help them distinguish themselves from each other so that they can grow into strong, separate women. I’ll be adding Abby’s book to my reading list as well, so that I can learn from other twins what it’s like to be a twin and help Annie and Izzie along the way.