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I received the following email from an adult twin the other day and wanted to share it with my readers. It seems especially timely since I participated in a panel discussion devoted to issues about whether or not to separate twins in school a few weeks ago in New York City. She writes:
I know for my mother it was heart wrenching to split up my sister and I but she did what she thought was best for us. In fifth grade we separated and went to different elementary schools. Don’t get me wrong, the moment school was out I would eagerly await my sisters bus to arrive so that we could share our daily experiences. But the days were long and hard without my sister. In hindsight, it allowed for us to venture out on our own. We became individuals instead of the twins. We learned how to make friends on our own. We were only apart for three years until rejoining in the seventh grade. Those years prepared us for the future. Thanks to my mom for seeing us as two instead of one. Now in our forties we only live 5 miles from each other and still talk every day. But we also have our own families, interests and lives.
For a variety of understandable reasons, mothers of younger twins appear to have greater difficulty deciding what is best for their twins. They feel conflicted about how the separation will affect the twins’ relationship, how to reconcile that each child will not have a fair and equal experience, how to approach and manage developmental differences between the twins, and how to manage the organization and logistics of two different classrooms or even two different schools.
As was reiterated by each of the panel members, school placement for twins is definitely not a “one size fits all” decision. Each family must take into account its particular circumstances and make a plan that accommodates everyone to the best possible degree. The most important message underlying this approach is remembering that development is nonlinear. That means that each child needs to be evaluated within his or her own time line. We all are aware that even identical twins can have different developmental trajectories. Of course, the tendency to compare one twin to the other is an understandable consequence of raising two babies at the same time. A parent’s capacity to mentalize two distinct individuals will help enormously to make these tough decisions.
It was so interesting for me to hear some parents relate that reading books specifically written about twins proves counterproductive, at times.These moms felt that books about “singleton” child development gave them a more enlightened approach to parenting. This perspective highlighted for me the continuing struggles that parents of twins confront in their attempts to treat their twins as two separate beings. I advocate alone time as much as possible for this exact reason – to develop the capacity to hold two different temperaments and personalities in mind at the same time.
MORE THAN ONE
Most times two is more than one:
More giggles, laughs
And MUCH more fun.
Can prove wrong
And two can make a day seem long
With turns to rake and compromises
And never any real surprises.
Sometimes, sometimes – I think I’d like
My twin to take a long, long hike
Or ride away upon her bike
And leave me by myself a day,
Until that feeling goes away.
Poem quoted in Take Two! A Celebration of Twins by J.P. Lewis and Jane Yolen
Although the twin pairs showcased on the TLC program Twintervention appear extreme and dysfunctional, there are some insightful moments amid the sensationalism. In reality, many twin pairs DO have tremendous difficulty separating from one another and so must seek out a significant other who can tolerate divided loyalties.
Both married sisters on the show worry excessively about their twin and neither can bear that her sister is alone and on her own. These circumstances depict a realistic portrayal of co-dependent behavior having nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling. In essence it is a TWIN ADDICTION. The married twins need to be needed and their sisters need to be dependent, cared for, and infantilized. As one of the husband’s remarked, “you can’t be possessive if you are married to a twin.”
I imagine that many parents of young twins are watching this show and mostly likely dismissing its message because the content appears so extreme and exaggerated. However, parents of young twins take heed! This is an important wake up call and reminder not to fall into the grasp of the “twin mystique”. While the twin connection is palpable and important, the twin parent connection is the most vital. As I have written ad nauseum, many parents are fearful about intruding upon the twin bond and therefore do not play an active parenting role with their twins.
Believe me, had these twin pairs been raised by parents who understood the importance of alone time and developmentally appropriate separate experiences, I doubt these twins would be happily (or unhappily) exploiting their dysfunctional relationship for thousands to witness. Their twin behavior is not cute, adorable, or precious. This is twinship gone amok.
A healthy twinship is a blessing and a gift. It requires terrific sacrifice and emotional growth on the part of the parents and the twins themselves. Adult twins must learn how to cope with life as “singletons” after so many years of feeling special and connected to an intimate other. This is accomplished gradually and naturally when parents understand early on what their twins need to become resilient, individuated, and self-confident without their twin.
Healthy adult twins do not feel imprisoned by their twinship. They have acknowledged each other’s right to be separate and unique while maintaining their special connection. They have worked through feelings of ambivalence, competition, and jealousy, and each has evolved into an individuated self. They care deeply about one another and recognize and respect each other’s autonomy and choices. They enjoy being together but do not require exclusive possession of one other in order to cope with life or other relationships.
My most recent adult twin consultations have focused upon the difficulties that a number of adult twins encounter when one of the twins is moving in a developmental direction to be on one’s own while the other one is not. I believe it is helpful to think about these troublesome adult twin transitions as co-dependent issues. Since numerous twin pairs have been emotionally reliant upon one another for many years, they unwittingly develop an unhealthy dependence upon one another. Very few people seem to question or be attuned to this codependency because “twins” are expected to experience an extraordinary closeness and intimacy.
In my soon-to-be published book for adult twins entitled MY TWIN, MY SELF, I address this issue of divergent twin agendas in the chapter titled “Separation Blues”. When one twin seeks out a relationship outside of the twinship, both may experience difficulty coping with the new attachments. The twin in the new relationship feels guilty and selfish for “replacing” his twin, and the “abandoned” twin feels angry, resentful, and disappointed that he is no longer the first priority in his twin’s life. These circumstances contribute to tremendous conflict, misunderstanding, and anguish for all concerned. The fact that so many twins and their families are not aware of these dynamics makes these inevitable consequences even more daunting.
Certain tips and suggestions may help to ameliorate the emotional tensions that bubble up when co-dependent behavior patterns are disrupted. First, one has to recognize and admit that he or she is an “enabler”. An enabler helps someone who should or is capable of doing things on his own. It is the antithesis of a helper, who helps someone do what he or she cannot do on his own. For example, often one twin feels resentful and at the same time obligated about including her twin in her dating life because her sister is alone, jealous, and depressed. The content twin is emotionally conflicted by her tremendous confusion about how to manage the connection and the separateness. How does she nurture her new relationship and simultaneously sustain her loyalty, attentiveness, and availability to her twin?
It requires tremendous patience and perseverance to tolerate painful and anxiety provoking situations with your twin that you cannot fix. Twins have to be especially vigilant about not taking responsibility for their twins’ actions and about not being seduced back into the old relationship by feelings of guilt or selfishness. One must be consistent with newly drawn boundaries and limits in terms of personal time and responsibilities.
One’s reframed twin mindset should reflect the feeling that I WANT to be around my twin rather than I NEED her around. “…there is an essential difference between missing one’s twin and needing her” (Emotionally Healthy Twins, pg.115). Each twin must recognize that both need to develop new behaviors so that they can alleviate the turmoil between them and nurture respectful attitudes about the new attachments in both of their lives. It is similar to the progressive changes that children need to acclimate to following a separation, divorce, or second marriage. It requires time, tolerance, and acceptance, and it opens up the possibilities for newly created, healthy life long twin intimacy.
Twenty years ago, at the beginning of the Los Angeles riots, I was driving home from a girls’ day out at the beach with my daughters, who were 6 and 9 years old at the time. My husband and the three boys were on their own. Listening on the car radio to the violence that was happening in Watts was frightening and tragic.
Today, reflecting upon the various comments and reactions to Hillary Rosen’s critique of Ann Romney and reading a blogger’s scathing review of The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, I am disturbed by our ongoing societal struggle to tolerate differences and embrace diversity. Whether it is an issue of race, socioeconomics, or sexism, all of us need to find ways “to get along”.
What fuels the mommy wars? Why do some women feel compelled to take sides?
I remember feeling in awe of those women who chose or had no choice about being stay-at-home moms. I simply did not have the fortitude or patience that it required. I felt grateful and blessed that my line of work afforded me the freedom and flexibility to work part-time. I have great admiration for women who work full time and take care of their families because their professional and personal lives have become so blurred by technology. Similarly, mothers who stay at home with their children either by choice or necessity continually garner my utmost respect and regard.
Feelings of conflict, competition, and hostility habitually occur when individuals feel inadequate or unsure about what they should want, need, or have. Women are bombarded with opinions, ideas, and choices that make it exceedingly difficult or nearly impossible to figure out what is right for them without being unduly influenced by what everyone else seems to want or have. Advertising and information overload seduce us to such a degree that we lose faith in our own convictions, good judgments, and intuitive reasoning. A lack of faith in our ability to make informed decisions undermines our willingness to behave in a collegial and collaborative fashion.
Wisdom and hindsight are gifts of aging. The reality is that we all make some good decisions and some poor ones. It is important to forgive yourself for the lackluster ideas and feel gratified about the triumphant ones. At the end of the day, whether or not we stayed at home with our children, we want to feel that we did the best we could in the face of our life circumstances. Rodney King ‘s plaintive plea for restoring calm in Los Angeles twenty years ago - “can we all get along . . . for the kids and the old people” - should be a reminder that women need to be supportive of one another and find more substantive and unifying causes to champion.
I suppose it was karma that our guide in the country of Gambia turned out to be an identical twin. My husband, three of our children, and I spent three weeks visiting the West African countries of Senegal, Gambia, and Mali. Assan, our guide, explained to us that each set of twins born in Gambia is given the same names so that their twin status is immediately recognized. Twin brothers are named Assan and Ousainou, twin sisters are named Adama and Awa, and a set of boy/girl twins is named Adama and Awa as Adama can either be a boy or girl’s name. So much for individuality in the name department!
Assan told us he was very competitive with his brother in terms of making sure that things were fair between them. He and his brother were not able to attend school until they turned twelve years old because their family had to save enough money to send the two older sons to school first. The elder sons then helped pay for the younger twins to attend school at a later date. Assan and his brother studied hard and did well, went on to finish high school, and then took specialized training to fulfill their career goals. Assan, a guide in Gambia, is an accomplished birder. His twin brother is an educator who trains men and women to become teachers.
Dr. Alessandra Piontelli, a well-known psychoanalyst and neurologist, has written a wonderful book entitled Twins in the World. It documents her observational studies about twins around the world, with particular emphasis on Africa and its twin population.
West Africa is still very primitive and poor, struggling to rise above a cycle of poverty and income inequality. The day-to-day struggles that permeate the lives of the people have everything to do with survival. Certainly, the issues that I address in terms of twins’ emotional health have little relevance or meaning in this culture. Travelling outside one’s comfort zone is eye-opening because it creates a shift in one’s thoughts and perspectives.
DO’S and DON’TS
Whenever I speak to parents of twins, inevitably someone in the audience feels compelled to share his/her most recent story about the most annoying, hurtful, outrageous, unbelievable, or exasperating twin comment they have experienced. A resounding groan of empathic understanding and laughter resonates throughout the audience. So, in light of these cosmic occurrences, I have decided to create my own Emily Post “post” to help educate the uninitiated about how to approach twins and their parents with sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and tact.
THE EXPECTABLE QUESTIONS (not in any expectable order)
- Who is older?
- Is she (he) the shy one?
- Who walked first?
- Were they natural or did you have IVF?
- Which one is your favorite?
- Why is the redheaded twin more talkative than her sister?
- Why are they fighting with each other?
- Are you sure they are identical?
Parents of twins do understand that these questions and inquiries are well-intentioned attempts (most of the time) to find a way to differentiate one twin from the other. Try the following approach and see what happens.
- What are their names?
- How shall I remember who is who?
- How are they different?
- What are their personalities like?
- What does each one like to do?
- What are their preferences?
- Tell me about each of them.
- Make your own observations about each twin just as you would if there were one baby – and do it twice.
The goal is to help family, friends, and strangers focus on each twin’s uniqueness and individuality. Approaching twins in these ways helps parents mitigate their concerns about how much their children are being labeled and compared. They will sincerely appreciate your efforts to relate to their children as two separate people.
Don’t make comparative or labeling statements in front of the twins themselves. Contrary to popular thought, even babies as young as toddlers understand these communications and take them to heart.
Parents whose twins look remarkably alike need to help outsiders identify each twin by dressing them in different colors, pointing out any distinguishing features, or styling different haircuts.
DON’T FEEL COMPELLED TO SHARE YOUR FEELINGS ABOUT RAISING TWINS
· How do you tell them apart?
· Double trouble, right?
· Glad it’s you and not me…
· How do you do it?
· I have kids that are close in age, and it’s the same as having twins.
You are doing an amazing job. I admire how you are able to manage two babies at the same time. They are lucky to have such a patient and loving mom/dad.
DON’T MAKE IDEALIZED STATEMENTS ABOUT BEING A TWIN:
- They must be best friends.
- They won’t ever have to worry about being alone.
- They are each other’s soul mate.
- They probably never fight.
It is a blessing on many levels to be a twin; however twins and their families are unduly influenced by our cultural fascination with twins. If twins grow up imbued with these sorts of twin myths, they may feel as if something is wrong with them if they don’t feel this way about their twin relationship. Help your family and friends appreciate the twins’ relationship rather than romanticize it.
IT’S WONDERFUL THAT THEY HAVE EACH OTHER AND LEAVE IT AT THAT. If you want to add a bit more, say something along the lines that as in any partnership, there are ups and downs.
DON’T CONFRONT A PARENT WHO IS ALONE WITH ONE OF THE TWINS BY ASKING
- Where is his twin?
- How can you take out one and leave the other alone?
- Aren’t you going to ruin the twinship?
- Isn’t he miserable and sad without his twin?
- It’s great that you are giving each twin alone time.
- I imagine it takes a bit of creative juggling to make it happen.
- I admire you for making this a priority.
- It must be wonderful for you and each twin to have time alone together.
DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO THE TWINS FIRST IF THEY ARE WITH OTHER SIBLINGS
- Don’t judge the sibling’s behavior as rude or impolite if he appears sullen or upset.
- Be empathic and understanding. Siblings of twins have it rough sometimes, and they deserve recognition and acknowledgment.
- Talk to them about the challenges of being a twin, such as having to share so many things and being compared so much of the time.
- Ask the siblings their names, age, and preferences.
- Ask them about themselves, not about their relationship to the twins.
- If he/she seems does not feel like engaging with you, just acknowledge politely that he/she doesn’t feel like talking.
- Then you can turn your attention to the parents and the twins.
Keep this advice in mind. Parents of twins and the twins themselves will be forever grateful.
What a wonderful event! Thanks again to Rachel Klausner for organizing the meeting. The moms and dads who attended were engaged, curious, and supportive. They asked pertinent and intelligent questions about alone time, inter twin dynamics, separate schools and bedrooms, twin attachment, sibling challenges, and much much more. I so appreciated that the families listened to my philosophy and ideas. I am confident that the experience helped these parents think about twin relationships in new and different ways.