Monday, November 22, 2010

Same and Different

For some time, I have wanted to write what to me is an important influence in my life and definitely my children's — I have an identical twin sister. And to top that off, I married a man with an identical twin brother ... and no, our twins are not married nor if they had met would they have had any interest in each other.

I presume a question and go ahead and answer it because not only have I been asked this question ad nauseam after I married but also because, as an identical twin, I've spent a lifetime doing just that. My sister and my classmates, our classmates' parents, complete and utter strangers would meet us and run through a litany of curiosities and questions, many of them completely predictable. I can separate them into general categories, such as the superlatives (who is taller, prettier, smartest), the tricks (have you ever switched dates), the boundaries (if I pinched you would she feel it), and though somewhat more rare, some of my favorites are the appallingly dumb (how old are you? how old is your twin?). But it is almost comical how so many different people display such identical fascinations and ask all the same questions.

One question that stood separate from these categories was, "what does it feel like to be a twin?" It stumped me for a while and later I would respond, "I don't know, I've never not been one" which satisfied no one. But if you look at the questions, no one really fully considered what they were asking — some border on being rude (questioning my intelligence and suggesting I could decide and declare that I am smarter or dumber than my sister) and some are surprisingly intimate (switching dates) — so I did not feel any responsibility to consider my answers more fully.

More than anything, all this questioning inspired was desires. In elementary school, the thing I coveted was my own birthday party. In grade school, I desired my own look, a distinctive appearance. In high school, my own area of competency distinct from my sister. In short — I wanted not to be lumped up with nor constantly compared to my twin. I had a huge longing for independence and a free-standing individuality not based upon comparison with anyone.

As design student and then designer, I continued to value individuality and distinctiveness, not only in appearances but also in perspective.

And so, perhaps I did not fully consider the desires I held for my children. As many parents do (which I know is a mistake, but I'm still admitting to making it), what I could not have myself, I then wished that at least my children would. I prayed that they'd be creative, kind, with some exceptional gifts or talents but most certainly, that they be true individuals.

Now I am thankful to have not only been granted children, but to have realized this wish. I admire my children and their uniqueness. I think they are amazing and beautiful, in large part because of their differences. But I am just now beginning to appreciate the underlying lesson from my history of questioning — the one universal truth that I've known well for so long but until now, could not truly appreciate — that our society has an incredible fascination with and longing for sameness.

And so, when we look at my children, like so many parents do, we look at the many fascinating ways we recognize ourselves and our family in them. Not only physical features, C.S. has my eyes, DeDe has my husband's full lips, but also their behaviors. The apple doesn't fall far and I've begun to question more than once whether I or my father or my mother and so on, and so forth could be at the family-tree root of their anxiety and other sensitivities.

But where I, where we, both myself and my husband feel so unusually ill-equipped to help our children, is how to handle the social challenges. Because now, I can appreciate like I did not before, the advantages I enjoyed. I was a bit different, I always felt so anyway, but there was at least one person in the world who understood me like no other, my twin. I always had her. Wherever I was, she right there with me. And all those people who we met and knew, had us to compare each other to. Our striking similarities must have been an interesting diversion, almost camouflage, for our differences.

What is hardest to witness as a mother, are those moments when my children seem to be struggling so much on their own. I can't go to school with them, I can't be there for them, but worse still, I can't even fathom how it feels. I can't identify with what they must be facing. I can't give them strategies or tell them what I used to do. I just can't fully comprehend how it is to be so alone and to have to reach out and seek understanding. They are experiencing something I simply don't know. And, somehow, it seems so unfair.

Silver Lining: A strange turn-about really, one of the ways that I was so different as kid, was that I was so similar to someone else, my twin sister. And although I at times felt like an approachable freak, that very approachability was important. There was something about identical twins that seemed to suggest we were the source of answers. I now realize that all this banter was really quite serious and most certainly shared. Having been asked the same questions repeatedly, I must become more conscientious when it comes to answering. I must realize the opportunity I have to share this rare perspective. But first, I will rephrase the questions. I think that what people wanted to know was, Are you truly identical? Which was quickly realized as, NO. This then led to more important questions such as, Are there advantages to having someone so like you in this world? If you are genetically identical, then what makes you different? Etc., and deeper still bordering on the distinction between biology and soul. BUT, lets stick to what I can answer and that because I do have an opportunity to answer, that I feel something of a responsibility to discover a suitable response. Unfortunately, living so far from my sister, and my husband from his brother, these just aren't questions I'm asked so often anymore.

But, if I am asked, "What is it like to be a twin," —and this is something I do expect our children to ask us one day— although I'm still not yet sure exactly how I'll answer, I am working on a much more satisfying reply. Of this I am certain, I will definitely tell my children that growing up a twin, I realized that everyone experiences differences. And I learned to value my differences and treasure those things that made me distinct. I also learned that no matter how different, everyone shares something, a desire for understanding. Sometimes it is hard to understand a very different perspective and to find that, comparison may be necessary. Almost everyone does it, but please be careful when you compare people because you are putting that person in an uncomfortable position. For example, I've agreed to stand side by side to be blatantly compared many times, but I haven't always appreciated the declarations of "she's taller, she's prettier, she's _er than her" I didn't like it. If you take this act too lightly, you can get caught up in finding differences and may never realize what you were seeking in the first place. Do that and you will achieve nothing more than making people feel objectified, belittled or freakish. Use comparison to reach an understanding, otherwise, you're at best gawking and worst being hurtful and mean. You must make sure to push through and take that next step.

And now I'm finally making an important comparison I long avoided. Through my children, I'm realizing, what it is like to be a twin and that I did enjoy some definite advantages.


  1. I think that's why people (or at least me!) are so interested in twins- what it must be like to have the knowledge that there is someone out there who is always there for you... And what is the "line" between same and different? When our kids are so "different", how are they the same. Interesting post... thanks!

  2. I should mention, that although we are quite similar and have many shared experiences and so much on which to base an understanding — my relationship with my twin is like any other. That our support for each other came about so naturally and easily is not something to be taken for granted. It must be nourished. It takes effort, from both of us, to keep.

  3. Liz, what a lovely post! My husband is a fraternal twin, so he has a lot of insight on this topic, as well. As a mother of identical twins, I also get asked a lot of silly, thoughtless questions. It's even harder for me to come up with satisfying answers because I'm in the position of speaking FOR my children, and I may be way off the mark. So, I just try to explain what I perceive as their similarities and differences.

    Anyway, I don't have a question, but I do have a comment, and I guess you can file it in the "appallingly dumb" section (but I still feel compelled to make it anyway, hahaha)-- If your identical twin sister HAD married your husband's identical twin brother, then not only would all of your children be cousins, they would also genetically be full siblings! :-)

  4. I have thought of that often, that my children could have another family of siblings. May daughter is the spitting image of me and so also my twin. My sister is a bit jealous. While her children are all fortunate to have their father's striking and gorgeous red hair, they consequently look more like their father and his family. She says my daughter looks my like her than her own children.

    And, it is interesting to see our children react to the Uncles/Aunt. Early on, when his Uncle was visiting, he looked up from his stroller from face to face of those twin brothers, laughed and said, "Daddy. Nudder (another) Daddy." My daughter dubbed him not Uncle Joe, but Daddy Joe.

    But it is not always easy. When younger, my niece found it completely unsettling. She'd ask me, "Are you my mother?" (loved that book) and upset by her inability to tell us apart once told me, "you go away now."

    But yes, always interesting. And I think it must be a special gift that your boys will have each other.


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