Thursday, 26 February 2009

On Being a Twin

photo by shashchatter

A friend, make that a great friend, asked me to describe what it's like to be a twin. I wish I had more time and energy to write a proper, coherent story about it, but as it is, with 30 000 words due by the end of the weekend, I can only manage stream of consciousness-style snippets.

I am a fraternal twin, which is very different to being an identical twin, but not as different as you may think. We're both female.

I see being a twin as entering a marriage in the womb. It's intense, with all these feelings of joy, security, investment and trust in the other. But seeing as it's a marriage that starts when you're a bunch of cells, you don't have all the skills and presence of mind you need to manage this relationship in a healthy way throughout all the different phases of life, to let the other person grow, be loved by other people, to allow their needs to change. It requires a constant building and rebuilding to work.

When you are young as a twin, you don't know what it is like to have your own time, and when you do have it, say on a humid Saturday afternoon, it feels like an act of defiance or betrayal (either yours or your twin's).

I always felt bitterly insulted when cousins and friends only invited one of us to play, which was usually her because she was less likely to be bitter about anything as a child. I remember I made a rule to myself at a school friend's birthday party once (I'd say I was 7 or 8) that if the two older sisters were nicer to my twin than to me, then I would have to take some action. I was sick of being the one who introduced us both at the door, but got no recognition for it. As I had predicted, they picked her up and tickled her. She laughed more freely than me and had lighter hair and a lighter presence. I felt completely justified in taking a take-home lolly (sweet/candy) bag up to my friend's room and eating them on her bed. It wasn't comfort eating (I am less likely to eat when stressed), it was the world's punishment.

I remember my childhood as connected to my twin, brimming with this simple affection of ours. We sang songs to ease the other to sleep, stuck to our agreements about who would turn off the light each night, gave each other back rubs, washed each other's hair in the bath, walked to the shops and the park together, organised our clothes, role played with our antique doll collection (instead of Barbies because new toys in our house tended to be more "male", like Transformers, Lego, Star Wars figurines and The Castle of Greyskull), we made up dances and plays. We liked to keep things equal between us, which meant we would make sure any gifts, lollies or food - any external goods really - were allocated evenly between us. We had a little commune situation going on.

My twin was a prodigious gymnast and athlete, and made friends very easily because she was so warm and theatrical. Whenever she had public successes of any sort, I would feel immensely proud and even possessive in the way I imagine a parent feels. But it's different when you're in a little body that is bursing with exultation. It's quite overwhelming. Later on, I would sometimes feel regretful that I could not show this pride to her as easily as I did when I was younger. I felt like someone who had been abandoned, the forgotten parent who knows they will only get acknowledged at the end of the movie when the hero says that they were in their heart all along.

A perfect day was usually at the beach during the Summer holidays when I organised where we would put our towels and she would encourage me to swim further out towards the surfers.

We made each other laugh a lot. Sometimes just a facial expression or a hinted gesture would be enough. That's all it takes when you know someone.

If things were momentarily distant, then an easy way to bridge the gap would be to tell the other person about some routine injustice or unpleasant incident at school or at home, which would be followed by ritualised comfort and support from the other. Sometimes this would amplify into formal pledges to stick up for each other against anyone and anything. Often my twin would cry if I was crying about something. It made me feel so safe to have one person who I knew was on my side and who understood my position in the world.

This promise to defend one another was most often implied. A twin is always very careful not to outright disagree with the other. We learn (the hard way) to suggest the things the other may not like to hear, just as you need to do in a romantic relationship. But ultimately we know early on that we have to make our twin aware that we're on their team regardless of how irrational or sentimental we think they are being. I have noticed this in many twins. If you breach this secret code, it is the most tragic, awful, crushing thing. It's a form of treachery. That doesn't change, from times when you join in schoolyard teasing of your twin or choose a team of any sort that isn't the same as theirs, to shaming or rejecting them in front of your high school friends, to siding with siblings in adult confrontations, the list goes on. These things don't change.

Twins hurt one another in a way that no one else can. This means that they can also soothe and love one another in a way that no one else can. It's an intense affair.

photo by il0vePullip

Growing up, my twin was involved in all sorts of accidents, medical emergencies and physical injuries. I still remember all these things so definitely: a near drowning at three while I stood paralysed by the pool and watched her red, panicky, crying face bob in and out of the water, on a skiing holiday having to let go of her 8 year old hands to let her fall off the rising chairlift that hadn't scooped her up properly, around the same time hearing her plummet into an orchestra pit at a ballet rehearsal and me laughing in the wings because I was so full of adrenaline. She chipped her head twice, and was severerly allergic to bees and various bushes.

When you are a twin, you watch suffering and illness from a vantage point that you wouldn't as a single child even with siblings, especially when you share a room (as we did until we were 15!). I never got used to hearing my sister start to cough in the night because she was choking on a nose bleed. You hear the other person have restless or tearful nights.

I developed a sense of super-responsibility for my twin, something I came to resent later on, in my early teens because I was far more interested in creating the right impressions in front of my friends. I struggled with it again in my early twenties as we both sought to separate from the family, and particularly the twinship bond that seemed so heavy.

My twin is very generous. From an early age, she would often tell me that she would have a child for me if I could not bear my own. I used to tell people that she had made this promise. My twin said something to me a decade ago that checks my behaviour to this day. She said that being stressed and tired is not a valid excuse for repeated unkindness.

I think my twin and I developed as a perfect human but in two separate bodies. If you put us together we would be one of the most intelligent, compassionate, athletic, talented, creative, courageous, humourous and socially capable people going around. I am not saying we only got half these things each or that there is a clean demarcation of traits (we are still full humans, not to mention siblings in a wider community of people!). But it would be true, I think, to say that we fostered certain aspects of our personality in response to the other. If we thought that the other twin was probably going to be more successful in a certain area or find a certain personality trait or skill a little easier to ripen, we'd more or less hand it over. This was in part out of generosity, and in part out of competitiveness.

This growing against each other was a result of both nature and nurture. Looking back now, I would say more nurture than nature. Outsiders (even if well-meaning), particularly family members, tend to categorise twins; to put limits on the identities of the two people involved. This can be done in small, but significant acts, like asking a twin who is better/smarter/sportier/prettier/taller/skinnier/more popular etc. It can also be done in big ways with labels, entrenched expectations, and favouritism. It was hard as a young person to resist all these divisions and we started to define ourselves against each other and even take some pride in those concepts. Then we began to hate the concepts.

We both tend to become anxious if we spent too much time on our own, and like to reach consensus and understanding with people. We're used to having a partner in crime, someone to share life with. We both find it difficult to let go of relationships of any sort even when they may not be good for us.

Someone in Oxford recently said that I don't seem like a twin. But I know I have the mindset of a twin - the well-being of my twin has always affected my own even while I have been so far away from her. If she is not 100% healthy and happy, I am not. No matter how positive my own material and emotional circumstances, if she is not at peace, I am not. I identify with the life of my twin in a way that is distinctly different to the ways in which the rest of my family's lives impact on my self-concepts and behaviour.

You always give a twin another chance, which is something that is abused over and over, but also something that allows you to be truly tender and gives you a quiet sense of freedom from everything else.

photo by +fatman+


Kate said...

Thanks, great friend! What a delightful - and poignant - insight. Will email more later xx

Dr. No said...

That was very insightful, thank you for writing this!

Alice said...

What a beautifully written stream of consciousness!

Sounds like you two are very lucky to have each other. xx

kT LindSAy said...

beautifully written, i feel like i know you a little bit more!! xxx

Anonymous said...

This post is wonderful ~ very much enjoyed reading it.

Where to from here? said...

I loved this post. Thank you. It was particularly poignant for me as I am having an incredibly difficult time with my siblings - piggy in the middle of a war of attrition. Yet I always seem to give them another chance.

Academic, Hopeful said...

Thanks for all your generous comments everyone. I am going to do another post at some point about relations with siblings at large - assertiveness, conflict, growth, love etc. I ought to know - I have enough of them! I have felt too nervous to do it until now (so thanks for the unwitting encouragement there too!).

I have really enjoyed reading all your blogs of late too so let's just say we're all one big fuzzy ball of fuzzy fuzzed-upness.

John Flood said...

This is quite poignant and moving. What fortunate twins!

Where to from here? said...

Yes, please do another post on siblings. Am having such problems with mine - aged 54, 56 and 58 and we could be 4 , 6 and 8.

Ned said...

You sound like you're loved a lot, perhaps not appreciated enough, but loved to the line and me, that is.

Ned said...
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