The two little girls go to the same playgroup we do. Matching blue eyes, matching tufts of blonde hair, and also, every week, matching clothes. Down to the socks. I wish I could say they were idiosyncratic, that this was the only pair I knew with constantly coordinated frocks. But twins with identical wardrobes is a common sight, indeed. As a mother of twins myself, I have an eye for picking same-aged siblings out of a crowd. And when they are dressed alike, as they often are, I’ll admit it is cute. For the parents, perhaps, for the onlookers. What message, however, is it sending the children themselves?
Twins are a source of endless fascination, and there are more of them now than ever before. As a culture, we foist a magical quality onto their existence, which can have little bearing on the hard facts of raising them. We expect their early relationship to be defined by a soothing symbiosis, their later relationship to be tantamount to soul mates. Likewise, the imagery of twinhood is about a fused, harmonious identity: peas in a pod, mirror images, Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The reality, though, is something else. The reality is that twins are two individual people, who through luck or artificial means happened to be born at the same time.
A failure to recognize this is a potential danger to the emotional health of the twins themselves. So says expert Joan A. Friedman, experientially enchanted in this arena as both a mother of twins and a twin herself. By getting wrapped up in the feel-good reverie of the “twin mystique,” as she describes it in her book Emotionally Healthy Twins, we are doing our same-aged children a disservice. “When the longing to see twins in a romanticized way prevents parents and others from seeing them as individuals, twins feel as if they are merely playing a role in someone else’s fantasy.”
The “twin mystique” manifests itself in many ways. Some of it is real, the stuff of viral video sensation: two neonates “hugging” in their postpartum bath, a throwback to the months spent enmeshed in the womb; two toddlers gibbering to each other in the secret language twins are famed for, incomprehensible even to their parents. But much of the “twin mystique” is synthetic, imposed on them by caregivers for aesthetic reasons or from a belief that twins should be linked outwardly in the eyes of society. In this respect, it is not surprising that twins are given similar sounding names, often with the same first letter. Pairs like “Isaac and Isaiah” and “Madison and Mason” are repeatedly among the most popular names chosen for multiples.
Clothes, like names, matter because they are an overt and symbolic representation of identity. When they are matchy-matchy, the message is not one of individuality. A sense of self is important to nurture in every child. And yet, many parents who wouldn’t dress consecutively-spaced siblings in coordinated outfits feel a compulsion to do so for their twins and on a regular basis to boot. Once in a while, it is adorable, to be sure: for a special occasion or a photography session. Done routinely, it becomes parental reinforcement of the idea that two people, with separate personalities and separate core beings, should be seen as painted with the same brush. The wardrobe, Friedman explains, is part of the “identity-building process.”
Twins are already forced to share so much that is out of their control. From a practical point of view, they are bound to occupy a common ground for years—literally and metaphorically—especially before the opportunity arises to separate them in a school environment. They move through the phases of childhood with a friend, a witness, a foil continually by their side. This is a profound partnership, where identity issues are real and problematic. Dressing twins as one of a set during such an impressionable time in their lives, as darling as it might look, only serves to blur the line between them. There is a sad irony in the fact that, as caregivers, we are most likely to conflate the siblings who are in most need of clear boundaries.
Don’t get me wrong: the bond between twins is a powerful, wonderful thing that shouldn’t be denied or downplayed. But it is also a delicate thing, which, from the very beginning, involves two distinct entities trying to figure out, like the rest of us, who they are uniquely. Dressing twins differently in the early years is a parent’s decision. It is a simple, yet far-reaching, way to communicate that however much life may throw them together, twins will always be valued, first and foremost, as individuals.
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