The Unfine Art of Raising Twins
By Francie Arenson Dickman
Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike.
The last weekend of every May, I stock up on tickets and Exederin and brace myself for the two-day storm of overlapping dance recitals. We bounce between auditoriums in different cities to see shows that are worlds apart. From the beautiful world of Russian ballet, with numbers called Waltz of the Hours and music by Tchaikovsky to the underworld of hip hop, a dark and dirty counter-culture where they do dances called Haters to music by Wiz Khalifa.
“You can’t call this dancing,” says my father, my 84-year-old tap-dancing, Vaudeville performing, Gershwin loving father. He convulses in his seat as my daughter convulses on stage.
But dancing it is. I am used to it by now, not just the gyrations but the dancing between extremes, the whiplash of raising twin girls, the parenting of equals who occupy separate spaces. It’s not what I expected but after 13 years I have my dance down as much as they have theirs’. My father, not so much.
“Can’t you get her to go to dance class with her sister?” my father hollers as Lady Gaga belts out Born this Way—a concept he obviously doesn’t buy.
Like I do every year, I shake my head. “No.”
They started out going together, my daughters did. Back when they were both dancing in my belly while I was consuming sausages and books with deceptive titles, titles akin to the numbers in the ballet recital, like The Joy of Twins. I can tell you now that any book on raising twins worth its baby weight in gold would have been called something more hip-hop, like Load Up on Your Lorazapam, Ladies, and Hunker Down for the Ride. Because there is no ballet in raising twins. It’s an art that’s imprecise and anything but pretty.
According to the books, I was to make a concerted effort to help my twins develop their own identities. At the time, this made sense. Who wouldn’t want her own identity? So, instead of buying two stuffed bunnies, I bought one stuffed bunny and one stuffed pig. One pink onsie, another purple—coordinated combinations, similar enough to mark them as a duo, but distinct enough to allow people tell them apart.
Then they were born. One with blond hair and blue eyes. The other with brown hair and brown eyes. Different enough in appearance to suspect confusion in the fertility lab. Different enough in being to suspect that different colored onsies wouldn’t be needed to establish my daughters’ separate identities.
Twins, I learned quickly, doesn’t mean double. It doesn’t even mean alike. As infants, twins meant one baby with colic, another with a constant smile. One who loved the stuffed pig, the other who wanted nothing to do with stuffed animals at all. In preschool, twins meant one who jumped out of the car without looking back, the other who had to be pried out of her seat in hysterics. In grade school it meant one who loved to read, another who wouldn’t. And now, twins means one who headsprings in high tops, the other who echappe’s in this white long gown, the kind of costume, my father told me during the ballet portion on the day, both of his granddaughters should be wearing.
“Not according to the books,” I might have told him but again, I didn’t need to go by the book because the hip-hop daughter did it herself. “Not on your life,” she told my father. “I’d never wear that. It’s not me.”
The question I would have liked to have asked her but didn’t because I’m sure no one—neither my daughter nor the books—has the answer is: why not? Is the dress not her because it’s just not her or is the dress not her because it is her sister? To the extent that Twin A is influenced by Twin B (and vice versa), how far will my girls go to seek out their own identities? And why did the books instruct me to go out of my way to make sure it happens when, at least in my house, it seemed to happen on its own? I never organized separate playdates or outings with grandparents like I was instructed to do. I was too busy running in opposite directions, first at the park and now to the recitals, to organize anything. For my sanity, I had to ditch the script and move to the beat of my children’s respective and very different drums.
My father would benefit from doing the same. “You can’t compare what the two of them are doing,” he continues to grumble.
“No, you can’t,” I tell him. And, according to conventional wisdom—which went out the window at my daughters’ one-week weigh-ins—you shouldn’t. Comparing twins is a Cardinal sin. But c’mon, who among us mothers of multiples has not, at the annual doctors visit, analyzed (at least to ourselves) one child’s height against the other’s? Certain traits are begging for it. The oldest. The tallest. The bigger foot. The thicker hair. Or, dare I admit, the better grades. That’s called keepin’ it real, the book might say if it was written by Wiz Khalifa, with the added footnote to compare and contrast all you want, mamas, but know it won’t mean anything because, from the physical to the personal, traits of twins, especially teen-aged ones, are constantly in motion.
For a time, the ballet dancer loved to talk, the hip hopper was quiet. Now, it’s the other way around. Just as I was ready to award the neatest room prize to the hip hopper, I found a rotten pizza beneath her nightstand. They are, like all people, too fluid to peg down. In fact, the only constant I’ve observed (one which the books should have mentioned because it is a bright spot in an otherwise muddled world) is that my kids rarely occupy the same space in emotion or opinion, at the same time. We have few five alarm fires because they figured out long ago, maybe even in utero, that when one is in the dog house, it’s the other’s time to shine.
The book of all books, the Oxford English Dictionary, assigns several definitions to the word twin. The first definition reads: One of two children or animals born at the same birth. The second definition is: A person or a thing exactly like another. In many ways, it seems my girls fall under the first definition—children who simply share a birth date. Yet, they also share recital dates. And clothes, friends, teachers, and the grandfather from whom they got their dancing genes. So maybe my twins sit somewhere in the middle on the twinness scale. A scale which slides from day to day. Up and down, back and forth, and I move too, as they do.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.