Surviving the Twinning Reaction

Multiples IlluminatedThe intense bonding connection between twins is called “the Twinning Reaction,” by psychologists and researchers. My neighbor the dog trainer says, “Don’t adopt two puppies from the same litter because they’ll never obey you.” Same concept.

The obstetrician did not hear the second heartbeat until 18 weeks. I was already panicking about motherhood – now there’d be identical twin boys? I thanked the doctor for her attention to detail, gathered my wits, and tried to prepare myself.

I baby-proofed the house by tie-wrapping gates to every door, wall, and table, creating a giant escape-proof pen. To use his computer in the family room, my husband scaled a fence that resembled the trickiest obstacle on American Ninja Warrior. I bought four sets of sheets and blankets for each crib in case of midnight stereo pukeage, plus a front to back stroller, a side by side double jogger, and a fancy Maclaren fold up for travel. I budgeted for baby sitters, bought 20 cases of Costco diapers, and created a Sign-up Genius meal chart for friends and family. I was ready.

I steeled myself for sleep deprivation, and read about “twin talk” where the babies have their own language, and “mirror-image twins” with opposite features. What I didn’t anticipate were the ways my identical boys would interact with each other that would make them as different from other children as St. Bernards are from Chihuahuas.

It started when they were newborns. I’d proudly mastered the “double football hold” to nurse both babies at once (a huge time saver once I’d wrangled thirteen Boppy pillows and the wriggling uncooperative participants into place). The boys would become so synchronized and focused on nursing they hated to be interrupted, so I resorted to creative burping techniques. I’d yank a baby off with one hand by the back of his onesie, slap him over my shoulder, then clap him back onto the boob. (I was not above using my teeth like a mother cat when necessary).

My parenting responses to their twin bond would continue to require this level of imagination and creativity.

When only a month old, lying on a play mat together, waving all four hands in the air, both babies began shrieking inconsolably. Were their diapers too tight? Did they need burping? My husband eventually surmised that they couldn’t tell whose hands belonged to whom, and wondered if maybe they feared an octopus attack. They had no sense of boundaries or their own identity, so we learned to swaddle them to quiet their arms and their nervous systems.

At six months, we hung their bouncy seats in opposing doorways of the same hall. Eyes firmly locked as if preparing for a Sumo match, each boy pushed off with his legs like a crazed kangaroo, rebounding higher and higher. This continued without either boy dropping his gaze or resting his legs until their mesmerized and motion sick five year old cousin puked on the carpet.

When we introduced solid foods to their diet, their bond won out over parenting every time. Axel would try anything, but Aidan was picky. During one dinner while Axel sat on his grandfather’s lap, eagerly eating salmon from Grampa’s plate, Aidan (with the vehemence of a body guard alerting the king to hemlock) shouted from the other end of the table. “Spit it out Axel! Spit it out!”

I resorted to chasing them around the back yard shoving cheese sticks in their mouths like a baton wielding relay runner with reluctant partners.

When the boys were two and a half, my husband came through the front door and shouted, “What’s with the blood?” I pulled my head out of the dryer.  Sure enough there was a red trail on the carpet leading up the stairs. I sprinted to inspect the twins, now calmly seated in front of the Wiggles show upstairs. One boy had a deep cut down his arm, but shrugged at me in explanation.

My husband and I found a bloody broken laundry basket and leaped to this conclusion: the boys had dragged each other through the house in the basket, but a section of plastic weave had given way, ripping a line down Axel’s arm. Stopping the game to complain, cry, or fill me in would have been unnecessarily inconvenient.

At age three, I received a call from their preschool administrator suggesting we test their hearing. It seems they weren’t following instructions, and the teachers feared it was because they might be hearing impaired.  I related this to my friend, a mom of identical twin girls, who laughed with me like we were enjoying an Amy Poehler-Tina Fey skit. We knew they weren’t deaf – just so focused on playing with their twin sibling they blocked out the rest of the world most of the time.

A common scenario at both of our homes: Mom calling, then yelling, then screaming either or both twin names, and finally resorting to placing her face inches from theirs and bellowing at jet engine decibels with spittle flying. The children would finally glance up in shock that their mother was even in the house.

I took the “perfect hearing” diagnosis from the pediatrician back to the school, and attempted to set up individual play dates for the boys to shift up this bonding pattern.  Mostly, I exceeded my babysitter budget instead.

Potty-training proved to be a hundred times harder than expected due to tag-teaming.  Once again it was inconvenient to their focused playtime to interrupt for a diaper change. I’d walk into a room with a hand covering my nose and mouth and mumble, “Who’s got the stinky diaper?” Without looking up, they’d point at each other. “Him,” they’d say in unison.

I reached the outer limits of desperation and put M&M’s and Hot Wheels cars on the mantel as rewards for using the toilet. Just as Axel was coming around and enthusiastically earning prizes, Aidan used his influence once more, staring me down and yelling, “No Axel! No M&M’s!” And just like that, Axel was back in a pull up.

I threw my hands up in defeat, stripped them, and sent them naked into the back yard, pooping and peeing like enthusiastic coyotes. The combination of potty shrubs and an extremely patient preschool teacher were the only tactics that eventually got them into big boy underwear.

While their connection causes them to ignore pain, hunger, bodily functions and Mom’s voice while playing, it can also spark synchronous crying. When the boys were seven, we got pulled over on the way to football. The officer sternly asked for my license and registration. Then he glanced behind me and caught four terrified eyes spouting cartoon-sized tears behind full pads and helmets, accompanied by voices wailing through face masks, “OH NO NO NO NO! Please don’t take Mommy to the station!” The officer handed me back my license and walked away chuckling.

In the end, neither my army of strollers, meal chart, nor garage full of diapers prepared me for my twins’ connection and the ways it would undo me. Eventually we put them in different first grade classrooms, which made them more independent and slightly more obedient.

I am resigned that my “same litter” children may never give me their undivided attention, but the “Twinning Reaction,” has its benefits. They have a close relationship. They work well together on teams playing baseball and basketball, and they’re adventurous in the world because they always have a wingman.

I know that someday I’ll be able to drop the cheese sticks, own clean carpets, have poop-free landscaping, and get a good night’s sleep. I’ll also have the comfort of knowing that each of my boys has a brother they would choose as their best friend, every time.

The Pick-Up Artists

Originally featured in Errant Parent

When I discovered I was pregnant with identical twin boys, I had lovely fantasies about what that would be like and who they might become: matching denim overalls, sweet manners, a lack of interest in girls until puberty, and a curiosity about the earth that would lead them to become environmental engineers and save the planet, or at least the ocean.

The reality is something completely different. Instead, I find myself with five year old blond, blue-eyed tag-teaming hustlers, unafraid to approach any pretty female, regardless of her age.

It started in preschool when Axel came home and informed me, “Mommy, Tory’s my favorite girl at school.”

That seemed innocent enough and kind of cute, so I turned to his brother and asked about his favorite. Aidan sighed and ran through the list – Steffie, Emily, Rachel, Charlotte, Lily, Maggie, Olivia, Hunter. He crinkled his forehead as though the whole exercise were exhausting. “You know Mommy, they’re all my girls.”

That should have given me a clue of what the future would hold.

In the spring of that same year our family visited the zoo. My husband and I sat eating popcorn and conversing in the sun at the snack pavilion, but were interrupted by Aidan’s voice calling out, “Hi! Hi! What’s your name?”

Axel was holding Aidan’s popcorn in one hand and his own in the other, peering over a shrub at a blonde five year old girl in a purple velour dress who was studying a pigeon.  Aidan had edged around the shrub.  Clearly this girl wasn’t responding because she hadn’t heard him, (certainly no cute older girl would ignore him on purpose,) so he cranked up the volume.


My instinct was to leap over the shrub and grab him, and then scold him for embarrassing me and pestering other people’s kids, or maybe stick the popcorn bag over my head and duck behind the chair, but my husband put a hand on my arm.

The girl in the purple dress finally turned and squinted at Aidan without smiling.

“Hannah,” she said.

Aidan turned back to Axel, his wing-man in the wings, and gave him the wink and the “How you doin” finger point learned from Uncle Mike the bachelor.

“So,” he said to Hannah, stepping closer. “You here to see the animals?”

The ability to create pick-up lines on par with those of Joey on the TV show “Friends” had not been on my imagined list of skill sets for these children. And successful or not, they were undeterred.

At 3:39 p.m. on their first day of kindergarten, I hovered on the sidewalk, nervously watching all the kindergartners, first graders, and eventually the second, third, fourth and fifth graders, exit the bus. Where were my children? Had someone kidnapped them? Had the sixth graders bullied them to a pulp where they lay bleeding and clinging to their teddy bears on the bus floor?

Finally Aidan came slowly down the steps, but with his head turned back toward someone taller. Two eighth grade girls with long brown hair came next, followed by Axel who shot me a quick look like, “Hey Mom, don’t blow this for us.”

I stepped back in shock as the little parade filed right past me. This was the soundtrack:  “So anyway, my name is Aidan and this is my brother Axel. We’re identical twins and we go to kindergarten. We’re big boys.”

I trailed speechless along behind them. Were they annoying these girls? Should I spare my sons’ embarrassment and yank them off the sidewalk?  Then one of the girls said to the other with a giggle, “Oh, they are so cute!”

This was all the encouragement Aidan needed. “That red shirt is so pretty on you. Did I tell you red’s my favorite color? I have a red shirt too…”

By this time, we had reached a turn-off toward the bike path, and Axel sensed a need to close the deal.

“Hey, do you guys babysit?” he asked, raising his eyebrows toward me, as in – “Get the pencil ready for the digits.”

“Sure, we took the babysitting course at the rec center.”

“Well, my mom can get your phone number,” Aidan said, finally acknowledging me.

I opened my purse, like a dutiful personal secretary. They cheerfully waved goodbye to their new found friends, high-fiving each other all the way through the garage and into the house. So much for my panic attacks about their safety on the first day riding the bus. I put the paper with the phone numbers on the kitchen counter and forgot about it until the next day.

“I’ve been thinking Mommy,” Axel said, scooping Raisin Bran into his mouth. “You know those pretty big girls from the bus? I think you should have them both come baby-sit us at the same time.”

“Oh, really?” I continued pulling sandwich meats from the fridge. “Why’s that?”

“Because, then one of them could be playing a game with us while the other one makes us breakfast!” He smiled at the ingenuity of his plan.

I placed a box of Zip-lock baggies on the counter. Bad enough my five year olds know how to get phone numbers out of eighth-grade girls, but now they’re cooking up Hugh Hefner-style scenarios?  I put my hand to my chest and indignantly repeated the story to my husband as he came down the stairs. He promptly picked up the phone and began dialing his brothers, bragging in great detail about their “operator” nephews.

I’m resigned to the fact that my career aspirations for my sons need to be adjusted. Perhaps salesman, politician, or entertainer will be more appropriate. As long as we can coax them to channel their powers for good and not evil, and get them to carry their own paper and pencil.