Ellen Nordberg, Author

Surviving the Twinning Reaction

Multiples Illuminated Book

The 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.

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