By Francie Arenson Dickman
A few years ago, my daughters came home from school with the news that their fellow twin classmates did not know which of them was older.
“What do you mean?” I asked. My kids, who have known the story of their birth practically from birth, explained that birth order was under wraps in this other household. “It lessens the competition between them,” one of my daughters said.
“Birth order doesn’t matter because they are twins,” her sister added.
I nodded and dismissed this “don’t ask don’t tell” family as outliers. But after we learned about those classmates, my brother and sister-in-law in Los Angeles also had twins. When I asked who was born first, my sister-in-law said, “We’re not telling.” She explained that not knowing was better for the kids’ relationship. Plus Rebecca Romjin Stamos didn’t tell her twins! From this, I might have concluded that the “not telling” business was a trend, a practice of those on the twin mystique bandwagon (the notion that twins have a special bond and should be looked at as a unit). But this wasn’t enough for me, so I questioned.
Could it be that I, who’d left no multiples parenting page unturned, who wrote for years about early childhood development, had missed the boat on birth order? I looked at my kids, Baby A and Baby B, playing with one of their new cousins, Baby Maybe A, Maybe Not, and wondered. Then I researched. I read up on all the reasons parents of multiples choose to withhold order of birth from their kids. The general theory seems to be that by not telling who is older, you prevent your twins’ relationship from taking on a stereotypical Adlerian “oldest” versus “youngest” child dynamic. You keep one child from dominating the other, you limit the degree of competition. Having daughters who judge their every aspect in relation to their twin, I can see the appeal of trying to level the playing field. Though I’m fairly sure, after living 15 years with with them, it’s a Sisyphean task.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of raising same-aged siblings will tell you that multiples are living, breathing proof that we, as parents, have little control over the personalities and temperaments of our children. Same houses, same parents, same initial experiences and just about same everything else yet each is a totally different person. They are who they are, which is why their knowing who they are in terms of time of birth seems to make little difference as far as how they will relate to each other and to the world.
Especially if you consider that they were relating to each other long before the concept of parents or the construct of time ever entered the mix. Though my Baby A was born only one minute before her sister, she secured her position as first to come out early on in my pregnancy. True to her tenacious, can’t-be-too-careful nature, she hung on to her place for a full nine months. Whereas her sister, Baby B, a take-it-as-it comes kind of fetus, flit and flat all over the womb without regard to how she was poised for birth. Baby A is and has always been, by nature not by nurture, the more assertive being.
Given this, does the minute matter? If they didn’t know about it, would Baby A tease Baby B less? Would she watch out for her less? On the flip side, would Baby B rely on Baby A less for the homework she forgot? Would she pull Baby A into fewer situations that are outside of Baby A’s comfort zone? Would they evaluate their hair, their grades, their ability to steer a car less in relation to each other? My hunch is no. Neither the minute nor their knowledge of it has any bearing on their behavior today.
What does, however, seem to have bearing on their behavior is how that behavior is handled. If you share with your twins the information surrounding their birth and if the news sparks competition (over and above the typical), if the older does hold it over the younger one’s head, then talk about it. Use the moment as a teachable one, so maybe—just maybe—they will be a little more empathetic when the next competitive moment arises, which, no doubt, it will.
Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I like to deal with the facts. And the fact is that one of my kids was born before the other. In my mind, keeping this truth from them is like giving everyone a trophy at the end of the game. Although adult intentions are good, kids don’t buy it, they know instinctively that not everyone is a winner. The truth, not trophies, builds confidence and self-esteem and also teaches kids to deal with reality, which is everyone is not the exactly the same. Yes, Baby A has a minute on Baby B. Let them live with this knowledge, and it won’t long take before they realize that the minute doesn’t translate into automatic advantage. Just ask my daughters.
Eventually, the truth will come out anyway. It always does. Birth certificates will be read. Someone will slip. So aren’t parents better off making it a non-issue by simply incorporating the information into the family story? Anytime you make something a secret it becomes a bigger deal than it is. The information itself is secondary, that it’s shrouded in mystery gives it import.
And is the secret even ours to keep? Telling my daughters when they were born was as much a matter of narrative as it was numbers. We are the stories we tell, the things we carry. And how children come into this world, whether by ones or twos, is the child’s story. It’s the story of her life and I contend that a person has the right to know her story, as it is hers to tell.
My daughters share almost everything of significance. Parents. Grandparents. Friends. Shoes. Teachers. The dog. They share a birthday. They’ve shared parties. They share identities in the eyes of others. But they have that minute, those 60 seconds during which one was being welcomed into the world while her sister was taking a final, solo swim around the womb. In their minds, this is what makes their stories unique. Sixty seconds during which they were singletons. Sixty seconds each celebrates as her own. From 4:18 to 4:19 on September 25, that is the minute that makes the difference. Or maybe it makes none at all.
Francie Arenson Dickman is an essayist and novelist. She loves watching her teenage daughters grow up, yet how she wishes they wouldn’t. Read more at franciearensondickman.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.