Sam, a bright young man in his early thirties, came to see me because he felt abandoned by his identical twin brother Ryan. My patient was distraught because Ryan had changed so drastically since he started to see a psychotherapist. Sam had believed unequivocally that he and Ryan were destined to work together as singers, actors, and performers. Sam had organized his entire professional life on the assumption that he and his brother would be an artistic collaborative team.
However, Ryan had become distant, unavailable, and uncooperative. Ryan could not find time to meet with Sam, either in person or electronically. Sam told me that he longed for the time when he and Ryan felt like one person. He described this period in his life as blissful, comforting, and secure. Now that his twin brother has metaphorically “dropped” him, Sam cannot find his own path or his identity.
Sam and Ryan are twins who parented each other. They grew up in a single-parent family with three older siblings. Their parents were divorced, and they had minimal contact with their father. Mother worked long hours to provide for her family. The twins remained together throughout college and thereafter. For the last year, both have been living geographically near one another with separate roommates.
Although not all twin pairs are so inextricably connected that they feel like one half of a whole, many twins do feel adrift without the presence of their twin. Adult twins have a complicated task—they must give up their special twin status in order to undertake a more autonomous life journey. After having spent their childhood years being defined by closeness and sameness, adult twins are expected to embrace our societal norms of individuality and self-reliance to follow a path of separation and diversity.
Twins who have had strong individual parental attachments along with their twin connection will have an easier time defining their needs and feeling free to exercise emotional options and to make separate choices. For this reason, the topic of helping twins create a separate identity is very important. While they have incorporated a shared identity throughout their childhood years, adolescent and adult twins face the developmental task of making decisions about education, relationships, and employment opportunities that may drastically impact their twinship on a psychological level.
In light of the central importance of the parent-child connection, I have repeatedly written about the importance of individual time. It is the behavioral metaphor for the primacy of the parent-infant bond. Attachment theorists have taught us that babies and mothers are engaged in mutual interactions with one another—the mother’s responses to her baby’s cues and vice versa set up a system whereby they regulate each other as well as themselves. Naturally, these behavioral patterns will be somewhat different for parents responding to two babies at the same time. Parents can only do as much as they can when confronted with the overwhelming physical and emotional demands of two needy infants.
It is precisely because twin caretaking is so taxing that I advocate, beg, and plead with parents of multiples to spend individual time with each baby whenever possible. This time can be a short walk, a quick errand, a coffee with a friend, or parent-child shared time reading a book. On weekends some families switch off having individual time in the morning for an hour or two and then reunite for the rest of the day. There is no right way or wrong way to create one-on-one time. Simply the act of doing so sends a powerful message to both you and your children about their needs for singular attachment and special attention.
Some parents and grandparents worry that carving out individual time will instigate a breaking of the twin bond. While it may seem counterintuitive, the parent-child alone time connection strengthens the twin bond because the parent-child bond is the more decisive influence in each child’s long-term development.
Parents who embrace the alone time philosophy will tell you how enjoyable it is to spend time with one child—no fighting or competing for attention. It becomes a special, sacrosanct time where the mutual interaction is fun, spirited, and special.
For a host of different reasons, parents who choose not to embrace the individual time philosophy have a number of difficulties recognizing its importance. Complete resistance to the idea seems to be unrelated to external factors. While individual time naturally is easier to facilitate if one has help at home, I have encountered families whose unwillingness had little to do with babysitting issues. One mother who thoroughly disagreed with me regarding the alone time idea explained that she did not want to leave one daughter at home with her husband because her other daughter would miss out on the special activities she would do with her other daughter. She felt that it would be unfair if just one child were able to enjoy the better experience. This mom expressed her disapproval about jeopardizing each twin’s identicality just to have some one-on-one time. Individual attention and time seemed insignificant and mundane if not spent with Mom.
Another mother related that she had no desire to separate her daughters from herself or each other. She did not feel secure about her daughters’ well-being unless she was there and in charge.
Her viewpoint reminded me of a story that a colleague of mine shared with me about her twins. She certainly had the opportunity to do separate things with her twins because she had help in her home since the twins were born. Nevertheless, the notion of spending separate time with each child never occurred to her.
She explained, in hindsight, that she must have felt the need to prove her worth as a mom by always having both of them with her and dividing herself between them. She now regrets this. She wonders if she missed out on some remarkable times. How would it have been, had she been aware of her intention to keep all three of them together in order to prove her maternal competence? Conversely, another mother told me that her parents only installed one car seat in their car, sending the explicit message that having only one child at a time would be just fine!
Understandably, twins do not have the same opportunity as singletons for undivided attention. As long as parents do the best they can to provide one-on-one time, they will keep in mind that twins are siblings, not parental surrogates. Parents have to work double time—no pun intended—not to feel rejected, unimportant, or excluded. They must be keen on making themselves the central players in a family where they will be tested and dismissed by a powerful twosome.
One mother told me that she resented the fact that one daughter liked going out with her while the other one protested, screamed, and insisted on staying home with the nanny. She was so hurt and angered by her daughter’s rejection that she seemed intent on accepting the status quo rather than understanding the underlying dynamics of her daughter’s protests and working out the problems.
A child’s sense of identity is formed in terms of mirroring and parental feedback. Providing one-on-one time for your multiples and orchestrating developmentally appropriate separate experiences will help facilitate the journey toward the formation of identity and self. It is important for twins to feel that each one of them exists as an individual—this consolidates singular identity and a sense of entitlement to a single and private inner life.