I have frequently written about the emotional perils associated with twins who are required to be parental surrogates for each other. While the twin connection plays a crucial developmental role in the twins’ childhood, it can result in a chaotic and unhappy outcome for some later in life.
Edith, an identical twin in her early eighties, contacted me for help in sorting through confusing feelings related to her twinship and parenting issues. She explained how her sister’s death a few years ago freed her to begin to examine how their upbringing impacted her sense of self and her maternal identifications.
Edith’s role with her twin, Esther, was to “keep her safe and healthy.” Their
mother admonished Edith if any of her own feelings erupted because it was Edith’s job to pay vigilant attention to Esther’s physical and emotional well-being. Both women studied the same college curriculum and left home to marry at a young age. Their marriages took them to opposite sides of the country. Both had children. Edith’s husband died and Esther was divorced. They had infrequent face-to-face visits but corresponded via prolific letter writing for many years.
After Esther passed away, Edith gave herself permission to reflect upon their relationship. She shared that she had felt defective because she had failed to fulfill her childhood obligation of keeping Esther alive. While able to recognize the irrationality of this thought, she confessed that this dictum drastically impacted her. Certainly, the dire consequences of her failed mission informed her identity and sense of self since early childhood.
Edith struggles mightily with her relationships with her four adult children. In our work together we have come to understand how her parents’ lack of empathy contributed to Edith’s lack of compassion, patience, and understanding for her offspring. She feels tremendous shame and sadness that she was so emotionally unavailable to her family. Frequently she treated her children with the same criticism and intolerance that her mother meted out to her. Edith’s lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety also exacerbated the distance and discord in their family life.
I find it wonderfully exciting to work with her. I admire her ability to face her very difficult feelings as she attempts to take responsibility for her shortcomings.
She hopes to be able to communicate via her “authentic self” with her children so that she can live out her remaining years with grace rather than guilt and shame.