Multiple births are on the rise, explains Tiffany Brown. As the parent of multiples, how can you encourage your children to celebrate their individuality?
Teaching and learning how to share can be a challenge for all parents and children, so it could be said multiple children who share a womb on the way into the world have a natural head start when it comes to the concept. But how do twins and triplets gain a sense of their own individualism? In a world placing increasing importance on uniqueness, how can parents and carers encourage a sense of self in kids who arrived with one or more siblings in tow?
How twins are made
Multiple births are on the rise, perhaps in part because women tend to wait longer before having children these days, and you are more likely to have a multiple birth over the age of 30. Twins are by far the most common form of multiple birth worldwide, and they occur as a result of a multiple pregnancy in one of two ways. Firstly, instead of a single fertilised egg, or zygote, producing an embryo, two eggs produce embryos. These foetuses are termed fraternal, or dizygotic twins. They share only 50% of their genetic material, similar to siblings born from separate pregnancies. These fraternal, non-identical twins may differ in their physical characteristics, and may also be of mixed gender. It’s true that there is a “twin gene” at work, and you may be more or less genetically predisposed to having fraternal twins. And be warned, you’re about four times more likely to have a second set of fraternal twins if you fall pregnant again after already giving birth to fraternal twins. The second way a twin pregnancy may occur is when a single zygote randomly splits to create identical foetuses. Referred to as monozygotic, these twins are always the same sex and identical in appearance. There is no genetic predisposition to having identical twins, occurring as they do from a random egg split event. Interestingly, though, despite sharing 100% of their genetic material, identical twins have different fingerprints.
Triplets and then some
Triplets may also occur in several ways, resulting from multiple zygotes, or splitting zygotes, or a combination of the two. Identical triplets – where a monzygotic pregnancy results in a split, and then another split – are extremely rare. It is far more common to find three zygotes resulting in a set of fraternal, non-identical triplets. It is also possible to find triplets made up of one set of identical twins with a fraternal sibling, in the case of a dizygotic pregnancy, or fraternal twins, where one zygote splits, and the other doesn’t. Triplets are unique, though, with only six sets born in New Zealand in 2016. Also rare are “higher-order multiples”, the term given to quadruplets or higher. In fact, the last set of quadruplets born here in New Zealand are about to celebrate their twentieth birthday, being born back in 1998.
Support for parents of multiples
There is good support available for parents expecting the birth of multiple children, and an active nationwide network of multiple birth clubs throughout the country. Parents of twins and triplets may only enjoy limited access to these services when their babies are little, though, because caring for multiple babies is time-consuming work. There are a number of government-funded initiatives that provide support during this busy time. Check out multiples.org.nz to find out more.
Alike yet different
While it is common for well-meaning relatives and friends to shower new multiple babies with matching outfits as gifts, expert opinion indicates it is best to keep the cutesy dressing to a minimum. Joan A Friedman, PhD, author of Emotionally Healthy Twins, says the occasional dress-alike session for a special event or photography sitting is fine, but cautions parents to consider the wardrobe of their multiple children as part of the “identity-building process”. Friedman, who as both a mother of twins and a twin herself is eminently qualified to comment, explains that nurturing individuality requires parental attention. “Right from the start, it is important to think about twins as two babies who happen to be born at the same time. As our twins grow into their distinct selves and we concentrate our efforts on parenting two different children, we must resist becoming seduced by the ‘twin mystique’. This term implies how easily we slip into embracing a romanticised notion of twinship. It is crucial for our twins’ emotional wellbeing that we champion their autonomy rather than have them live up to the doctrine of best friends forever. If we can enable our twins to articulate some of the hardships and obstacles they confront, they will have the capacity to develop a simultaneous appreciation of separateness and connection. Ultimately this will put them on their path toward healthy intimate connections as adults.”
Parenting multiple children presents a unique challenge. In addition to helping them navigate their way through the usual developmental stages, parents of multiples must constantly consider how they can foster a sense of individuality and independence in spite of their sibling unit. Nancy L Segal, PhD, Director of the Twin Studies Center at California State University, explains, “Twins grow up in tandem, sharing birthdays, school grades, and many other experiences. They are often seen together, causing many people to view them as an inseparable unit. However, twins are individuals in addition to belonging to a unique and special twosome. Even identical twins who share all their genes show differences, possibly linked to early birth events or school experiences.” Pukekohe resident Mandy Hobbs, mum to 19-year-old identical twins Zack and Jake, says her decision to separate the boys into different classes during their first year at school was vital for encouraging their individuality. “It was my choice to separate them when they went to school. I was going to let them have the first year together, and then separate them once they were comfortable. But the school came to me early in that first year, suggesting they split them up, and I agreed.” The boys, who had naturally been playmates since birth, were inclined to interact exclusively with each other in preference to paying attention to what was happening in the classroom. The school felt they would learn more effectively in separate classes, and Mandy saw the sense in separating them a little sooner than planned. “I thought, even though you look the same, you want to be your own person, you want to have your own friends and your own lives. And then you can come home, and tell your brother all about what you’ve been doing today.” She met no resistance from the twins, either, who were beginning to feel irritated when mistaken for their identical twin. In their own classrooms, Mandy points out, “At least everyone knew their name!” The boys are now in their first year of tertiary study in different cities. “In my case,” says Mandy, “separating them at school was really good. It made them become individuals. They had wider groups of the same friends, but their own separate sets of close friends and social lives.”
Where to get support
The New Zealand Multiple Birth Association (NZMBA) provides information and support to the nation’s local birth clubs, and is the best place to start if you’re looking for details about multiple birth or where to get support. Visit multiples.org.nz to find out more.
By Tiffany Brown