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Understanding Twins

Twins: Individual Identities and Common Bonds

Does a close twin relationship take away from individual identity?

Most twins have two identities: The one they share with their twin brother or sister as part of a pair, and the one that they enjoy all on their own. Most twins enjoy being a twin since it is a special birth—despite the increased twinning rates in western nations since the 1980s, due to assisted reproductive technologies and delayed childbearing, twins are still relatively rare in the population. Personal and pair identity as a twin is, however, very different depending on the twin type (identical, same-sex fraternal, or opposite-sex fraternal). I will begin with a tale of two identical twins who met each for the first time in January 2017, at the age of 10.

On December 6, 2016, Jennifer Doering of Wausau, Wisconsin sent me an email message. Jennifer is the mother of an adopted daughter from China whom she named Audrey. Jennifer’s goal was to give her daughter a special Christmas present consisting of Audrey’s birth and adoption history information. In the process of gathering these materials, she received a photograph of her daughter standing in front of the Chinese foster mother who had cared for her. Next to Audrey was another little girl who looked exactly like her.

The two girls had been left in different locations but had been brought to the same orphanage. Their Chinese names, Tong Min Gui and Tong Min Mei, when combined, form the word “rose,” a traditional way of naming twins.

Jennifer used Facebook to track down the family who had adopted her daughter’s alleged twin sister. Two days later she found Scott and Nicole Rainsberry of Richland, Washington, who had adopted a little girl named Gracie about one week before the Doerings had adopted Audrey. Gracie’s date of birth was five days earlier, but it is not unusual for separated Chinese twins to be given different birthdays, especially when found in different locations.

The Rainsberrys were shocked at the photographs and videotapes that Jennifer forwarded to them. When Audrey and Gracie were shown photographs of each other they were perplexed. Audrey realized that the girl in the photo looked just like her, but was not her, while Gracie thought that the girl in her photo was her. Their first session together on Facetime was very emotional for both of them.

The twins have many characteristics in common. Both have a congenital heart condition known as tetralogy of fallot (TOF) with pulmonary atresia (PA). This heart defect involves four problems: a hole between the lower chambers of the heart, an obstruction from the heart to the lungs, the location of the aorta over the hole in the lower chambers, and a thickening of the muscle surrounding the lower right chamber. Both girls have had corrective surgery, although additional procedures may be necessary. Audrey participates in gymnastics and Gracie participates in soccer—although the girls get winded a little faster than other children.

Their other similarities include their favorite school subject (math) and playing computer games. During their first few sessions on Facetime (before they met) they engaged in computer games, sometimes together and sometimes individually. The twins independently chose the same eyeglass frames, although their vision differs. They have similar food preferences, especially macaroni and cheese and fettuccine alfredo, and both of them like to wear their long straight hair in a ponytail arranged toward the right side of their head. Like 25 percent of identical twin pairs, Audrey is left-handed and Gracie is right-handed.

I was able to make the twins' reunion happen on January 11 by contacting ABC’s morning news program, Good Morning America. The twins, their families, and I were flown to New York City to appear live on the show and to tape a segment for ABC’s evening program Nightline. (Prior to these events, I arranged for DNA testing to confirm that the two girls were indeed identical twins.)

The twins’ first meeting, captured live, was indescribable—the twins hugged and cried, touching the hearts of viewers everywhere.

This story highlights the important point that similarities do not threaten individual identity. When I worked with reunited twin participating in the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, some of the identical twins worried that meeting someone very similar to them would detract from their individuality and sense of self. But no two identical twins are exactly alike—and the twins learned that quickly and were very happy to have developed a bond and identity as part of a twin pair.

The situation is different for same-sex fraternal twins. Most fraternal twins do not look alike, although some fraternal twins look more or less alike than others. They are unlikely to be confused for one another and will typically have different tastes and talents that will lead them in different directions. Developing an identity apart from the twin is not as difficult as in the case of identical twins.

However, people usually outside of the family like to compare and contrast fraternal twins, even giving them labels such as the “smart twin” or the “athletic twin.” These comparisons are unfair and insensitive and may cause the twins to move apart from one another or to view their twinship with disdain. I have always believed that problems that twins encounter often come from outside their twinship.

Opposite-sex twins are in a unique position. Girls typically mature ahead of boys—socially, physically, and intellectually. They tend to “mother” their brothers, who may enjoy the attention and protection. However, the boys from these pairs need time away to develop their own personalities and interests; it is important for parents to be mindful of what transpires between male-female twins. Of course, these twins will never be confused for one another because of their different sex. And their interests are likely to diverge; developing independent identities should not be difficult, as long as the boy is given some time on his own. Not all opposite-sex twins have this experience, but many do.

Unfortunately, there has been very little research on twins’ college choices. This is an area that many twins and parents are concerned about for good reason. This may be the first time that twins question their identity and self-concept in relation to their twin brother or sister. They must decide whether they want to attend the same college but live apart; live together in the same dormitory; attend different colleges; or share an apartment, but go to different schools. And if they do go to the same school, should they pick different classes or majors?

Twins and parents must also consider admission policies. Some schools claim to have favorable policies toward twins, admitting both if they are both qualified, but it is never clear how much they adhere to such policies. In addition, there are no data that speak to revised decisions—how many schools will admit both twins after initially admitting just one, once they learn that a student is a twin? And to what extent do twins who attend the same school versus different schools later change their mind?

A word of advice to twins who attend school together, regardless of whether it is primary school, high school, or college: Never sit together in class. I have dealt with a number of situations involving accusations of cheating because (mostly) identical twins turn in very similar tests and assignments. These charges are unfair and I do what I can to protect the identity and self-concept of the twins involved—as well as to educate their school officials and instructors about twins and their behaviors.

More from Nancy L. Segal Ph.D.
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