When my girls were small I used to be asked sometimes, “What’s it like having twins?” and assuming the person asking was sympathetic and interested, I’d launch into a description of the various juggling acts that constituted bathtime, a trip to the shops and getting safely upstairs. Often the questioner would then start to fidget, or interrupt with different questions, and I’d realise that what they really meant was, “What’s it like having twins? I BET IT’S SPOOKY AND WEIRD.”
My daughters themselves have had similar experiences when meeting new people. Announcing you’re a twin, or a parent of twins, winkles out those who have what they call a “fascination” with the subject. “Do yours have ESP?” they’ll ask. (“No,” I reply, “because on balance I don’t think anyone does, do you?”) “Can they sense when the other is ill or in pain?” (“Again, no,” I say, slightly less politely). And: “Did they have their own special secret language when they were little?”
This one is fairly persistent: people think they have the evidence to back it up. They’ve read something somewhere, or seen a TV documentary, and they’re disappointed when I tell them that it’s very rare, usually just a case of babies mimicking each other’s babbling attempts to speak.
Twins inevitably get less one-to-one time with an adult and this can contribute both to the close bond or empathy that gets mistaken for mind-reading, and also to early “twin-talk”, which is inflated into the idea of private language. I remember working hard when mine were young to maximise individual attention in order to avoid this kind of language learning delay. Much of what passes for the innate oddness of twins seems to me to be a result of either indulgence (dressing them alike, for instance) or a degree of neglect, which is hard to avoid when you have two or more to deal with.
Hence my frustration with those who want to dwell on the twin-ness of twins. Don’t get me started on the Sunday colour-supplement photo spreads of weird pairs in their weird matching outfits, which seem to me a last vestige of freak-show finger-pointing. The kindest parenting will treat each as an individual, and the most helpful friends will understand and do the same.
Any focus on the mystery of twins always seemed irrelevant; having them dragged me far away from the magical and into the realm of the practical, bringing out my inner Gina Ford. Her Contented Little Baby Book horrified some with its return to schedules and routines but was a godsend to me, offering a possible route to survival. If you’ve managed feeding on demand or attachment parenting with more than one baby please don’t write in and tell me. Personally I thought it would kill me, and so I got on with my own style of baby care – parental sanity seemed to me to depend on “knowing what I can stand/Without them sending a van” (to quote Philip Larkin entirely out of context).
I think all parents of multiples learn this lesson. My aunt Sheila had twins, and when my mother said to her sympathetically, “You must have so much ironing!” she replied, “Oh, I haven’t got an iron.” I once complained to my mother-in-law, who’d had triplets, that it was very hard to settle both babies at the same time for a midday nap, and asked her, “How ever did you manage with three?”
She looked at me slightly bewildered. “Well,” she said, “when it was nap time I put them all in their cots and locked the door until it wasn’t nap time any more.”
I rather envied that old-fashioned briskness. It’s been replaced now by a more masochistic approach, which demands constant and immediate attention from parents in a way that isn’t possible when you’re feeding one twin while rocking the other in a baby seat with your foot. And at moments like that you learn that the people you love most are those who know not to talk bollocks but to pick up a baby and stick the kettle on.
Tracey Thorn appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 18 April. Book tickets here.