A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fraternally Yours

 “Are your kids pre-registered?”  The perky young woman was smiling at me from her perch in front of the racks of diminutive ice skates.  Out on the rink, the five-and-under crowd wobbled and crashed like plump little bowling pins.  In just a few minutes, it would be time for the Big Kids.
I gestured to my two first-graders.  “Well, Molly is signed up, but Lizzy says she doesn’t want to skate.  Will there still be room for her in the class if she changes her mind and wants to join in on Thursday?”
The instructor gave me a bemused look, but nodded.  “Yeah, we’re not full.”  She hesitated.  “She has to be six, though.”
“Oh, she is,” I assured her.  Never mind that Lizzy hasn’t yet hit forty pounds, and was wearing size four snowpants that were only a mite short on her -- while Molly’s size sevens were only a tiny bit too big.  Lizzy was six.  Just like her sister. “They’re twins,” I added, as Molly eagerly tied her own laces and Lizzy attempted to hide behind my leg.
The ice-rink woman looked from one girl to the other and back again. “Um –ok.”  Obviously, she thought I was gravely mistaken and possibly slightly deranged.  However, I probably wasn’t dangerous, and I’d just given her a check.  Besides, she had several other snub-nosed, pig-tailed athletes to contend with.  If I wanted to insist that my kids were twins – or clones, for that matter -- she wasn’t going to argue.
And I, for my part, saved any explanations for later.  I’ve discovered, over the past few years, that there are a lot of people out there who don’t know much about biology.  Ok, I take that back – I’ve know that for decades.  More specifically, I discovered that a lot of people don’t understand where babies come from… if those babies happen to be twins. Not that I can fault this ignorance.  Way back in 2005, I hadn’t given the phenomenon much thought, either. 
That fall, Jay and I were briefly under the impression that we were going to have a baby.  As in, precisely one baby.  That was before the ultrasound technician started giggling. 
Much as I enjoy mirth, it’s a bit humiliating to encounter it when half-undressed and smeared with viscous jelly in a room that smells like Medical Procedure.  “Um, what?”  I said.  Then the technician turned the screen towards me.  It was pretty darn obvious what she was showing me.  Sure, they looked like blobs, but there were two of them.  Two.  A pair.  TWIN blobs.  Oh, gods. 
Fraternal twinning is not so complicated, really.  In fact, the kids will happily explain it.  “We came from two eggs and two sperms!”  Yes, dear, thanks for sharing information about my over-exuberant ovaries with the grocery cashier.  You two are indeed dizygotic, and thus no more related than any other sibling. However, you both hogged my uterus at the same time, just as you are both now trying to hog the shopping cart.  
Identical twins, on the other hand occur when a fertilized egg splits.  They are monozygotic:  one egg, one wee little sperm.  Identical twins have matching DNA.  Molly and Lizzy… do not.
Laced into her clunky brown borrowed skates, Molly set herself upon the ice with determination.  Her eyes were on the teacher, but they were also on the kids around her.  I could practically hear her thoughts.  That boy in the helmet who looked at least eight?  She was faster than him.  The little guy in the hockey gear?  He’d fallen at least six times already.   Her big friend Jacq was fast, but not THAT fast.  She’d be fast, too.  Really fast.  The advanced class at the other end of the ice were twirling, hopping, zooming, and whacking a puck.  Even as Molly staggered and flopped and struggled to her feet again, they were in her sights.
Meanwhile, Lizzy sidled her bottom closer to mine on the bleachers.  She was watching her sister, and Jacq, and the other skaters, but her eyes were most often drawn to a little boy not much larger than herself.  He was fully geared up, but still standing on solid ground, holding onto the rail near the entrance to the rink, and refusing to take even one step onto the ice.  When gently cajoled by his mother or sweetly encouraged by a fresh-faced college boy whose infinite good humor and gentleness made me rethink my college-hockey-player stereotypes, the little guy didn’t yell or protest – merely tightening his grip and whispered, “No.  No, I don’t want to.”  Lizzy was riveted.
Seven years ago, when I first saw that fateful ultrasound, a lot of things flew through my mind.  Primary among them, given that I’d gone to the appointment alone, was How on earth am I going to break this to Jay?  Then there were the practical considerations.  How are we going to fit two kids in a small cabin?  How much will I resemble the Goodyear Blimp in another six or seven months?  Is it even physically possible to nurse twins, and does it involve some sort of tessellated stacking?  But fast on the heels of worries about time, money, and will-I-ever-be-able-to-get-more-than-20 minutes-of-sleep-at-a-stretch (answer: no) were the more existential questions.  What does a non-twin know about raising twins?  How is it different from “regular” parenting?  How can I raise two kids who – having shared everything from the womb onwards -- are nonetheless wholly individual? 
In truth, Jay took the news better than I did, and not just because he wasn’t the one who was going to be eating for three.  He simply is not prone to Chicken Little histrionics (neither am I, normally – but he’s even better). We’d build on a bigger extension to our cabin, he said.  Our finances were fine.  Everything was going to be ok.  As for the Deep Philosophy of twins – he wasn’t sweating it.
We didn’t know, then, whether the kids would be identical or fraternal.  Sometimes identicals share some of the hardware of pregnancy – amniotic sac, placenta – but if the split is early, they look just like fraternals on an ultrasound.  Of course, identical twins always have identical genders (notwithstanding the charmingly hetero-flexible twins in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors), but even in later ultrasounds our little blobs were being coy.  We knew we had somebody who was most-probably an Elizabeth, and somebody who might have been a Molly -- but then again might have been an Isaac.  Neither of us cared a whit about the gender, but truth be told, I was hoping they’d be fraternal.  “I want them to be different from each other,” I told Jay. 
Next to me on the ice-rink bleachers, Lizzy wasn’t saying anything, but she was leaning forward, still hooked by the drama of Little Hesitant Child.  The beneficent college hockey player/instructor offered to hold his hand.  Then he offered to hold BOTH his hands.  My opinion of hockey players rose several more notches.  At last, still with obvious reluctance, the little boy let go of the wall, let go of his mommy, and allowed himself to be led (gently, gently) onto the ice.  Lizzy made no comment.  She didn’t look at me, although her warm little body was still pressed up next to mine.
Six years ago, Jay assured my pregnant self that the kids would be different -- even if they were identical.  He was being Mr. Reasonable.  Also, he didn’t have morning sickness. I knew he was right, because I have friends with identical siblings as well as friends with identical sons, but still I worried.  I’d never bothered to ask those friends exactly how they’d managed to forge their identities, and whether it had been a fraught process.  “What if we mix them up when they’re newborn?” I asked. 
“Well… maybe we can label them,” my husband suggested.  I’m not sure if he was thinking of string, or duct tape, or perhaps Sharpie.
And then our kids were born.
Admittedly, all the OTHER babies boxed up in the nursery looked kinda the same as one another.  Sure, the hospital went ahead and gleefully tagged our offspring with a veritable lost-luggage-department of scribbled plastic.  But to us two doting parents.  Baby A (henceforth Lizzy) and Baby B (definitely not Isaac) each had a face, a manner, and an awesome newborn style all her own.
And so it went.  They nursed simultaneously, but… differently.  Let’s just say that if I needed someone to unplug a blocked duct with the voraciousness of a vacuum hose, I knew which child to use.  One of them insisted on walking at ten months, using a Full Combat Crashing learning style.  The other waited until she could cruise bruise-free, three months later.  Watching them parse the zucchini, bamboo shoots, carrots, tofu, and onions in a single order of Thai vegetable stir fry is like hanging out with Jack Sprat and his wife.  And, of course, they don’t look the same. This is particularly confusing to the friendly waitstaff, because (interesting, like almost all of Asia) Thailand doesn’t produce a whole lot of multi-zygotic multiples.
A half-dozen years into the adventure, I’ve gotten over both the practical worries of twin parenting – and, for the most part, the esoteric ones, too.  We’ve entered an era of separate classrooms, separate play-dates and occasional singular parental attention.  And while there are some activities that are compulsory for any offspring of ours (yes, you have to learn to read… and you also have to learn to ski many miles into the wilderness) ice skating is not one of them.  Go ahead.  Be your own person, kid.
The smaller but nonetheless older twin – Baby A -- sat at my side for the rest of that first skating lesson.  Silent.  Watching.  Kids wobbled, staggered, and fell.  Jacq tried a turn.  Molly held her arms out like a sapling and waddled onward.  And a small boy in an over-large helmet held hands with a very big and very patient young man.
When the session ended, Little Shy Little Boy wobbled off the rink with the rest of his cohort, his face wreathed in a gentle smile.  Lizzy glanced briefly at her sister, who was exuding both exuberance at her efforts and frustration at not yet reaching Olympic caliber.  But I knew Lizzy wasn’t taking her cues from Molly when she told me, calmly, “That looks like fun.  I’ll try it next time.  But just once… to see if I like it.”
“Ok,” I told her.  “It’s up to you.”
Ultimately, we attended two entire skating sessions of eight lessons each, and Lizzy skated in every one of them – slowly, cautiously, calmly.  Before each session, I stopped at the little office next to the rink to borrow skates from the young instructor.  By the third week or so, she didn’t raise an eyebrow when I said, “One pair of tens, and one pair of thirteens… for the twins.”
She rummaged on the shelves and came back with the appropriate sizes – each just exactly right for one all-herself kid.  “Definitely not identical,” the skating teacher said.  And she grinned right back at me.

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