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The loneliness of raising twins

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

Mother walking on a forest path, pushing a twin stroller

About six months after giving birth to my twin daughters, I was walking through the mall with their side-by-side stroller when I noticed a woman sitting away from the crowds, quietly nursing her baby while humming a lullaby. The scene stopped me dead in my tracks, and a familiar pain rose up from my belly. Nursing—another aspect of motherhood taken away from me.

That’s how I saw it back then, anyway. I’d always imagined I would breastfeed my girls, but the reality of nursing two babies and going back to work full-time turned out to be unsustainable for our family. Many parents of twins do breastfeed, but it wasn’t in the cards for us.

It was more than that at the mall, though. It was the stillness of the moment. The mother and baby in an embrace, as if the world were holding them close against its chest. Suddenly one of my girls cried out as her sister pulled her hair, and I was jolted back to reality. I tried not to cry as I loaded them into the car and headed home.

Having two babies at once will test every inch of you. It will challenge you physically, mentally, and emotionally. But what other people rarely see is just how lonely all that chaos can be.

Longing for connection

How can you feel lonely when you’re standing in the middle of a circus? Simple. Your identity becomes less mother and more ringmaster.

Psychologist Joan A. Friedman, PhD, grew up as a twin, raised twins of her own, and has written several books on twins. She thinks this parental loneliness stems from a lack of connection—one that she has experienced from every angle. “In my own upbringing, I was not connected to my parents, and I was overly connected to my twin,” Friedman says. “Then when I had my twin boys, I didn’t connect with them the way I had with my older singletons. There just wasn’t this sense of knowing them like I had with my other kids.”

But when I ask her about my experience at the mall, she wonders if loneliness was really at the root of it. “What you were feeling might have been jealousy and envy that you didn’t get to have a singleton experience,” says Friedman.

She’s absolutely right. I ached for the quiet, singular bond that other mother had.

Create one-on-one time

Having multiples can be isolating, but Friedman says parents of twins can remedy that and build the connection they want so desperately with their kids.

“I started to make time for each of my twins individually,” she says. “If I had to go to the market, I’d take one. If I had time to go around the block, I took one. It was a concentrated effort to carve out some alone time so that I felt I could be connected to who each of them was.”

However, Friedman admits, she was in the privileged position of being able to take those actions. Many parents of multiples are going it alone while their partner works long hours (like mine did) or isn’t in the picture.

If spending time alone with each twin is an option for you, consider these ideas:

  • While the babies are napping, slip one out of their crib and rock them in another room.
  • If you have a partner, each of you can care for one of the babies while you take turns going on a walk.
  • Trade alone time with another parent in your social circle.
  • Make the most of sick days. Even though my girls are 17 now, I take the time to baby each of them when they need a solo day home from school.
  • Set a timer to encourage “alone time.” Give one twin a task or a fun project to work on while you take the other twin into a different room for a parent-kid hangout.

It sounds simple enough to focus on one child at a time. But if you’ve never had twins, you don’t know what you don’t know. In my case, I would always hit a wall when I thought about separating the girls. What if one was somehow getting more of me than the other? What if their experiences weren’t the same?

Don’t let fairness get in the way

When faced with many of the milestones unique to parents of multiples—like whether both kids should be in the same class at school, have the same friend group, and include each other on playdates—I felt like my ability to make decisions was hindered by my desire for my daughters to have identical experiences. This idea of equality was a constant presence, leading to an overwhelming sense of anxiety and guilt.

“Life is not fair, and twins are not equal,” says Friedman. “The reason this idea of fairness weighs so heavy on us is because parents of twins don’t have the chance to really work on their ambivalence.” When parents have more than one singleton, she adds, their favor shifts periodically from child to child, whether they want to admit it or not. This allows parents to get to know their children as individuals.

But because twins are often viewed as two copies of the same person, the idea of building separate connections with them can seem unjust. “I have five kids,” Friedman says. “I always say I loved them all, but I didn’t love them all the same. If I’d loved them all the same, it would have absolutely interfered with my getting to know each one.”

Letting go of the idea that we can create a level playing field for our kids relieves parents of a huge burden. It also teaches children an important life lesson: The world will not always be fair, but we keep moving anyway.

The only nonnegotiable

Raising twins feels different because it is. The single most important thing you can do as a parent, says Friedman, is be very intentional about helping them build separate identities. Otherwise they can become enmeshed, or one may slip into a caretaking role.

One night when my daughters were eight or nine, I was waiting for them to finish a soccer game when I started chatting with another parent. She said how lucky I was that my girls played the same sport. Her daughters, two years apart in age, had separate and equally time-consuming interests, which greatly complicated her life. “My girls like all the same things,” I said smugly. “It’s like I’m raising them as a unit.”

I cringe at that memory now, knowing just how wrong I was. My daughters didn’t choose the same things—they played the only sport I introduced them to, and they joined only the clubs I told them about. I wasn’t giving them options and asking them to pick; I was guiding their choices to make life easier for myself. What I learned to do as they grew older was encourage them to discover who they were beyond each other.

“Advocating for your twins is important,” says Friedman. “You have to teach the people in their lives to treat them differently also.” For example, ask your twins’ coach to have them play different positions or on different training squads. Ask other parents if you can trade off playdates. Work with their teachers to keep them as separate as possible.

Encouraging your twins to spend time apart is good for you as well. Having them in separate classes, sports, or clubs means you get to bond with them individually—another chance to experience and connect with them one-on-one.

Launching two at once

When my daughters became toddlers, then bigger kids and teens, my loneliness grew as they drew closer to each other. The bond between twins, especially identical twins, can be as intense as it is beautiful.

I was worried when my girls still hadn’t spoken well past their first birthday, but their doctor assured me this was normal for twins: They felt less urgency to talk to me because they were meeting one another’s communication needs. When they did speak, their first words were to each other. They shared the kind of language experts call cryptophasia or “twinspeak,” a made-up soup of syllables only they could understand.1 I thought it was cute and funny, but it also felt like a language of exclusion at times—a way for them to communicate around me.

Other milestones seemed to come in waves, always close together: losing teeth, learning to read, starting school, making friends, experiencing heartbreak. I never had time to stand up without feeling the undertow at my feet. I also missed the chance to learn from one and get it right with the other. If I let one of them down, then I failed them both.

Lessons from the home stretch

Today my husband and I are preparing to send our daughters off to college. In less than two years, they’ll depart together—maybe not to the same place, but at the same time.

I envy friends who can launch one child from the nest and still have another in their care, extending parenthood by a few more wisps. I’m already beginning to feel the silence my girls will leave behind, as they both start driving and detaching from us as independent young women.

My heart has been in my throat so many times while I’ve watched them walk away from me toward uncharted territory, but I know they have each other’s backs. As much as their deep connection has left me on the outside, I’ve also grown to depend on it.

In my family, we like to joke that I have a team behind me: the two of them always together, always with me. The bond they first built inside my body has been amazing to witness out in the world. Despite the loneliness that comes with it, I wouldn’t have written my parenthood story any differently.

If you’re struggling with parenting twins or any number of kids, help is available. A therapist can support you in working through loneliness and other challenges. Visit our directory to find a licensed provider near you.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.

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