Well, as I sit here writing this it’s St Patricks Day and I intend to follow my usual St Paddy’s tradition of NOT going out and NOT getting crushed in a rammed pub while failing to order a pint of Guinness from a harried barmaid. But in any case, St Patrick’s Day isn’t the subject of this post.
Neither is my inspiration for this post my own small claim to Irishness – my Meath-born late maternal grandmother Nel – whose birthday it would have been today, and who I still miss.
No, instead my subject on this most of Irish of days is the phenomenon of Irish Twins. Now, contrary to popular belief I am NOT the parent of a pair of Irish Twins, since these are officially defined as two siblings not from the same gestation but born within a calendar year. No, I fall almost two months short of having hit that particular target, but since I’m close enough, I’m going to exploit this catch-all term to my own ends. I doubt anyone is in the dark as to how the phenomenon of Irish Twins got its name (Irish immigrants with Catholic ideals in regard to contraception inspired the coining of the term in the 1800s) and I am aware that it has plenty of derogatory and negative connotations and for this reason is not generally used in polite society. But here I am using it, and let me tell you why: I am a HUGE fan of Irish Twins. So hopefully anyone who may be offended can rest assured that I’m not Paddy-bashing and will relax while I tell you why having two kids a year apart is the best thing I ever did.
“Son gemelas?” (Are they twins?). It’s a question I get asked (accompanied by a puzzled, vacillating, quizzical expression and a tentative pre-emptory shake of the head) probably in the region of 8-10 times a week by perfect strangers in the street, the supermarket or wherever else my pretty little trotting toddlers catch someone’s eye. To which I respond with a shake of the head and a self-deprecating laugh that I have now had years to perfect, and over the next few seconds the stranger and I have a funny little conversation mostly conducted through shrugs, the gist of which is that I’ve got my work cut out for me and must be a little bit nuts, and that they’re pretty glad they’re not me. I’ve got used to this now. This is the general feeling people have when they spot me grappling with a two year old while yelling at a three year old who is about to disappear through the crowd, or having a lengthy debate with them both as they break down in tears over who gets to hold my right hand when my left is right there available but inexplicably not acceptable. People think: Phew, I’m glad I’m not her. And sometimes I wish I wasn’t her too.
But I got myself into this situation, didn’t I? One other question people like to ask me is whether I let this happen on purpose. And the not so simple answer is yes and no. To be honest I hadn’t even thought about when I would have another child until I was standing there staring at a positive pregnancy test. But the one thing I had already thought about was IF I would have another child. I definitely and without a shadow of a doubt knew that I wanted more than one. So perhaps that’s the reason that when I found myself accidentally pregnant again while still a relatively new mum, I wasn’t as panicked as maybe I should have been. I was too busy being delighted.
The reason I knew I wanted more than one probably had a lot to do with my own childhood. It’s funny that the sibling setup I have presented to my children is pretty much the polar opposite of my own. I have three brothers, but they are separated from me by gaps of eight years, sixteen years and eighteen years. I definitely grew up with my big brother, but I was already an adult before my younger brothers were even born. So, even though I do adore them, and actually feel very connected to them as people, we weren’t playmates simply by virtue of the fact that we weren’t really contemporaries. Officially, I’m not even in the same generation as any of them. And, even though there were definite advantages to this situation (I was never compared to anyone, I didn’t get wound up a lot and I had the chance to develop strong one-on-one relationships with both my parents) I guess sometimes I wondered what it would be like to have a playmate my own age, to share the experience of childhood with more closely, to have someone to turn to and say: What did YOU make of that? In fact, the closest I came to having a close-in-age sibling wasn’t even a blood relative, but actually the son of my mum’s best friend who I ended up spending a lot of my childhood with and who is about two and a half years my junior (so, yeah, pretty much exactly the age my fictional little brother would be). And I valued his easy companionship, his undemanding company, the ability to have fun without the complications of my other friendships.
So I wanted the best things about my relationships with my real and fictional siblings for my own children. I wanted them to be able to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of childhood with a shipmate, a co-captain. And what’s more, once I knew Nyika’s little shipmate was on the way I realised there was something else…. I wanted her to have a sister.
I have been able to bask in the reflected warmth of a lot of great sister relationships – my mum and her sister, my two favourite cousins, two of my best friends from school (who happen to be twins) to name but a few. In all the time I’ve known these amazing sister acts I have wondered what it must be like to have such a close female contemporary to turn to, what it must be like to know they are always going to tell you the truth even when it’s not what you want to hear. The thing is I’m just guessing here, I haven’t got a sister remember, so maybe this is an idealised version of how it really is. I know that sisters can drive each other nuts too (believe me, I have now witnessed that first hand), but it always seems to me that, in the end, it’s worth it.
So here was me, excited about the lovely little sister I was about to present my child with. But once it came down to it and we took our one year old and our newborn home, reality hit. We were LOST, utterly LOST under a sea of nappies and burp cloths and sippy cups and pureed carrot for months and months, maybe even for the best part of a year. We might as well have had twelve babies at that point for all the rest or respite it was possible to get, and what’s worse, I felt guilty. Sometimes I looked at Nyika and it struck me just how young she was – barely walking, not yet talking, barely old enough to even hold a spoon – and here I had given myself a helpless newborn to sap my energy and time and concentration completely away from her. I had done a horrible, horrible thing and deprived her of my attention, just when she needed me most. But then I realised that the only person thinking these things was me. Nyika really didn’t mind at all; I’m not even sure she noticed that anything much had changed. She went along just as usual, and even learned things quicker and became more independent than she might have done had her sister not arrived when she did. This is one of the main advantages with having two so close – the whole politics of introducing a new sibling into the family just doesn’t need to be considered, a one year old just hasn’t had the time to build up the expectations and complex emotional responses that a two or three year old has, so they just accept the things that come along and work with them.
And in the end, just like everyone said it would, it got easier. You see, those same people who were busy being glad they weren’t me, would also often say things like: Even though it’s hard now, after a while it’ll be easier than having one. And it’s true. These days, in between the times when they are battling for position on my lap or inflicting lasting scars on each other with their teeth, magical things happen. Sometimes I sit and drink an undisturbed cup of tea while they play together in the garden. Sometimes we get to lie in until after six o clock while they chat and giggle together in their bedroom. And I love the way they turn every walk to and from school into a landscape of adventure – the flowers they always smell, the walls they always walk along, the driveways they like to run down, the holes they check for spiders – and I know I could never have thought of these things. It comes down to this: no-one knows what’s fun for a kid better than another kid the same age.
A while ago I seemingly told Nyika that I made her sister especially for her, as a gift. I don’t remember saying it, but she does, and she repeats it often. And the more time goes on the harder it gets to deny that she IS a gift. Nyika adores her. The other day she said: “Thanks for making me a sister with such a beautiful face, Mum, I love looking at her face,” as she traced the line of her chin with the tip of a tender finger. And aside from being beautiful, Cielo is such good fun; she makes Nyika laugh several times every day and the only way to get them to go to bed most nights (because they are having such a good time playing in the bedroom) is to separate them, at which point they will both weep bitterly. And Nyika has risen to the role of big sister better than anyone could have imagined. The way she takes her sister’s hand when she quails under the weight of expectation during her turn at the piñata, the way she slides an arm around her neck and introduces her to pals at the school gates with such pride, the way she will wrestle toys back off anyone who tries to take them from her sister, in short the way they are THERE for each other through it all, is so exactly what I had in mind when I wished this little sibling into existence for my precious girl.
Now, look I don’t know what it’s like to BE an Irish Twin, so who knows what my girls will think of it all once they’re grown. Maybe they’ll think it was awful to have a sibling right on top of them, right there in the same bedroom and in the year below at school, cramping their style and wanting the same toys (maybe even boys!) as them, always being compared to each other (though it is something we’ll make an effort to avoid). All I can tell you is how it is to be a parent to siblings like this, and it’s a joy. For all the times they are screaming and squabbling and winding each other up (Cielo sure does love to press Nyika’s buttons), it’s all worth it when I go in to check on them in the night, only to find that one has crept into the other’s bed and they are curled together like a pair of speech marks, peaceful and smiling in their sleep. I hope that if nothing else, having each other as a constant, as someone to hold onto on the shifting sands of this life of ours, will be a gift they’re always glad we gave them.