Wearing two hats

Twinship from a sibling’s and psychologist’s perspective

Written by Dr Katie Wood, Clinical Psychologist, Senior Lecturer, Swinburne University of Technology

When people ask me what it is like growing up as the younger sister of identical twins, my reply is typically glowing. I reflect on all the wonderful things that have come my way, such as having two sisters look out for me when I was little (and who still are always there to help), having two sounding boards in times of need, and having six nieces (they have three girls each) to spend time with.

On the downside, I did not always appreciate having two lots of the same “hand-me-downs”. Being known as the “little sister of the twins” could also wear thin but it did make me determined to carve out my own identity and made me more curious about what this thing called “twinship” was about. So from a young age, I became fascinated by the closeness of my sisters’ relationship; their special bond that I could never seem to disrupt despite my best (or worst) efforts. They seemed to just “get each other” without having to explain what they were each thinking. And disloyalty never seemed to be an option. There was a kind of implicit understanding about what was okay and what was not. They knew how to be together and how to be apart. They were a joint force, and shared their lives with such synchrony that it was hard, at times, not to feel envious.

There were times when I longed for my own twin with whom I could share my deepest feelings. An imaginary friend, while somewhat helpful, would not quite meet this need! My curiosity with my sister’s bond, and the influence of their relationship on my development, inspired me to get involved in twin research and to work with twins as a clinical psychologist. Over time, I have come to see more clearly that there is much to celebrate about being a twin. To know another like you know yourself (particularly for identical twins) is something truly unique and endlessly fascinating. Twins hold particular interest to scientists because they inform our understanding of the interplay between genes and the environment on the development of personality, intelligence and other attributes.

Of course, things are not always smooth. Multiple birth families can have their own challenges. For example, some twins can struggle to develop their own identity while preserving the twinship. Twins can also be at risk for learning, attention, and language-based issues, and there is the well-known competition between twins that is not always healthy. Then there are the challenges associated with schooling, including school readiness and whether to keep twins together or in separate classes. Often families will need support and guidance with these issues. While I will always be the “twins’ little sister”, I feel very fortunate to be able to wear my two hats and to remain captivated by twinship from both a personal and professional perspective.