Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The minute that never happened

Does birth order matter?  Are you the oldest? The youngest? Or somewhere in the middle?

And what about the age gap?  Is it a year that separates you from your siblings? Or ten?

How much do those two facts make us who we are?  How much do they inform our personalities, our status within the family, our lives?

Is L who L is (and am I who I am when I parent her) because she's the eldest?  Because she was nineteen months old when she stopped being an only child?

Am I who I am when I parent her (and when I don't) because I'm the eldest too?  Because I was two and a quarter when I stopped being an only child?

And if that order and that gap matter, what about when the gap is only a minute?  Does it matter who's the elder then?

What about these two?  Who's the younger here?

One of these pictures was taken at 10.10 am on Thursday 11 December 2008; the other at 10.11.

They may, or may not, be in the right order.

I know who's who.  I know who's older.  I know who's the "big (and little) sister".  They, as far as I am aware, don't.

Should they?

My father is nearly 71.  He is ten minutes older than his brother.  As a fraction of their age, that difference is *reaches for calculator and one remaining brain cell* 0.000019 (I think).

Does it matter?  Oh yes.  You hear them, on the telephone across the Irish Sea, bickering like my three year olds.  And the clinching argument? 

I'm the oldest.

Here's a fact.  My girls were born by c-section.   In theory, therefore, the surgeon could have just grabbed the nearest one.  Birth order set by convenience.  But she didn't.  They don't. They go, deliberately and by choice, for "Twin A".  The lead twin.  The one whose head, unchanging (I am told) from your earliest scans, is nearer the cervix.  The one who would have come first however they were born.

You can say it doesn't matter.  But if that's true, why do they go to that trouble? It's not as though we've got a title to inherit...
So should we tell A and S?  It's not a big secret.  It can't be. It's on their birth certificate, as it is legally required to be. (In England.  In Scotland time of birth is on the birth certificate for everyone.).

They will find out, anyway.  Either when they see their birth certificates or because someone (probably L, and no, I don't know how she knows, will tell them).  And at first, I wasn't that bothered.  I felt it was just a fact, and not one to get het up about.  But as they have got older and as they continue to jostle for position, to find a level with each other and in the family, I find I don't want to give them a fixed hierarchy, an immutable fact that makes one, whichever one, "better" or "worse".

I find, now, that if adults ask, which, occasionally, they do, I bristle.  Why does it matter? I want to say,   although what I actually say is mumble or Oh! Look! A thing!   But I find myself increasingly reluctant to answer, which I would have done, and did, quite happily when they were tiny.

My brother and sister-in-law, who also have twins, claim they can't remember who was born first.  Now clearly that's nonsense (it's on their birth certificates too, after all), but I wonder whether it's not actually quite a good line to take.

Age gap?  I will say. What age gap?  You were born at the same time.  You're twins.  That's what twins are.

And when the biological confusion that will create all gets too much I will tell them that in France they (apparently) say that the second twin to be born is the elder.  After all, he or she must have gone in first...



  1. Gosh, I ever knew what a twinny family you came from! That's lovely.

    My two (with 15 months between) are constantly talking at the moment about how old they are. I imagine that it's a popular topic in nurseries and schools the world over. Hamish is constantly asking if he is nearly as old as Orla now, and when Orla comes home from school he often tells her he turned 6 that morning while she was out, purely to annoy her as she is yet to turn 5.

    I am quite happy to be the younger sister in my family, because at least I'm not *that old* yet! There are benefits!

    1. It is, but it's also completely random! My dad is a fraternal twin, which may, in some cases, be hereditary. In mine it wasn't as A and S are identical, and identicals are a fluke of nature.

      My brother- and sister-in-law should have had that crucial extra hyphen... He's B's brother and therefore no relation of mine! Very randomly they also have identical girls.

      To add to the confusion, she (my sister-in-law, come on, keep up!) also has a brother who has fraternal (boy/girl) twins... But in their case that is hereditary as there are twins everywhere in his wife's family...

      Really it's the singletons that are weird over here!

  2. Love the post. Really interesting. My Mum is an identical twin and so is my partner. A few years back I had to get some counselling and we drew out my family tree and discussed a recent set of events through each member of my family. My Mum didn't follow the same female trait as the rest of the females in my extended family - the counsellor immediately asked if my Mum was the second born twin - it turned out she was. My partner is the same, the one who shy's away from conflict, is never the one to start an argument, hates debates, will never express an opinion, and in this way is less forceful and headstrong.

    1. Now that is very interesting. Because my dad and his brother are exactly the same. My twins, on the other hand, and my nieces, neither of whom know what order they were born in (or, in the case of my two, that there even is an order) are the other way round...

  3. Trust the French to think of that!

    We are not just influenced by who we are in relation to other people. That IS who we are. It's a Western Individualist idea that there is some perfect essence of me, that is being shaped (or corrupted) by my passage through life, eg life events, birth order, geographical location, etc. That can only work in some abstracted hypothetical world. In reality, I am who I am. I just am.

    But as you have, I have also pondered many a time about the effect the birth order of my kids has upon their personalities. I suppose the difference for you is that, whilst I just think "I can't change it, so no point pondering it", you do have more choice. You can't change the birth order of the twins, but you can choose the way you talk about it. V interesting that the medical profession take the birth order question seriously.

    1. Do you really think you can't change it?

      My big maternal guilt of the moment is that I am expecting too much of L, because she is the oldest. I keep forgetting that she is four and not fourteen and getting cross when she behaves like a four year old. I'm absolutely certain that my expectations of A and S, at 3 are much lower than they were of L at the same age, and I'm equally certain that my parents were the same with me, which is why I take on (or feel like I take on) more responsibility than I probably should.

      I think you're absolutely right that no man is that mythical island, but I'm not sure that the way in which your birth order affects who you are isn't in turn affected by how others react to that birth order (or any other facet of your personality, character, geographical location, heither etc etc).

      We are who we are, obviously, but we also change and are changed. Or don't you think that's true?

      Oh, and I think the medical profession take it seriously because sometimes it *does* matter. I had a client who was titled and had inherited the stately home that came with the title and the funds to keep it up. His identical twin on the other hand, got nothing. It still happens...

  4. Now THAT - about the French - I did not know. What a fascinating post. Of course none of it matters to me because I am the eldest, so I know I'm the best...

    1. Mais bien sur! Ca va sans dire!

      Although actually, I don't really know if that's true about the French. I was told it, but not by a French person (actually I can't remember who it was, but I'm pretty certain they weren't French) so it might be a load of vieux cordonniers...

  5. Yes I think it affects who we are, can you control that? For a while maybe but I usually feel that it is best to let this things ride out whilst children are very young, I think they accept things better. As children get older it seems they look externally more for how to feel about things and then others beliefs based on experience (good or bad) influence. I've no idea if I'm making any sense! I also think mums gut reaction is usually te right one, trust yourself. X

    1. What I think is interesting here is that my gut reaction when I first heard that some people don't tell their twins who was born when ("what a load of tosh") has dramatically changed since then.

      I'm going to keep quiet for the moment anyway and see what happens as they grow. As I say, I can't keep it a secret for ever - and if I were to try I'd give it power way beyond its actual importance, which I certainly don't want to do.

  6. Mrs T. (rambling today)20 March 2012 at 18:58

    You can't hide the birth order of the other two - L will always be oldest and M youngest, so why worry about the middle ones? I'm not convinced in your household 'being oldest' will ever cut it as an argument, once they are all old enough to argue properly they'll just have to win fair and square. And do you pull 'I'm the oldest' with your siblings? I'm a firm believer that these things only become an issue if you make them one. X came out first but Y will be better at some things and L will always be older than both of them and M younger. Can't change it so why fight it? (spoken as one of four...).

    1. True. But then I do think that what Susan says above is interesting, particularly in view of the personalities I'm dealing with.

      As for your four, I think that's interesting too - you've definitely got two elder and two younger sisters there don't you think (and not necessarily in the strict birth order sense!)?

  7. Really interesting post. I think that you are right to just let the who came first thing be a non issue. I believe that our birth order does dictate the way that our parents treat us and the way that I treat my children. As I too have small gaps I am trying not to heap my expectations on them, but it is so hard

  8. What I'm finding interesting about parenting children of different ages is how much my expectation of what a 4 year old (or 3, or nearly 10 months) can and should do varies enormously depending on which child it is and where they stand in the family... I'm trying to be consistent but I know I'm not.

  9. GG is the oldest in our home and she is the boss of us all if we let her. As for me, there are 10 years between me and my brother and my parents say we were like two only children. He is slightly parental in that he is protective, but he has utter respect for me.

    1. I think big age gaps are really interesting. It hasn't, and isn't going to, happen in our house, but some of the closest siblings I know as adults are those that are further apart in age. I suspect it has something to do with not really having to be rivals as children.

      We've scuppered our lot then anyway!

  10. There's a really interesting book called 'They F*** You Up' by Oliver James. Well worth a read if you can. He talks about all sorts of stuff to do with your birth position in the family and particular circumstances that effect us such as parents with mental health conditions or other health factors that impact our upbringing. He also mentions time between births, and says a child is not completely independent from their mother until 6 years old so there is likely sibling conflict before this time. Saying that though, my brothers are 6 and 8 years older than me, but it meant I was just the annoying little sister as a child they wanted to ignore!

    1. Sorry, but no! He writes (wrote? Thinking about it, haven't seen it recently but that might be because I'm blanking it) a column in the Guardian which raises my blood pressure every week. He always seems to me to be all about raising the parental guilt - title of his book no exception.

      It's probably brilliant, but I just can't bring myself to go anywhere near it! Sorry (but thanks for the recommendation anyway!)


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