Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Difference and empathy

As I slipped a new shirt over Matthew's head for preschool pictures the other day, he said, "Is this my own, mom? Can it be my own?"
"Of course," I answered.
"Not Jon's?"
'Not Jon's."
"Just my own?"
"Just your own."
"Thanks, mom, for letting it be my own."
And Jonathan did not protest.
Moments later, a teacher asked whether Mathew and Jonathan would be sitting together for their photo like the other set of twins in the class or whether they wanted to take them separately.
Jonathan barely let her finish the question.
"Separate," he yelled. "I want my own."
Matthew did not argue.
"My own" has been the mantra in our household lately.
Matthew and Jonathan have always had their independent streaks. They have always had their own favorite colors, their own sides of the minivan, their own scooters, their own favorite foods and their own special stuffed animals.
But lately, we're seeing a different kind of independence, a gentler sort that seems to develop in conjunction with something else: empathy. The more Matthew and Jonathan strive to differentiate from each other, the more attentive they are to each other, the more concerned they are with the other's needs.
While each boy had his picture taken, the other watched.
They cheered each other on, encouraged each other to smile and told each other they'd made a good picture. Matthew won't get out of bed most mornings until Jonathan sings him the preschool "good morning" song and Jonathan obliges. Jonathan got angry with me the other day because he felt the jacket I'd given Matthew wasn't warm enough. Matthew gave up the Spiderman pajamas two nights ago because Jonathan wanted them so badly.
When one gets a Popsicle from the freezer, he gets one for the other --- in his favorite flavor.
When they were babies, I had always thought their similarities would be the foundation of their bond. Now, I'm seeing it in a new light. Their differences and their mutual respect for that desire for difference is just as important.
They have their moments.
They are siblings, after all, and with each other nearly 24 hours a day.
Injuries happen.
Harsh words are exchanged.
A lot.
But more times than not, I find myself listening to their exchanges from behind a corner -- eavesdropping -- and wondering what to do with all that pride that's swelling inside me. They amaze me and intrigue me. Every single day.