Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy holidays!

"I remember you two," Santa exclaimed when Matthew and Jonathan climbed on his lap at our local mall a few weeks ago.
How could he forget?
Last year, the boys lured him into the center court so they could point out the Pillow Pets they wanted in a nearby kiosk.
As their sixth birthday approaches, Jonathan and Matthew remain Santa obsessed.
Here are photos taken with three different Santas this year (Some are Santa's helpers, of course! Matthew and Jonathan pulled a few beards trying to distinguish the real thing from the stand-ins.).
Happy holidays from our home to yours!

Jon on the left, and Matt on the right at the mall.

Matthew at the local community center

Jonathan at the local community center

Matthew on the left and Jonathan on the right in Corning, N.Y.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Early results are in: the twins are thriving in the same classroom.

Jonathan in blue, Matthew in red
Last week, I had our first conference with Matthew and Jonathan's kindergarten teacher.
So far, so good.
Their teacher admitted he was hesitant when he learned we had requested that they be in the same classroom and, for those first few days, there were some issues. Mostly, he said, Jonathan and Matthew had to learn they could not get physical with each other in school - no poking or prodding allowed.
But now, he said, "they're just like any two kids in the classroom. When there are issues, they are just boy issues -- boys being boys." 
He no longer even relies on clothing to tell them apart.
Their report cards were not identical, but they were very similar. In the few areas where they differed academically, personality had a strong influence. For instance, Matthew's report card showed he could count only to 30 while Jonathan's showed a limit of 100.
Matthew has been counting to 100 since he was three. It's always been a game for him and his twin brother, counting in the back seat as we drove. They also learned to count by tens at an early age. So I know he knows this stuff.
But while Jonathan sees any kind of testing as a challenge, Matthew finds it annoying. He is is easily bored with reading aloud, counting and any other form of quizzing, preferring to deny knowledge so he can move on to more active pursuits. 
Homework with him is already a struggle.
Emotionally and socially, I saw the personality differences that have always been apparent reflected. Jonathan wears his emotions tattooed prominently across his forehead. When is angry, he is very angry. When he is sad, he is a blubbering ball of emotions.
Matthew has greater control and, though this was not on the report card, he certainly knows how to push his twin's buttons. He is emotional as well, but he is more covert -- just slightly less likely to lose his cool. 
Each has his own friends and a few shared ones, though they claim they are often picked on by the same girl. Our oldest daughter complains she can rarely sit with them at lunch. They usually sit at separate tables and she doesn't want to choose one over the other.
Gym class worried me the most though.
The boys are highly competitive and they can become physically abusive to each other when they argue over games or races. But their gym teacher assured me they rarely even communicate in her class. Each goes off with his own his own group and does his own thing.
Their issues in gym are more typical of their development as individuals. In the beginning, they would each get upset it they did not get the color of their choice, or if they did not get a turn. That has improved, she said, more so with one twin making bigger strides than the other (Guess who!).
A few days after the conference, I asked Matthew and Jonathan whether they enjoy being together in school and whether they might want to stay together next year.
Normally, Jonathan would begin to tear up at the thought of any separation that lasts more than a few hours, and Matthew would pounce on that, insisting they each go their own way just to a reaction. We know this because if we actually try separating them, Matthew is the first to break down.
This time, however, Matthew was the first to react positively, nodding his head vigorously.
"I want to be with my brother," he said.
"Yeah," Jonathan said, smiling. "Me too."  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thanks to identical twins, we might be able to detect breast cancer before it even develops

Scientists practically drool over identical twins and their shared DNA, especially when one twin develops a major, and possibly genetically related illness, and the other does not. Identical twins can help unlock medical mysteries that might otherwise go unsolved.
The results of a recent study on breast cancer can help the rest of us appreciate the scientific fever over identical twins and their potential contributions.
This is a big one.
The study -- led by Manel Esteller, director of the Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), Professor of Genetics at the University of Barcelona and ICREA researcher -- has helped researchers identify a genetic change that occurs in those who will later develop breast cancer.
This information could lead to new blood tests that help doctors identify breast cancer victims long before their cancers actually develop. It could lead to new drugs that more efficiently target tumors and that prevent breast cancer in the first place.
It all goes back to epigenetics.
All DNA is influenced by environment.
Chemical signals received by DNA can trigger certain changes, turning genes off and on like a light switch. That's the theory behind epigenetics. It's why some pairs of identical twins have clear physical differences, like height or moles or head shape. It explains lower immunity in one twin than in another. It shows why some will develop certain genetic diseases while their twins do not.
In this case, researchers found that twins with breast cancer had "a pathological gain of methylation in the DOK7 gene" years before their cancer was clinically diagnosed, according to Dr Esteller in an article on the institute's website.
The next step for the researchers will be knowing the exact function of the DOK7 gene. "We believe it is a regulator of tyrosine kinases, an antitumor drug target already used for the treatment of breast cancer. If DOK7 performs this function, new studies to test drugs with tumour chemopreventive effects in breast cancer could be planned in the future," he concludes.
In simpler terms, scientists believe that particular gene is a regulator of a drug already used to fight tumors. If that proves true, the information could lead to big changes in the way we diagnose, treat and prevent breast cancer.  A simple blood test could tell women (And men. Let's not forget they can have breast cancer too.) whether they will develop the disease in the near future.
All thanks to 36 sets of selfless identical twins.

Friday, September 28, 2012

My towering twins

Silly me.
I had worried that Matthew and Jonathon would be labeled by their shared DNA in school.
But does anyone say, "Hey, are you the mom of the identical twins?"
They say, "Hey, you're the mom of the tall twins, aren't you?"
Yes, Jonathan and Matthew have a greater claim to fame. They are off the charts for height, just like their older brother and sister, and thanks, probably, to their six-foot-five dad.
I haven't measured them since July, but they were 50 inches tall then.
At five years old, that puts them in the highest category, according the National Centers for Disease Control: "above the 95th percentile."
Their height has always been a problem.
(They are precisely the same height, a sore subject between them.)
Public tantrums were bad when they were three years old, especially since they fed off each other. But they were made worse by people who assumed they were two years older.
Once, a woman who saw one twin melting down in typical 3-year-old fashion as we passed the grocery store's chip selection -- a total stranger -- told me I should beat him because he was too old to behave that way.
(I suggested that perhaps the same discipline would be appropriate for her -- the one and only time I ever managed a good comeback in the heat of the moment.)
Several times when we visited the mall on their day off from preschool, some older woman (why the older women?) or a store clerk would demand to know (not "ask," but "demand") why they weren't in school.
I admit I took pleasure in watching their nosy jaws drop when I'd say they were only four.
So I knew they were taller than average and I knew their height might someday be an issue.
But, honestly, I didn't realize the difference was that great.
Few people said anything when they were in preschool.
But the private preschool they attended two days a week was small and two other boys were not far behind them in height. The public preschool, where they now attend kindergarten, had a much larger class, but the kids were tucked away on one end of the building, at least during the two days the twins attended.
Few people outside the preschool ever saw them.
Not so any more.
Now they are in the hallways, on the playground and in the cafeteria with the rest of the elementary school crowd.
Their little (still "little" to me) heads shoot up above their classmates, more on level with the first- and second-graders than with their peers.
It might not seem like a handicap.
People tend to reserve that stereotype for shortness.
But it is.
Even when people know how old they are, it's hard to conceive. They subconsciously raise their expectations ... just like I do ... just like I have always done to their older brother and sister, despite my best efforts.
Once again though, their twinness comes to the rescue.
Rarely do they care what others think.
They have that confidence -- that impenetrable space between them -- that they derive from each other.
They are, as they might say, "cool with it."

Friday, September 7, 2012

They are all yours, class of 2025!

Three days ago, Matthew and Jonathan started their new careers.
They are officially kindergartners.
And with their launch into the academic world has come a renewed round of the infamous question, "Are they in the same classroom?" My response ("Yes, they are.") elicits everything from raised eyebrows to pleased smiles to spontaneous lectures.
I tell them the same things I have written in this blog over the past several years.
Our decision was based on recent research, conversations with identical twins and talks with teachers who have experience with twins who were placed in the same classrooms.
We have the confidence that we have made the right decision, and we have the intelligence to let time, experience and Jonathan and Matthew's wishes be our guide for the future.
But, in New York State, where parents are not guaranteed a say in the placement of multiples, all the research in the world would have been irrelevant without the cooperation of an open-minded principal. Our principal has never experienced twins in the same classroom. Yet, he was fascinated by the studies we presented him and eager to do what is best for Matthew and Jonathan.
So he readily agreed.
He will be watching their social and academic progress as closely as we will.
None of those concerns matter, however, to the boys.
They are already having a blast and each has attached himself to a different "best friend."
For the past two days, I have had to drag them out the classroom at the end of the day.
My arms are weakening.
I'm thinking about lining the route from the classroom to the van with freeze pops and Smarties, two of their favorite treats, to get them home.
Here are a few photos from the first day.

(Note: Jonathan is wearing a jacket despite the heat because "that's what you wear to school.")

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The twins are ready for kindergarten, but am I?

On September 5, Matthew and Jonathan will start kindergarten.
They will be in the same classroom at our request and with the principal's blessing.
He is as eager to observe the results as we are.
I am nervous.
I admit it.
But it's not about the shared classroom.
I had always thought I'd be excited for this moment, for the moment when all four kids were in school full-time together. Same hours, same days, same vacations.
One drop-off. One pick-up.
It was my dream.
How hard could it be, I thought.
After all, the twins were in preschool four days a week last year and I was fine with that.
Neither was I upset when the older kids started full-day school years ago.
But it's that fifth day that bothers me, the day I had alone with the twins.
And it's those vacation days from public school that are eating away at me, the days the twins attended their private preschool and I had time alone with their older brother and sister.
Those were the days we could do things that were more age-specific, things the kids could enjoy more without their older or younger siblings. Those were the days when I could let go of a little mommy-guilt and feel like I was doing as much for my children as I did when we had only two.
I'm sure I will still get time alone with each set of kids, but I'll have to work at it. Someone else -- probably my husband -- will have to spend time with the other two children. That limits our outings to weekends and evenings, reduces the spontaneity and limits the time we can spend together as a full family - my husband, all four kids and me.
It will also make it even harder to spend alone-time with the kids individually.
I grew up in a family of eight kids.
Alone-time with our parents was pretty much unheard of.
I didn't suffer and I'm sure our kids won't either.
Intellectually, I know that.
But that doesn't make it any easier, especially in a society that insists alone time is so important for identical twins.
My husband and I already know that separation in the classroom does not equal individuality. What works is simply treating kids like individuals - all kids whether they are identical twins or whether they are a boy and a girl born 17 months apart.
So I guess that's what I'll have to work on most.
I'll have to work harder on treating all four kids like individuals when they are together.
I can do that, right?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The evidence is in: differentiation in identical siblings begins before birth

The medical community has finally confirmed something most all parents of identical twins have always known: Our twins do not emerge from the womb purely identical. Differentiation begins when the egg splits and continues throughout their lifetimes.
Identical twins share the same DNA.
This new study does not dispute that.
Rather, the explanation for the differences lies in epigenetics, the way identical genes that accompany that shared DNA express themselves. Genes, scientists have learned, can be turned on and off like light switches. Those switches are flipped by environmental influences.
Epigenetics explains why identical twins can look somewhat different and have different inheritable diseases and conditions despite their common DNA.
I see it in my own guys.
At 5 years old, Matthew and Jonathan are precisely the same height. Their hands and feet are the same sizes and their hair grows in all the same directions. Yet, one is slighter than the other, overall. One has a higher-pitched voice. One has a spider vein on his face.
They have different tastes in food and different levels of immunity.
They are daring in different ways; shy in different ways.
They are very much identical, but they are different.
Before we had Jonathan and Matthew DNA tested, when they were still infants, so many people looked for those minute differences as proof that they were fraternal. Identical twins, especially infants, should be identical in every way, they believed.
It was annoying.
Some of those people were relentless.

Scientists had already proven such changes take place after birth, but researchers from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne are the first to prove the environment in utero can also be responsible for such changes.
The Australian scientists used cord blood, placentas and umbilical cords collected at birth from both identical and nonidentical twins to prove their theories, according to recent article in the Deccan Herald. They found that although identical twins share the same DNA sequence, the chemical markers that switch genes on and off are different.
That makes sense to me.
In that first ultrasound at 20 weeks, the day we learned I was carrying twins, Matthew was already set to escape. He had claimed the spot at the bottom of my uterus near the cervix, the head-down position usually reserved for a baby who is prepared to make an exit.
There he remained until delivery.
Jonathan seemed to spend the whole pregnancy trying to get comfortable. He was in breech position at delivery after flipping head-up and head-down a few times during the last weeks of pregnancy (That hurts, by the way!). When Matthew cleared out his space, Jonathan spent the next 20 minutes swimming, alluding the grip of my OB.
He became a c-section baby when he decided to take a pike dive -- head and foot first -- into the world.
Their experiences in utero were entirely different.
Why wouldn't that change them?
What does that mean for identical siblings? For parents of identical siblings?
It's hard to say.
The research team believes it might help track and treat diseases earlier in life. I'm not so sure about that. I can't imagine pediatricians will suddenly start testing the cord blood of all newborns for changes in chemical markers. It's not practical.
Their team leader also noted that it might help parents understand that certain elements of fetal development are out of the parents' control. That could be comforting for some. Disconcerting for others.

For me, personally, it's a scientific answer to questions I get all the time: how can Matthew and Jonathan have physical difference and still be considered identical? It's a scientific answer for all those parents who ask on online forums how their twins might possibly be identical when their birth weights are so drastically different or they are different heights.
It's a scientific answer to support what should be common sense.
No two people will ever be precisely alike.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Preschoolers no more!

Jonathan and Matthew are on their way to kindergarten!
They were ecstatic as they graduated preschool this week and last -- first from their private school and then from the public school. My camera battery died minutes into the first graduation, so this photo bomb is limited to the second graduation.

Matthew is on the left and Jonathan is on the right. Both were so excited that they insisted on leaving for the school right after these photos, half an hour early. Though the differences in their haircuts are slight, Jonathan's longer style seems to bring out the fullness in his face more. They were the tallest in both of their preschools at 4-foot-2.

Jonathan won the award for best at puzzles. He told his teachers he wants to be a pizza guy when he grows up.

Matthew wants to drive trains when he grows up, according to his teachers. He won the award for best at computers.

The public preschool, which is run by the local Head Start program, does detailed evaluations of the children a few times a year for academic, social, emotional and physical development (motor skills). Jonathan and Matthew scored identically on each evaluation with the exception of an occasional missed letter sound or number. By the final evaluation, their reports were entirely identical.

In each of the preschools, Matthew and Jonathan had their own best friends. Those friendships were harder to forge in the public preschool, which they attended only two days a week as non-district residents. The other children all attended five days a week and had strong bonds, forcing Jonathan and Matthew together more often. (There were many more part-timers in their private preschool.) By the end of the school year, the teachers told us they were separating more regularly and developing healthy friendships. 

Just before this picture, we learned the identity of their kindergarten teacher and spent some time nosing around his classroom. The twins quizzed him endlessly and he held up well under their fire. We could not have gone wrong with either teacher, but seeing that classroom and knowing he will be their teacher seemed to make it all the more real to them.

They are preschoolers no more!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Ugh! Time for scowling lessons?

I got a rare glimpse yesterday into the minds of Matthew and Jonathan and how they experience the world as identical twins.
We were sitting in the minivan after a school field trip, waiting for their older brother and sister to emerge from the building.
A friend passed by with her twin boys, who are two years younger than our guys.
I opened the sliding van door so Matthew and Jonathan could see the other twins and say, "Hello."
My friend's twins both have the same hue of bright blond hair, the same fair skin and are about the same height.
But one of her boys has curls and an outgoing, social personality.
The other has straighter hair and is more clingy, more cautious in his approach.
Though they are obviously brothers, I've never had trouble telling them apart.
They are clearly fraternal.
After the other twins left, a conversation ensued in the back seat.
Jonathan: "I can't tell them apart. That's why I don't use their names."
Matthew: "Yes, they look the same to me."
Jonathan: "At least they weren't dressed the same. That helps."
Matthew: "I think one has a fuller face. I still can't tell them apart though."
I was stunned.
I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.
How many times had they heard this?
How many people have examined Jonathan and Matthew and spoken of them -- right in front of them -- as if they were simply objects, highly insensitive with their games of " What makes these pictures different?" This back-seat conversation was clearly not about the twin friends we'd just seen.
Matthew and Jonathan were emulating adult conversations, conversations they'd overheard.
This happened frequently when they were babies and toddlers.
I didn't worry then because I figured Matthew and Jonathan couldn't comprehend it anyway. They were immersed in their own, egocentric worlds. But as they got older, I started to hush people when the comparisons began.
Then, when they got a lot older, I started to scowl.
Soon it seemed that people had gotten smarter.
They still compared the boys. That's only natural.
Heck, I do it too.
But they compared them out of earshot.
I guess the reactions to my scowls misled me.
I'd thought things had gotten better recently, that the overt and callus comparisons had become less frequent, especially since Matthew and Jonathan rarely even wear the same shirts, have tried to achieve different haircuts, have developed such different personalities, and have different amounts of fullness in their faces making their expressions unique.
I guess I was wrong.
Jonathan and Matthew are out of my hands more often nowadays.
They are in preschool four days a week, where they interact not only with teachers, but with parents of other children. Teachers tend to be sensitive, but that doesn't ensure that other adults they encounter will be.
I've taught Jonathan and Matthew to be upfront when people are unsure who is who and tell them their names. Right now, they aren't bothered by that. I've tried to help them understand that it's not an insult. People just need help sometimes because they look so much alike on the outside.
I guess we need another lesson though.
I guess I need to teach them how to scowl.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Separate bedrooms: addressing the issue by design

Right now, our boys enjoy sharing a bedroom.
They face each other as they fall asleep.
They often decline to snuggle in our bed when they awaken at night because neither wants to leave the other alone in his room.
They look for each other and, usually, awaken each other as soon as the sun rises.
But we know that will end someday.
We know it should end someday.
So this left us with a dilemma as we approached the architect who will design our next house, our final house, we hope. A timber frame hybrid on a hill surrounded by fields and woods. A place to write in peace. A pantry. A mud room. A place that ... okay, I'm getting off track.
I'm just a little excited.
At five years old, Matthew and Jonathan will still bunk together when we eventually move in, but they will probably want to separate before the older kids move out. In talking both virtually and in person with identical twin boys and parents of identical twin boys, I have found the average age for bedroom separation requests is junior high -- seventh or eighth grade.
Since we are starting from scratch with this house, we have the opportunity to address the issue in our design.
We pondered moving one twin into the basement, but not for long.
I don't like the idea.
I find peace in knowing all my kids are together on one floor.
I also worry that Jonathan and Matthew will waiver in their insistence at separating, wanting their own rooms one minute and whining for togetherness the next. I have visions of furniture making multiple trips up and down stairs and across hallways and back, and kids sneaking up and down stairs in the middle of the night.
No, that wouldn't work.
So we thought and thought and thought.
Then we thought some more.
Finally, we came up with a solution: two separate bedrooms of equal size with wide, pocket doors between them. The architect sent the preliminary sketches this weekend and we showed them to the twins. They were thrilled.
When we first move in, Jonathan and Matthew will sleep in one room. Their dressers and some of their toys will be in the other room and the doors will remain open.
The doors can stay open when they move into their own rooms, allowing them to check on each other or holler to each other when or if they are nervous.
Matthew and Jonathan can take the initiative to shut them when they are ready.
Our hope is that they will easily and naturally work their way apart when the time is right.
And, yes, we realize it will not always be smooth-going.
We'll have plenty of ice packs available for the fingers, toes and limbs that will likely fall victim to those pocket doors as identical adolescent hormones rage. But the twins are five now and I choose not to think about that.
Instead, I'm thinking about hardwood floor, trusses, great rooms and coffee at sunrise on a wrap-around porch. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

And so it begins ...

Matthew and Jonathan rarely dress alike, but their Angry Birds shirts are new (a gift from their big sister) and they are obsessed, so each insisted on wearing his this morning.
 As Matthew was dressing, his face suddenly burst into a grin.
"Let's wear the same pants, too, so we can trick the teachers," he said with a giggle. "I'll say I'm Jon and he'll say he's Matt!"
I refused, of course, but the idea lived on.
Matthew dreamed up all kinds of scenarios that involved fooling people with their similarities. Jonathan was less intrigued, but willing to go along with his brother's plans.
Thankfully, they forgot about the whole thing when they arrived at school to find another child in an Angry Birds shirt.
Angry Bird talk dominated instead.
They cannot fool me and I honestly doubt they look enough alike to pull it off with the teachers who know them best, but the seed is germinating despite our efforts to make conditions unfavorable.
And who can blame them?
While the parent in me growls at the thought, the kid in me is a bit envious.
Life can be tough as an identical twin, so I understand why they might want to have a little fun with it once in a while, especially since this is something only identical twins can do.
But it would be unfair to their teachers and their friends, and it would be awfully hard for them to demand treatment as individuals if they acted like a unit even just for a day.
So the foot is down.
The fun is quashed.
For now.
At least until they are old enough and clever enough to defy me.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Different by a hair?

Matthew and Jonathan, especially Matthew, decided they wanted different haircuts.
They are tired of people confusing them and they hope their new haircuts will help.
The barbers tried.
The really tried.
What do you think?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Finally we have proof! Doctors often misinform parents about zygosity

Throughout my pregnancy, my OB and the ultrasound technician told us our boys were absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it fraternal. Yes, my doctor said, identicals can have separate placentas and sacs, but mine implanted too far apart to be identical.
Their placentas were on polar opposite sides of the uterus.
Identical twins implant more closely, he said.
He was wrong.
And he has company.
In a new study from University College London, researchers found that doctors wrongly told parents their identical twins were fraternal in 27.5 percent of the cases. Like my guys, those twins had their own sacs and placentas.
The study also found that 2 percent of parents were wrongly told their fraternal twins were identical because doctors did not realize their separate placentas had fused into one. Overall, 15 percent of twin parents were misinformed about zygosity.
I have long suspected the statistics involving identical twins are skewed.
This proves it.
So many parents find out long after birth that their twins are identical through DNA testing. That information is never reported to any statistic-gathering source. If this study hold true in the US, then statistics showing the odds of having identical twins is about 3 in 1,000 are way off.
It has become a game on online twin forums: Guess whether the twins are identical while the parents await results of DNA testing. In most every case where parents of di/di had trouble telling their twins apart, the results showed they were, indeed, monozygotic, or identical.
I have come across just as many parents of look-alike twins in real life and virtually who decline testing despite their gut feelings. Either they can't afford the $100 to $200 fee or they see slight differences between their twins and accept those as evidence their twins are fraternal.
We could have done that do that with our guys.
Matthew has a slighter build and a thinner face. Jonathan is much more muscular and has a rounded face -- a little more body fat in his cheeks. But that scenario is true of most identicals. One usually has a slightly different facial shape than the other.
In some of those cases, parents brushed off their identical suspicions because their hospitals "tested" the placentas and the results showed they were dizygotic, or fraternal.
Our own doctor fell for that until I pressed him for more information and he checked with the hospital.
It turns out hospitals check only whether placentas are fused. The hospital techs either definitively declare the zygosity according to the results or the pass the results on to doctors or midwives who were told in medical school that two placentas equals fraternal.
The doctors or midwives then pass that misinformation on to parents.
Remember this: hospitals DO NOT do DNA testing.
In the defense of OBs, midwives and ultrasound technician, zygosity is irrelevant in caring for pregnant women. What matters is only whether there is one placenta or two, and one sac or two. So they really don't need to know for medical purposes.
That doesn't, however, excuse the giving of misinformation.
In our case, a fellow soccer mom who was a neonatologist educated me.
She told me that identical twins implant separately when the split occurs immediately after conception -- within the first few days. Matthew and Jonathan probably became two far up in the fallopian tube, she said, allowing them to fall and implant independently, just like fraternal twins.
At the very least, our OB should have told us he didn't know.
He should have known that he didn't know.
All doctors, midwives and ultrasound technicians should know that they can't be certain with same-gender twins until after the babies are born. Though the information is medically irrelevant during pregnancy, there is no excuse for being misinformed about something so relevant to the field in general or for passing that information on to parents.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Identical twin loses brother to war

I cannot even begin to imagine losing any of my children (nor have I any desire to do so), and I have no recollection of a sibling I lost at too-early an age.
But even farther beyond my comprehension is the loss of an identical twin.
My heart aches for Osmany De Oca, whose identical twin brother, Lance Cpl. Osbrany Montes, was killed in Afghanistan Friday while serving his country as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, according to the Bergen County Record.
Osbrany Montes was 20.
Yes, the twins and their older brother,  Sandro Moreta, knew they were risking their lives when they enlisted, but who honestly considers that reality when they sign up?
I have read about identical twins and loss and the permanent void it leaves within them. I have talked about such loss with a friend who lost one of her identical twin brothers at a young age, and the effect his death has had on her surviving brother.
I hope that is all I ever know of it.
I hope my children never know any of it.
My deepest condolences go out to the De Oca family along with my deepest gratitude for the service and sacrifices of their sons.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sick and sicker: immunity differences in identical twins

Jonathan and Matthew developed colds a while back.
Jonathan is on the mend now, racing the dog from the dining room through the kitchen, eating like a teenager and jumping from the sofa to the floor over and over and over again, ignoring my demands that he stop.
He's driving me crazy.
Matthew is curled up on another sofa, covered with a blanket and watching TV through half-opened eyes. It breaks my heart to watch him hold his ribs when hacking coughs overtake his body. I can't wait for the antibiotics to do their stuff.
He has walking pneumonia.
This medical inequity is nothing new.
A few weeks ago, Jonathan developed a fever that lasted for two days. Matthew caught the same virus, but his fever continued for seven days. A stomach bug that left Jonathan slightly dehydrated for a day as a baby left Matthew with bleeding ulcers and a month's prescription of Zantac.
When Jonathan develops an ear infection, Matthew often gets it in both.
My immediate reaction was to surmise that somehow, when the egg split, Matthew lost an immunity gene to Jonathan. It made sense. Matthew's always been sicker and he was born lighter, slighter, a bit more frail than his brother.
But I came to a different conclusion after doing a little research.
Recent studies are finding that epigenetics -- or the way in which genes express themselves in different environments -- is likely responsible for many differences that develop in identical twins, particularly when it comes to immunity.
Sometime after conception, either in the womb or outside it, one of the twins was likely exposed to a virus or bacteria that missed the other. In fighting off the intruder, he either gained any army (Jonathan), strengthening his physical fortress, or lost one (Matthew), weakening his defenses.
Their identical genes learned to express themselves in different ways when confronted by bacterial infections or viruses, resulting in permanently different immune systems.
Amanda Carpenter, a virology student, writes about an excellent example here. Identical twins born in 1983 were exposed to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Fifteen years later, one was relatively healthy and strong while the other was sickly and ill.
After studying blood samples from the pair, researchers concluded that environment, which led to a depressed immunity system in one twin, was likely to blame for their different reactions. Their shared DNA did not ensure a shared prognosis.
My hope for Matthew is that someday this will turn itself around -- that someday he'll be exposed to something that makes him stronger instead or weaker -- and that Jonathan's immunity will remain unchanged.
Who knows?
Maybe this is the one.
Maybe all that hacking and coughing that kept me up last night, worried that he will choke or stop breathing, is the just influence his genes needs.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

One birthday cake or two? An unnecessary stress

I have some advice for parents who fret over whether their twins should have one birthday cake or two, one birthday song or two, one birthday theme or two.
Forget it.
Who cares?
They don't.
Not at one and two years old.
Don't be embarrassed.
We've all been there, thinking that the wrong decision, the wrong move will forever scar our little babies and toddlers, particularly since they already share looks and DNA. How will they ever become individuals if we make them celebrate their shared birthdays as units?
As Matthew and Jonathan approach their fifth birthday, I can assure you that when it matters, they will tell you. They will tell you over and over and over again until you instinctively cringe whenever the topic comes up and make elaborate attempts at distraction.
For us, it started with cakes at three years old.
Matthew made it clear to me that his cake should have yellow frosting. Jonathan wanted blue.
They also wanted their own versions of the birthday song. They stressed these points with anyone who would listen for weeks prior to their birthday.
That was it.
We complied and they were happy.
Their fourth birthday was a yearlong obsession.
They understood, for the first time, what a birthday meant, and the excitement overwhelmed them.
Over the preceeding months, we made cakes for Dino Dan, for Dora, and for the dog. We celebrated on picnic blankets on the living floor, with paper plates on the dining room table and at Friendly's with the Birthday Bash dessert.
It seemed birthdays were all they thought about.
They started planning a full year in advance. Jonathan requested a chocolate cake with blue frosting and Matthew asked for a banana cake with yellow frosting. They wanted separate birthday songs once again and they knew exactly who they wanted to invite.
No more family-only parties.
They wanted the real thing.
Lots of friends.
We complied and they weree happy.
This year, the plans are even more elaborate.
They attend two different preschools together (two days at one and two days at the other). I had planned to bring treats only to the school they attend on their actual birthday. Not fair, they said, not fair to their other friends.
Fine, I said. They won.
So I decided to bring only one treat to each class, certain that the teachers would appreciate limitations on sugar consumption. Not fair, they argued once again. Jonathan and Matthew are two different people, each with his own birthday. They should each be able to bring a treat.
How could I possibly argue with that?
I agreed, but only for the one classroom.
In the other class, we will bring drinks and a treat.
Their party requests are the same -- specific colors and flavors for cakes, separate songs and lots of friends. Thank goodness the community center is cheap. But they added one more thing this year -- pinatas. Not one, but two.
The argument was the same: two birthdays, two pinatas.
I had dug my own hole by caving to this premise before.
Two pinatas it is.
We will comply and they will be happy.
I can't even imagine what their sixth birthday will be like, but I'm already starting to work on it, planning my arguments for less separation, less individualism,  more focus on the fact that their shared birthday is part of what makes their relationship so special.
Yes, it's a selfish argument, but we have to draw the line somewhere before they drive us into financial ruin. We will not entirely comply, but they will be happy.
So my advice is to relax.
Children who can't barely form sentences have little or no concept of what a birthday is so much for whether a joint celebration defines them as a unit. Their birthdays will present enough opportunities for stress in the years to come.
Relax and enjoy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Someone Else's Twin: a review

I picked up Nancy L. Segal’s new book Someone Else’s Twin, in part, because a Wall Street Journal reviewer described it as an “engaging narrative.”
That, it is not.
The book is a case study, clearly academic in its structure, voice and format.
But it’s a fascinating and worthwhile read, regardless.
Someone Else's Twin tells the true story behind a lawsuit filed by identical twins and a singleton who were mixed up at birth in a Canary Islands hospital. The mistake was discovered somewhat by accident 28 years later when a store clerk who had met both twins and had noted their striking similarities insisted they get together.
The meeting threw two families into permanent turmoil.
One twin had been raised as a fraternal twin with the singleton. The other twin was raised as a singleton by a family that was not related to her. All three women struggled with their new relationships and identities and the results were heartbreaking.
It is a situation I can, thankfully, only imagine.
In reading Segal’s book, I had hope to learn more about nature-verses-nurture – about likes, dislikes, mannerisms, social preferences, habits and more that these reared-apart twins share despite their separate upbringings. I wanted to read about their differences, too. I had hope to learn more about my own twins and the influences we have, as parents, on their identities verses the natural influences of shared DNA.
I did come away with some of that.
The identical twins, for instance, developed an immediate report upon their meeting.
“Delia and BegoƱa accomplished in seconds what many sisters never achieve after a lifetime together – a mutually deep understanding of how the other thinks and feels,” Segal writes.
They found they had several remarkable mannerisms and gestures in common, like the way they ate and their physical reactions to anxiety. They both had an urge to clean and made careers of it while sometimes aspiring to more intellectual pursuits.
Yet one identical twin developed leukemia as a teen, while her separately raised twin did not, and their IQ scores differed more than Segal had expected. Interestingly, the women who were mistakenly raised as fraternal twins had closer IQ scores, a finding that seemed to surprise Segal.
But, when I finished this book, my interests in nature-verses-nurture felt selfish compared to what Segal’s truly explores.
As a result of the mix up, the Canary Island courts were faced with a daunting task, one which Segal was asked to help resolve. The courts had to place a price tag on the losses these women suffered and the pain they continue to live with as a result of their separation so many years ago. They had to decided how to make reparations and whether reparations could really be made at all.
In Someone Else‘s Twin, Segal touches on issues of nature-verses-nature, but she explores more deeply the very nature of family relations and their biological bonds. She dives into controversial questions about how we form a sense of self and how mothers identify and bond with their children. She explores the psychological bonds between non-biologically related siblings and the potential for harm when that lack of biological relationship is unknown.
Segal gives new evidence in the argument for openness with children who become one with families due to adoption, egg donation and sperm donation – all important observations in this world of high-tech fertility solutions we live in today. These children need to know who they are, where they came from or, at the very least, that they do not share their parents’ DNA.
With that knowledge, children have a chance to adjust to and appreciate differences in appearance, attitude, social preferences and behaviors. Without it – as in the case of the identical twin raised as singleton in an unrelated family – they can become lost – unsure as to why they are somewhat different, why they don’t fit in. Always struggling.
Though not the fastest read, Someone Else’s Twin is indeed fascinating and well worth reading. It is not what I had hoped. It is much more.