The trauma and heartbreak of the triplet boys in the movie “Three Identical Strangers,” who were separated at six months and adopted into different families, made me reconsider how my husband and I are parenting our identical twin boys, Axel and Aidan. It also caused me to challenge myself: Who am I to decide that my sons should be separated as often as possible?
In the 1960s, when Bobby, David and Eddy from the documentary were born, childhood development theories emphasized the importance of the individual. Multiples were split up in school, and this remains the prevailing mandatory policy in many districts across the United States. Subscribing to this theory of fostering independent identities, my husband and I took the advice of our pediatrician and many twin parenting books and separated our preschoolers for special one-on-one dates with each parent. We thought they’d love the individual attention.
“Why are you punishing us?” they asked instead.
“Is my brother getting ice cream too?” Axel would say. “Because it’s not fair if I get some and he doesn’t.”
The conversations in our parents-of-multiples club revolved around encouraging separate selves, too. Some moms split up their kids for special weekend trips with one parent. Another mom enrolled her girls in opposite kindergarten schedules so that one daughter was always home with her. A dad placed his twin boys on different baseball teams.
My husband and I were self-driven as kids, and this approach resonated with us. It was reinforced when the kindergarten teacher’s first sentence in our conference was “You ARE going to separate them for first grade, right?”
The boys went along with this plan but were inseparable during lunch, recess and PE. In third grade, their classrooms had a movable dividing wall. On the first day of school, Aidan’s teacher found him on the floor, poking his fingers under the tiny gap. She started to discipline him, then realized Axel was on the other side, holding his brother’s hand.
Despite my boys’ resistance, I hustled to arrange play dates where one twin hosted a buddy at our house and his brother took a friend up the road to Grammie’s. Both boys complained this wasn’t nearly as fun as the football game/Nerf war/water balloon fight that could have transpired had they all been together.
When the boys were 8, the 40-something facilities guy at the health club approached us. “I’m an identical twin, too,” he said.
“How cool,” I responded. “Are you still close?”
“Yup,” he said smiling. “We live together.”
Yikes, I thought. Grown, unmarried twins in their 40s living in a depressing bachelor pad! I doubled down on my efforts to split up my sons.
Then, while watching “Three Identical Strangers” in a movie theater with tears running down my face as I listened to Bobby relate how he banged his head against his crib when he was first adopted, I flashed back to my twins’ birth experience.
In 2003, when I was 18 weeks pregnant, the boys were diagnosed with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, where identical twins share a placenta. This condition was most often fatal for one or both babies. Family and friends of all faiths prayed for them, and in my anxiety I talked to them out loud, encouraging them to be partners and work together.
Somehow the boys made it to 37 weeks, then thrived in the same bassinet in the nursery. Now I tried to imagine my babies surviving their birth, only to be separated six months later. It did not surprise me that the triplets in the movie struggled with mental-health issues.
We had purchased two cribs, but the babies wept unless they were sleeping side by side, so one crib was for nighttime and the other stood in the family room for naps.
Like the brothers in the movie, my boys have a bond I can’t explain. They finish each other’s sentences, can choreograph synchronized break-dancing routines without speaking and burst into simultaneous song as if cued by an invisible choir director.
They’re now sophomores in high school, and I’ve persisted in my efforts to individuate them. I’ve encouraged them to explore different sports, get separate jobs and take an interest in girls who aren’t also twins or sisters. They smile and nod as though considering my suggestions and then continue to behave as if physically conjoined.
I dug for more Kleenexes in my purse at the theater when David shared that he spent his 16th birthday in a psych ward. When I try to envision my boys in different lives, not consciously knowing the other exists, I imagine how sad and serious Axel would be. I picture Aidan as moody and self-centered.
I realized I really didn’t understand the dynamic between identical siblings. I remembered a mountain getaway we took when the twins were 4. We put them to sleep in one bed, then moved a boy with each parent in case they woke during the night. In the morning, Aidan stirred next to me.
“Whoa, Axel!” he said in the voice of an excited adventurer, hopeful that maybe he had actually teleported during the night. “Where are we?”
Because he’d assumed Axel was with him, he wasn’t freaked out to wake up in a different place than where he went to sleep. With his brother at his side, what could possibly go wrong?
The triplets from New York lived for 19 years wondering what was missing, and why they felt like they didn’t fit in. The first time they were reunited, they wrestled like puppies on the living room floor. When the credits rolled, I asked myself: who am I to determine that my sons should live separate lives? How should I know if being at different colleges or living in different cities would help them become more successful, more well-adjusted emotionally or better people?
This sure wasn’t the case for Bobby, Eddy and David.
In Vice Magazine, Bobby reflected on their childhood. “You can’t undo this,” he said. “But perhaps if we were together, the rough spots wouldn’t have been as tough.”
Just after seeing the movie, we received the boys’ school schedules. They share band, math and their foreign language classes. This time, I didn’t object.
Ellen Nordberg is a writer and mother based in Louisville, Colo. Find her online at ellennordberg.com.