When twins are the same, yet different

Even identical twins can have their differences.
Even identical twins can have their differences. Photo: Ruth Jenkinson (c) Dorling Kindersley

Technically speaking my girls are clones. Identical twins form when one egg splits shortly after fertilisation, leaving both babies with the same genetic information.

Identical twins don't run in families and can happen to any couple. While fraternal twins are influenced by genetics and you're more likely to have them if your mum or grandma had twins, identical, or monozygotic twins, just happen at random.

When I was pregnant I spent a lot of time pondering how similar my two babies would be. I knew that they would be the same sex of course, but I didn't know their gender.

I wondered if I'd find it hard to tell them apart and if it'd be difficult to bond with them individually as they'd be so alike. I contemplated painting one baby's toenails just to know who is who.

But from the moment they were born they were very much their own little people. Firstly, they looked surprisingly different. My firstborn H, was about 200 grams lighter than her sister N, and her position in the womb had left her with a different head shape.

And while H was born with a shock of dark hair that soon formed into a mohawk, her sister had a lot less hair, and even now, more than four months later, still resembles Phil Collins (especially when beside her punk rock sister). H's face was so much narrower that her tiny premmie features almost made her look like a skinny toddler while her sister had the round, chubby cheeks of a bonny baby.

When they were born, we searched their bodies for birthmarks or moles so that we'd definitely be able to tell them apart further on down the track. After a week or so, we got a bit more than we wanted. A tiny strawberry mark appeared on H's head and we were initially ecstatic to have one sure, never-fading point of difference.

However, the birthmark (also called a haemangioma), now sits like a huge, red volcano on the top of her head and is still growing upwards. While grown-ups are generally too polite to ask, most children we meet point straight to the big red button on her head and say "what's that?".

Luckily most strawberry marks are harmless and vanish by the time children start kindergarten, so it's unlikely that she'll be teased about it. And for now it just helps people to tell our two girls apart.

Now that their faces have filled out, they look so much more alike. But to us they still look very different, each having their own facial expressions. However, if they're both wearing hats and sleeping, even I sometimes have to take a second glance to tell which one is which.

From day one H was much more vocal about everything and tears would start to well up immediately if her demands weren't fulfilled, right now! In contrast, her sister was a bit more laid back. Who knows if it'll stay like that or if N will take over as being the leader. They've both found their voices in the last couple of weeks and love to babble away, with N turning out to be the bigger chatterbox.

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When they grow up I want to make sure that they have distinctive looks so that all the people in their lives will immediately know who is who. Ideally I'd like for people to see them as individuals and not just "one of the twins", but I know this will be difficult to achieve. Hopefully they'll always be a close-knit team, but they are two people and not just two halves of one.

I recently saw this clip from a TV show featuring Australian twins Bridget and Paula Powers who always finish each other's sentences and still sleep in twin beds at 42-years-old.

They seem happy and there's nothing wrong with them being like that, but I want to teach my girls some independence and help them to find an identity that isn't solely defined by having a twin sister. Being seen by others as two individuals rather than one entity will help them achieve this.

Some parents of identical twins assign each child a colour (little Nicholas always wears blue clothes and little Johnny green) so that family, friends and carers always know who they're talking to. Others have their children wear name tags at day care.

I'm thinking of giving them different haircuts, once they've enough hair that is! We're also planning on doing Daddy/Mama days where one of the girls does something cool with K and I go adventuring with the other.

So far they've hardly ever worn the same outfits at the same time (partly on purpose, but mainly because all their clothes are hand-me-downs and secondhand) and I'm really looking forward to when they start developing their own preferences. But who knows, maybe in a couple of years they'll insist on wearing the same clothes.

Bringing up identical twins and watching them grow into two wonderful young women is so exciting. It's on us to foster their interests and help make them feel unique.

We never refer to them as "the twins" but as our two girls who happen to have been born at the same time. Oh, and look pretty damned similar!

- Stuff NZ

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