Róisín Ingle: Life’s too short not to be a weirdo

As my identical-twin girls turn 12 I try my first ever twinsperiment

Twin studies have historically been some of the most valuable research tools in the world, helping to explain human behavioural, medical and physical traits. Photograph: iStock

Twin studies have historically been some of the most valuable research tools in the world, helping to explain human behavioural, medical and physical traits. Photograph: iStock

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There’s a big birthday in our house today. Our identical twin daughters are turning 12. Every parenting book we read (several) and every piece of unsolicited advice we got (hundreds) said the same thing about their childhood: it will go in a flash.

Obviously I didn’t believe them. But my daughters were born in the Holles Street hospital on April 21st, 2009, and somehow all the other days and weeks and months happened and they learned how to walk and speak and sing and we lost them briefly a couple of times (in a park, at a train station) and they learned to make slime and TikToks and now we are here celebrating the big one-two.

It’s not that they’re leaving home quite yet, but as we approach the teenage years, it feels like an ending of a significant part of their childhood. And, yes, it went by in a flash.

My identical-twin daughters have been shouted at the same amount (shouty and chaotic is my parenting style) and cuddled the same amount, and have eaten the same meals, but they are, in some ways, very different people

Perhaps I should have taken more notice of the fact that for the past 12 years I was living in a sort of science laboratory. Maybe paying more attention might have slowed time down. I’ve never really taken advantage of having identical twins before, not in a scientific sense. Our daughters were part of a twin study early on when they were born, but I let it lapse over the years, forgetting to reply to emails in keeping with my chaotic parenting approach. (Sorry if you are reading this, twin scientific study people. I’m useless. You are brilliant, though. Call me.)

Apparently, twin studies have historically been some of the most valuable research tools in the world, helping to explain human behavioural, medical and physical traits. “All twins are valuable to research,” says Jeffrey Craig of the Centre for Molecular and Medical Research at Deakin University, in Australia. “But identical twins, I think they are the most valuable.”

Is it nature? Is it nurture? I never really stopped to think about it all. My daughters have been shouted at the same amount (shouty and chaotic is my parenting style), cuddled the same amount, they read the same books and ate the same meals and played with the same still expanding collection of wooden dress-up dolls. Yet they are, in some ways, very different people.

It’s never too late to put on a white lab coat. The other day I got a new children’s picture book in the post written by the married literary couple Zadie Smith and Nick Laird and illustrated by Magenta Fox. The book spoke to me because of the title. It’s simply called Weirdo. On the cover there’s a beautiful illustration of a small confused-looking animal, standing under a spotlight, wearing a martial arts suit. I read the children’s book absent-mindedly at my desk. It made me cry. A proper cathartic sob. I wondered if it would make my daughters sob too. So I did my first ever twinsperiment.

I sat on the sofa with J, who was smaller and taken out of me first, when she was born. I asked her to read Weirdo to me out loud. It’s the story of a guinea pig who is given as a surprise birthday present to a girl called Kit. There are already other animals in Kit’s house – a dog, a cat and a bird – and they don’t know what to make of the new arrival. When the surprise tells the other animals she is “quite into judo” they deliberately mishear her and decide she is “a weirdo. If you’re not a cat or a dog or a bird, you’re a weirdo.” The surprise is left alone and tries, in different ways, to make herself more like the others.

Whether by nature or nurture, some people care deeply about fitting in. Some people don’t. In an ideal world,
nobody should

“She sat down and felt sad,” J read but could not continue because suddenly she was in tears and didn’t want to read any more.

“It’s too sad,” she said between proper cathartic sobs. I asked if she could tell me why she was crying. “I know what it’s like to be left out and try to fit in and feel like a weirdo,” she said. “I don’t want to read that book any more.” This weirdo knew how she felt but I convinced her to read on to the part where the surprise meets a woman called Emily Brookstein who wanted to know her name.

“Everyone calls me weirdo,” said the surprise.

“Oh, they call me weirdo, too,” said Emily Brookstein. And then: “Life’s too short not to be a weirdo.”

By the end of the book, because Smith and Laird are clever as well as – according to their author bios – “a bit weird”, the surprise has been given a name, Maud, by Kit and embraced her inner weirdo. J wiped away her tears and went off happy with something important to think about.

As the second part of my twinsperiment, I sat on the sofa and asked P, who is a tiny bit taller and a couple of minutes younger than J, to read the book aloud. She did not cry. She laughed and smiled. At the end I asked what she thought of it. “I know what it’s like to not fit in sometimes and for people to think I’m a weirdo but I don’t care and I like that Maud didn’t care by the end. I mean, who cares?”

My deeply unscientific conclusions won’t win me any prizes. Whether by nature or nurture, some people care deeply about fitting in. Some people don’t. In an ideal world, nobody should.

Smith and Laird said it best: life’s too short not to be a weirdo.

Happy second lockdown birthday to my own 12-year-old weirdos.

Some unsolicited advice: stay weird.

roisin@irishtimes.com