My daughters have taught me many things, about myself and perspective and life and love and parenting. One of the Great Truths they have taught me is that we all enter the world with many of the basics of our personalities already formed.
A coworker once said to me, “Most people think that babies are tabula rasa, that there’s nothing there until people imprint them. That’s just bunk.”
I used to take a hard stand on the tabula rasa issue, and believed firmly that most personality differences between people were a matter of nurture, not nature.
There’s part of me that had to believe that. My sister is adopted, and we grew up in a country where not only is adoption not part of the culture, national law doesn’t even allow for adoption. I was constantly defending my sister’s right to be in our family, and her right to be treated as I was. I had to believe that the nurture she received from me, our parents, and our grandmother would overcome all the low expectations our culture at large had for her based on her biological parentage.
In the first weeks of our daughters’ lives, I spent hours mulling how to even out the differences in their experiences so that they would both have all the advantages we could give them. Newborn M almost always wanted to be held, but J would squirm to be put down after a limited period in our arms. I thought that this was a direct result of M having received more kangaroo care in the NICU. Jessica didn’t get try to breastfeed in her first 3 weeks because she had a harder time nipple-feeding than her sister and the nurses told us that she needed to conserve her energy. I was convinced that J was going to be permanently scarred by spending time in the hospital without any of her family there in the days after M came home.
As it turns out, J is now generally much more cuddly than M. When we read together, J likes to sit in my lap, while M would rather sit next to me. One of J’s signature statements is, “Snuggles are a need, like food and shelter and water and reading.” J loves to have me lie down with her in her bed while M finishes her bedtime routine, getting her thoughts out without her sister speaking over her or for her. M’s don’t stop flowing when she’s awake, while J would rather communicate with a touch, a gesture, or a look. I no longer believe that any of these traits have to be with the first hours of the girls’ lives outside the womb.
M and J have essentially the same DNA, but they are different people, cut from different cloth. M’s verbal communication style and J’s tactile one are the most noticeable differences in their personalities. They are equally stubborn, but in completely different ways. They have a lot in common, but they are very different children in ways that would take a lifetime to explain.
Yes, there are small ways in which their life experiences have differed, but most of their experiences have been the same. They have always been in the same home and school. They have the same friends. They must live with the same set of rules and expectations, and yet they are so very different, with different attitudes, perspectives, moods, strengths and weaknesses.
There are some ways in which they have actively worked to differentiate themselves, certainly. Who my children are is a combination of their choices, their experiences and their inherent natures. I just can’t see how the small differences in their experiences and DNA could add up to the completely different people that they are.
Having identical twins has taught me that raising our children is not about shaping their experiences to turn them into who we expect them to be. It is about nurturing who they already are. I cannot, nor should I want to, shape or change who M and J are. Who they are has nothing to do with my parenting, or their father’s. Our job is to guide our children to make the most of their strengths, to work through their weaknesses, and learn the tools and skills that will make them successful in their lives, all the while embracing the quirks that were there when they were born, and others that will manifest over time.
My sister’s quirks are her own, whether she learned them from our parents, inherited them from her biological parents, or came upon them by happenstance. I still love her, even the parts of her personality that drive me nuts. I will always love M’s and J’s uniqueness too. While I have the honour of guiding them in their childhood, they will be their own people, on their own paths.
In what ways do your children manifest the personality traits you witnessed in utero or shortly after birth? How do you nurture their natures?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school, which is where this post was originally published. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.