13 Ways of Looking at Boy/Girl Twins

Monday, July 17, 2017

13 Ways of Looking at Boy/Girl Twins

By Deborah Siegel, Ph.D.



“There’s the penis,” says the technician as she adjusts the dial on her screen. And then, a bit unnecessarily: “This one’s a boy.”

From your back, you squint at the sonogram screen as the other alien glob of bones takes one last flip as an “it.” More turning of dials and quick clicks on the computer, a wand pressed firmly on your middle.

“Now, see those three lines? That one’s a girl.”


You are a feminist scholar. It follows that your mind increasingly turns to the cultural salience of boy/girl twinship. You do not read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Instead, you think about: What do people expect, with—and of— twins? You read all you can find on this, and you explore your family lore.

Your grandmother was expecting boys. She didn’t even know she was carrying twins until the doctor suspected a second heartbeat in the seventh month and ordered an X-ray. An X-ray! This was 1941, the year Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Did I mention your grandmother’s name was Pearl, and that she was an Orthodox Jew? In the absence of scientific knowledge, Pearl had a patriarchal faith. So confident were both your grandparents that they’d have boys, they didn’t bother picking out girls’ names. Their twins would be: David and Jonathan. So when David and Jonathan arrived with vaginas, your grandparents hurriedly named them after the two attending Catholic nuns in the maternity ward: Sister Rita and Sister Renee. An act of irony sure to make even a stern Old Testament God crack a smile.


But you? You’re elated to have a boy and a girl. “One of each,” everyone says to you. As if there were only two choices.


One night, you dream they’re kittens. In the animal kingdom, they’d be a litter. If lions, a pride. When people ask you “what” you’re having, you suppress the wish to answer, “I’m having cats.”


Your husband, who is visually oriented, describes you as “an asymmetrical landscape.” One night, when you’re lying on your side, he looks at you, cocks his head, and says, “You know, he looks like a mountain and she looks like a rolling hill.” And those become their nicknames. Mountain. Hill.

In the mid-1980s, a sociologist asked 120 pregnant women to describe the movements of their fetuses. This was shortly after amniocentesis first allowed pregnant women to find out fetal sex. Women who knew they were having girls described movements as “very gentle, slow, more rolling than kicking.” Women who knew they were carrying boys described somersaults…vigorous movements,” “kicks and punches,” “a constant jabbing under my ribcage.” Women who didn’t find out the sex of their fetus displayed no such stereotypical patterns in their language or descriptions.

As your own pregnancy progresses, it’s hard to tell which jabs and rolls belong to whom. But during the final few months, your fetuses are big and stop flipping around. The ultrasound technician now shows you that the boy’s head is making your belly jut out in front. That’s the Mountain. The girl’s bottom is poking out your right side. She’s the Hill.


According to the religion of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, twins are believed to be magical. They’re granted protection by the Orisha Shango.

To the Dogon of Mali in West Africa, boy/girl twinship represents completeness, perfection—symbolized by the deity Nummo. To wit: “Nummo is actually a set of twins, male and female, and because the creation of the world required a sacrifice, humans can only be one half of that whole, male or female.”[1]

In some cultures, twins are ominous. In others, auspicious. In mythology, twins are often cast as two halves of a whole. Biblically, they’re either bonded more deeply than ordinary siblings or fierce rivals. A twin can represent an “other” part of Self—a shadow, a doppelgänger. Sometimes one twin is “the evil twin.” Sometimes one twin is human, and the other semi-divine.

A few popular pairings: Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch of The Avengers—they’re spooky. Cersei and Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones—they’re incestuous. Luke and Leia are only mildly incestuous in Episode 4. For the rest, they’re simply connected by some mysterious Force.


The ultrasound technicians call them Baby A and Baby B. Baby A is the one closest to the cervix, the door. Baby A will be born first.

The Yoruba people consider the second born to be the elder twin. This twin, known as Kehinde, dispatches the younger Taiwo to judge if the world is fit and beautiful. Only after receiving this message back does Kehinde deign to descend.

 You like this idea of one twin being a sentinel for the other. Then again, you were an only child, with no one to go out first and test the weather.

 In your case, Kehinde is the boy. The boy will be born first.


Some speculate that boy/girl twins have an effect on each other in utero, and that female fetuses with twin brothers may have more “masculine” traits than others would. The twin-testosterone-transfer hypothesis goes something like this: Between weeks 8 and 24 of pregnancy, a male fetus is exposed to testosterone. A female fetus isn’t. The male fetus’s testosterone exposure is thought to lead to early “masculinization” of the brain; increased aggression, for instance, has been attributed to relatively high prenatal testosterone exposure. Female fetuses with a twin brother are exposed to higher levels of prenatal testosterone than fetuses with a twin sister. So according to this scheme, twins apparently exchange hormones inside the uterus through the maternal bloodstream, or through the amniotic membrane. This hormonal transfer has been established in animals. But due to ethical considerations that prevent further testing on humans, it’s still unclear whether this happens in human beings.[2]

There is much we really don’t know.


We do, however, know some things about nurture.

 Here’s one that stands out: Even when there’s no discernible difference in boy and girl babies’ behaviors or abilities, parents treat them differently. One study found that mothers talked to their girl babies more. Boy babies were no less responsive to their mother’s speech, no more likely to leave their mother’s side. The researchers suggest that these mothers’ behaviors might help girls learn the “higher level of social interaction expected of them, and boys the greater independence.” 

 Also known: When an unfamiliar six-month-old baby was labeled a girl rather than a boy, mothers were more sensitive to changes in that baby’s expressions of happiness. According to the study, this suggests that gendered expectations affect mothers’ perception of babies’ emotions.[3]

 You obsess about such findings. You vow not to be one of those mothers. You are determined to parent without regard to gender.


When your boy/girl twins finally arrive, someone gives you an adorable pair of bright red onesies that say: “Thing One” and “Thing Two.” You can’t decide who gets to wear “Thing One,” so you put it on the girl, of course, to even things out. There is history here to overcome. (See: Baby B.)


For the Mojave of North America, a twin signifies a beloved ancestor’s reincarnation. Your Aunt Ruthe thinks your girl looks just like her.

For the Indians of British Columbia, a twin birth signals a year of plentiful hunting and fishing for the entire tribe.

For your people, the Jewish people, a double baby-naming ceremony means four times the food.


A couple you know in Brooklyn says their twins have a secret language. 

 Some go further and say their twins are telepathic, or that the one feels the other’s pain in ways nontwins can’t understand. In the Yoruban tradition, when a twin dies, the parents commission a babalawo to carve a wooden Ibeji statue to represent the one who’s gone. The surviving twin cares for the statue and carries it around, forever connected.

 If your twins have a secret language, you haven’t detected it. But then, you suppose that’s the point.


Here are some things you observe:

 Your boy and girl are connected. They sleep head to toe in a single bassinette for months, until you separate them into their own cribs. One night when they’re young toddlers, separated, you catch the boy jumping into the girl’s crib. You think: he really must miss the womb.

 Your boy and girl follow some scripts. As they become toddlers, your girl appears more social, your boy more inwardly focused. More “independent.” Later, he creates an alter ego, named Shadow. Shadow is the evil twin, the one who gets blamed by them both when one of them misbehaves.

 Your boy and girl each take a liking for sets of favorite stuffed animals. Their transitional objects come in pairs. The girl favors Piggy and Bunny, cross-species twins (they’re sisters; fraternal). They have tea parties. The boy has twin cats Tula and Dusty (brothers). Dusty is a gray replica of Tula, who is black, hence the name Dusty. They are copies.

Sometimes, when the twins play, the boy pretends he is a newborn kitten—your pregnancy dream fulfilled. The girl plays cat mom.

The girl grows protective of the boy. The boy grows protective of the girl.

They tell each other everything. When you’re one-half of a whole, it seems, nothing is real until you share it with your twin.

The boy and girl are copies, and they are not copies. 

They are the same, but different.

Magical, and achingly human.

They are twins.


[3] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 198–99.

Monday, July 17, 2017