Photo: Courtesy of Karen Habashi
The day I told my husband we were having twins, he froze and didn’t say a word for a week. We already had a six-year-old daughter, so we both knew how hard it was going to be, with twice the diapers and bottles. We knew it would be a lot to juggle, and it was. I was so sleep-deprived, I pretty much can’t remember the first two years with twins.
But after that, it got to be a lot more fun—in a certain toddler-madness-cereal-all-over-your-floors-24/7 kind of way. If seeing two toddlers giggling together—because they managed to open the cupboard, spill the olive oil, and then practice sliding across the kitchen on it—is your type of fun, then yes, it was fun.
It was also heartwarming: they’d hold hands while in the crib, my son would instantly calm down when his sister was next to him, and they had their own secret twin language. Sometimes, my daughter (always the protector) would be the only one who could understand what her brother was saying, and she’d tell everyone else what he was trying to communicate.
From the beginning, they had many differences, too. My son was always crying, and hardly slept. His twin sister was calm, curious, adventurous and early with all her milestones. At the kiddie playground, my daughter would try to climb the slide, while my son preferred to sit in the stroller. He wouldn’t even try unless I held his hand every step of the way. It was hard to manage both their needs, as I was literally pulled in two directions—running after my daughter, while still being attentive to my son.
As the twins grew up, their many differences became clearer to us. The doctor would always tell me not to compare, but when you have twins, it’s impossible not to. You see them growing together by the minute.
Now seven, my daughter is still very outgoing—she asks for me to play with her, she’s very laid back, and she loves to just sit with me doing nothing. Her twin brother, on the other hand, was always fussy and still has a hard time around new people. They do play together, but they also fight and bicker all day.
Their differences became even more apparent during COVID, when their little worlds changed completely. They had so many emotions, which they of course expressed in their own ways. My daughter, the little social butterfly, felt isolated from the world. She missed her school, and she needed people around her. My son, on the other hand, seemed to prefer virtual school. But I was struggling to understand what each of them needed from me. I could tell both kids were feeling lonely and unchallenged in their own ways, and our days were so repetitive. Like many parents trying to keep their kids safe at home and entertained during a scary, isolating time, while also attempting to work, I tried to fill those unstructured days with toys, or more screens—not the best solutions, in hindsight. There were some days that I felt like giving up, because they each have such separate identities and needs, and I was trying to solve everything for my family, forgetting to take time for myself.
Eventually, I went back to my love languages book, which I became interested in a few years ago when my husband and I were having some issues with our marriage. It's a pop-psychology bestseller by Gary Chapman, and he explains that we all have different love languages, and knowing yours—and that of your partner or child—can improve your relationship. He identifies five categories that most people would fall into: words of affirmation; acts of service; gifts; quality time; and physical touch.
The “gifts” love language describes my son exactly—especially during these past two pandemic years. I thought these toys or crafts would help break the cycle; that this was a “healthy” way for kids to cope while their parents were working and distracted. But eventually, I was starting to see that these attempts at distraction had become a habit for my son—almost an addiction. He expected a stream of toys and to buy something new all the time: a new stuffie or a new LEGO set, and always a gift shop trinket. It started during the first long lockdown, but by the holidays last year, we’d really established a bad pattern. Plus, I felt pressure to make the holidays extra special, since most of the things we used to do were now either virtual or completely cancelled. So I compensated by putting more toys under the Christmas tree.
Was I spoiling him, or was I just speaking his love language? Was I subconsciously trying to make up for my own stress, and my split attention, during a pandemic?
Meanwhile, my daughter grew angrier and sadder. She wasn’t happy. She didn’t care about new toys or materialistic things. She wanted me to spend time with her alone, just us girls, and she wanted me to cuddle more with her. The self-doubt that all parents have snuck in: I worried whether her cravings for more attention meant I wasn’t doing enough for her. Every night I would tell myself, Tomorrow I will leave my phone and just give the kids my full focus, and of course I would fail repeatedly, and end up scrolling aimlessly, trying to escape reality. But it became clear that she wanted one-on-one time with me more than anything. No multi-tasking, just quality time and physical touch, while her twin brother wanted gifts and words of affirmation.
So, we made some changes. I began planning “mommy and daughter” days, just us, that were still doable in a pandemic, like taking her to Starbucks for hot chocolate and coffee. Then we followed the plan she made for us, following an itinerary or to-do list she’d made the night before. Every time we did something together, she happily checked it off her list. Sometimes she just wanted to show me her drawings, or simply do boring errands together. But I quickly saw a huge improvement in her behaviour. She was more relaxed, like her pre-COVID self.
The solution for my son has been a bit trickier. I had to change the way we thought about gift giving, and acquiring so much stuff. For him, I think, it’s not only about new toys, or getting the chocolate bar, or going to the thrift shop and picking out a new book or puzzle. Yes, that makes him happy and feel loved. But he also remembers every single gift anyone has ever given him, and for what occasion, so it must be more than just a material thing for him. It’s the memory, and the love, surrounding the gift.
It’s a cliché, but it’s still true: each kid is different, and the parenting styles they need and demand from us are distinct. And it’s OK to not know what you’re doing some days, because this is HARD.
My love language is acts of service, so that’s what I try to provide to others. I’m their mom, so of course I like to show my kids how much I love them, but I think that’s also why I was trying to fix the chaos that the pandemic caused in my kids’ lives. I was trying to do more, and to give more—even though I was exhausted and burnt out by pandemic parenting, attempting to balance it all.
This year, with many people vaccinated, and a few months of in-person school behind us, Christmas won't be as lonely. Going into the holidays, my kids already seem happier and calmer. It will be more about experiences and making memories with loved ones, and less materialistic. It’s not about the stuff—it’s going to be about the time with family, no distractions.