There are days that you start in the morning, thinking they will be like any other day, driving in the car with your 7-year-old twins, and then your daughter asks you “Mummy, are you Father Christmas?” Bam, a seminal part of their childhood is over. What can I do? I have to answer honestly, even though every part of me wants to say “Of course not!” Seven seems so young – I just want to cry. I had recognised the death knell last month when she asked about the Tooth Fairy. The problem is, Joy isn’t really ready to hear the truth. It’s her brother who is, and it’s him that was telling her that these things didn’t exist, which propelled her to ask me outright.
Ernest has questioned his belief in magic for some time now. He already asked me last year whether Father Christmas was real, and at age six, I really felt he was too young to know the truth and I did what any sensitive, intuitive, thoughtful mother would do: I lied. However, it was really just the beginning of his questioning phase, and as the year progressed he often would say “I don’t believe in magic” and “I don’t believe in fairies” much to Joy’s consternation. Although I feel that age seven is still a bit young for my liking, I realise that this is a natural stage his development. Even as I mourn the passing of this particularly sweet and magical part of his childhood, I recognise that he is developing very strong reasoning skills, and is certainly far cleverer than I was (I believed for far longer than was reasonable…) If he were a singleton, that is probably where the story would end, with a stern reminder not to give away the secret to any younger siblings. But he is not a singleton, he has a twin, with whom he shares everything, including his disbelief.
One of the perpetual challenges of raising twins is the fact that although you have two children of the same age, they will develop at different rates. Ernest is ready to stop believing in magic, and is not particularly affected by knowing the truth. Joy, however, is very definitely still in the magical childhood phase where the line between imagination and reality is not just very thin, but at times disappears entirely. She will frequently claim that she has seen magical creatures, that her stuffed animals moved by themselves, and that she used her “magic.” When I answered her questions about the Tooth Fairy, she said “but how come I saw her carry the tooth off with her friends?” She isn’t lying; she genuinely believes it, because right now her reasoning skills haven’t quite developed to the level of her brother’s. This is why I felt it so particularly keenly when she asked me the questions about the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas – she was expecting me to support her understanding, and tell her that they do exist, in the same way as she comes to me to arbitrate other disagreements she has with her brother.
So what happens when one twin is ready for the truth, and the other isn’t? Well, I can’t speak for other twin parents, but the result blindsided me: complete denial. To begin with, she went through the disappointment of learning the truth, and even said that she had had her doubts, as “If Father Christmas loves children so much, he wouldn’t wait until they were asleep to come. He’d want to talk to them.” (Her reasoning certainly works sometimes!) She questioned me very carefully about the different presents she had received, and where I had got them from, in the same way as she had asked to see the teeth I had collected in my role as Tooth Fairy. Each question I answered felt like another little piece of her childhood was being chipped away.
But a couple of days later, the denial kicked in, in the same way it had with the Tooth Fairy. When I had shown her her baby teeth, she had thought for a while, and then announced “I know, you help the Tooth Fairy. You collect the teeth, but she leaves the coin.” Her desire to believe was so strong, it eclipsed any logic. Something very similar has happened with Father Christmas. For Christmas we had bought her a very grown-up looking alarm clock in the shape of a pocket watch. She was sure that Father Christmas had made it himself, because she had never seen any clock like it. So she managed to work and squeeze the reality I was showing her into a shape that fitted her image of the world. It went something like this:
“I know Father Christmas gave me this clock because it doesn’t exist in any shop. So that means that Mummy is lying about Father Christmas not existing to keep Ernest happy, because she knows that he doesn’t believe in magic.”
Voilà! She can now stop being disappointed, because clearly the deception was about him not existing, not the other way around! I must say I was astounded, and to begin with a little concerned, at her ability to twist reality and evidence to suit her own vision. But right now her understanding of the world is simply not evidence-driven. Young children are able to hold opposing pieces of information and believe in both simultaneously until they get a firmer grasp on logic. The very part I was so disappointed to have taken away from her childhood, that is the belief in magic and a tenuous hold on reality, was the very thing that was actually protecting her from the truth. Ernest can’t make her stop believing, because she is just not ready yet.
I don’t know for certain if deep down she knows Father Christmas doesn’t exist, but doesn’t want to believe it, or if she simply does not give much weight to logic and evidence when drawing conclusions. She is on a fascinating cusp between asking for proof, then denying its admissibility. I know eventually she will learn to sort through the conflicting pieces of information in her head when she is ready. But for now I’m not going to push the point. All I know is that I have two happy twins – one that is satisfied to have worked out the truth, and the other who makes houses for fairies in the garden. And I am going to enjoy it while it lasts.