“I was born in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, 63 years ago. I arrived three months early and I was just one pound at birth. A priest gave me the last rites and I was in an incubator for two months.
’m a triplet but my siblings didn’t survive. My sister passed at three months, and my brother passed at five months, and I was born a month after that. There were three of us in the womb fighting for survival, and I was the only one who survived.
The loss of my womb mates was never really acknowledged when I was growing up, but I always had a sense of them. Between the ages of seven and 10, I coloured something in purple every day. Nobody questioned it but then, 25 years later, I went to counselling and the therapist suggested that I was mourning something, but I didn’t know what it was that I was mourning.
At that time, a relation of my mother had just died and I have a feeling it might have triggered my hidden grief. As I went through life, I always had this feeling of missing something, but I didn’t know what it was. I always knew that I was different to my brothers and sisters — they were very academic and I was not.
I got divorced in 1996 and that was the catalyst for a lot of deeper work. I was living in England at the time and I had lost everything. So I came back to Ireland and that was the beginning of my journey. I had to break open and start over, if you like.
The first time I heard the term ‘womb-twin survivor’ was in 2009. A friend of mine was going to a seminar on the topic and I remember saying, ‘That’s me!’. I got in touch with a woman called Althea Hayton who founded the Womb Twin Association in England. She sent me a questionnaire and I discovered that womb-twins die on or around birth, and what I was feeling was a hidden grief that many other womb-twin survivors experience.
From there, I got to meet people who are very like-minded, people who understand me and knew where I was coming from. It might sound dramatic, but I realised then that I knew death before I knew life.
Around that time, I went to the Eye and Ear Hospital for an annual appointment. The ophthalmologist was examining an eye issue and she asked me if I was a twin. I remember I just broke down in floods of tears and said, ‘I have been waiting for somebody to ask me that all my life’. She reckoned I was conjoined because I had the imprint on the left side of my face where my twin would have been.
Perinatal loss and grief is very common, but it’s less common for us to consider how that loss might impact the sole survivor of a twin or multiple pregnancy. We know that one in eight people are womb-twin survivors, but that study was in 1990 and we have come a long way since then.
Many people in the field reckon there are more than one in eight, maybe even five in 10 people who are womb-twin survivors. And then of course you have IVF babies who are, by default, womb-twin survivors. Their mums were impregnated with several embryos and, in most cases, not all of them survive.
Over the years, through running conferences and a weekly womb-twin chat on this topic, I’ve met many people who identify as womb-twin survivors. And many of them have very similar psychological profiles. A lot of them feel a strong sense of something missing, or they have been searching for something their whole life but they don’t know what it is.
They feel like they are not realising their true potential. They don’t feel the same as everyone else and they don’t feel safe in the world. Hoarding or buying things in twos can be a feature of it, as is left-handedness — I’m ambidextrous.
Another thing that is very common among womb-twin survivors is a lack of boundaries because, remember, they’re in the womb with another person.
A sense of abandonment or ‘survivor’s guilt’ is another big part of it. Think about it: your twin is the first person you know and it’s a very intimate relationship. When they go, a part of you goes too. And then people blame themselves. Why did they leave me? Why am I on my own?’ Eating disorders and addiction can be a major feature of it, too.
Relationship-wise, I find that womb-twin survivors tend to look for their other half. There can be longing for their other half, so to speak. Years after my divorce, I realised that I had essentially married my twin. It was a very intense, almost karmic, relationship that we had.
Being a womb-twin survivor can manifest itself in an awful lot of different ways. I have friends who are womb twins and it doesn’t affect them at all, and others who are very affected by it.
Still, I think it’s crucial that parents who lost a child during a twin or multiple pregnancy look out for this. Look out for a child who is sad for no apparent reason or who is acting out aggressively. Look out for the child who has an imaginary friend, as that can be an example of it too. Listen to them and talk to them about how they are feeling, as validation and acknowledgement is so important, too.
If you’re a womb-twin survivor and you feel affected by it, I would recommend finding somebody to talk to. The therapy can be very, very deep work. And while it’s not easy, it’s so rewarding. I would also suggest reading Althea Hayton’s A Healing Path for Womb Twin Survivors or Fr Jim Cogley’s Wood You Believe Volume Four: The Twinless Self.
These days, I run a Womb Twin Chat Group once a week on Zoom with Maria Kliavkoff from Canada who is a grief therapist and author. I conceived the idea during the pandemic as I thought it would be a good idea to get a chat going, given that people were feeling even more isolated than they were before.
It’s been running for about two years now and it deals with womb-twin issues, but we also deal with what is going on in the here and now. It is in collaboration with wombtwin.com and subscription-based, with a nominal fee.
We have created a very safe space for people from all over the world to talk about what is coming up for them, and have rules and regulations. It is very important for womb twins to feel safe and seen and heard. I would also like to educate health professionals about the importance of this work because it not only affects the womb twin, but also the siblings.
We are trying our best to make this conversation more mainstream. And I reckon in 10 to 15 years it will be. It will be talked about in schools and it will be no big deal.
There is so much going on in the world in connection to this that people don’t realise. So it’s so important to bring this out in the open. By acknowledging our pre-birth story we are changing our life, because it affects everything we do until it is recognised and we break the unseen patterns.”
For more information, go to wombtwin.com or email Olga at [email protected]
As told to Katie Byrne
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