Google “triplets blog” and you’ll find a lot of them. It’s significantly rarer and more specialized than “parenting blog”, but there’s still no shortage. As long as there are blogs, there’ll be parents saturating the web with pics, vids and anecdotes of The Adventures Of Raising Our Little Treasures.
Kari Ertresvåg and her sisters, Mariann and Trude, grew up with the questions, comparisons, double-takes and pseudo-celebrity that comes with being identical triplets. And since everyone was so curious, they decided to collaborate on a blog of their own, Triplet Diaries. As you can imagine, I had lots of questions for Kari, and she was good enough to allow me to interview her.
(TIPS ON TRIPLETS) Can you tell me a little about yourself?
(Kari Ertresvåg) I’m a Norwegian currently living and working in Brussels. Similar to my sisters, I was an exchange student during high school (Costa Rica), and went on to study and work for longer periods abroad (last 7 years spent in Spain, Latvia and Belgium).
Do you ever wonder how it would have affected your relationship with your sisters if you’d been born as fraternal/non-identical triplets? Do you imagine it would have changed everything?
Yes, simply because I perceive being a triplet largely as an external concept – that I internalised. The reason why being a triplet has had such a profound effect on my life is because most people recognised and perceived me as one as a child, which they in turn did because I was a spitting image of two other people, i.e. an identical triplet. The ‘triplet’ label is therefore more of an imposed one if you are identical, and as such the fraternal vs. identical distinction is to some extent a question of ‘to be or not to be’ (recognised as) a triplet. I might be stepping on some fraternal toes, but what I mean is that if you are fraternal you may appreciate that people recognise that you are triplets, whereas if you are identical that is a label that simply you can not avoid.
To better explain why I call being a triplet an external issue, I’ll give you a quick peek into my many-fold and internally inconsistent self-perception of being a triplet as a child: I was Kari – a little girl with two sisters very different from me. Since everyone seemed to focus on how similar we were, we tacitly agreed to find all the differences and focus hard on those. If we saw them, other people could, and hopefully would.
But, I also remember a regular ritual of standing next to my sisters in the upstairs bathroom, crammed together shoulder to shoulder. Not saying anything, just looking into the mirror. Looking at myself and these other two that shared my DNA – comparing and contrasting, just like the world did.
Though we (outwardly) repeatedly argued against the idea that we looked alike, there was no arguing against science: Three players, with the same starting number. Imagine a reality television programme featuring an extreme version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, in which viewers and the three contestants themselves judge how well each player makes use of their given resources – the shared DNA.
And while we felt frustrated when people failed to see each of us for the trio, we also internalised this perception. As a child, my sisters were my best friends – but I recognise this only in retrospect. I failed to see it at the time. The honest truth, which is difficult to explain or more so admit, is that I also saw them as me. While triplets may appear to have a built-in-buddy, Trude and Mariann were my sisters and did not count towards ‘friends’. I was ‘the triplet’, and so were they.
You’ve undoubtedly gotten a lot of attention over the years, particularly growing up. How did you feel about all the questions and stares? Did you enjoy the attention? Was it ever difficult or unnerving?
I think it’s illustrative that I today, as an adult, make a conscious effort not to look if I pass by children that I assume may be twins or triplets. No one likes to be stared at.
Have you ever wanted to hide the fact that you’re a triplet?
As a child, it was not an option on the table, and as an adult, it’s not something that I mention as it unleashes Pandora’s box of predictable questions. But perhaps more importantly, it does not come naturally: I speak about my sisters, but as opposed to ‘my twin’, ‘my triplets’ sounds like I’ve produced a large number of babies.
Parenting triplets is a pretty formidable job. Do you think your parents were up to the task?
Yes, my parents were conscious about raising three individuals and I think they did a great job.
If you had 3 identical daughters of your own, what would you do differently from how you were brought up?
If I failed to persuade my sisters to take a baby each (in solidarity considering that the children would genetically be half theirs as well…), I would hope to be able to bring them up in a town of a good size. While living in a small place offers benefits, it also makes it more difficult for triplets to form different friendships and seek out separate activities.
Your mother often made sure you were dressed differently from one another and wore your hair differently, which is contrary to how many mothers of identical multiples operate (you mentioned you’re opposed to identical clothing). Do you think it’s damaging to identical siblings when their parents attempt to keep them looking alike?
Yes – we’re talking about nature’s clones here. You already look so much alike that you want to make it easier for people to distinguish you, not harder. Parents dressing their triplets alike are communicating the triplet identity on behalf of the children– ‘they’re a unit’ – and also reinforcing that identity for the children. Not only are the children reminded of their similarity through the clothing, but you also give up on a tool to remind everyone else of their differences. I did not wear identical clothing to my sisters (after the age of 5/6, except on special occasions), and I still have a memory of my twelve-year-old self, a person full of little hurts and stories of how people failed to see ‘Kari’ and instead saw her as interchangeable with any of the other two little girls they also called ‘the triplet’. Thank God I had my own bloody sweater!
You’ve said the word “triplets” was banned in your house. You were “the girls”. What was your parents’ aim with that decision? Do you think it helped?
At home I was ‘Kari’ – just me. In addition to being aware of what ‘the triplets’ term came to represent for the three of us (people failing to tell me apart from two others and choosing the easy way out by calling me ‘you, the triplet’), it was not the natural distinction at home. We were four small children, the three of us and a 2 years older brother, and we had one older brother of eight years. While our parents and our brothers called us ‘the girls’, the normal distinction at home was between the four smallest ones and our brother who was 8 years older.
You’ve mentioned little cues the outside world used to tell you apart (you have a tiny scar near your eye and Trude has a mole on the tip of her nose). But what about the three of you? Have you ever had difficulty telling your sisters apart or is it always immediately obvious to you? What about over the phone, or in photographs? Do you always know immediately?
In person or on the phone – yes. In photographs until the age of five, I have absolutely no idea. Our parents, however, thought ahead and we’re normally positioned in birth order in posed photos as children.
Give me the real truth about the “psychic” or “telepathic” thing, because I’m guessing most people don’t know what to believe. Can you communicate complex thoughts between you without verbalizing them? Is it more than just “finishing each other’s sentences”?
That would have been a fantastic party trick, but I think triplets just cook that up to sell books.
I’ve been told that identical multiples that have been adopted and never known their siblings can grow up with a sort of sixth sense that an essential relationship is missing from their lives. Or, even more, when a twin or triplet loses their sibling later in life, the grief they experience is significantly more profound than what’s typical. Having said all that, you’ve made reference to the fact that the three of you were, originally, quadruplets. Was it a surprise to you to learn that you shared the womb with a fourth sister? Have you ever felt like a threesome-that-should-be-a-foursome?
The history of the potential fourth, a foetus not developed beyond the size of a finger, has always been somewhat fascinating. Imagining Mum’s thoughts when she was told about what was still attached to the placenta after already having delivered one baby more than expected, and the idea that I could have been the one fourth of the egg that ended its existence in a glass jar at the faculty of medicine at the University of Bergen.
As you already know, I’m going to be a father of triplets later this year and I’m a little terrified. What advice would you give me (or any moms/dads expecting triplets)?
First of all: It may be hell for you, but your children just hit jackpot. Yes, it was challenging growing up a triplet, and our identity seeking may have been tougher than for most. But the cliché applies – I was born with my two best and closest friends, which I get to experience every stage of my life together with.
The first few years of triplet existence is not my domain – my memories begin a bit later in life – but if I were you, I would make sure to choose distinctly different names for the children. Dismantle the unit as soon as you can and bring out the individual parts.