Businesswoman, author and member of several boards, Jesmane Boggenpoel (46) has an identical twin sister and comes from three generations of consecutive identical female twins – a four in 100 000 000 or 0.000004% phenomenon. After spending six years abroad, she now lives in Johannesburg, while her twin sister is a medical doctor living in Australia. Her parents are in their 70s and also live in Johannesburg, while her younger brother teaches in English in China. She and her mother spoke to us while on the book tour of Jesmane’s new book, My Blood Divides and Unites.
Jesmane Boggenpoel speaks to BabyYumYum
Q. What was family life like for you growing up?
In spite of being raised in a poor family with tragic circumstances – my dad suffered a nervous breakdown (psychotic breakdown) after an exhaustive and abusive construction carpentry project for an assignment in Namibia with a large construction firm. My mum, who had not finished senior high school, was forced to be the main provider for our family. While life felt hard being raised in the marginalised neighbourhood of Westbury, I was raised with love.
Q. What do you do now and what is next on your vision board?
I serve on various boards and am working on a few entrepreneurial ventures. I have also published my book on identity, building trust across diverse communities and inclusion called My Blood Divides and Unites (www.myblooddividesandunites.com).
Generations of twins
Q. Identical twins run in your family – explain the history.
My grandmother, Lilian, and her identical twin sister, Iris, were born in Sophiatown on 11 May, 1924 and were the fifth and sixth born of eight children. Twenty-one years later, Lilian gave birth to identical twin daughters, Patricia (my mum) and Naomi on 10 September 1945 in Newlands, Johannesburg. On 20 June 1973, my mum gave birth to identical twin daughters of her own – my sister Julie-Ann and I – in Port Elizabeth. So, we are uniquely three consecutive generations of identical female twins.
Q. Were the twins conceived naturally or through IVF?
All three generations of twins were conceived naturally.
Q. What was it like growing up with an identical twin?
My twin sister and I are close but we don’t have that “telepathic” connection. Our parents gave us individual attention; they made us feel special and could tell us apart. I salute them for not comparing us or making either one feel preferred.
We were the top academic students at primary and high school and were study buddies. We were in the same class in crèche and grades two. From grade three to grade seven we were in separate classes, and then in the same class again throughout high school.
I have a fond memory of us playing together as children and collecting leaves from trees, breaking the leaves up and pretending they were ingredients for food. We would further improvise, stir and combine the “ingredients” which came to life in our imagination, making them into a food dish to mimic what my mum prepared, for example, biriyani, which was a dish for special occasions. We generally liked make-believe play.
We knitted and sewed clothing for our dolls, imitating our late grandmother who was a dressmaker. We also had paper dolls and would make paper clothing for them.
Growing up we played tennis. We read loads and frequented the community library together – a favourite pastime that allowed us to escape through books into other lands. We were part of a church drama group and enjoyed acting and improvisation prep classes. For one Christmas play, we both had the role of Mary (the mother of Jesus) and split the scenes and monologues between us.
Both of us studied at the University of Witwatersrand, but we went in different directions. I pursued a degree as a chartered accountant, while my sister studied to be a medical doctor. I stayed on campus as I had a scholarship and my sister stayed at our family home, but we visited each other. I recall a time when people saw me with my commerce books and my sister with her medicine books, and they came to the conclusion that I was super smart and studying two degrees at the same time.
Growing up people always confused us. Now that we live in different countries it happens less frequently, but when we are together it still happens. Even my sister’s 14-year-old son occasionally gets confused when he sees me from the back.
Q. Did you ever play any pranks on people by “swopping” your identities?
One could say that we were “boring” twins in that we didn’t often swap identities, though I can think of two examples. There was one time in high school when we did vacation work as a salesperson for a shoe store in downtown Johannesburg. When I stopped working, I sent my twin sister in and we did about two sets of swaps on this job and they didn’t figure it out. Also, my twin sister was in a school speech contest in high school and I stood in for her.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with your twin?
My sister has been living in Australia for the last 18 years but we communicate every few days. When I lived in the US and Switzerland it was too far to visit my sister and I did not see her for seven years – the longest gap of not seeing each other until I visited her again in Australia at the end of 2016. Now that I’m back in South Africa, I visited my sister in February last year and visited her again this past Christmas and New Year. We always make sure to call each other on our shared birthday.
Questions for Jesmane’s mother – Jesmane answered the following questions with the help of her mother, Patricia:
Q. What was your reaction when you were told you were expecting twins?
It was partly a surprise and partly not a surprise, given that my mum was also a twin.
Q. How was your pregnancy?
My mum experienced terrible morning sickness for the first three months. Other than that, she went into labour early and spent two weeks in the hospital during her eighth month of pregnancy. Antenatal classes were not available to people of colour during the early ‘70s, and husbands were not allowed in with the birthing mother. Her parents were in Johannesburg, but my mum’s younger sister, Shirley, came to stay with them when my mum was four months pregnant and helped her at crucial times, such as when the scan revealed that my mother was having twins, or when she went into early labour at eight months.
She was then discharged and stayed at home until the time of her delivery. She didn’t have a birth plan, but she knew she would have a vaginal birth by OB/GYN and the labour experience was a positive one. Her first baby was delivered using forceps, while the second twin was also as assisted birth.
She gave birth at Livingstone Hospital, a state hospital in Port Elizabeth for people of colour during apartheid. She was in a private ward and treated well by everyone. Fortunately, the twins only remained in the special care nursery after birth, and mom and her babies were discharged after five days. Shirley stayed on to help for three months after we were born.
Q. How did you learn to tell them apart?
She kept our hospital wrist bands that had the following tags “first twin” and second twin” on for the first month to help her identify us and prevent confusion. My sister and I soon developed distinct personalities as babies. Julie-Ann was more independent and easily went to other relatives and family friends. I was more attached and would only go into my mom or dad’s arms, or to our family helper. My mom said I would start crying if anyone else wanted to hold me.
“Double the blessing means double the work – and double the soiled nappies.”
Q. Did you bottle- or breastfeed? How did you manage this?
My mum bottle- and breastfed. She had a helper and my father helped too, along with her sister who all supported her. While she breastfed one twin, the other twin was being bottle-fed and she swapped between the twins.
Q. What would you say was the most difficult part of having twins in the first few months?
My mom had less sleep and felt exhausted on some days. She would get up at 5am to get done and prepare things while we were still sleeping. Breaking winds took time and had to be delicately done with small babies. Also, when one twin cries, the other one cries too and so this needed to be managed (with dummies). My father worked in construction carpentry away from home but when he was home over weekends, he would help with three-hourly baby feeds and nappy changes.
Q. What has been the best and worst things about having twins?
My mother loved feeling special and receiving all the attention and fanfare that comes with raising two kids of the same age. Twins learn from each other (speech, etc.), play together and read together, thus acting as a support system for one another. The worst, according to my mum, was the work! Double the blessing means double the work – and double the soiled nappies.
Q. How long were you at home with the twins?
My mom was at home for a year and three months post-birth – this allowed her to bond with my sister and me. She would speak and read to us a lot, and we spoke phrases as early as one year of age. Fortunately, both of us achieved our milestones when expected.
Q. What advice would your mother give another mom expecting multiples?
Make time to rest during pregnancy. It’s so important! You do need more hands-on-deck to assist, especially when it comes to keeping up with all the laundry. Make sure the babies’ winds are broken after their feed before you put them down to sleep. My mom would give us a little body massage with baby oil after a morning bath. It helped with the winds and made us sleep better at night. Dummies helped prevent the chorus of tears when we caused each other to cry.
Q. What was the best piece of parenting advice you were given – and who gave it to you?
The doctor said to her: “If it’s three-hourly feeds, it’s got to be three-hourly feeds, not more or less”.
Q. How did you stretch your budget for two babies – give some tips for our followers of money-saving ways that work for you.
She stuck to the essentials which included baby milk, nappies, gripe water and loads of bibs for winds.
You can find Jesmane Boggenpoel’s book My Blood Divides and Unites at select Exclusive Books stores and online at Exclusive Books, Takealot, Loot, Porcupine Press and Amazon.