"So, you must be the wayward child of the family."
Upon learning that my sisters are more religious, studious and obedient than I choose to be, a new acquaintance had no problem deciding I must be the family rebel.
My initial response was a small smile and chuckle. Had it been the first time I'd been unflatteringly compared with my fellow triplets, I probably would have been less generous.
At 23, I have concluded that being a triplet is a constant reminder of my mediocrity. The circumstances of my birth give people an unwelcome opportunity to announce how ordinary I am compared with my sisters. Nothing is more dreadful for a triplet than the suffix -est because it often leaves one of us - mostly me - feeling bad about ourselves. "You are the smartest … the quietest … the nicest …" or, worst of all, "the prettiest of the three."
When I was younger, I thought the best way to take control of my identity was to be everything my sisters were not. So I built my reputation as the black sheep of the family. With my chubbier cheeks, shorter stature and curlier hair, I thought I had a stronger chance of distinguishing myself since the other two looked more alike.
Our mother had other plans. She insisted we had to have the same of everything to avoid problems. Mom modelled our house on the Soviet Union and herself on Lenin: We had the same toys, clothes, friends and teachers. She even colour-coded our outfits so that, while our clothes were identical in style, we knew which shirt belonged to which triplet based on the colour. I was assigned red. I still hate that colour.
Much like the demise of the Soviet sphere, the imposition of our shared identity pushed the three of us to fight about everything. And I was 1956 Hungary - determined to separate, but with little success.
My brilliant plan included instigating shouting matches in which I was not above informing my sisters that I, the oldest triplet by two minutes, was the only planned child of our parents' second pregnancy. Yet I've always felt that if my parents had to decide which of the three they wanted as a younger sibling for our sister, I would be neither first nor second choice.
By high school, my sisters launched their own independence campaign. We developed rules that we believed would ease the humiliation of being a triplet: It was acceptable for two girls to walk together in public, but absolutely not for all three of us at once; taking the same class was forbidden; and we could not wear outfits that bore any similarities - difficult, since our school had uniforms.
On our 18th birthday, I finally achieved a small victory in the form of three store-bought ice-cream cakes with our names written in sloppy icing. There was nothing remarkable about my cake except that it was mine. It was the first time I had received my own cake with well wishes addressed not to "the triplets" but to me, just me. The cakes symbolized the recognition that my sisters and I were, indeed, three different people who happened to look alike and share the same birth date.
The cake empowered me: By the end of high school, I believed that if I was going to be the kind of girl who did not have to share birthday cakes, I had to start fresh in a sister-free environment. I chose a different university and enrolled in an arts program while my sisters decided to study science at the same university.
I sneered at their need for each other. And if anyone assumed that I felt left out, my new tattoo proved otherwise. I stamped the back of my neck with the word "libera" - Latin for independent and triplet-speak for "I am a strong-willed young woman with opinions and feelings distinct from the people who look like me."
I soon regretted my defiance. On my own for the first time, I still felt mediocre, even without the comparisons to my successful sisters. And their shared university experience created a world from which I was excluded.
Instead of rejecting them, I was rejected. I pretended not to care when one sister mentioned that she did not correct classmates when they assumed that she was a twin instead of a triplet. "People ask questions that take longer to answer when they find out I'm a triplet," she said. "It's much easier to let them think I am a twin since they see the both of us in class and I don't have to explain about you."
The identity I had worked so hard to escape from no longer existed. My private Cold War had ended, and I was unsure about what I had achieved. My sisters became their own persons while I struggled to find my way.
But to my surprise, when I moved out to finish my last year of school, our bond grew stronger. I missed the reassurance of their presence, the motivation of their accomplishments, the understanding that regardless of petty squabbles we still cared for one another and that's all we needed to maintain our relationship. I am slowly learning that, with my sisters' help, I can be myself without pushing them away. I am a triplet, but I am more than that.
While my sisters plan their doctoral studies and I establish my career, I know we will create new rules for being triplets: Always e-mail one another; stop comparing ourselves to each other, embrace our differences and learn from our unique experiences.
Rose D'souza lives in Markham, Ont.