by Beth Hall
Speaking from experience
My parents loved to tell the story. They would describe the two ways children could come into the family: through birth and through adoption. In the end, it was me—the non-adopted sibling—and not Barbara, who burst into tears. The adoption scenario of being wanted so intentionally sounded so good! But it wasn’t long before we all realized it wasn’t that simple.
I was about six years old the first time someone told me that there must be something wrong with my sister because she was adopted. I remember being upset. I remember getting angry. I also remember secretly wondering whether they were right, especially when Barbara had gotten into my stuff again. She made me sooooo mad. It was so frustrating having a younger sister. Once, when she had broken my favorite doll, I blew up.
“You’re not my real sister anyway,” I blurted. “You don’t even belong in this family!”
The most painful part of that memory is knowing that I was tearing at the fabric of my family, which ultimately left me feeling terribly insecure. To this day, I feel guilty when I think of having said such things to her. I spent a lot of my life feeling the need to defend my sister against the questions and judgments of the uneducated. Adoption was a normal and comfortable part of our family vocabulary; two of our three cousins were also adopted. Still, I never allowed myself to voice the secret questions and doubts I couldn’t help but learn from society.
The world around us impresses strong expectations that all members of a family should match, sharing not only a common appearance but other traits too, everything from mannerisms to interests. I have always looked like a carbon copy of my father, and like my parents, I enjoyed playing games and I had a knack for remembering which cards had been played in gin rummy. Barbara, however, was never told how much she resembled our parents, and was never very good at cards. But my sister loved to play sports and could sit down at the piano a play a tune after hearing it only once.
Whatever the outside expectations, this I know: when our parents tried to mold us into a sameness that might have worked in other families, we each felt uncertain and insecure about our ability to fit in. It was when our parents acknowledged the truth of our differences and singularities that Barbara and I were able to bask in the confidence that came from having a family that supported each of us—both of us—one hundred percent.
Barbara and I were different and unconnected in ways that other siblings were not, and this was territory we had to navigate while growing up. But we were also siblings in the most traditional sense: We are similar in certain ways and could not be more different in others; we can be the best of friends and the worst of enemies; we have been there for each other and we have let each other down.
It was only much later in life that I was able to face my fears and come away with the answer to the ubiquitous outsider’s question about whether we were “really” sisters: My sister and I are just what we have always been—sisters.
Sibling relationships are usually the familial relationships we maintain for the longest part of our lives. These unique relationships hold a potential for intimacy that is both profound and provocative. Adoption creates many kinds of sibling constellations—siblings with different genes and/or heritage growing up in the same family, as well as siblings who share genes and/or heritage growing up in different families.
Blended families—as those with both adopted and non-adopted children are called—can flourish. But it is important for parents to be intentional and honest in their approach to parenting. They must recognize the significance of the different ways that each child has entered into the family. This can be accomplished by following certain “dos and don’ts”:
- Tell all your children the truth.
- Acknowledge that there are many kinds of siblings—those connected by birth and by adoption—because both count for kids.
- Anticipate that siblings born to their parents may not be happy about the addition of an adopted brother or sister (at least not all the time).
- Help children born to the family understand their non-adopted privileges, allowing them to feel empowered to become adoption allies.
- Everything you can to enhance your adopted and non-adopted children’s shared experiences.
- Focus on the burdens for your non-adopted children or you may unwittingly forget to emphasize the gains for them.
- Artificially twin (have two children within nine months’ of age join your family), if you have a choice.
- Tell your children that you love them all the same.
Do tell all your children the truth.
When I hear parents say that it makes no difference to have one child adopted and another not, I cringe. Adoptive families are in the minority and there is strength in that fact, but only if we can be honest about that which makes us different. Blended families can (and do) work, but like any family, it takes honesty about who we are and who we are not. In families where children come to the family through birth and adoption, it is critical to acknowledge that the path of this family is different from most other families in important ways.
Facts are facts. Giving birth to a child, being genetically connected, is powerful. Teach your children to speak about genetics, and to value nature along with nurture. Contrary to what some people believe, telling adopted children that we wish we had been able to carry them in our wombs is a good thing. Letting the adopted child know that we wish we could experience that kind of intimacy with them, reminds them of how much—and not how little—we love them. Furthermore, expressing this desire helps all the children in the family understand that it is a privilege of the non-adopted not to wonder or worry—as adopted children do—about whether they had something to do with why birth parents were unable to parent them.
If children see that their parents are not afraid of, or are trying to minimize, the differences between how children came into their family, they will grow up being unafraid of those differences, too. This foundation will enable them to create and experience the long-term closeness with each other that is so often the beauty of sibling relationships.
Do acknowledge that there are many kinds of siblings—those connected by birth and by adoption—because both count for kids.
The adopted children in your family may have birth siblings living in any number of alternate situations. They may live with a birth parent or other members of the birth family; they may live in foster placement or in other adoptive families. Acknowledging these siblings and learning as much as possible about them can be important and helpful to not only your adopted child, who is trying to make sense of all of their connections, but also to their non-adopted siblings who are trying to do the same thing from their own perspective.
Remember that actions speak louder than words. Children look to their parents for cues about their feelings regarding adoptive and genetic connections. If your adopted child sees you treat his siblings who live elsewhere as important and valued relatives, it will allow him to more fully explore his feelings about adoption and family, without worrying whether you will approve. He will understand that he’s not being asked to choose one family or set of siblings over another.
Some parents have the opportunity to adopt genetically-connected siblings of a child already in their family. Research is now showing that there is a huge advantage to siblings being placed together into the same family. Even without such data, the validation of having a genetic relative—a physical relfection of oneself that most of us take for granted in our own growing up years—is often yearned for by adoptees throughout their lives.
In circumstances where siblings are able stay in touch with one another, it is always important that the adults in their lives be inclusive of all sibling relationships, not just those forged by genetics. The parents’ lead will become the model for the children’s willingness to understand that sibling relationships are not bound by blood or living arrangments.
Do anticipate that siblings born to their parents may not be happy about the addition of an adopted brother or sister (at least not all the time).
Very often, non-adopted siblings are told they are going to have a sibling by adoption, rather than asked. Help your non-adopted child understand that it is very natural to feel a mixture of emotions toward siblings, both to like them a lot and to resent them a lot. It does not make them bad to have these feelings, nor does it mean that they don’t like them because they are adopted.
Take some time to explain adoption to your non-adopted children privately. Help them understand that it can be hard to lose your first family, and that some people who have that experience wonder if it might be their fault. Help them understand that adopted people wonder if they will lose their current family (or siblings) because they have lost at least one family before. Help them think about why this might make their adopted siblings especially sensitive to comments about whether they are wanted or loved.
All of this being said, it is critical to clarify the distinction between feelings and actions. It can be useful for your children to be able to name their feelings and to voice politically incorrect wishes. For instance, “Why don’t you get rid of them?” is a legitimate question. But it’s not okay for them to participate in bullying or excluding activities. Let your child know you understand she may be having negative feelings. Use direct and sympathetic phrases to keep the conversational door open: “I can see how rough this situation is for you,” or “It must be very hard for you, having to deal with this issue when your other friends don’t have to.”
Spend some alone time with your non-adopted child, acknowledging the fears or guilt she may be feeling toward her sibling. Spend time with your adopted child, too, acknowledging the frustration and sense of loss he feels. Those who are parenting from both perspectives may be in the best position to help their children believe how uniquely loved and supported they are. You can remind your children that you do know better, that they are not the only “kind” of child you have, and yet they are still loved, and are still 100% members of the family. The possibilities for unequivocal, unconditional love are profound, and all the parenting experts agree that’s good for kids.
Do help children born to the family understand their non-adopted privileges, allowing them to feel empowered to become adoption allies.
When there is conflict between a person’s hopes for himself and the world’s responses to his siblings, non-adopted brothers and sisters are likely to come face-to-face with loyalty struggles. Are they required to spend their lives up on a soapbox, protecting and supporting their siblings? If they don’t speak up every single time an adoption issue arises, are they being disloyal to their family? If they consciously use the non-adopted privilege that society grants them (like being able to smile and say, “Yes, I do look a lot like my Dad”), are they betraying their brothers and sisters? Can they use their privilege like a “magic cape” to protect their siblings, or should they abandon it altogether, in solidarity?
Help your children understand that being a blended family is a unique gift, and that standing with family is essential. Challenging experiences from outsiders can create allies and advocates of family members who have the opportunity to become powerful change agents in the world. Because of their intimate understanding of adoption and the privilege of being listened to they have the freedom to act with relative impunity because they are not adopted themselves.
Explicitly naming the opportunity to become an ally in the fight against adoption bias can be a powerful and proud position from which non-adopted siblings can arise. It will allow them to alleviate some of the guilt that often results from the recognition of their non-adopted privilege, and give them an outlet for their frustration and the subordination of that privilege. Examples of this could include lobbying for open records so that adopted people are not the only class of people who cannot have access to their birth records (this is still true in 2014 in all but a handful of states), or developing responses to people who ask invasive questions like, “Is that your real brother?”
Do everything you can to enhance your adopted and non-adopted children’s shared experiences.
Nurturing a sense of shared family culture will contribute to each child’s sense of us as a family unit. Because children in adoptive families lack many of the ordinary affirmations of family belonging-ness, their lives are filled with lots of occasions when family difference provokes a strong reaction from outsiders. Teach your children to act like family, with your own unique and exclusive family way of doing things. You can discover, identify, create, or develop unique acts that reveal and affirm your belonging to one another. These family rituals are the bridges by which children can connect to their family in a way no outsider can.
Whether you all roll your eyes together when Dad acts silly, or every child participates in making a shared present at holidays (despite their groaning), or you have your own special ways of waving goodbye—The type of activity doesn’t matter. Just make sure you are doing things that suit and are are unique to your family. These behaviors serve as secret codes that bond family members together in solidarity, and allow for significant interaction between one another. Your children will come to understand that these exclusive activities are unique to your family, shared by none other.
I remember with my own children, we made up songs about ourselves, in which the kids were named in the context of a silly activity or something they had done. I would be too humiliated ever to sing these songs in front of anyone except my family. But whenever I would sing them (which was often), each child wanted equal time and verses. They would remember verses I had previously made up even if I’d forgotten them. These silly songs became a circle around the children, a circle that marked ‘us’ as members of the family, distinct from ‘everybody else.’ This light-hearted ritual was a way of defining our kids as included in and members of the ‘inner circle’ of family.
Be alert to those things that already are or could become family rituals. Maybe you’ll create pet names for each family member; maybe you’ll designate Wednesday night as “the whole family, and family only” night; maybe some silly situation will generate a code that you use when out in the world. Time together as a family is a vital key to creating a sense of “us” and “them.” Laughing together, crying together, just being together, creates a sense of solidarity that is critical.
Eating meals together is a tradition that all families, no matter the size or configuration, can establish, one that will reap benefits over the years. It becomes the time when everyone shares about their day or their news. Great ongoing coversations happen at the family table; this becomes critical when children get older and their social lives more independent. Having this one time each day that everyone gathers, even if they are complaining about too much togetherness, often allows children to share the little tidbits of their lives that help parents understand their experience, and offer the support and guidance they need. Don’t be surprised if, when your children become adults, they remember those private rituals and important conversations with incredible fondness and pride, as markers of your mutual membership in the family.
Don’t focus on the burdens for your non-adopted children or you may unwittingly forget to emphasize the gains for them.
Many parents who already have children by birth wonder if it is fair to bring adopted children—who they worry may have additional baggage—into the family. Will it create too great a burden on the children they already have? Isn’t it interesting that parents would even consider the possibility that it might be a burden to the non-adopted children in the family? Shouldn’t we also be asking if it might be a burden to the adopted children to have siblings who are born to their parents? In fact, non-adopted people need to develop positive attitudes about adoption every bit as much as adopted people do. It is a huge asset to be a non-adopted child in an adoptive family where tolerance for difference and trust have the potential to be developed.
Don’t artificially twin (have two children within nine months’ of age join your family), if you have a choice.
Two genetically dissimilar kids who are less than nine months apart in age are set up to be compared by peers and teachers and coaches. This sets those siblings up for competition, for greater struggles in finding their own sense of self, and for appreciating their uniqueness. In a blended family,this can be particularly painful for the adopted sibling if their non-adopted brother or sister is temperamentally more similar to their parents, something much more likely to be true because of their genetic link.
Additionally, in adoption, attachment is always an important factor. Since all adopted children have suffered at least one disconnection from their birth mother (and maybe others from other families and/or caregivers) adoptive parents must focus as much attention as possible on strengthening connections and building trust with a newly adopted child, even if the child is an infant. If those adults are also in the process of welcoming a second child into the family at the same time, they are necessarily going to have less time, energy, and focus for each individual child.
Don’t tell your children that you love them all the same.
Loving children is not about treating them equally or the same. It is about loving them for who they are and supporting them according to their unique needs. If sibling rivalry is fueled by a desire to enhance security through the exclusive love of one’s parent(s), it seems logical to imagine that a child who has been moved from one family to another might be especially sensitive to the issue of security, and therefore more prone to view siblings as rivals.
Imagine if your partner/spouse told you they were bringing someone into your relationship without giving you veto power—this is often the experience of siblings through adoption, who are often simply told that they have a new sibling. This can naturally lead to feelings of resentment or uncertainty about their new or instant sibling. It will take time for not only your newly adopted child to adjust to their new family but also time for the other siblings in the family to adjust to their new family member.
Helping children make this adjustment requires that each child feel confident that their parents will focus on their needs when they require that attention. Instead of giving children within the family equal time or applying the same standards to each child, allocate time and parenting strategies according to the needs of the situation and the child. Giving children individual time with you minimizes rivalry because the needs of each child are being met.
Acknowledging differences, including those impacted by children’s experiences of the losses and gains inherent in adoption, is different than comparing children, which almost always creates a better/worse dynamic. Every child deserves to be celebrated and valued for who they are, even when we as parents don’t like how they are acting at the moment.
With honesty and intentionality, you can meet your children’s needs
Blended families built by adoption can result in a strong connection between siblings because their relationships are built on intentionality rather than an accident of birth. Give yourself and your children the opportunity to grow and bask in the beauty of their differences, valuing one another for their unique roles and contributions to the fabric of the whole family.
Beth Hall grew up with an adopted sibling and is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.