Sisters and Brothers

As an adoption professional with two children who joined my family through adoption, I would often try to get their perspective and views on things. On one such occasion, I asked my oldest, blonde haired, hazel-eyed daughter her views on the wisdom and advisability of a white family adopting a second black child. My daughter was about ten years old at the time, and she had been letting me know that she often felt different from her friends and not always a part of the family. I wondered how race might play into her thoughts.

Her answer had nothing to do with race and very little to do with adoption. Her answer took me aback—“Why would anyone adopt more than one child?” As we talked further, I realized this had nothing to do with either race or adoption. It had everything to do with wanting to be an only child. My daughter expanded her views, voicing her exasperation with her little sister and her jealousy of her friends who were only children. Only children, it seemed, were entitled to such delights as undivided parental attention and horses. And the ability to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it.

It is worth noting that this same ten-year-old child is now past her twenties and a mother of five. Perspective changes with age and circumstance!

But the relationship of siblings in adoption is a topic worth mentioning.

What, exactly, makes for a sibling relationship? Are siblings those people who share your DNA? Are siblings those people with whom you are raised and share day-to-day relationships? 

For families notcreated through adoption, the definition of a sibling is easy to create. It’s the bossy older brother, or the pesky little sister. It’s the person you can bully, but if anyone outside your family tries the same, that bully best watch his or her back. 

On the other hand, for families who are created through adoption, the sibling question becomes a little more tricky. Some families only adopt one child. Others adopt two or three children. Some families adopt children who are biologically siblings. Other families have biological children before adopting children. There are step-parent adoptions, kinship adoptions, and transracial adoptions. You can look at some families and know that there is an adoption story there. Conversely, you can look at other families and have no idea that adoption played a role in their creation.

It’s relatively easy to look at a single family unit and identify the brothers and sisters. No one can push your buttons like your sister! “Stop touching me! Stay on your side of the line! That’s mine!”These conversations can easily be followed with “Let’s go build a fort! Want to play a game? Can I borrow your shirt?”

Often adopted children will ask about siblings.

This simple question can mean a variety of things. A young only child asking about siblings may just be the desire to have a brother or sister in their own family. On the other hand, adopted children may be asking about birth siblings. Sometimes this is because the child doing the asking would like a new playmate. If the child is in his teens, he may be concerned that the person on whom he has a crush may be somehow connected to him through DNA. That could be gross! 

Many adoptee questions regarding siblings have to do with timing, developmental stage, and an understanding of their own identity and adoption story.

Young children are very accepting of different family roles, without a deep understanding of what each role entails. As with most things related to open adoption, the more normal and natural it is to talk about birth siblings, the fewer questions and more accepting the child will be. For a child to discover later in life that there are siblings, the questions about identity again come into play. 

What does this look like in real life? At a recent post-placement visit, big brother was happy to show off his new little brother. This young man, not quite in kindergarten, understood that his new little brother was here to stay, and that he had big responsibility in teaching him what it was to be a member of the Smith family. This same young man had recently shared a birthday party with a younger biological sibling placed in a different family. The young man knew that this other child was also his sister, and this sister didn’t live with him, and really…this was no big deal. 

It was no big deal because all the adults involved were comfortable in their own roles as parents and understood the connections between them. No one worried that the little ones wouldn’t understand. They answered questions as they arose, and celebrated the connections they shared.

Now it’s your turn. How do you—as either birth parents or adoptive parents—navigate the questions related to siblings? What do your sibling relationships look like? Any great challenges? Any great answers?

Until next time,

Diane