By Carolyn Berger, LCSW, with Lisa Schuman, LCSW
The blended family, one that’s created through birth and adoption, has been a part of the adoption landscape for a long time. There are different types of blended families—those where an adopted child is the first child and those where the birth child comes first, followed by an adopted child. “Blending” is a great way to build a family, but it’s a good idea to think through some of the issues beforehand so that you will be prepared for the challenges (and joys) that this particular kind of family can bring.
If you are considering adopting a child after having a biological one, you may find yourself worrying that you will “upset the apple cart,” by adding a child of a different background, rather than a birth child, to your family. You will need to explore and resolve feelings like these before you begin the adoption process. The fact is, any new child will cause shifts and some disequilibrium in your family when he arrives.
Once you feel comfortable and decide to move forward, you will want to prepare your biological child for the adopted child who will be joining him. Involve him in the adoption process in any way that you can. You may also take this time to reach out to your extended family to educate them about bio-adoptive families so that they can prepare a space in their hearts for an adopted child.
Before you build your blended family you will need to ask yourself how comfortable you are with difference. Can you truly accept differences among your children whether they relate to appearance, race, cultural background, talents or intelligence? Parents in traditional families with more than one child have to come to terms with how different their children are likely to be. In blended families some of the differences are simply more obvious, especially when your family is composed of children of different cultures and races. Can you tolerate the “public-ness” of being a transracial family, or comments from perfect strangers who tell you that your kids, one with blonde hair, the other raven-haired, can’t possibly be siblings? Can you take pleasure in the idea that your children are very different and celebrate this every day? And will your extended family accept your kids for who they are, rather than who they look like?
No matter who comes first, your adopted child or your biological child, you will need to figure out ways to build your family into a warm, loving unit that holds together in spite of the different ways your children came into it. There is no formula for creating closeness among siblings in any type of family. If you are hoping that the children in your family will be best friends like you and your sister were, or that your kids will make up for the fact that you and your brother were sworn enemies until the college years intervened, you are probably courting disappointment. There is no way to predict how your children will feel about each other, though there are many ways to help them live together peacefully. (Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish can show you how.)
Some sibling rivalry is inevitable whether you are a blended family or a traditional one.
In blended families kids need to recognize that they are unique and that neither being genetically connected to their parents nor adopted makes them better. A friend of mine who has an elementary- school- aged biological child and an adopted pre-schooler told me this story: One day the older boy told his younger brother, “I belong in this family more than you do because I have Mom and Dad’s genes, and you don’t.” Hearing this, my friend cringed, but pulled herself together and told her older son firmly, “You’re wrong. Under the law you boys are equal and what the law says is the most important thing.” These boys’ father was a high-profile attorney whom they both admired, and bringing in the legal aspect of adoption helped level the playing field in this case. The older son nodded in agreement and was silent. The younger son appeared unperturbed.
When my friend picked the younger child up at nursery school the next day, his teacher pulled her aside and told her that her son had announced to the entire class that he was adopted and had different genes than his brother, but that they were “equal because the law says so.” She asked the teacher how her son delivered this message, and the teacher told her it had been said with pride. A moment that initially caused my friend agony became a teachable moment in her family.
There are probably more similarities than differences when it comes to raising traditional and blended families. In all families bonding between siblings takes time and requires help from parents, whether it’s through engaging your kids in fun activities, helping them learn what makes their family unique, or stepping in when difficulties arise. In many blended families where children are close in age, they form sibling relationships before they know who is biologically related and who was adopted. And in all blended families child rearing realities apply regardless of how the children came to be a part of the family.
Carolyn Berger, LCSW is Chair of The AFA Adoption Advisory Council and the parent of two teenaged sons who came into her family through birth and adoption. She has a private practice in Larchmont, NY, that focuses on fertility, adoption, and all forms of family building.
Lisa Schuman, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan and Westchester, specializing in the areas of adoption and infertility. She is also the Director of Adoption Cooperative Consultants and a staff psychotherapist for Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York.