This was a question on one of the adoption discussion groups I’m a part of. I started writing an answer, and then it turned into a pretty long answer, and I thought I would share it here.
Q: Should you adopt if you also have biological children?
There is so much more I could say about this than could ever be said in a brief comment. It’s complex, and what happened happened and cannot be undone, so it’s a strange thought exercise to pretend it could.
I am the eldest child of my parents; they adopted me shortly after birth after ten years of infertility. They were living in my country of birth at the time and they realised that there were a lot of babies available for adoption – it was a pragmatic decision on their part rather than any sort of “White saviorism” that I’ve become aware of. They genuinely thought it made sense. I’m still loathe to say it didn’t. They adopted my sister (non bio, “like the washing powder”) a year later and thought their family was complete.
However, five years later, like the well known adoption cliché, my mother went to the doctor concerned she was putting on weight.
“You’re five months pregnant!,” he said.
My brother was born a few months later. The Golden Child (as he’s still known). And then – surprise again! – my youngest sibling was born another two years after that.
My feelings on whether people should adopt if they also have bio children are complex, because I love my siblings and I love my parents and on balance I have had a good life. My parents’ pragmatism and “colourblind” approach is clearly not de rigeur nowadays. We were treated pretty much the same as the bios, allowing for individual differences in personality and interests. And it’s hard to say you wish your siblings were never born. We had a childhood as a gang; moving around different countries for my dad’s job meant we always had friends in each other.
BUT – as I’ve grown up I’ve been very aware that the “natural order” was changed through our adoption. I’ve always been extremely emotionally needy and battled for attention (and got it, within the family) and played The Oldest to the best of my abilities (leader of the pack). I’m aware I stole the Golden Child’s birthright. In many ways he acts as an “oldest”. I clashed with him growing up. I was overwhelmingly jealous of him in the way I wasn’t of the youngest, who I doted on (and still do).
Realistically I love all my siblings but #3, the first bio, the miracle, the Golden Child, is the least close to me emotionally and character wise. He is the very epitome of white privilege, and I admit that I resent that everything comes so easy to him. He’s never had a day of difficulty in his life, and the slow realisation that he would have an easier time progressing even though he’s a mediocre student compared to my battling for acceptance as a straight A scholarship student was a tough lesson to learn. For me I guess he stands as a sort of emblem of white male privilege. The sad thing is, he’s a really nice guy and I don’t give him enough credit because I’m blinded by envy and the differences in our personalities. We have a healthy respect for each other but rarely seek out each other’s company. That said, I’m sure it’s the same for some bio siblings.
I’ve waxed and waned with my adopted sibling. In many ways we tried to plough our own furrows because the assumption was always that we were twins because we were roughly the same race (we don’t look remotely alike; it’s the racism of “they all look the same to me”) and we are extremely different personalities. I was a bullied geek turned fighter/leader. My sibling was always appeasing and popular and assimilated but maybe lost for a while in doing that. We were best buddies as young kids, separated at school and rebelled in our separate ways, and have gradually come back together. We are good friends now. For many years my sibling struggled and I’m sure adoption had a lot to do with it. I always thought I was the coper and my sibling was the screwed up one; lately I’m thinking maybe one of us just processed it first.
My youngest sibling is my favourite. Even though we are furthest in age we always got on best. I’m not sure why I’m not jealous of the youngest in the same way… I think it’s because of personality and also that my youngest sibling is gay. I feel that this means my sibling is much more empathetic than most people and knows what it’s like to be a minority. My sibling is also probably personality wise the kind of person I would like to be – doesn’t let bad stuff win and always perseveres to make dreams come true. And probably is the one who gets on the best with everyone. I guess this is often a factor of the youngest.
The complexity in mixed adoptive/bio families is that even if you resolve to treat them exactly the same, the outside world won’t. When people tell me that [my race] don’t get racism, I feel like I’m always the one rocking the boat or trying to forge a new path, acting differently from “normal [my race] females” (whoever they are – hardly any in the UK). For me our family is a perfect microcosm of a controlled experiment: white male privilege vs female of colour. And it hurts.
As an adult I don’t blame my mother for being overjoyed at having a biological child after 15 years of infertility. He WAS a miracle. But I was reminded for all of my childhood that I wasn’t, and I never felt good enough, despite her constant reassurances. He was a mini version of my dad. I didn’t resemble my parents and that hurts. Especially with my dad. Everyone thinks a mum with two little ethnic kids is cute; an adult male with a non-white female is seen as some sort of power play. It hurts like hell that the role of [my race] females is so tied up in sexuality that my relationship with my dad is seen as something else from the outside. If we go to dinner, it’s assumed I’m his girlfriend at best and a prostitute at worst.
The other thing I would say is that environment matters, and there may be compromises to be made that benefit the children differently. When we lived overseas we were in a diverse, multicultural and expatriate (mainly American) environment. Maybe it was privilege and/or youth but I never noticed racism until I moved back to the UK, and it took me a while to figure it out. Overseas all the kids were more or less treated the same (we were at least special and cool in a way, as adoptees, and we probably all were treated with privilege as expats) but back in the UK, it was a shock to be treated so differently from white family members. The move back to the UK disproportionately affected the adopted kids (racism) but I would temper that with getting a British education which has enabled us all to get “good” jobs and be self sufficient. I found British education miserable and racist but… it did prepare me for life and work as a British adult (less miserable but still a lot of racism).
One thing my parents did do with varying degrees of success was to try and make us all special and recognised in our own different ways. I was the smart one, one of my siblings was the musical one, the golden child was the sporty one and the little one was the politician (got on with everyone!). They really did make each of us feel that we were The Best at each of “our things”. (The problem comes when over analytical adoptee me would be thinking that society values sports more than academic prowess.) I do think it’s important to give each child something to be proud of and best at. Also, I always felt very wounded by the miracle of the golden child but my dad would try to make up for it by pretending I was his favourite. I do think that helped. I just think some children are more emotionally needy than others. I used to try and add up how much each parent loved each of us, which is stupid but shows how my mind worked. (Probably still does.)
The hardest thing I’ve dealt with as a grown up is that realisation that I may be a genetic island. As the oldest, I got married first and I should have had a family first, but – irony of ironies – I’m infertile. So I’ve struggled with that for years whilst the golden child did everything “right” – married his childhood sweetheart and had the perfect two naturally conceived children, one boy, one girl. To me that is the hardest thing to deal with right now and feels like one more thing that has been taken away from me. I always felt like there would be some healing in having my own family, a child who looked like me, and I can’t describe how painful it is to think that likely won’t happen – especially when everyone’s response to infertility is “Why don’t you just adopt?” Neither of us adoptees wants to adopt. I think that maybe says something.
We often vied for position in our family. We’d all defend each other to the end but the fact is, with four kids you have to fight for attention. From the outside we are all pretty pushy. I’ve had a lifelong battle to feel special and I’ve gotten into some bad relationships because of it. But is that adoption, or is than just me? I’ve always wanted to feel chosen and to be someone’s favourite. I think a large part of coming to terms with it was meeting my partner, who was also adopted as a baby (same race adoption). For the first time I had someone other than my adopted sibling who understood and was willing to talk about it. It’s helped me unpick a lot of my feelings because it’s almost like having a control group for race/adoption.
My partner was adopted as the younger of two (non bio) siblings and is extremely close to his sibling, even though on the surface they have very little in common. I think this is because (aside from the fact that he’s an amazing human who invests in others) they only had each other. I think that and the same race adoption cuts the complexity somewhat. They also had a much easier time searching for their bio parents which I think eases some of the questions that come up, whereas I feel that’s an almost insurmountable obstacle for us.
Honestly, I’ve always joked with my dad that they should have stopped with me. And whilst I would never get rid of my siblings – I do think it would have been easier if I had been an only child or if my adopted sibling and I had been the only kids. I think adopted children need to feel more than anything else that they’re not second best, or a backup, or a charity project – but the fact is, they are one or all of those. A fundamental fact that I’ve always lived with is that if my parents hadn’t suffered with infertility, I wouldn’t be here in this life. That’s a lot to grow up with.
Some things I think potential [transracial] adoptive parents should consider with mixed adopted/bio families:
- Can you trust that you’ll be able to value each child as special and make them truly understand, to their core, that you love them equally?
- Do you realise that might not mean demonstrating it in the same way to each child? Adopted children, especially transracial adoptees, are likely to need more support and grounding and help developing their identities than your bio children.
- Many adoptees I’ve met have had “issues” with feeling like they belonged and are second best – how are you going to help deal with this?
- Are you willing to advocate for your child? Second guess and elicit how they’re truly feeling, and get beyond their adoptee desire for acceptance and people pleasing? (Adopted children often demonstrate more people pleasing behaviours than others, because they are afraid of further rejection.)
- How will you react when they’re Othered and how will you help them cope? What happens when it’s your biological child who’s othering them?
- When it comes down to it, are you willing to have exactly the same loyalty to your adopted child as your biological child?
From my point of view, I’m not in the position to tell people what to do with regards to growing their family. If you are going to do it, you’re going to do it and some random person on a blog isn’t going to affect that. If you’re already in that position then I hope you are still considering these questions and understanding that adopted children and bio children do not feel the same and will not be dealing with the same sorts of identity issues – particularly if they are transracially adopted. That’s not to say all is hopeless, but it is complex.
I am happy and generally okay but that’s in spite of the experiences I’ve had and not because of them. Growing up different is hard, no matter how much your parents love you (and mine do, a lot). Their love cannot protect you from the rest of the world and if you’re the different one, you have to learn to navigate the world and your difference within it on your own.
Another thing: adoptees are not static. They are not perpetual children. They grow up, they experience and learn and change just like other people. And so it’s important to understand that your child’s feelings about adoption won’t remain static throughout their lives. Their desires to connect with their birth culture may wax and wane too. One of my biggest regrets is that I resisted learning my birth language as a child – my parents encouraged me to, but I didn’t want to – I didn’t want another not-very-fun-sounding task to do. Now as an adult it is a big blocker to me revisiting my birth culture.
So what’s the answer? I have no answer. I only have my own lived experience.
If you don’t have experience of adoption or race then I urge you to the very large number of adult transracially adopted voices and testimonies so that whatever you do, you go into it with your eyes open.