When we told most people about our plans to add four new children to our already large-by-American-standards family of six, their eyes became wide as saucers. Adoption is challenging no matter what kind of adoption it is – special needs, baby, toddler, older child, sibling group, etc. But to take on a sibling group of four is insanity, at least that’s what lots of people told us. They were probably right. But in our naivety we truly believed we could manage the challenge with great levels of success.
But our challenge, little did we know, was a bit more unique. You see, we already had a sibling group of four in our home. These four kids were relationally close to one another and to us. Now, though, we were getting ready to bring a completely separate set of siblings, just as relationally close to one another, into our family. Our job was and is not only to navigate the waters of adoption itself, but also, with God’s divine help, to integrate an established sibling group of four into another established sibling group of four. A nearly impossible task. Because of this challenge, agencies and international adoption communities informed a rule (at least in Poland) which required the oldest child in a sibling group to be the youngest child in the adoptive family. This would mean our 10 year old would have to be the youngest child in our quiver. This rule is so strict our agency did not believe we could get approval to adopt the sibling group we felt called to adopt. Our two older biological children would remain the oldest in our family, but the oldest in the new group would now become third oldest in our conglomerate. The rest of the children would slip into various slots along the timeline of birth order. Surprising all of us, Poland obviously agreed, and our birth order (or pecking order) became dislodged.
We are certainly not the first to do this, nor will we be the last. We have most assuredly faced many challenges because of the birth order paradigm. People are always asking us how this phase of our family life is going. I thought I’d take a post here and share some of the challenges we have/are facing as we work to meld two completely separate sibling groups into one bonded group of kiddos and what we are attempting to do about it.
Insecurity isn’t something we were used to dealing with. Bringing a new sibling group into our home changed that dramatically!! The new children wondered if they would be as loved, cared for, and important as the biological children. The biological children wondered if the new children would replace them. Would they continue to receive the same love, concern, attention now, or would they suffer since there are more hearts in the house to take care of. Thes questions are fertile ground for cultivating insecurity – particularly in the two oldest in each of the sibling groups. Our biological eldest never had sisters before. Now she has three. She loves them, but has struggled to believe she’s still just as important as she’s always been. This has sometimes produced fear, frustration, and even anger in her as she learns to “share” her mom and dad. On the other hand, our second daughter, the oldest of the adoptive group wanted – nay – NEEDED to feel what our oldest daughter feels. Her solution was to try and be the person she believed she needed to be in order to receive our approval. Thankfully, both are rational thinkers so helping them separate feelings from what is true and real has been possible with much assurance to them of their place in the family. Our oldest is still the oldest. But our second daughter lost her position and is now just one in the middle of the mix. We constantly speak words of encouragement, make alone time for them, and navigate gingerly the emotions of a couple of pre-teen girls! It’s challenging!!! If you have kids and adopt within your birth order, just be aware, insecurity will be an issue you will want to have a strategy to counter-act its affects.
- Appreciating Vastly Different Personalities
When a baby comes into your home the family grows up with the new personality. One of my favorite things was to watch the personalities of my children form as they grew and developed into children. But when children come to your home at an older age – even as old as just four – they have already developed distinct personalities, likes, dislikes, interests, and even hopes & dreams. I think people who grow up from birth together have a natural appreciation for one another. For example, my sister and I are VERY different people. She lives her life and values things often very different than me. But I appreciate who she is and what she values. I hope she feels the same about my life. This issue is also why I think newly married folks sometimes struggle to meld their lives. You don’t really know someone until you live with them and experience them day in and day out. When those worlds collide, everyone has to change.
In melding two sibling groups, particularly the size of ours, this is amplified. Reality is everybody’s personality isn’t going to be perfectly compatible with everyone else’s. There are going to be small and sometimes massive differences. Think about it….people who may never otherwise be friends because of personality, are now forced to try to be brothers and sisters and they’re coming from vastly differing backgrounds, one of which includes some kind of trauma. That’s a big deal!!
Several other authors we read and friends who’ve also adopted sibling groups encouraged us to buddy up one bio kid with one adopted kid to do chores, work together on something, play together, or in public. This really has made a difference in helping us appreciate one another. We’ve had many talks with our older children as they’ve worked to integrate their new siblings into their lives. They have often felt guilt for sometimes not “feeling” very good about their siblings or being annoyed because of personality differences. I really think the greatest tools are TIME & PATIENCE. Just now, a year later, we are beginning to see the appreciation take hold. Our greatest advice is be patient with it and don’t try to force the issue. Let your kids talk out how they feel and steer them to begin appreciating the differences rather than being annoyed by them. Eventually, they won’t remember what life was like without each other.
- Sharing Space….At Least New Space….Maybe SHARING in General
For some kids this isn’t something new, and this won’t affect everyone who adopts a sibling group. For many, though, learning to share space can be quite difficult. Our eldest daughter has never had to share space before. Now, she has a sister invading her room, messing with her stuff, following her around, etc. I’ve seen the room taped in half, tents built on the bed to create a cave, and even had to search for 20 minutes to find where she was hiding. To say it’s been an issue for her would be minimizing it. I also believe the older a child is, the more this matters. Our eldest son has also had some space issues and he’s had a brother in his room since he was two. I do believe age has something to do with it…they are 12 and 11, respectively!
Sharing the room is not an option. It is what it is. But we have done a few things to try and help those of our children who need some help. One was create “keepsake boxes” for each of them. This is a special box (plastic storage or bank box) where they can keep anything they want which means something to them. This way, the things which are important are kept out of harms way and away from curious little siblings. They can always add things or take things out. It’s their box, not the box in which we keep their 1st grade coloring pages. We’ve also made it clear when they need alone time they just need to make us aware. Then we will create the space for them and keep their siblings away for a few hours or whatever they need. With eight kids in the house, we’ve had to be a little creative, but our kids know when they need space, we will protect them and help them find the space they need. Our bench swing, hanging from a thick tree branch in our yard, has become a favorite place to get away and think, read, write, or just be alone…..and mom & dad may occasionally use it, too!
- Changing Paradigms
A paradigm is simply a way of doing something or a way of life. Most of us carry some paradigms into our adult lives from childhood. But inevitably, there are paradigms we establish which are much different from our family of origin. As children come along, we establish family norms and paradigms with which our kids will grow up. We have had some well established paradigms in our family. The way we do vacation; the way we do dinner; the way we do school; the way we do conflict; the way we do days off; the way we do kid’s friendships; the way we do holidays; the way we do extra curricular activities; the way simply do life. Our kids knew these paradigms and loved them (well, most of them).
When we came home from Poland we quickly realized our adopted kids brought paradigms with them as well. Most of these paradigms weren’t positive – many were just about survival. But some of these paradigms were cultural….the way they’ve experienced Christmas; the way they’ve interacted with one another, etc. Not nearly as many rock-solid paradigms, but a few nonetheless.
What we did not fully expect, and which has been challenging, is realizing some of our family’s former paradigms would not make the cut into our new family. We have to do things differently….MANY things. We vacation differently; we no longer just pick-up-and-go when we want to; heck, we even grocery shop differently now. This change can cause resentment and even offer the opportunity to place blame for these changing paradigms (the same thing happens in churches when change happens, by the way!) by our biological children.
So what have we done about it? Here’s a few tips for processing through paradigm shifts we have tried to employ (BTW – you’ll face paradigm shifts of varying degrees your whole life: Church, work, relationships, culture, etc. Just get used to it!):
-We’ve tried to keep the most important paradigms in tact. The one’s we’ve had to change we’ve explained them carefully, and helped everyone know WHY.
-Create opportunity for memories to be made. We don’t get out as much as we used to, but when we do, we try and create opportunities for life-long memories between all the siblings. It’s important for our bio kids to have good and recent memories with each other AND the adopted kids. We do this intentionally….and take lots of pictures!
-Make the mundane memorable. Playing games at home; doing chores, or school; even cleaning up messes. Channel your inner Mary Poppins and make it memorable.
-Give your kids a voice. Let them tell you some of the paradigms which are/were special to them and then try to provide these experiences when feasible.
-Add new paradigms which are even more special than the one’s you’ve had to let go. We now do a birthday breakfast for each child on their birthday. It’s 90 minutes of just that child with mom & dad. We started this in 2016 and it’s getting rave reviews!
-Grow deeper yourself. Discover what makes your soul find life. Then include your kids, spouse, family in these things. You won’t believe the connection they will feel to you and one another doing things you love with you as you do them.
Integrating two sibling groups into one group is challenging. With time, patience, intentionality, and a spoon-full of sugar, I believe just about any group of kids can become a bonded sibling group who love & care for one another, and grow to have the kind of adult sibling relationships we all want our children to have.