“I wish I had a brother. Can’t you have another baby, a boy?” This comment may not be unexpected in some families, but it certainly threw me off guard. We had our first child after years of infertility treatment, and then we adopted our second, then had our third after a completely surprise pregnancy. We are done, and I thought I had made that clear!
My 8-year-old son though, the middle child between two sisters, had other ideas. Sisters are annoying, he explained. If we had a baby boy, he would make space in his bedroom for the baby’s crib. (This would be no small task, considering his room is the place where all lost household objects somehow end up.) He would get up and feed the baby in the middle of the night. He even agreed to change the baby’s diaper if I taught him how to do it!
I started on my usual spiel about how grateful we are to have him and his sisters, and how we aren’t planning on having more children. But an unexpected thought, which I did not say out loud, popped into my brain: “Maybe you do have a brother.” And it’s true—maybe he does, and we don’t know it.
I like to think that we spend just the right amount of time talking about adoption in our family. We discuss it when it comes up naturally, and we sometimes bring it up when it doesn’t, just to make sure that our son knows it’s fine to talk about. I sometimes feel that people have a tendency to over-focus on adoption and to attribute any normal challenges that a child faces to “adoption issues.” We try not to do that; we treat being adopted as just one part of our son’s life, and of our family’s life.
This year, in second grade, my son has become more open about it. For his school “country project” he chose Guatemala, because it is where he was born. He seemed to enjoy doing research about the country and sharing what he learned. For another assignment, which involved describing himself in a letter to his upcoming third grade teacher, he also wrote about being adopted. My husband and I, as well as his wonderful second grade teacher, supported him in his choice to share this part of his history at school.
We have plans to visit Guatemala when he gets older, and we are open to the possibility of looking for his birth family at some point if this is something he is interested in doing. We try our best to help him identify with his race and birth culture through positive activities and exposure. But our daily focus tends to be more on getting him to and from baseball practice and helping him keep track of his uniform, glove, and bat.
There are many voices in the news lately that express concerns about adoption, ranging from corruption in international programs to a history of secrecy and shaming of birth mothers (for example, see here or here). These issues are real, and in fact adoption from Guatemala is no longer an option due to such concerns.
When I read about these things, I feel a certain pressure to be a model adoptive parent, to make up for whatever harm being adopted has caused my child. My husband and I are not perfect, but we’re doing the best we can, like everybody else: managing jobs, kids, pets, and the myriad obligations of running an observant Jewish household. Sometimes it takes all our energy just to get through the day.
Something about my son’s plea for a brother stuck with me, though. I know that he’d like another boy around, but from the way he described taking care of this imaginary baby, I wondered if he was also asking for something that is truly his own. Of course I’ve thought about this before, but for the first time, I actually saw our family, and the world, through my son’s eyes. I imagined being surrounded by people who love you but who are not your blood relatives. What it’s like not to know anything about your mother, father, brothers, or sisters, let alone aunts, uncles, cousins—including whether or not they exist. Not to know whose eyes you have, or whose smile. Having a ghost family that you see in dreams and fantasies but with whom you have no purchase in real life. I felt sad and empty in a way that I had not allowed myself to feel before.
None of us get through life without traumatic losses. Most of us just don’t have to go through them when we are only a few weeks old. Maybe there is something more to this adoption thing than I’ve let myself believe. Maybe on those occasions when my son has a total meltdown, his rage and grief are coming from a deeper place. Or, maybe he’s just being a typical 8-year-old boy—it’s really hard to know.
Parenting, like life, is a lot more complicated than we want it to be. Somehow we need to make space, in our homes and in our hearts, for our children—with all the joy, but also all the history and genetics and baggage that they bring. Sometimes that means being there for our children when they get up at night to take care of the imaginary baby crying in their room. And of course, we still have to get them to school on time in the morning.