combining birth and adopted kids in the same family

It was one of those perfect summer days–on a boat, at a lake, with my family. The sway of the boat, the smell of sunscreen, and the taste of watermelon and fried chicken is a particularly intoxicating mix. The gallons of iced tea we downed required frequent swim breaks. With my kids, no opportunity is lost to get away with potty humor, so the swim breaks quickly were dubbed pee breaks. Son # 1 was in the water when I jumped in, followed quickly by daughter # 2.

Son # 1 (17): Oh gross, you just jumped into Mom’s pee.

Daughter # 2 (11): Yeah, well at least I didn’t have to swim in her pee for 9 months like you did.

Son # 1(swimming up behind me): Too bad for you; back then I loved her pee ’cause it was the best pee around. (With a flair, he ducked under me.)

Everyone laughed, but I held my breath. Where would the conversation go? It went nowhere, which is to say, it went back to the toilet– kidding Son # 2 that he was swimming in his sister’s pee and a discussion of whose pee would be grossest to swim in.

Putting aside my children’s lack of any sense of decorum concerning bodily functions and their screwed up understanding of basic biology, what gave me pause was my reaction. For a moment, just the tiniest moment, I shifted into my mommy alert mode–would something be said that would make my youngest feel…different or like an outsider in our family. Such is the lot of a mom in a blended family. Son # 1 is mine by birth; Daughter # 2 is mine by adoption.

Why would I go into alert mode for such an innocuous remark? As a family, we aren’t known for avoiding the biggies. We discuss sex, drugs, rock and roll, and adoption more often than our kids would like. (Especially the sex and drug part.) But we don’t talk as much about the pregnancy and birth stories of our biological kids. I suspect my reaction as a mom in a blended family is not unusual because we received a similar question on this Creating a Family radio show which was about combining children by birth and adoption in a family.

In our early years as parents, on each child’s birthday, we would look at the photos of my last months of pregnancy and their birth. Slowly over the years, we’ve stopped that tradition. It wasn’t a conscious decision. The kids weren’t really into it and often had to be cajoled to sit with us to reminisce about a time they don’t remember. It didn’t help that in his enthusiasm to record their entrance into this world, their dad used precious little discretion. (Son # 2: Dad, was it really necessary to take so many crotch shots??? Dad: Whose fault is it that you couldn’t keep your legs together? I feel their pain since there are some early breast feeding pics that could use some editing as well.) But it was also easy to let the tradition drop because I didn’t want to highlight that we don’t have these pictures and stories for our youngest.

Our guest experts on the Creating a Family show on blended families responded about the need to create lifebooks for adopted children to explain their early life history. This answer didn’t satisfy me, but it wasn’t until after the show that I was able to process why their answer missed the mark for me. We have a lifebook for our adopted child, and we strongly encourage every parent to create one. (The Creating a Family resources on Lifebooks can be found here, including our podcast on how to create attachment through lifebooks.) We use and love our daughter’s lifebook, and it has indeed opened many conversations. But lifebooks address the adopted child’s early history. In my case, we were avoiding our birth children‘s early history because we don’t have the same degree of information for our adopted child.

When I really think about it, my avoidance surprises me. We are a family, in many ways, defined by our differences. I know this is the case in all families, but it seems especially the case in mine. Some are extroverts and some introverts; some live for athletics and others avoid sports like the plague; some breeze through school and others labor through some (or most) classes. I think one of the strengths of our family is our acceptance of differences. So why do I avoid this one difference? Truthfully, I’m not really sure, but I do know that it’s one thing to celebrate differences, but another altogether to make a child feel different.

As a mom, I want to protect my kids from all the harms and hurts of life, and one potential hurt is adoption. I love the institution of adoption and all that it stands for, but in the shadow of adoption is loss. I know it’s not fully within my power, but I so want to protect my child from feeling those losses, one of which is not being born into her family. I know that birth into our family is not a prerequisite to family membership, but I want her to know it on that deep gut level. One way I have tried to protect her is to deemphasize the pregnancy and birth stories of her siblings that were born into our family.

This type of thinking is falling into the trap I warn others about: treating our adopted kids as if they are more fragile than they really are. If we aren’t careful, this can become a self fulfilling prophecy. I have no real reason to think that this child needs to be protected from the hurt of not being born into our family and not knowing her birth story. I think she values her place in our family, and we talk about how she could only be who she is because she was born to another mother and father. We honor their contribution to who she is. And even if she did need help coping with this loss, avoiding the discussion is certainly not the best way to help her. So who exactly am I trying to protect here???

I love living in a blended family. There are so many different combinations that make us the family that we are. We have different strengths and weaknesses, different likes and dislikes, and yes, different stories. Some have birth stories that we know, and others have birth stories that are only partially known. That’s life. That’s our family. Since my kids went swimming in my pee, we’ve spent a bit more time with the crotch shot pictures. I want to protect my kids from all the hurts of life, but I know that I can’t. I can however, give them a family to fall back on and a place to come where they are loved completely and totally regardless of how they came to be a member.

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First published in 2009; updated in 2017.