Trying on a Different Birth Order, and Imagining a Life Not Adopted
By Carrie Goldman
An adopted child’s insecurities in a family that includes children who were not adopted.
My oldest daughter, K, was born at a healthy 8 lbs. 2 ounces. She outgrows her clothes at dutiful six-month intervals. She gains inches steadily, and at eleven years old, she is already taller than I am. When we adopted K out of foster care, she was already bigger than the baby clothes we had accumulated in anticipation of her homecoming.
An easy and well-adjusted toddler, K accompanied us everywhere—Germany, England, Mexico. She adapted better than most adults would, and met each new experience with joy. I still remember her at twenty months, gazing up at an enormous statue in Berlin of Marx and Lenin and calling, “Hi, boys!” as she waved cheerfully from her stroller.
When K was nearly four, I gave birth to a little girl, and then three years later, we had another baby girl. Our two younger daughters are tiny—fragile, even—next to their hearty big sister. K adores her little sisters, but she also insists I ruined her life by having them. “Everyone fusses over the babies. They’re so smart; they’re so cute. Nobody cares about me.” Her perspective as a resentful oldest sibling mirrors that of millions of other agonized oldest children, with one important exception—she also feels the sting of being the only adopted child.
Every argument of “you love them more” takes on heightened meaning. In an age of parental over-analysis, those words settle with a thud in my stomach and create a terrifying doubt. Do I love the younger girls more? No, the answer comes back. Do I relate to them differently? Yes, but it’s because they are younger, not because they are more loved. This is where it gets confusing for K.
As a function of birth order, K is in a different life phase than our younger daughters. She is much less interested in snuggling and affection, whereas the smaller girls still yearn to be held and carried and coddled. K bats me away laughing if I try to pull her into my lap, behavior that is normal for an 11-year-old.. Even so, it seems she misses the days of being our only baby, and has trouble sorting out how much of it is because she’s adopted and how much of it is birth order.
Determined to find other ways to be physically close with K, I have started climbing into bed to chat with her for a short time at night. Under the comforting cloak of darkness, she lets me in. She tells me about the trivial details of her day. There are rare times when she unburdens the weighty matters of her heart, such as her fears and insecurities about not being good enough to belong. I swallow against the tightness in my throat during these conversations, and I tell her, “You do not have to be good enough. That is an unachievable standard. You just have to be yourself. We love you in all your ways of being. We will never stop loving you, and we will never leave you, even when you have struggles.” She says nothing but squeezes my hand. I wrap my arms around her and she pats me on the arm, then buries her face in my neck for a fleeting moment.
Each summer, I take K to visit her birth family for a weekend. My husband stays home with our younger girls. K is the baby in her birth family. She has a sister who is eighteen and a brother who is fifteen. K slips into the role of the youngest with relish. She sandwiches herself between her older siblings and clings to their hands as we walk around museums and parks, her body looking like that of a small child next to the teenagers. When K roughhouses with her brother, her birthmother scolds him, “Watch out for K! She’s littler than you!” If we all go to see a movie, it is K’s age that determines what is appropriate, and her older siblings accommodate her taste. At home, our family movie night choices default to the lowest common denominator of our preschooler.
At night, after we bid her birth family farewell and we go back to our hotel room, K climbs into the bed next to me. “I like being the baby,” she says softly. “Everyone pays the most attention to me and does whatever I want to do.” I tell her, “Very few people get such a concrete glimpse into an alternate life that they could be living. But you do, and I’m sure that it makes you have many different feelings. Sometimes you probably wish you could live here.”
She nods her head. “But I also know that it probably wouldn’t be like this if I were with them all the time. And I love you and Daddy and my little sisters so much.”
“Do you think your birthmother loves you more because you are the youngest?” She guffaws and shakes her head no. “Nah, she loves us all. But right now, I get fussed over the most.”
She pauses and looks at me. “I know what you’re trying to do! You’re trying to prove to me that just because you fuss over my sisters doesn’t mean you love them more. Fine, fine, I believe you. For tonight anyway.” True, it lasted about twelve hours. At the next perceived injustice, she threw out the protest “you love them more!” rather than accepting the fact that an eleven-year-old has to spend more time on homework than a seven-year-old or a four-year old. Every time I think our love and assurances have filled her cup, something happens, and a little bit sloshes out. Sometimes the whole cup dumps over, and we have to start the process of refilling the cup, drop by drop, hoping that the evaporation rate is slower than the flow of the tap.
And so it goes, the never-ending calibration of love, the imagining of a life not adopted, the yearning to belong and be accepted, the conflation of fair and equal, the need for parental love above all.
Carrie Goldman is the award winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear, and she writes at Portrait of an Adoption