By Stephanie Sprenger
I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything.
A row of three-year-old ballerinas clad in leotards fidget at the barre, a gangly eight-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt smack in the middle. My oldest daughter holds her tearful little sister’s hand as they plié together. It is my three-year-old’s first dance class, and the instructor gently invited her big sister to dance as well, a panacea for her jitters and sobs. Izzy bends down to whisper words of comfort in Sophie’s ear. Little brown heads pressed together, I again marvel that their hair is the exact same shade of chestnut. When I come across an errant baby picture, it’s sometimes hard to tell which daughter I am looking at if eye color—one of their few distinctions— is not immediately evident. My own childhood photographs contain uncanny whispers of each of their faces.
“Strong maternal genes,” I hear from friends who are in the know. I concur, astonished by my daughters’ similarities when they only share partial DNA. My youngest inherited the brown eyes accompanying the fraction of Native American blood in my husband’s veins, while her older sister’s eyes are the nebulous and changing color of the sea, framed by a luscious canopy of thick black lashes. Her chameleon eye color matches mine, but her large eyes and ebony lashes are a gift from her biological father.
Her “birth dad,” she calls him, on the rare occasion he comes up in conversation. When she was in preschool, we began awkwardly referring to him as “Dad in Phoenix” to distinguish him from my husband, whom we called “Daddy.” “Dad in Phoenix is on the phone,” I’d announce every 2-3 weeks. I couldn’t find the gumption to change his moniker, so when he moved to Texas I never bothered to tell my daughter. “Did you see the card from Dad in Phoenix?” I’d inquire, ignoring the postmark from north Texas. It bordered on comical. We had no plans to visit him, so I assumed my lie of omission was harmless.
After several years of using a geographically incorrect nickname, Izzy finally asked the hard questions. On the way to first grade one snowy morning, we managed to fit uncomfortable words like “divorce,” “biological,” “legal,” and “adoption,” into the same vast conversation that encompassed her gay uncles. I pulled away from her school building feeling stupefied, wishing I could temporarily resurrect my decade-gone cigarette habit to absorb the enormity of the ground we’d just covered.
I had never concealed her intricate history—details unraveled as they needed to, and, possessing an excellent memory, my thoughtful daughter even recalled details of “adoption day,” a stifling day in June several months before her fourth birthday when my husband became her legal parent.
Soon after her adoption, Izzy began campaigning for a sister. Not a sibling, a sister. She eerily placed her hand on my belly days before I hovered over the stick on the bathroom counter, praying for a pink line. “There’s a baby in your tummy,” she announced matter-of-factly. She continued to inquire until the day I finally confirmed her hunch, confident that the preceding pregnancy losses wouldn’t jinx my unborn child; Izzy jubilantly ran around the backyard proclaiming, “I’m going to be a big sister!” Whenever we stopped to converse with acquaintances, Izzy would possessively touch my belly, marking her status as big sister.
One day during my pregnancy, a friend innocently, if not foolishly, asked if I was worried about my husband loving Izzy as much now that he had his own baby coming. The implication was unmistakable: only one of his daughters was a real one. My daughters would only be half siblings. Waves of nausea rolled over me and I could feel the pink rushing to my face. “Izzy is his real daughter,” I replied stiffly, causing my flustered friend to back pedal.
When my phone rings this time, it’s been over three years since Izzy laid eyes on my ex-husband. As I announce the call, I suppress the old urge to label him “Dad in Phoenix,” and carefully articulate each syllable of biological dad, mentally tripping over the complications the term brings.
“I want to talk!” my three-year-old announces gleefully, elbowing her way onto the sofa while her big sister glares at her. “He’s my dad,” she whispers irritably, and I stiffen. My youngest child is simply not equipped to absorb such distinctions; having only met the man once, during her infancy, Sophie has no paradigm in which to tidily arrange him. I try to distract her with Daniel Tiger, but she erupts into sobs as I haul her from the room in an effort to respect the sanctity of Izzy’s connection to her birth father.
“That was my baby sister,” Izzy explains ruefully, and I wonder how this makes him feel. He had a family once. He doesn’t anymore. His daughter has a sister who does not belong to him. Do these surreal truths keep him awake at night?
Last Christmas, Izzy tore open a box of gifts from her paternal grandmother in Arizona. She brandished a conciliatory gift bag with one misspelled name, “To Izzy and Sofie,” but the generosity of the gesture was not lost on me. I pictured my former mother-in-law carefully wrapping the presents, deliberately including a sibling who would surely be jealous and confused when no corresponding package arrived bearing her name. A bag filled with marshmallows, candy canes, and chocolates that a pair of sisters would share.
From the moment our tentative five-year-old climbed into the hospital bed next to me to hold her sister for the first time, she was a full-blown sibling and took her role very seriously. Izzy orchestrated elaborate adventures, her dazed infant sister a captive audience in her vibrating bouncy chair. As her sweet companion became a tower-destroying toddler, Izzy tolerated The Wiggles redux while I lamented my bad luck at enduring a second round of the Australian quartet. She quietly advocated for the inclusion of her sister when other children would have begged for respite.
Her efforts to create a playmate paid off—oh, how they play. They race around the living room, vintage aprons tied backwards around their necks. Yellow gingham superhero capes and peals of laughter stream behind them, and they collapse together on the floor in a heap. While I originally entertained fleeting concerns that the five-year age difference would be an obstacle to their closeness—a worry dispelled by deep affection and a shared love of toilet humor—not once have I ever regarded them as half siblings.
Maybe it would be different had there not been a biological parent who signed away legal rights, had my husband not adopted Izzy. Maybe the fraction present in their genetic link would be magnified if there were custodial arrangements, a step-family with other children for whom to apply classifications and nicknames. I’ll never know. What I do know is this: I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything. Their relationship contains everything that full-blooded siblings experience. It is full of loyalty. Full of conflict. Full of that deep understanding and witnessing that only siblings can share. Full of love.
Author’s Note: As I watched my daughters playing superheroes, it dawned on me how often I forget our family’s complex history. As the girls are only 3 and 8, we have many hard conversations ahead of us.
Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at stephaniesprenger.com.
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