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The Nuclear Family, Exploded


There’s little research about the relationship between biological children and their adopted siblings. Early studies focused on racial mixtures; they found little impact, negative or positive, on racial identity. A 1991 study by the Colorado Adoption Project suggested that environment trumped biology among blended siblings, at least in childhood. The most recent research is an ongoing longitudinal study of siblings at the University of Minnesota, where researchers are still crunching the data. But overall, studies seem to suggest that most undramatic of conclusions: that there isn’t any notable effect of mixing siblings, and that, to use the scientific term, it all depends—on family stresses, how open the adoption is, cultural issues, and so on.

Nonetheless, there is a social bias against adopted children, a suspicion that they will stand out from their bio-siblings as magnets for trouble—traumatized, incapable of bonding, unsuccessful. Among older siblings I spoke to, experiences ranged. Juliet Collingwood, 41, looked like her brothers, but felt deeply alien: She knew she’d been adopted because her parents wanted a girl, but she was distinctly ungirly—“aggressive, competitive, oppositional”—and she ran away again and again, testing her adoptive mother’s love and finding it lacking. Carah DePeter, in contrast, was adopted as an infant from a drug-addicted mother; she is racially distinct from her family but, at 17, feels a special affinity for one sister and a sense that “me and my dad have the same sense of humor; I can look at him and know what he’s thinking.” It’s hard to draw conclusions from such anecdotes; they are impossibly specific, and, like any interpretation of family, prone to alter over time. But it’s worth mentioning this tension in any discussion of blended families: that even the most well-meaning parent’s desire—to love their varied children, if not identically, with equal intensity—may clash with their child’s version of the same story.

“Questions about the mixing of different kind of entryways into parenthood have been around for hundreds of years,” points out Dr. Jane Aronson, a.k.a. the Orphan Doctor. Aronson runs Worldwide Orphans Foundation, a kind of peace corps for orphanages. “It’s a very ancient idea, from back when adoption was first conceived of, as the clan took on children of disease and war. Whenever people discovered they could love a child not of their own body, it was a shocking event.” You can trace this obsession in novels from the 1600s and 1700s, in newspapers and journals, “all about ‘of blood’ and ‘not of blood,’ ” she points out.

But for Aronson, who has two adopted children herself, the most striking issue is how adoption itself has altered—making it hard to predict the repercussions of this fresh cohort of mixed families. “At first, for people who couldn’t have bio-kids, there was no IVF, no IUI. So you got yourself a little white baby and you never told anybody.” Aronson herself offers up a puckishly contrarian view of genetics. “It’s just my opinion, but I’ll tell you this: I’m glad my children are not genetically related to me. There are many of us in that camp. There are things in me, physically, biologically, psychologically, that shouldn’t be inherited. ‘You don’t have to look like me, with my big nose, close-set eyes!’ ”

Most recently, however, Aronson sees a new demographic shift on the horizon. “Now more than ever, there’s a huge wave of very different kinds of adoption: people with great wealth and education and an awareness of the globalization of life. People adopting children who don’t need to have any more children. Those people are waiving all kinds of social taboos, and the picture is being changed by your well-to-do, idealistic, more lefty-type people: black children into white homes, from Africa, Asia, Taiwan. This is optional family-making. By families who are not desperate.”

Among the families she works with, she says, “probably at least half or more are not just families through adoption.” And while in her experience there isn’t a clear difference in the love people feel for their disparate children, occasionally there are parents who haven’t finished grieving their own infertility. More common, she says, is a split not between the parents and their adopted or biological children but conflicts with “the in-laws and the grandparents, who have generationally different feelings about adopted families.” This was certainly true among the families that I spoke to. Although few of them wanted to go on the record about this, many have found older relatives resistant to the notion that adopted children were their true grandchildren. One grandfather wrote his biological grandchild a note saying, “I hope you are enjoying your time with your new companion.”

Adopted kids, Aronson says, will almost inevitably want to claim their genetic connections at some point: “At 8, 9, they are looking for connection in their blood, they want to know who they look like, and everyone goes through it.” Parents need to be aware that this is normal, she says. “You don’t tell them it’s nothing. You don’t say, ‘Oh, so what. I love you just as much as Joe.’ The truth is that’s not an answer for a child in certain circumstances.” Blended siblings, like any siblings, may wield their status against one another, and parents should expect these clashes. “Lots of birth kids are pretty hostile toward their adopted siblings, and there’s black humor: ‘So you’re here, great, let me drive you back.’ ” Ideally, parents should act as a lightning rod, says Aronson, rather than letting their kids simply take these emotions out on new adoptees.

Different families deal with these tensions in different ways. But most families I spoke with had taken an almost defiant openness, a celebratory attitude, about their variety. MaryBeth Cassidy has seven children: three biological, four adopted, including two teen girls from Siberia and a boy who arrived paralyzed from the waist down (but who can now walk)—not to mention the many children she’s hosted for summer medical clinics, which she organizes on Long Island as part of her work arranging adoptions. She remembers driving around when the oldest five were little: “Jake would go, ‘I’m from Siberia, it’s really cold there!’ And Tisa would go, ‘I’m from the Philippines, it’s really hot there!’ And Bligh would say, ‘Did I come on an airplane?’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, you came in my belly,’ and he’d go, ‘Ohhh’—like, that’s really boring. When Caroline was a baby, I’d tell them she came from Huntington Hospital; they just assumed that was another country.”


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