As we move through the adoption process, I am continually talking to Benjamin about what he thinks life will be like with a sibling. His talk is full of promise and hopes and I try to encourage this, as well as temper his fantasies of life with a little sister will be like. Of course I realize that no matter how much we talk about this subject (about the changes our family will face); I know that Benjamin will not truly understand until there is, physically, another child living with us. Only then will he probably struggle with what therapist Heidi Wiste calls “the letdown when reality replaces fantasy.” Benjamin cannot understand what it means to have a sibling until he really has one.
In contemplating what it means to have a sibling, my sister is four years my junior, I thought about how the Bible has portrayed this relationship between siblings. Going all the way back to Genesis, the first siblings gave a very unflattering portrait of the lengths that rivalry can go to with Cain and Abel. Things don’t improve with Jacob stealing his brother, Esau’s, birthright or with Joseph’s brothers being so jealous that they, at first, plot his murder and then opt to sell him into slavery. Even Jesus’ brothers thought he was crazy and tried to take charge of him.
When I was four, my parents brought my newborn sister home on a surprisingly snowy late March day. I was thrilled. My wife, however, responded to her parents bringing her new sister home with, “Okay. I’ve seen her. You can take her back now.”
Growing up, I remember my little sister following my friends and me around. At times I was protective of her and, at other times, I just found her to be a pest and wanted her to leave me alone. One thing I enjoy doing with my son is watching the cartoon Arthur on PBS. The relationship between Arthur and his little sister DW very much strike a chord on what its like between older brothers and little sisters. So, too, does the one between Jem and Scout in one of my favorite books To Kill a Mockingbird.
One of my fondest memories of my little sister came from one of my most painful birthdays. It was at Putt Putt and when it came time for everyone to partner up to compete against each other, all of my friends chose somebody else. It was my birthday and I was the reason why they were there, didn’t they realize they were supposed to fight over who got to play as my partner? Clearly they didn’t. Hurt, I stood there and watched all of them going off to play the first hole. It was then that my little sister proudly came up to me, took my hand, and said, “I’ll be your partner.”
I also remember how we fought and argued like all children do. Once, my parents won a cruise. My sister and I desperately wanted to go too. Calculatedly, my parents told us that if we didn’t argue once between then and the day of the cruise, we could go. Needless to say, we lost out before the end of that very day, though we begged fruitlessly for “another chance.”
With the addition of a new sibling, Benjamin has the opportunity to create one of the longest lasting bonds he can have, even longer than the one he has with us, his parents. Many siblings help and love each other long after their parents have died. He also has an ally and helpmate when my wife and I age, become frail and need to be taken care of. We will no longer be his responsibility alone. Also, studies show that having sibling bonds help kids with their sense of well-being and attachment as adults.
Every Christmas and birthday, Benjamin has asked for a sibling. He has often spoken of being lonely as the only child. All of his friends have brothers or sisters. When talking of his future sibling, I ask him about the relationships (good and bad) that his friends have with their siblings. We have discussions on what it will mean to be a brother, something I ask him. He talks in terms of taking his little sister “under” his “wing.” Even before his sister gets here, Benjamin feels protective of her, something I felt about my own sister. Not completely altruistic, he has already used the term “mine” in reference to things as well.
I understand that it will not just be the adoptive child who will be experiencing loss. Benjamin, too, will face his share of losses: his privacy, being an only child, and getting all of the attention of my wife and myself. Benjamin and I talk about what the “positives” and “negatives” of bringing another child into our family might be. We also talk about ways that he can bond with his new sister.
Not wanting him to think he will be forgotten when the “new” child arrives, I tell him that he’s not being replaced and that Mommy and I want him to know that we will never, ever love him any less, that he is special to us, and that we will continue to encourage and nurture his identity and interests.
Some questions we address with him:
What does adoption mean?
Why is our family adopting?
What do you think will be different after the adoption? What will be the same?
What it the adoption is hard? Who can you talk to if the adoption is difficult for you?
I want Benjamin to have a strong bond with his adopted sister and to love her as I loved mine. In The Message translation of the Bible, Psalm 133 opens with, “How wonderful, how beautiful when brothers and sisters get along!”