I am well aware of the intricacies of sibling rivalry. I grew up in a very large family with eleven siblings of my own. I know that siblings can love each other one minute, hate each other the next and then love again.
My youngest and my next-to-youngest have been engaged in an ongoing tug-of-war of anger, jealousy, and love. There are days of shoving, arguing, and tattling mixed with times of love, playing, and laughter: a true microcosm of the larger human world and all of our interactions with each other–person to person, culture to culture, country to country.
I suppose it should come as no surprise, really. It was bound to happen at some point. Kids are kids. They say what is on their minds, with very little filter between their thoughts and their mouth. Things like, “What it that thing on your face?” and “Why do you sing so badly?”
That, coupled with the last ongoing months of growing annoyance and jealousy between young siblings, set the stage for a less-than-ideal moment to occur.
The scene: The three of us are in the car on a hot summer morning. I’m driving my son to the bus for camp. Eliza, 3, is singing loudly in her car seat.
Teddy, 7, asks, “Mom, tell me again: WHY did we adopt Eliza?”
Important question, I think to myself. But it is hard to think of a great answer over the din in the car, and I can tell by the tone in his voice that he probably is not looking for the long answer. Eliza starts swinging her feet back and forth purposefully in an attempt to hit Teddy’s leg, singing even louder to try to interrupt any sort of flow of my attention to him.
Trying to ignore the noise and activity, I say: “Well, Daddy and I looked around and thought, “We have a pretty nice family here. Why not share that love with someone else?”
I look in the rear view mirror to see Teddy’s reaction, and to monitor the culminating battle when Teddy grabs Eliza’s foot, which has just landed dangerously near his leg.
Giving her foot a hard squeeze, he says: “Eliza, you are adopted.”
Eliza frees her leg and lands her sneaker square on Teddy’s knee.
“Oww! And that means mom’s not your real mom!” he cries.
I almost hit the car in front of me, as I sharply pull over. I swing around in my seat, half yelling, half hissing like some crazed alien creature, and I scream,
“Don’t you EVER say that again!! NEV-ER A-GAIN! Of course I am her mom! How dare you say that!”
Teddy stares, tears well up in his eyes and Eliza starts to cry. Not because of any hurt feelings; she doesn’t even understand what has just happened, all she knows is I am yelling, and she is scared.
Teddy reaches over and hugs her close. The backseat fight is forgotten; they are now bonded over my sudden crazy outburst.
“It’s okay, Eliza. Shhh. She’s your mom. Don’t worry, I’m sorry.”
A big, fat tear rolls down his face, and lands right in my heart.
I am an idiot. A really bad parent.
I pull over in the parking lot of the bus stop and turn around again. Now the wild, screaming alien mom has flown away and has been replaced by a sickly sweet, psychologist mom.
Taking a breath, I apologize. I tell Teddy that he is right I am Eliza’s mom, and I am his mom. That is what adoption means, I say, to bring someone into your family and promise to always be there, mom or dad, or brother or sister no matter what. Just like when you have a child that grows within you, you make the same promise. I say the words we all know: “Maybe she didn’t grow in my body, but she grew in my heart right next to her brother.”
He says okay, wipes a tear, grabs his backpack and opens the door.
Eliza waves, “Bye Ted!”
“Bye Eliza, see you later,” he calls, and runs to join his friends at the bus stop. I feel horrible the rest of the day, and counting the minutes until he comes home.
When this happens to you– this moment of fear mixed with anger and the wrong words coming out (and it will)– remember this, “You can always go back, no moment is ever lost.”
One of my graduate school professors used to tell us this as we were preparing to become psychologists. You know– one of those people with a certified piece of paper stating that we will always know the right thing to say.
Yes, I have one of those pieces of paper, framed…somewhere. Me, the screaming, out of control, idiot mother. But, the truth is, I don’t always have the answer, know what to say, or react correctly in the moment. I am a human, full of mistakes and emotions and love. The best I can do, at times like that, is to take a step back, re-evaluate myself and my response and revisit.
So, go back with your child, at bedtime or whenever you have a moment alone and discuss what happened. It may not be a long, involved conversation, it may only last a few minutes, or seconds even, but let them know that you thought about their question, and your response to it.
We all read the books on parenting, the articles on adoption. We try to arm ourselves with the catch phrases and the correct, emotionally in-tune responses, but when we are in trenches, when our emotions are running high and life is swirling around us, we get scared, and the right words can fly away.
My reaction was so out of proportion. It came from a dark, secret place in my soul. A place of fear and dread. A place that says, “This is how others see you. You are not her mom.” My fear that Eliza might see us as this as well, and one day, the dreaded words “You are not my mom” will come out and hit me in the heart.
I know the truth, and I will hold on to that. I know that I am Eliza’s mom, and Teddy’s mom, and my other children’s mom. With all my imperfections, my shortcomings and mistakes, I am. There is no word, no human way to completely ever convey the love a parent feels for a child, both those born through us and those borne within us.
That afternoon when I pick Teddy up from camp, I try to bring the topic up again but it is too far away for him then. He doesn’t really want to talk about it; he is more interested in telling me camp stories and getting a slush.
“Don’t forget to get Eliza a red one! That’s her favorite,” he says as he runs into the store ahead of me.
Written By: Anne Cavanaugh-Sawan