So the story goes, when my parents asked me at the age of two how I would feel if they were to adopt two older brothers to join our family, I said, “There are only three people in this family: Mommy, Daddy, and me.” As we would come to find out, it was actually a pretty sage response. Of course, the question was really rhetorical and they went ahead anyway.
Reflecting on my childhood and my life, I think there is some impact that the strangeness of being the youngest but the first child in the family has had on me. But it was more likely the flaws in the child welfare system in the early 1970s in New York State, and probably elsewhere, that resulted in a woeful lack of preparedness that adoptive parents faced when adopting older children that ultimately led to the chaotic and abusive household that was created by my older siblings.
The impact was fairly immediate. It was clear there were issues with the older two from the very beginning. As time went by, the middle one began acting out more and more, causing trouble in school and getting kicked out, berating my parents, pretending he didn’t know us, and running away. Eventually, my parents couldn’t handle him any more, and at the age of fourteen he began what ended up being a long stint in group homes and psychiatric centers.
But it was the oldest one who caused the most serious damage with me. He sexually abused me on several occasions when I was 11 years old, and left such an impression on me not to tell a soul that I was sure he would kill me if I did. It took me until my late 20s to finally get some professional help and confront him about what he had done, and my fear heightened significantly for quite some time as I worked through it all.
When my parents asked me at the age of two how I would feel if they were to adopt two older brothers to join our family, I said, “There are only three people in this family: Mommy, Daddy, and me.”
Why did everything unfold as it did? I often ask myself what my life would have been like if those two had never entered it. Much more peaceful, I would think. But while it did feel awkward to suddenly have two older siblings thrust upon me at such a young age, the craziness that ensued was not about birth order, per se. From my perspective, it was much more about not only the lack of information provided to my parents about what life was like for my two siblings in those critical formative years, but more importantly, the lack of preparation, resources, and tools provided to my parents by the system for being able to deal with the impact of trauma and other adverse experiences that may have been bestowed upon them while they were in foster care.
So, is adopting out of birth order really that big of a deal? I guess the answer is that it doesn’t have to be. But it really would behoove the system to make sure that adoptive parents are going into it with their eyes wide open and fully prepared, and to equip them with the tools and resources to help all of their children cope with and even embrace their unique set of circumstances in a loving, empathic environment.