I dyed my hair brown a few weeks ago, just for a change. I wondered what I’d look like with darker hair, so I dyed it. As I was picking my son up from school, he hopped in the car, looked at me, and his eyes grew wide and round, “Mom, you look like Aunt Katie!” For a moment, I chuckled as I listened to his day, while pulling our car out of the parking lot. Suddenly, I realized that with darker hair, I really DO look like my sister Katie. It is very evident and obvious we are sisters, we share many similar facial characteristics and attributes. Plus, we act just like our Mom. What my son meant though, was that my hair finally matched rest of my family’s hair color.

Growing up, I was the only blonde in my family. Being raised in a small town, most people knew my parents, grandparents, or an aunt/uncle. So, when I was asked, “Which Bair do you belong to?” sometimes people were reacted with surprise when I reported my parents’ names. They automatically assumed the child in front of them belonged to the Bair with blonde hair, my aunt, until they interacted with me and my mother’s personality, characteristics, and mannerisms became obvious–usually rather loudly and with gusto. Then, the usual, “Yeah, you are definitely Lori’s daughter,” was uttered and I felt satisfied. However, those momentary pauses, no matter how quick, would cause my mind to question whether or not I truly fit in my family. Often, I felt like I didn’t fit; I was different. Sometimes, I still feel different.

Fast forward about 12 years. I was working on a cardiac floor as a registered nurse and loving it. I was married, a college graduate, and had recently purchased my first home with my husband. We’d received sad news about our difficulty conceiving children and our complete inability to carry any surprise pregnancies to term. We eagerly looked to adoption. During a night shift, a few fellow co-workers and I were talking about adoption when a lab tech entered the computer and chart room to place recent labs in the patient charts. After a few minutes, my co-workers went to check on their patients and I turned to finish charting. The lab tech tapped me on the shoulder and immediately told me not to adopt. Shocked and surprised, I listened to her story.

She was adopted as an infant, had a closed adoption, as was the adoption custom of the time, and she stated she had never felt like she fit in her adoptive family. She’d found her birth mother as an adult due to the need for medical history, and the reunion she’d imagined for years fell very short of her expectations. I remember exactly how I felt when she said that she’d hated being asked who her parents were because of the confused pauses she’d receive; She too looked nothing like anybody in her adoptive family. While our situations were different, I immediately related to that aspect of her story. Differences. My heart hurt for her. I couldn’t help but wonder how different her story would be had open adoption been the custom at the time of her placement. Would it be different? Would that connection and relationship to her biological family have helped her know where she did fit? Or would she have felt like she was floating between two families, while fitting in neither? Did her parents know? What could they have done differently? About a month later, we welcomed a red, squishy little boy into our home and family and I felt completely panicked that I still didn’t know how to help this new little one find his sense of belonging in our family. What if he grew up feeling like my co-worker, like he’s different and just doesn’t fit in?

Last week, my little boy, who is now almost 7 years old, came home from school reporting that a little boy in his class called him “a big, fat, midget.” He had no idea what that term meant, but he was positive that he was different, the other little boy had called him on his differences, and that it was the end of the world. I listened as he angrily, with occasional sobs, mourned over being called those horrid names. When he calmed a little, I asked if he was a “big” boy, “No, not really, I’m about the same as everybody else in my class except for Jackson W., he’s tall.” I smiled, “What about fat? Are you fat? Show me your fat belly.” He giggled, pulling up his shirt, and showing my his fit, very average belly. “Do you know what the term ‘midget’ means?” He thought for a moment, then said that he thought it meant he was dumb. We talked about how it was a mean and inappropriate term for people born with medical conditions that make it so they can’t grow very tall at all, how the term was meant to make him feel different and badly, much like “nerd” and “jerk” and millions of other school-yard terms from the grade school days.

The conversation slowly morphed into a discussion about how people and families are all kinds of different and unique and wonderful, and that differences aren’t bad. My proud mama eyes shone as my son explained many different ways that he is different than his Mommy, Daddy, and sister, and many commonalities, hobbies, and interests that we share. I asked him if he felt that was okay, being different than the people in his family, while my heart remembered that fear I’d kept hidden since that day on the cardiac floor. I held my breath. He looked at me with a half exasperated, tired expression, like we’ve had this discussion a million times and said, “Well, I like coloring and playing the piano and NOT shopping and Livvie likes shopping and painting her nails. That’s okay.” Pushing it a little farther, I asked him why he felt it was okay that each member of our family like different hobbies and each have little ways that make us different. “Because we just are different, but we love each other, Mom.” Using every teaching opportunity possible, I pushed it even further. “What if a new brother or sister had brown skin or came from a different country and culture?” Then he groaned at having to explain everything to me. “So what? [Groan] Fine, Mom. Then we learn about them and tell them it is okay.” Intrigued, I responded, “Tell them what is okay?” “Being themselves,” and then, he walked off.

As parents, learning to not only love, accept, and embrace differences, unique talents, personalities, quirks, and physical or cultural characteristics in ourselves, our children, and those in our neighborhoods and communities, models that for our children. A few of the ways that we’ve tried to encourage our children to embrace their differences, while strengthening our family, include:

1. Encouraging opportunities to speaking openly and lovingly about birth families, whenever he/she would like, using age-appropriate language. Taking that a step further, seek to find and take opportunities to learn about other cultures, races, heritages, and beliefs. Set an example of tolerance and acceptance of all differences.

2. Using “I notice” statements to communicate love and acceptance about unique differences they share with us and their birth family. For example, “Trent, with you sitting by the window and the light shining on your face, your eyes look so beautifully green, just like your birth mama’s eyes! I love that!” Or, “Beth, I noticed how diligently you worked on your homework tonight without giving up or getting frustrated, you have your birth mama’s determination and your Daddy’s patience.” You loving every part of them, accepting and speaking positively about their differences and commonalities, especially what they’ve been given by their biological genes and family, encourages them to love that part of their self also.

As a mother, I believe in learning to acknowledge, embrace, accept, and love differences. I also believe that looking for similarities and commonalities despite differences models positive behaviors for our children and others. To those individuals who were once adopted, in what ways did your adoptive parents best help you feel a sense of belonging in your adoptive family? Did they embrace differences? What do you wish they could/would have done differently or better? Adoptive parents, have you encountered differences and your family member who was adopted feeling like they don’t quite fit in? How did you respond to those feelings from a parenting perspective?