Wow, a birth family visit is a lot to process. And if it feels like a lot to me, I can only imagine how it feels to an 8-year-old.
Katie and I spent the weekend with her birth mom and her birth siblings. We met in the city of St. Louis, MO (not where they actually live), and we spent virtually every waking moment together.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon, and M and her kids met us at our hotel. M’s kids were scheduled for exactly one vacation this entire summer: our visit. And we made the most of it. Katie instantly took on the role of little sister. E, her big sister, is 16, and D, her big brother, is 13. For Katie, being the youngest was an extreme role reversal.
At home, Katie is the oldest and biggest by a large margin. Her two little sisters are tiny little peanuts, and Katie is the much sought-after tween. We give Katie a good amount of responsibility, and we place the types of expectations on her that always fall on the shoulders of oldest children.
It was with no small amount of wonder that I watched Katie transform into the baby of her birth family. Within five minutes, she even looked smaller to me (and she was, by comparison!). She was suddenly the youngest, the coddled little one, and it made me smile. Everyone deserves a chance to be the baby at some point, but very few oldest kids ever get to try the role on.
Chalk one up for open adoption. It gave Katie a chance to be a different version of herself. For once, everyone catered to Katie’s wishes. There was no baby sister crying that cut short a trip to Maggianos for dinner. There was no younger sister complaining that she was bored when we went to the Museum of Westward Expansion (although Annie Rose would have actually loved that, because it included a section on our 16th President).
It was Katie’s party, and she was the star. Those were the exact words her birth mom used as she laughed with me. “Honey, we are here for one reason, and that is to be with you. It's your show,” M told Katie. And so the kids spent a lot of time swimming in our hotel pool, which is Katie’s idea of a perfect day. E and D took turns throwing Katie in the air, and she screamed with glee as she landed in the water.
Those were the good parts. The hard part was the absolute confirmation of how difficult her birth family’s life is. For the first time, Katie was old enough to pick up on conversations and to observe realities.
Here is what her birth family does NOT have:
Access to services. They live in a tiny town, and there are simply not many services available to the kids. No summer camps. No community pool. No organized, fun subsidized activities for the kids to do during the day. “We do nothing,” E and D answered, when asked what they do during the summer. They do not have healthy food. It is too expensive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and proteins, when a box of pasta will fill you up at one fifth the cost.
No computer. M sold it last year when they could no longer pay their mortgage and they lost their house. No health insurance, which means they elect to seek no medical attention for conditions that we treat without hesitation. No adult at home during the day, because M is a single working mom. D was terribly disappointed that my husband Andrew had not come on the trip, because he is desperate for a father figure.
Here is what they DO have:
Resilience. Spirit. Love and affection for each other. Generosity. A sense of humor. Morals and values. E told me that she LOVES the library because she loves to read and read and read. E also loves to sing, and she performed some Adele for us, much to Katie’s and my delight. D loves to fix things. He tinkers with stereos and engines. He wants to be loved. He wants someone to cuddle with. He was like a big teddy bear with Katie, wrapping his arms around her and hugging her with all his might.
We sat eating lunch on Saturday, and I asked the kids, “What do you think the greatest invention is?” E said the phone, and D said the motor. Then it was Katie’s turn. She thought for a minute and responded, “Love and family.” M and I shared a look of utter adoration for our girl.
On Saturday night, we ordered in some Papa John’s pizza (Katie’s favorite), and we all climbed into my giant king-size hotel bed, and we watched movies on the Disney channel. Monsters, Inc followed by Mulan. The kids and M also played Candyland. I hung back, wanting to give them time as a group of four. I curled up in the corner of the bed and read a book, watching as Katie and her other family spent a perfectly normal evening together. And yet it was anything but normal, of course, because Katie is my child and theirs too.
After everyone left, Katie laid in bed next to me, and she asked me, “Why can’t they come live with us and have good food and books and things?” Such a hard question to answer. “We have room for the family we are,” I tried to explain, “and even if we tried to make it work, it would never be as simple as it is this weekend, when we are together for the sole purpose of having fun.”
Katie accepted that and went to sleep. She behaved like an angel during the visit, but as expected, when we returned home yesterday, the fallout began immediately. Crying, fighting, anger, whining. I completely expect it. In fact, I would worry if she didn’t show that she is processing all this.
Still, it isn’t fun! We are using 123 Magic to help with the behavior, and I am trying to be extra supportive emotionally. Katie had a big meltdown this morning before camp (part of this is due to fatigue because she was up late both nights of the weekend). Her camp called me several times this morning to say that Katie wanted to come home because her head was hurting. I picked her up (she was fine, as I suspected, and merely needed some extra TLC).
And so it goes.
The integrating of lives. The complexities of missing her birth family yet loving her adoptive family. The inklings of survivor’s guilt stirring in her consciousness. The fears of abandonment and foster care and forever families changing their mind. This open adoption – a phenomenon both beautiful and agonizing—that has emerged as the very best our two families have to offer our little girl.