Siblings: Forgotten Pieces
of the Adoption Puzzle

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     In designing the detailed questionnaire for the Relationships in Reunion research project, we addressed the issue of siblings of adoptees in a few questions, but did not ask questions specifically about siblings’ experiences, let alone anything about siblings of birth parents. We have received several responses to the survey from persons who are birth siblings of adoptees, including some who also have other roles in what we have called the adoption triad. If we begin to look at the effects of adoption on siblings of all sorts, we may have to quit calling it the triad.
     There are several different roles siblings might have. First, they might also be adopted persons raised by the adoptive parents. They might be biological offspring of parents who also adopted. They might be the half- or whole biological siblings of persons who were relinquished for adoption. They might be siblings of persons who became birth parents, or who became adoptive parents. Finally, they might be siblings of birth grandparents—in other words, aunts or uncles of birth parents. The relinquishment and the adoption of a single child could affect persons who fit every description written above! Yet, as some of our respondents pointed out, and as some persons who have attended support groups have mentioned, most writing about adoption, as well as most support groups and the adoption reform movement in general, focuses on adoptees and parents, rarely on siblings.
     In a previous article, siblings were mentioned in connection with boundaries and communication in the adoptive family-birth family situation, but even then, siblings were given scant attention. Yet, in responses to the research survey, we found that siblings were very important. In cases where the searched-for birth parent was deceased, adoptees quite often formed a close relationship with found siblings, or with siblings of the deceased parent. In some cases, those found siblings resisted the reunion, saying, “Our mother would never have relinquished a child,” or, “My sister could never have had a child I didn’t know about,” but in many cases, they did know, and are relieved, even overjoyed, to have the secret out at last, and to have this new person in their lives. Some who have already known may not have been overjoyed to suddenly find a new sibling sharing their parent’s love, especially if the parent is still alive, but sometimes even if the parent is deceased. For the person who has been raised as the eldest child, who learns that s/he was not, in fact, the parent’s first-born, there may be some feelings of being replaced in the birth order, losing that “oldest child” position. For the birth parent’s relinquished first-born, who may have been raised as a youngest or only child, there may be some shift as they explore the role of being somebody’s oldest. In cases where the birth parents married each other after relinquishing their first child, everyone involved will be dealing with strong feelings about parents and siblings.
     Another important issue that has rarely been addressed, but which was mentioned many times in survey responses, was the effect of one person’s search and reunion upon the siblings they were raised with, whether those siblings were also adopted or were the adoptive parents’ biological offspring. In some cases, one adoptee searched and the other adoptee(s) did not search for their birth parents, citing loyalty to adoptive parents, or, less frequently but perhaps more honestly, their own fears of what they might learn if they searched. In some cases, the non-searcher is extremely angry at the one who did search, and may even cut off all communication with them. In other cases, they later decide to search themselves. In cases where more than one searches, there may be feelings of sadness, disappointment, or jealousy when one finds a birth parent sooner than another; or when one finds a parent deceased and another finds a welcoming birth parent; or when one has a good reunion and the other does not. Then there are those siblings who are the adoptive parents’ biological offspring, so they don’t have the challenge, and possible excitement, of search and reunion. They have only one set of parents! While this would seem to be the ideal, the truth is, that adopted sibling who has just found more parents may seem to be getting all the attention and the non-adopted sibling feels a bit left out, especially if the adoptive parents and birth parents are not getting together. Some similar dynamics happen in families where some family members have open adoptions and some have closed adoptions, or in reconstructed or “blended” families where some kids have more contact with their non-custodial parent than others do with theirs.
     Some siblings of birth parents may not have known about their sister’s pregnancy or their brother’s child. They may be shocked to learn about a niece or nephew years down the road. They may he angry that this was hidden from them, may feel sad for the sibling, or may wish they had been able to know the child earlier. Sometimes there are fears about sharing an inheritance, or about the birth grandparents now having more grandchildren to pay attention to, but more often, the anger is about having information withheld from them. In some cases, they may have known, even though they weren’t told, and no one would discuss it for years, until the reunion. In other cases, they may have been helping keep the secret. The same is true of birth grandparents’ siblings, who may have housed the birth mother during her pregnancy. Although many girls were sent to “unwed mothers homes,” and the family and neighbors told she was “with an aunt,” some actually were staying with an aunt or cousin.
     In every case where siblings have responded to the survey, or where siblings issues were mentioned in the adoptee’s or birth parent’s responses, one theme stands out: openness leads to healthy relationships and secrecy causes problems. When birth parents’ other offspring always knew about their relinquished sibling, or knew from an early age, they are better prepared for building a relationship in reunion. This appears to be equally true whether the birth parents married each other or married other people, or even didn’t marry at all. When adoptees had some prior information about siblings, even in a closed adoption, that also seems to help. Of course, in most closed adoptions, the adoptee was the birth mother’s first child, and no subsequent information was available to the adoptive parents or adoptee. We haven’t looked for correlations between whether the adoptee was raised with siblings, adopted or otherwise, and the quality of relationship reunions, but that might be a future project.
     We do know that for non-adopted persons who find out they were not an only child after all, but have a sibling, they may be thrilled to find someone they are related to, or they may be fearful of sharing their parent. Much depends upon what kind of relationship they already have with their parent(s). An adoptee who discovers they are the birth parent’s only child may be disappointed if they were hoping for a sibling. If that birth parent is deceased, they may find an aunt or uncle who can share with them about their birth parent.
     Our language has only had terms like “birth parent” for a short time, and still does not have short or universally understood terms for the birth parent’s subsequent spouse, or for other types of relationships. Occasionally, a birth aunt or sibling shows up at a meeting or conference, and we tend to flounder a bit about how they fit. We need to do more about reaching out and welcoming all of these people, as they begin to become aware of their importance, just as we must still make greater efforts to include birth fathers in our groups. A person who just found out there is a relinquished sibling out there, and wants to search, or who has just been found by a sibling, needs information and support just as much as adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. We welcome any such persons to O.I. meetings, and we welcome comments on this subject in the newsletter.

Excerpted from the July 2003 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2003 Operation Identity