Family Breakdown

Painting by Mary Cassatt 1889

Some reading I was doing today in a book titled Healing the Split by John E Nelson MD caused me to reflect on my mom’s adoption from a new perspective.

He writes – “While there remains much to learn and study, schizophrenogenic mothers bring a sense of incompleteness to child raising. This is not the same as that mother rejecting her child.”

“Quite the contrary. She regards him as particularly close and significant for her. She needs her child in a distorted way as much as her child needs her.”

This causes me to reflect on my maternal grandfather. His very young mother gave birth to him AFTER her husband, his father, has died. He was her first born (even as my grandmother was her father’s first born and his wife had died but only after the 5th child was born) and remained extraordinarily close to her all her life.

As much as I have blamed my maternal grandmother’s widowed father for not supporting her and my mother, when it appeared that my maternal grandfather (whether this was entirely true or not) had abandoned her at 4 months pregnant – there remains this question in my own heart that can never be answered now. Why did he leave her and why did he not come to her defense when she returned to Tennessee from Virginia after my mom had been born and reached out to him through the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

With the same kind of destructive failure to be supportive that I blame my maternal grandmother’s family for, I do also believe that my maternal grandfather’s mother was not supportive of him. I believe she was not happy he had married my grandmother nor did she want anything to do with the child they conceived while married.

I can never know this for certain but why didn’t he take her back to Arkansas with him, when his WPA job in Memphis ended ? It could be because he was dependent upon his mother since she was caring for his children after their mother, his wife, had died – so that he could go to work in Memphis.

So, I believe the deck was stacked against both of my mom’s natural parents raising her – by her very own grandparents, their father and their mother, one on each side of the parental equation.

Dr Nelson notes in his book – “Any movement toward autonomy leads him to feel that she cannot survive without him, added to his certainty that he cannot survive without her. For him to individuate would destroy them both.” Just the thoughts percolating in my own mind this afternoon related to my own familial adoption stories.

No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day

Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

~ lyrics in Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon

Birth Order

My husband and I are both first borns and I see the personality traits are present in us.  We both have a middle and a youngest sibling of the same gender that we are.  Siblings are raised essentially in the same environment, so it could be assumed that we might be more like our brothers and sisters. Yet it appears that the same home environment makes up only 5-10% of our personality.  Many of us would agree that we are somewhat or very different from our siblings.  Genetic factors have more impact on our personality, maybe as much as 50%. Nurturing, how we are cared for must matter a lot.

Does birth order matter in adoption ?  That is a question that I came to this morning’s blog with in mind.  Does it matter if children are adopted out of their birth order ?  My mom was the first born of her original mother and also the only child but was the youngest in the home she was raised in with an older brother who was also adopted.  My dad was the first born and the oldest in the home where he was adopted.  He grew up with a younger brother who was also adopted.

One study concluded that the rearing order of the children had little impact on personality except for conscientiousness, which was higher for children who were raised as first-born. The child’s sex had more impact than did rearing order.

Most adoptive families do not consider the impact that rearing order will have on infants who are first born to their biological parents, if they enter an adoptive home as the second or third child. If a child is an infant, it is assumed that such a child will have the characteristics associated with the rearing order in which they are placed.  More often, adoptive families want to know the impact of adopting children out of age order on the children already there— especially on the oldest child or on several younger children when adopting an older child.

Sibling rivalry and the need for attention are very real factors in any multi-child home.  I have seen it up close and personal with my two sons and have experienced a misplaced idealism upon my own reality that simply was not real by my youngest sister.  I have seen frequently that the younger children often look up to the oldest.  I have experienced first hand that parents expect the oldest to be an example of a “good” person – whatever that means in any family’s context.

Here is one reality some adoptive families face – maybe you have a larger age gap among your genetic/biological children.  So you chose to adopt a child who can fill in the gap in age differences. Neither the oldest nor the youngest child’s position in your family is displaced by this decision.  However, in any adoption of an older child, the chronological age of that child can be quite different from the child’s emotional age due to the trauma they have experienced.  The reality you may find is that this new “middle” child is more like the youngest child in the family.

In any adoption – it is all about your expectations as an adopting parent. If you adopt a child who fits nicely into the age range where your children are right now, this newly adopted child may not blend in as well as you anticipated.  Some precautions will be necessary when adopting an older child or when adopting a sibling group.