What do you think about adopting out of birth order? What about virtual twinning?

For those of you not part of the adoption community, these may seem like strange questions. But as someone who has been a part of the adoption community for 6+ years, of which about 4.5 have been as an adoptive parent, I have heard these questions asked, in one form or another, multiple times a week for years. And as an adoptive parent who has both adopted out of birth order and virtually twinned children, I feel qualified to be a voice speaking to both questions. Obviously specific counsel varies depending on individual situations, but this post should be taken as a collection of general guidelines.

First, some definitions. Adopting out of birth order is adding a child to your family who will not enter your family as the youngest. Displacing your oldest child is a particular form of adopting out of birth order in which the child who is joining your family will enter as the oldest child. Virtual twinning (also called artificial twinning) is adopting a child where there will be an age difference of less than 9 months between that child and another child in your family.

(from left to right, Atticus (whose birth order we disrupted by bringing home a sister older than he was); FangFang (the sister who is older than he is but joined our family after he did); Madeleine CaiQun (who is only about 4 months younger than our oldest and is thus her virtual twin); and Miranda (our oldest))

Second, I’d make this recommendation to all adopting families, but, in particular, if you are considering adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning, I think this counsel is important – please look for a well-recommended, experienced, wise social worker. A good social worker is worth more than their weight in gold. They’ve seen many, many adoptions. They have a lot of experience from which to draw and a lot of wisdom to offer. They are also, yes, tasked with evaluating whether a family meets the qualifications required to adopt from a certain program and what age(s) and gender(s) of child would be wise for that family to adopt, as well as what special needs that family is prepared to handle. Both when we virtual twinned and when we adopted out of birth order, our social worker was on board with us doing so. She has years of experience working with adoptive families, she’s seen a lot, and she knows our family well. We know she is there to support our family and to help everyone thrive, and we very much value her opinion. If she had not thought it was wise for us to pursue either situation, we would not have pushed her to approve us to do so. She has never thought it would be wise for us to adopt a child older than our oldest and has never approved us to do so – and we agree that to do so would be extremely unwise for us!

Conventional wisdom from social workers and experienced adoptive families has generally been that out of birth order adoptions should be undertaken rarely and with great thoughtfulness, particularly if a family is displacing their oldest child (which is very, very rarely recommended). The same goes for virtual twinning. Adoption is hard. Children who are being adopted have, without exception, experienced trauma, and that trauma is going to manifest itself somehow, and adoptive parents need to be prepared and parent well, often using a more limited range of strategies than those generally considered to be acceptable for parents in our society. Adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning adds additional variables and challenges to an already challenging situation. The immediate challenges may be any or all of the following, plus more:

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, etc) from a new child, who may have been exposed to absolutely anything in their former environment and now enters a family as not the smallest, weakest person.
  • Attachment difficulties, stemming in particular from 2 major concerns:
    • If there is abuse, it is hard for everyone to bond – the younger child being abused, the parents witnessing their baby being abused, and the new child, who is constantly tempted to lash out at their smaller (or same size) siblings.
    • If you bring in a new child as your youngest child, everyone understands that that child needs to be the “baby” of the family and should be treated as such. Bringing in a child who is not the youngest creates behavioral expectations for that child, that they be as mature as other children in your family and that they make room for babying a (likely regressing, due to the major change and potentially their own lack of understanding) younger child, as well.
  • Complex emotions on the part of children who may feel replaced by an older or similar-age child, moreso than they would by a baby.
  • Competition between similar age and/or similar developmental stage children.

Additionally, displacing an oldest child would set up difficulties in which the former oldest child (likely a child who, based on studies of birth order, likes to be a leader, likes to know what to expect, likes to be in control) is no longer the oldest child, and yet, they may remain the most mature child. The new child may refuse to follow the “lead” of the younger child in learning appropriate family behavior and instead may try to take the lead in promoting unsafe or inappropriate behaviors among all the children in the home. The now younger child may not appreciate having an older sibling who is less mature than they are. This can create tremendous tension. As an added concern, displacing an oldest child means that parents are now parenting a child who is at an age at which they have never parented a child before. It’s hard enough to figure out parenting, let alone adoption parenting, not to mention adoption parenting of a child who is years beyond any other child you have parented before.

As I said, despite all of these additional challenges, we’ve chosen both to virtual twin and to adopt out of birth order. So why did we do it?

With our first adoption, our daughter Miranda was almost 3, and we brought home a 2.5-year-old daughter, Madeleine CaiQun. Although only about 4 months apart in age, the two would be on either side of our school district’s age cut-off date for entering kindergarten, meaning that if we did choose to enroll them in public school, they’d be in different grades, and for social activities based on children’s grades, they’d be in different groups. We felt that would cut down on competition. We also knew that Madeleine CaiQun was significantly behind developmentally, so we figured that the girls wouldn’t really be competing with each other. We’d view Miranda as the older child and Madeleine CaiQun as the younger, and even though their technical birthdays were close together, we’d still create a pretty firm birth order.

(me with my virtual twins, together in China, 2013)

For the most part, that has played out well for us, and I really don’t think we hit most of those initial challenges I mentioned above. However, what I think we under-prepared for were the challenges we are facing now, 4.5 years later, as the girls are preparing to start 1st and 2nd grades, and there are many ways in which there is not such a firm-seeming “birth order.” Based on our experience (and those experiences of other families we know who are a similar length of time into the process), I’d encourage families to consider the following:

  • How will you handle it if your child at home is more advanced than your new child across the board?
  • What happens if the “younger” child or child who joined the family later, actually is better than the “older” child in certain areas? How will the older child feel about having a younger sibling who is more advanced than they are?
  • How will you avoid constant comparison of your children? How will you interact with other adults in your children’s lives, who may have a tendency to compare them? What about other children making comparisons?
  • How will you navigate social situations? What if one child is more social than the other? What if the two enjoy being together but invitations are not always issued to both children? What if the two don’t enjoy being together?
  • How will you navigate extra-curricular activities? The kids do the same activities (convenient, but it’s a lot of time together and can lead to competition)? Different activities (gives kids some space but is a lot less convenient)? What about the social implications of whatever choice you make with regards to those extra-curricular activities?

(my virtual twins together, 2016)

In terms of adopting out of birth order, we avoided some of the challenges by virtue of who our children are. We knew that FangFang, though 14 months older than Atticus, would be significantly smaller than he would be and definitely behind him in terms of gross motor skill development – she wasn’t going to be bullying him. Additionally, because of her needs, we’d have to “baby” her in a lot of ways, often carrying her and assisting her in other ways. Also, Atticus, as a third child, was quite used to the reality that the world did not revolve around him, and because we also had other families and kids in and out of our house frequently (even caring part-time for a friend’s little boy close in age to Atticus), he was used to sharing us with other kids. We also knew that Matt’s flexible schedule would allow him to be helpful with any challenges that did arise once FangFang came home.

Even so, it was a difficult transition for him. I’m not sure it would have been significantly less difficult had we brought home a younger toddler, but the reality is that it was hard on him. There were many instances those first weeks after I arrived home in which either Matt or I had to be fully engaged with Atticus for a period of time while the other cared for the other three kids.

(my two littles with me, soon after I returned home from China with FangFang – if one was sitting with me, the other also had to be there, December 2016)

Again, based on our experience, but also the experiences of others whom we know who have adopted out of birth order, I’d encourage families considering adopting out of birth order to consider these questions:

  • What will you do if your new child attempts to bully your younger child? How will you keep your younger child safe? Are you willing and able to keep your new child with you – as in, within your line of sight – at absolutely all times?
  • How will you facilitate bonding between a new child and the younger child they are bullying, between the new child and any older siblings who don’t appreciate seeing their youngest sibling be a target for this new child, and between you as parents and this new child?
  • How will you give your new child the babying they need to attach to you as parents, while also caring for your other, particularly younger, child(ren)?
  • How will you care for your younger child(ren), who will probably be stressed out by the addition of this newest child, and so will probably be regressing? Can you baby both your new child and your younger child(ren), all at the same time? What resources do you have to do so?
  • If your children are not bonding well and require constant supervision, do you have other people in your life who can provide the intense care that they need? If not, how will your marriage handle not being able to get away for time without kids?
  • Assuming your new child comes home with some special needs, you will likely now need to spend significant time at doctor appointments, in the hospital, at therapy appointments, and/or on the phone coordinating all of these needs, etc.; how will your other children, particularly any younger children, who are less able to understand the reason for all of this time away, handle this? How will you equip them to handle it well?

(the littles playing on “boats” together, July 2017)

Additionally, for anyone considering pursuing an out-of-birth order or virtual twinning adoption, I’d encourage you to be honest as you consider, are you pursuing this child because you truly believe that is what’s best for this child and for your existing family, OR are you pursuing adopting this older, harder-to-place child because then you don’t have to wait as long for a match?

In general, I think it’s good for families to be aware of guidelines that adoption professionals use as “best practices” and that experienced families consider to be wise. As many of us BTDT parents say over and over again in discussions within the adoption community, if you are proceeding with adopting, there are many unknowns. Think about what the worst case scenario is. If you’re not prepared for that, don’t proceed. There are many success stories of families adopting out of birth order and virtual twinning – and, honestly, the people with those stories are more likely to stick around as part of the Facebook groups and the resource lists for people preparing to adopt. But just because someone else’s experience went well does not mean that yours will, and if you can’t handle a harder version of what your potential future reality could be, it would be wise not to proceed.

I’d also recommend checking out this blog post, written by another adoptive mom who has been around for a while, in which she shares some wisdom and links to many other resources for people to read and think about as they consider proceeding with either of these scenarios.

And if you have any questions or want to talk more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. You’ll notice that I shared very few details about our specific challenges and adjustments, which is purposeful on my part – I don’t think my children’s challenges should be google-able – but I’m happy to talk with you about your specific situation and offer more info that might be helpful about challenges we’ve faced (or have seen play out for others) in private interactions 🙂

The Littles

Upon my return from China with FangFang, Matt and I started referring to groupings of our kids as “the bigs” (Miranda and CaiQun) and “the littles” (Atticus and FangFang). It’s unclear to me whether this was an actual misunderstanding or a purposeful attempt at redefinition, but it became clear one day that Miranda was using the words rather differently. In her mind, “littles” was a category that included Atticus and FangFang but also CaiQun, whereas she, Miranda, was grouped together with Matt and me in the separate “bigs” category. This is classic Miranda. We’ve attempted several times to explain to her our conceptualization of the groupings, but she seems to remain unconvinced. However, for our purposes, “the littles” are our toddlers, Atticus and FangFang!

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The littles have an interesting relationship, and we’d anticipated this even while we were reviewing FangFang’s file, and we’d discussed it with our social worker. There is a term in adoption – “virtual twins” or “artificial twins.” It’s usually defined as two biologically unrelated children in the same family whose difference in age is less than 9 months. This is obviously not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and it can come with a number of issues, and some social workers and adoption agencies will not allow adoption of a child whose adoption would create a set of virtual twins.

Technically our big girls fall into this category, though they’ve often not seemed like it. Miranda has always been very verbally advanced, and Madeleine CaiQun seemed so much younger than her age when she came home, that they seemed farther apart developmentally than they were chronologically. Now they seem much closer to being twin-like, and I do think that exerts a certain amount of pressure on each of them, but at least right now, I don’t think it’s significantly different than the experience of siblings born within a couple years of each other, and honestly, I think they benefit from having each other. They are each others’ best friend and playmate.

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The littles are not technically virtual twins, as FangFang is 14 months older than Atticus. However, practically speaking, they are much more virtual twins than the bigs were. This is due in part to the effects that osteogenesis imperfecta has on FangFang’s size and gross motor skill development. She’s smaller than he is and is quite adept at scooting herself around the house on her butt but does not crawl, stand, or walk. Additionally, as she is transitioning from Mandarin to English, her English language capabilities are obviously behind his.

This small age gap was honestly, something I was excited about. We’re ready to be done having babies, and we are loving the age that our bigs are at. We like playing board games and doing puzzles. We are dorky people and love reading books together and doing homeschooling. We’re looking forward to being able to travel more, to visit museums and historical sites together. Having all of our kids pretty close in age will allow us to do a lot of that together as a family. And it will simplify homeschooling in some ways. But most of those are future advantages to which we’re looking forward. The current reality is that we have two toddlers, two in diapers, two who are not safe to stand alone in a parking lot, two who need help getting dressed, need help falling asleep, and on and on. Even as a somewhat experienced mama, an adoptive mama for several years, and a mama to artificial twins already, I think I slightly underestimated the challenge that this next year or two may really be!

The first few days home were particularly rough. If one little one was on my lap, the other wanted to be there. If I was holding one, it didn’t take long for the other to find me and request to be held, as well. It was pretty overwhelming.

Home almost 2 weeks now, I’m seeing some light. She’s actually more jealous for my attention than he is, which I had not anticipated – the foster home at which she was living was also caring for several other young children around her age, so I’m certain she did not receive continuous one-on-one attention, but she sometimes seems to think that’s a right to which she’s entitled! I’m doing my best to give both littles some good quality time, and I think they’re each getting used to the other’s presence.

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I still think this relationship is going to be a challenge. They’re both similar to your average 2-and-3-year-olds in terms of their interest in sharing, which is to say that they have no interest in sharing anything 99 times out of 100!

Right now, with Matt in the midst of winter break, we’re able to do a lot of tag-teaming in terms of parenting the two of them, but that’s obviously going to be reduced significantly in a week and a half when Matt goes back to work. That’s going to be…shall we say…interesting. Honestly, that’s going to be the true test of how we’re doing as a family of six, how we do once Matt returns to work. But it’s not here yet, and I’m trying to take things one day at a time!

I do see incredible glimmers of hope in this relationship. The other day, FangFang hurt her leg a bit, and as I was comforting her and looking at her leg to make sure it didn’t seem like a fracture, Atticus came over, saying, “Gentle, gentle,” and laid down right next to her. She rolled toward him and tucked into him, and they put their arms around each other and just rested that way.

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Cue mama happy tears!

We’re also really trying to limit competition between the two of them. Atticus, as a third child, has very few possessions that are truly his – most toys in our house are communally owned – but he does have a few things for which we defend his ownership, including a Little Tikes car, which he loves. Her eyes lit up when she saw it for the first time. We put her on it, and she was ecstatic, and asked repeatedly, “FangFang car?” He, of course, responded definitively, “No! Mine car!” Future requests for a turn for FangFang were also answered with a concrete “no,” so back to Amazon we went, and a second car arrived yesterday around lunch time. And now? Happy toddlers 🙂

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Of course we’re going to work with them on sharing and kindness – we’re not always going to have two of everything – but it’s also okay to give them each a few things that can be just theirs.

This dynamic is going to be interesting in the coming months and years! Of course, when you’re a part of our family, that’s forever, and we work through whatever challenges we face, and we do it together. I think this relationship will have its hard aspects, and we’ll work through those, but I also hope (and truly believe) that it’s going to be an incredible blessing for them both.

Home, Sweet Home! – Reunions and Introductions

When we walked in the door on Friday afternoon, Atticus was in the middle of his afternoon nap, and Matt had fallen asleep with him. I got to give my sweet Miranda girl a big hug, though! It was so good to see her – I’d missed her so much! FangFang was definitely a bit overwhelmed even with this smaller contingent of the family, so we took the introductions slowly at first. She stayed near me and gradually got acclimated to the others.

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Having some toys nearby – as we always do at our house! – definitely helped, and it wasn’t long before we were able to snap a pic of those 3 beautiful sisters all together! These girls (and their brother) have my heart.

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FangFang was really nervous around Miranda at first and didn’t want her nearby, and my heart broke for my big girl. As an adult who knew what to expect and knew the reasoning behind kids’ rejection of their new families, it was still a challenge for me to continue to pursue FangFang as she rejected me, and I knew that it would be so much harder for a six-year-old. Miranda and I talked about how it would take FangFang some time to warm up to everyone and get to know all of us and trust us, and it can be sad and frustrating when she rejects us, but our job is to love her no matter what, and we need to respect her wishes but also continue to move toward her in gentleness and kindness. Miranda flip-flopped some, sometimes willing and able to do that, and sometimes needing to walk away for a while, but the consistent undercurrent for her has been wanting to play with and love her new little sister, and I’m so thankful for her heart in that. Hours of effort on her part went into the creation of this happy pre-bedtime moment.

img_4820After a bit of time at home, we went upstairs and woke Matt and Atticus, and it was so good to see them again, too. I wasn’t sure how Atticus would respond to my return – Matt had been telling him I’d be home soon, and he had been increasingly frustrated with others’ presence instead of mine, telling my mom and dad and brother to go away. He was happy to see me, and the feeling was more than mutual! It was so good to hug my little buddy again! And of course it was great to see Matt, too 🙂

Atticus and FangFang quickly settled in to the dynamic that currently pretty well defines their relationship – jealousy of each others’ time with me!

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If one is on my lap, the other wants to be there, too. If one is being held, the other wants to be held, too. FangFang actually seems more jealous of Atticus than he is of her, which I would not have predicted. That makes me especially thankful that I took another kiddo to China with me, so FangFang did not have 2 weeks of completely undivided attention – I think coming home to sharing the limelight as one of four would have been even harder for her had she not had to share adults’ attention with another child while in China.

This dynamic is definitely a challenge for me, though I knew it was a likely possibility. I love, love, love my kiddos, but I am an introvert who appreciates a few moments of quiet, alone time a few times a day, and right now there’s not much of that other than at nap time and after bed time. I’m trying to strike a good balance, to cultivate attachment and bonding – hold FangFang when she wants to be held, sit with her when she wants me to sit with her, and play with her. But the reality is also that I have 3 other children for whom to care and a household that needs to be run. My mom was here through Monday, my dad through this morning, and my brother leaves tomorrow, and it’s been a huge blessing having them do so much of the food prep and dishes and cleaning and other household stuff. I’m trying to do the bare minimum to keep the household running, while also cultivating attachment with my newest baby, while also caring for my other kiddos, some of whom I was away from for 2 weeks, all while still being jet-lagged! It’s pretty exhausting. I am continually reminding myself of the counsel that I’ve given so many other adoptive mamas before – “You’ve only been home for a few days. This is not what the rest of your life is going to be like. Everyone is reeling right now from all the adjustments, and half your family is still super jet-lagged. It’ll be 2 weeks before you’re even fully over the jet-lag, and that makes such a difference. Give yourself time. This will get so much easier.” Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I am so thankful for the timing of our trip and the fact that Matt doesn’t have any teaching responsibilities right now or for the next couple weeks. And mostly I’m trying not to think about the fact that he is going to have to go back to work eventually – and we’re going to have to do school again someday – and I’ll have to go back to work, too – eek! We’ll just not think about that! Anyway, it is so sweet to see the beginnings of Matt’s new relationship with FangFang! Just look at that girl and that daddy – so sweet 🙂

ah, my heart melts!
ah, my heart melts!

She prefers me – she seems to have decided that since Danny’s and Sharon’s departure, I am her safe person, which makes sense, as she’s known everyone else for even less time than she’s known me. She’s getting more and more comfortable with Matt, though, and she’s been pretty open to him from day one.

I’d been hoping to stay awake that first day until the kids all went to bed around 9:00, but my body, having been awake since 3:30 AM central time and running on only about 8.5 hours of sleep during the entire 75 hours prior to that time, quietly gave up on its resistance to sleep and fell into a brief nap on the couch that evening. Thankfully FangFang was getting more and more comfortable with the other kiddos, and they happily scooted around the house with her. She doesn’t crawl but scoots herself around on her butt quite deftly, and the other kiddos, Miranda especially, have taken to doing so with her 🙂

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It was a good first evening together. These relationships are still growing. It’s always complicated adding a new member into a family, and I think that’s infinitely more true when the new family member is not a baby but a small child with already-formed opinions and desires and preferences of her own – some of which she can communicate and some not! But it’s also a beautiful thing, seeing those bonds truly start to come to fruition.

The next morning I posted this photo with the caption, “I’ve been awake since 4:30, and yet I’m still not dressed, and there are toys everywhere and suitcases still to unpack. AND I’M HOME WITH MATT AND ALL FOUR OF MY BABIES!!!!!!”

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It still feels surreal, being here with everyone. It’s hard, but it’s good, and I’m ever so thankful to have all four of my babies here, together, with Matt and me, all six of us home together before Christmas! The real journey lies ahead of us, but it’s a relief to have been able to start it now. I’m quite blessed.