The Best of Both Worlds
Conceive, Fall 2007
by Christina Frank
Before I became a mother, I was sure I wanted three children. Then I had one and, astonished by all that was involved in raising her, my husband and I revised that total to two. Two, however, was non-negotiable—but nature didn’t seem to care. We’d conceived Olivia, our first daughter, the old-fashioned way, but when we went for number two, the fertility gods were off-duty. Like many people who experience secondary infertility, we had a few options: we could pursue medical intervention, we could remain a one-child family, or we could adopt. We chose to adopt. In 2001, when Olivia was five, the three of us traveled to Vietnam and added Lucy, then 6 months old, to our family. All of a sudden, we felt complete. And perfect.
While it may seem like most families are created either via pregnancy (natural or assisted) or adoption, there are no rules saying you can’t mix and match (just ask Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt). Many parents—some as a result of infertility, and some not—choose to combine biological and adopted children, and most, like us, wouldn’t have it any other way. Giving birth is a miraculous experience, as is adopting a child; to get to do both is to be doubly blessed.
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation, believes there is an adoption revolution going on in this country, one that happens to involve many families with biological children. “More and more people who are fertile are choosing to adopt,” he says. “And, in my experience, more infertile people are choosing adoption sooner.”
There are no hard numbers on how many families include both bio and adopted kids, but one study on siblings done at the University of Minnesota looked at 408 adoptive families and found that around 30 percent of them also had biological children; another study on international adoption done at George Mason University found the same percentage of bio/adoptive families among its participants.
Deciding to add a child to your family by any means is a big deal, but becoming a bio-adoptive, or “blended” family brings up some very specific concerns, especially if you’ve had biological children first.
“I wondered if I would love our adopted child unconditionally if there wasn’t the same blood relationship that I had with our biological daughter,” says Pamela Kruger, editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. Kruger and her husband Dave began considering adoption when they had no luck conceiving a second child.
“I’d seen a friend of mine go through fertility treatments and I wasn’t up for that,” says Kruger. “Then, we went out to dinner one evening with four other couples and learned that two of them had both bio and adopted kids. That’s when we decided to take the plunge.” Kruger and her husband traveled to Kazakhstan to adopt their daughter Annie in 2001. “When the orphanage director handed her to me, I started to weep. I felt the same overwhelming urge to nurture her, the same awesome sense of responsibility as I did when I gave birth to Emily.”
Sometimes, parents know from the get-go that they want a blended family. Marina Lombardo, of Orlando, FL, remembers being taken with the idea as a teenager.
“My friend had an older brother who had two biological sons and an adopted daughter,” she says. “I just fell in love with this family and loved the fact that it was mixed. When I got married, I told my husband I wanted both bio and adopted kids.”
Lombardo, whose kids are now in their twenties, had a biological son and then adopted a girl domestically. She is quick to dispel the notion that you automatically feel more physically and emotionally connected to your biological children.
”People think my daughter looks just like me,” she says. “She and I also have a lot in common temperamentally, more so than my son and I do. I think biology is really overrated. With any kids—bio or adopted—you can end up with the best or the worst.”
In fact, research has shown that there is very little difference in how biological and adopted children turn out in terms of adjustment, and no meaningful difference in how adopted kids fare if they grow up in families with other adopted children only or with their parents’ biological children.
On the other hand, it’s simplistic to pretend that you’re blind to who’s adopted and who’s not. While parents love all their kids with equal intensity and devotion, they relate to each child differently, and sometimes whether the child is adopted or biological plays a role.
Jill Jacks-Tate of Columbus, NE, has two biological children and four whom she and her husband adopted internationally. “With my bio kids, I often see the things I don’t like in myself,” she says. “My adopted kids don’t happen to share those familiar traits.”
I also identify more with Olivia, because she is a lot like me, which makes me hyper-aware of her potential strengths and shortcomings; with Lucy, I have no preconceived notions about who she should be, and therefore our relationship is a bit more easygoing. Daily life, though, is the same as in any family; the kids are just the kids.
People come to the idea of having a blended family in different ways. There are those like Lombardo, who always wanted kids by both means. In my case, my brother had one biological child and one adopted, so that scenario was already familiar and appealing and didn’t feel like a leap.
But many couples struggle to get past their original vision of a biologically-formed nuclear family. Susan Caughman, the editor-in-chief of Adoptive Families magazine, experienced secondary infertility after giving birth to her son, who is now 20. “It was a crisis for me at the time,” she says. “It took me a while to accept that it was OK to add a second child to our family through adoption and then to actively embrace the idea.” Caughman’s daughter, whom she adopted from China, is now 15.
What’s key is that no matter how you get there, deciding to adopt has to be an active choice, not second best, not a compromise or a way to fill the biological void.
Sometimes, a biological child makes a surprise appearance after parents have closed that door and committed to having all their kids through adoption (the myth of “adopt and you’ll get pregnant,” however, is completely unfounded.)
Anita Lavine and her husband, who live in Seattle, tried to get pregnant for 7 years before deciding to adopt. They were part way through the process of adopting a baby girl from China when Lavine discovered she was pregnant. Shortly after receiving a referral for a little girl from China, she gave birth to her son, Owen. “Four weeks later, the three of us hopped on a plane to meet our daughter, Faye,” says Lavine.. “A few people actually asked me if we might back out of the adoption once I learned I was pregnant, but we didn’t consider that for a second.”
Faye is now 19 months old and Owen is 8 months. “Even though Owen technically came first, it’s almost like he was born with the ‘little brother’ personality and he knew that his spitfire big sis would be demanding most of the attention those first few months,” says Lavine.
Lynn Johnson of Hollywood, FL, ended up with two daughters five months apart, making them what’s known as “adoption twins.”
“We were infertile for about four years and tried everything under the sun,” explains Johnson. “We had a lot of success getting pregnant, but then I’d miscarry about 10-14 weeks along, which was heartbreaking.
“At some point I told my husband I would only go through more procedures if we also pursued adoption. We started the process and were chosen by a birth mother who was due in about four months. At that point, knowing things were moving along on at least one front, we went back to the fertility doctors and implanted some frozen embryos. This time, the pregnancy went the distance. So my oldest, Julie, was born at South Miami Hospital while I was five months pregnant with Jennifer, our second-born. They are now 13 years old and extremely close.”
Like many adoptive families, especially those with kids of another race, blended families are often prone to receiving intrusive and unwanted questions. A few of Olivia’s friends, for instance, have suggested that she and Lucy aren’t “real” sisters since they’re not biologically related. We explain that biology is not the only way that people become sisters or families.
Kruger had been concerned about how much like siblings her two daughters would feel, especially since she and her husband both had very strong ties to their own biological siblings. “I wondered if Emily would have the same primal connection to Annie as I have with my siblings,” says Kruger. “Within a few days of bringing Annie home, that fear was instantly gone. Right away, Emily was completely and utterly attached to Annie. There is no doubt they are siblings. They fight, play and make up like siblings and they are very close.”
For kids growing up in them, a bio-adoptive family is just another kind of norm, one that informs their concept of their own future families. When Olivia and Lucy play dolls, they routinely have a combination of adopted and biological kids and often take “trips” to pick a child up from an orphanage.
Malaine Miller Perloe of Cos Cob, CT, sees the same thing when her two girls play. Justine, 10, is their biological child and Julia, 5, was adopted from Colombia.
“Just two days ago I was chatting with the girls,” says Perloe. “I asked Justine if she thought about having kids when she was older and she said she’d like to adopt 2 children, but has no interest in having biological children. Julia was pretending that she had 15 kids, with one on the way, and was also planning to adopt 3 kids.”
Clearly, blended families are here to stay.