What is a sibling?
So, I was going to write about culture for this blog but then, Siblings’ Day happened on Sunday (April 10) and a whole bunch of feelings cropped up, so I though I would ruminate about that instead.
One of my new sisters (as my brain calls the maternal half-sisters I met in 2018) is the person who keeps on top of these types things. She posts the birthday and anniversary wishes, the left-handed day celebrations, the sunset pictures, the family reunion announcements, and so forth. This sister is sort of the `bellman` or `town crier` of the family. Thankfully she is an early riser so the rest of us can see her posts and respond accordingly, as if we remembered or were already aware. So when I saw on Facebook that it was National Siblings Day my first thought was, “I wonder which picture of the six of us she will post?”
This led me to wonder what my Happy Siblings Day post would look like on Facebook?
Would it be my brother and I, raised by our parents (adoptive parents if I need to be specific)?
Would it be of me and my maternal half-sister that I met 30 years ago (each of us adopted by different families if I need to be specific)?
Would it be me with my birth father’s other children (paternal half-siblings if I need to be specific)?
Would it be me with my birth mother’s other daughters whom she raised with her husband (maternal half-siblings if I need to be specific)?
Or should I just post a picture of my adult children and wish them a happy Sibling’s Day?
Or should I post a picture of my grandchildren and wish them a happy Sibling’s Day?
See what happens in my adoptee brain? Means nothing to anyone but me, but to me it means a lot!
When you look up the definition of a sibling, you will primarily read that a sibling is one of two or more individuals having one common parent or both parents in common. When I think of a sibling I think of my brother. My brother, the guy who parachuted into our family roughly a year before me and who is 2 1/2 years older me, is probably the only one who I think of as an actual sibling. Not by definition necessarily but by experience. My brother is the one who helped me when my boot got stuck in the snow, and the one who laughed at me when I got my boot stuck in the snow, and who threatened, “The next time you get your boot stuck in the snow I’m leaving you there!!” (After the 5th time of saving me that day likely.) Then he did leave me there once, I called and called his name, then eventually walked the block to our house in one boot and one sock foot. I put on the waterworks about his desertion of me in the snow covered field. Of course, our parents sent him out for the boot. Funny, that boot always seemed to get wet inside faster than the other one after that day. Hmmmm
I think of my sibling as the brother who could be so mean to me but look out anyone else who might be mean to me. We had each other’s backs. We unlocked the door for each other after curfew. We lied to people about where each other was when that clingy friend called and called. We walked around the lake in the middle of town as a family and he would protect me from those often mean swans. In the same breath he would shove me off the dock just to hear me scream. We did dishes together, climbed trees together, loved and hated each other, often in the same day, sometimes the same hour. But he was and is my brother.
When my brother did a search for his birth relatives I will never forget when he told me all about his birth family members, and all he had learned. But when he said “I have sisters” I can, to this day, remember how my face felt hot and my stomach turned and I thought. “What? I AM YOUR SISTER!” Did they cover for you with mom and dad? Did they put up with your b.s.? Did they run and interrupt our parents into the middle of a house party they were hosting because you were bleeding all over the kitchen from a snowmobile accident? WHO is your SISTER buddy? Those feelings came as quite a shock to me. It took me much longer than it should have to accept that he has sisters other than me, but I take comfort in the fact that I am the only “growing up sister” he has (wink wink).
So, adoptive parents, I invite you to think about this little story when people ask about ‘real’ birth relatives in your children’s lives. I personally feel that being a sibling is about experience, not just biology.
Meeting my maternal birth half-sister was so weird, her name is also Lynne, (having the same name is the topic of a previous blog, “What’s In A Name” if you are interested). She and I had been separated through adoption, both of us having been adopted by different families. She lived in Western Canada and I live in Northern Ontario. At the time we met, I had a newborn at home and was late to the airport to pick her up and was nervous as a cat for the first 2 hours. Had I invited a serial killer into my home and family? We laugh about all that now but it was a tense few hours. The rest of our visit was wonderful. We are so opposite, I love to read, she worked in a university library and hated reading, she loved to play Bingo, I hated it. We don’t even look alike! Oh when we look back now, we can laugh. We have known each other since 1991 and have become truly great friends.
When I met my birth father’s adult children, it was a little complicated. I had not yet met him but while on a business trip, I was going to be in the area where they live (ironically on adoption worker business) and they invited me to come a bit earlier and stay with them for a few days. So, I did. Imagine, being met at the train station by a sister you have never met? I did not expect to feel as overwhelmed as I did. They were all so warm and welcoming. Their children were great. But it all felt surreal. As they talked about being raised by their dad I simply could not visualize my face in the family portrait. I truly enjoyed my time with them and what I learned but felt like an outsider. I don’t feel that way any more and keep in touch in some way with each of them today but it felt, I don’t know, foreign.
Lynne and I never gave up hope of one day finding and meeting our maternal birth half-sisters. In 2018 that is exactly what happened. To help the new sisters know which of us they were talking about they nicknamed us West Lynne and North Lynn. There are four of them and two of us, that made six daughters born to our birth mother. It was just an incredible few days. Looking at each other, looking away, examining the carpet or curtains instead soon turned to laughter and shared stories. Medical conditions in the family soon turned into favourite foods instead. We met their father, to whom our birth mother had been married for 57 years. We spent some time in the family home where they grew up together, and had many laughs. The girls had lost their mom the year before they met us, and they later shared how much they feel I look and sound like her. It had made them uncomfortable initially but that soon wore off. I think Lynne would agree that since 2018 we have each developed different relationships with different sisters, just like I believe would have happened if we had been raised together. Siblings meeting siblings because we were born to the same woman. Siblings now learning how to be sisters to each other.
As you probably know, my youngest half-sibling is Krista Donnelly, the illustrator of our book, What Is Your Story? Let’s talk about adoption and kinship, www.whatisyourstorybook.com. This was a sibling project that turned into a sister project! Krista and I have had the opportunity to learn so much from each other. From her, I learned what it was like to be raised as the baby of the family by our birth mother. Then I learned from her what it was like to find out your mother had given birth to two other girls who were adopted. She learned from me about growing up as an adoptee and what the experience of searching for our mother had been like.
So, what is a sibling? Sorry Alfred Adler for throwing a wrench in your birth order theory www.birthordertheoryadler.com! I honestly feel that your sibling is a person you were raised with and have history with no matter who parented you.
As I have said, I would love to hear your story and if you prefer to share it directly to me and not on this public forum please send it to me in an email firstname.lastname@example.org
Culture to Culture
Culture to Culture (As if born to you)
Ok, so envision if you will, attending a large family reunion at an arena where a whole bunch of folks are gathering to celebrate their ancestry and the success and fortitude of their ancestors. Picture being seated in ‘family groups determined by lineage’. Think about being surrounded by people who look like each other, some slightly, and some greatly, and suddenly feeling more comfortable talking with their partners because the partners weren’t searching your face or stature for some familiarity. Imagine standing at the picture displays of generations of families. I truly appreciated the historical value of the photos. These were photos that captured generations of immigrant families who farmed, milled, built homes and barns, rode horses and drove buggies, married, had or raised children and built new lives in their new country! Their accomplishments were monumental to me, even if they did not make me feel sentimental like others around me.
I honestly believe that was the only time that I thought, “you just don’t get it, do you?” about my mom. She seemed disappointed that I really had little or no interest in looking at photos of large families of people who did not look like me. It was bittersweet that these are some of the rare times I think she forgot I was adopted. She would constantly note similarities between me and some of the family members pictured, while I was simultaneously noting the lack of similarities. All the while I was wondering who I actually looked like.
To put things in context, my parents applied for, and adopted my brother and I in the late 50s early 60s. In those times adoptive parents were advised to not worry about where the child had come from, things like culture, traditions, languages spoken by the birth family members, and other such details. Adoptive parents were advised to introduce their culture to the child and to make that the child’s culture. They were to raise the child, “as if born to you”. Personally, I think the “as if born to you” attitude was disrespectful to adoptive parents and led to unnecessary struggles for inter-cultural aka “inter-racial” adoptions. What was wrong with just assuming adoptive parents would simply raise their children? Not raise them “as if born to you”, not raise them “as if adopted by you” just, I don’t know, maybe raise them as their children? I always felt that these attitudes demeaned and disrespected my parents and my role as their child.
I was raised within the Polish culture of my both my parents, a culture rich with traditions and values. In fairness to my parents, to my knowledge they were never told the ancestry of my birth parents, or my brother’s birth parents, so how could they have educated us about any cultural norms and traditions from the heritage of our birth families? You can’t teach what you don’t know, right?
Every summer we travelled to our parents’ childhood community where they had been raised, met, and were married. Both of my grandmothers were still living and we got to see many of our aunts, uncles and cousins. It was, and still is, a wonderful little Polish community, one of the first Polish settlements in Canada. Apparently, the only other culture in that community were the Irish people, who had settled there generations ago as well. Two of my Polish aunts married a pair of Irish brothers. Well, that is definitely a topic for another blog.
My dad’s mom spoke very little English and lived with significant hearing loss, but Gramma loved to whistle and to sing in Polish. I have fond memories of hearing her say my favourite word, “cookies?” as she pointed to the special tin. When visiting, I spent many minutes in the morning hesitating in the doorway, watching her cook bacon and eggs on the woodstove, flames rising and falling, as she calmly whistled to herself. I would wait in the doorway and watch for her to look in my direction before I would step forward as she could not hear me coming. I didn’t want to startle her. I’m pretty sure there were some inappropriate Polish words she would yell when we accidentally startled her, lol. Family was very important to Gramma and she loved our visits. Every time we would leave for the long trip home, she would stand on her porch with a tea towel in her hand, or a corner of her apron, wiping away the tears at our parting. She always called out as were leaving, “This is the last time I will see you.” The summer when I was 16, she was right and sadly, we had seen her for the last time.
My mom’s mom was a quiet woman, but Granny could silence a room of grandchildren with one look. I do not ever remember hearing her raise her voice. She loved our visits and would cook for days in anticipation of our arrival. We thought it was wonderful to visit this Polish community and hear people speaking to each other in this foreign, but familiar language. My Granny would send us across the road to pump water from the well, and would “tsk, tsk” when we said we were afraid to go to the outhouse in the dark. Her garden was amazing. She was a strong, but silent woman who taught me many life lessons and skills. I had the privilege of living with her, and learning from her, for three months when I was 18. We lost Granny when I was 22 years old.
My brother and I were enveloped in our maternal and paternal families without ever feeling that we did not belong. They taught us Polish culture and traditions. I can honestly say I do not ever remember any remarks from our cousins about us being adopted. They did, however, have plenty to say about how badly we played baseball or fished from the dock. We loved our summer vacations with our extended families.
Sometimes my mother would say I looked Dutch. I eventually learned that she was correct as my maternal birth relatives came from Holland. Sometimes I wonder if she actually knew that but did not want to outright tell me for some reason. I also eventually learned that my birth father was of Scottish descent. Other than wooden shoes and windmills, I really had no insight into the Dutch culture. I knew nothing of Scotland, or people of Scottish descent. Well, other than what I had learned in the 1995 movie, Braveheart.
The Northern Ontario community where I grew up was a melting pot of cultures, mostly due to being a railway town I suppose, or even being a tourist destination. The community I grew up in was Cochrane, Ontario, home of the Polar Bear Express. The Polar Bear Express train ride would take tourists from Cochrane to Moosonee round trip in one day. My brother and I loved to go down to the railway station and look in awe at the vehicle license plates from all over North America. Sometimes we would find the fanciest car or cars from far away places and pretend they belonged to our respective birth parents.
When I met my birth half-sister, Lynne, I discovered that she had been raised in a completely different religion from me. I wondered how that could happen? We were told that my brother and I had both come from Catholic birth families and, as a result, had to be placed with Catholic families so I assumed my birth sister would have been placed under those same ‘rules’.
When I met my birth father, he spoke about his Scottish ancestry but did not really have any traditions or cultural practices that he had raised his family practicing. While writing this blog I reached out to my paternal half-sibling, Beth, who said her (our?) dad really did not express any real interest in his Scottish heritage. His mother apparently did though, as she gave him a string of Scottish names when he was born.
Lynne and I had eventually learned that our birth mother and her immediate family had emigrated to Canada from Holland. When we met our maternal half-sisters, we saw how richly they had been immersed in their Dutch culture. Some members of my birth family host a family reunion every year and when Lynne and I attended one, it was both a surreal and a familiar experience for me. The experience reminded me of family reunions I had attended over the years with my adoptive family, only this time, I was looking at faces and statures of the people present, searching for familiarity, and I was much more interested in the ancestral pictures on display!
In today’s world, we encourage adoptive and kinship families to celebrate not only their culture but the child or youth’s birth culture as well. Customary care, practiced by indigenous families, helps children and youth to preserve and honour their community relationships and connections. Culture and heritage give people a sense of belonging and identity. Children and youth living in their adoptive or kinship family’s culture learn about that culture every day. Talk to children and youth about their birth culture, as it will benefit them to feel interest and acceptance, and they should feel comfortable and proud talking about their birth culture as it will help them develop a healthy sense of self.
Just ask my Polish, Dutch, and Scottish self 😊
As always, please note that I would love to read your comments/experiences. If you would prefer to share them privately, rather than this public forum, please feel free to email me at email@example.com