The Complexities of a Birth Sibling Relationship in Open Adoption
by Savannah Outten
*note for context: Savannah is my oldest daughter that I parent, 2.5 years younger than Kaylee. They have known each other as sisters and visited since the day she came home from the hospital 16 years ago! They have grown up having each other in their lives through visits a few times a year, phone calls, and vacations. Their relationship has been a priority for both my family and Kaylee's adoptive family.
Adoption is weird. So are sibling relationships, so what happens when you combine them? It feels so unique that it’s hard to compare it to something that already exists. I can’t quite compare it to an older sister because I never grew up with her. We never had sibling arguments or annoyances—I was never there to bother her while her friends were over or tease her over a third-grade crush. The closest I can describe it to is a cousin relationship, but even that doesn’t really fit. She isn’t my cousin, and she isn’t a sister I lived with. So what is she?
To me, the complexities of a birth sibling relationship fall into a category all of its own. From firsthand experience, it can be so confusing. My whole life I grew up as the oldest of five siblings. I am the second mom, the mature older sister, and my mom’s right-hand daughter—but when Kaylee’s here, all that seems to change. Suddenly I’m not the oldest anymore. Suddenly I actually feel my age. Suddenly I’m put into the shoes of a younger sibling. It’s a rush of confusion that took therapy to unravel.
The first time I truly realized how I fit into this dynamic was only two days ago. I was reading about Little Women and found myself relating to Amy much more than I was expecting. Amy? Amy? But she’s the youngest, isn’t she? Why would I relate to Amy? I’ve always related to Meg! I realized that part of what makes this so complex and confusing is the two dynamics I’m squished between. On one hand, I face the troubles that come with being the oldest. Taking care of my siblings, babysitting, being the “guinea pig” of sorts for my parents, and being responsible for things my younger siblings aren’t. On the other hand, I experience something I’m sure every younger child can relate to. Jealousy, feeling inferior to my sister, knowing she will always be better at things than me simply because of her age, and feeling so much less mature. How do you balance such opposites?
I’ll be honest, I don’t know. This past year I’ve been unraveling trauma in utero related to this (which I would have to get into another time if people are interested) and working with my therapist to ease some of these feelings. We did this primarily due to Kaylee coming to live with us for a few months, and I have to say that it did help, though the dynamic is still confusing.
I still feel anger and sadness sometimes. Jealousy. There will be periods when it’s hard for me to send a text or see her artwork or whatever she’s doing because I feel so inferior. It’s not something she’s done wrong, of course, but more so my own inner insecurities that I have to face. That doesn’t make it any less hard, however. My whole life it’s felt like she was the golden child. Everything was extra special just because Kaylee was there to do it with us, and I suppose that made me feel less than. With the dynamics of the adoption, she was the golden child in a way. A rarity that everybody wanted to savor, including me. No wonder it led to her being put on a pedestal! It was something that happened naturally due to the circumstances rather than something my family intentionally did. There is grace and understanding despite the hurt.
It’s going to take time to figure out how to balance these emotions—possibly even the rest of my life—but I don’t think that makes our adoption any less beautiful. Sometimes the most complex things are the ones filled with the most beauty. The beauty of it all is the best friend I’ve gained along the way. Kaylee and I are so similar— in fact, we have an inside joke about being secretly twins. We share the same interests and have similar personalities, even our life experiences tend to match up despite growing up in separate homes. We’ll spend hours staying up late talking about things neither of us has told anyone else. We’ll draw and paint together and blast Taylor Swift while talk
ing about former friendships or whatever else comes to mind. She’s my go-to for advice and vice versa. Both of us have been there for each other since the beginning and have an understanding of each other like no one else quite can. She’s there for me, like when I was too anxious to go into the mall and she waited in the car with me as I calmed down. And I’m there for her, like when she was dealing with conflicting adoption emotions and I was a shoulder to cry on and to listen. She really is a best friend that I also get to call my big sister.
I now get to experience two sibling dynamics. I get to say I’m an older sibling and a younger one. I’ve gained two viewpoints! I’ve gained an experience that’s uniquely mine and because of it, I’m able to use my story to educate people on the realities of birth siblings in an open adoption and help others feel less alone. It’s like a thread weaving together—a confusing mess of lines and crossing stitches that altogether make something beautiful.