Five Years Apart, But Practically Twins

by Erin Howard It used to drive me crazy when my parents would call me by my sister’s name. I swore, with all the self-righteousness of childhood, that I would never call my future daughters by the wrong names. Of course, now that I’m a Mom, I do. Daily. And I fully expected that my daughter, Michalene (Mikey) would be livid about it. But she doesn’t mind at all. In fact, she fairly glows with delight. “Did you call me Mia because we look so much alike?” she beams. “Is it because we look so much alike that we’re practically twins?” While my two daughters, Mikey and Mia, do have a passing resemblance, they are by no means twins. Mikey is 6; Mia is 1. Clearly they are not twins. But, as far as Mikey is concerned, they might as well be. To Mikey, that passing resemblance is all-important. When my husband, Phil, and I decided to adopt seven years ago, we immediately joined our agency’s transracial adoption program. We live in a multi-cultural neighborhood where we, as Caucasians, are the ethnic minority, so we felt confident we could foster a diverse community for our kids. And we knew our families would be supportive — in fact my in-laws are also transracial adoptive parents. For us, transracial adoption was a comfortable fit from the beginning. As we worked through our pre-adoption classes, we learned more about the challenges and issues we might face as a transracial family. We were increasingly committed to doing everything we could to foster a healthy racial identity in our future kids. There was one suggestion that kept popping up again and again in our reading — consider adopting a second child of the same race. The two siblings would share a cultural heritage and would be able to provide unique support for each other. Phil and I were decided. We had always wanted a large family; this advice fit right in with our future plans. We were so committed to a second transracial adoption, even before our first placement, that we informed our social workers and our daughter’s birth mom of the plan. The surprise arrival of our biological son, Danny, less than a year after Mikey’s placement could have changed things, but we never seriously considered foregoing a second adoption. When Danny was 2, we again entered our agency’s transracial adoption program and within a few months our family welcomed James, an adorable, curly-haired, biracial, baby boy. Everyone loved him from the moment we met him. Mikey was especially taken with him; although she was barely 3, she kept trying to make bottles and change diapers. The results were not pretty. James’ adoption coincided with the natural awakening of racial awareness in Mikey. As a preschooler, she was beginning to notice that a lot of people around her were “pink” or “tan.” Mikey has dark, rich, cocoa-brown skin and is strikingly beautiful, but she was having trouble seeing her beauty. The few friends who did match her skin color happened to be boys, and that wasn’t good enough for this girly-girl. At ages 3 and 4, though she was generally well-adjusted and thriving socially, she expressed feelings of isolation. It didn’t matter that her uncle and her brother, not to mention dozens of friends, were also of African heritage. In her mind, it was all about looks. She still looked different. When James was almost 2, Phil and I tried to be done having babies. For about two weeks we walked around saying to ourselves, “That’s it. We’re done. Three is enough.” But we knew that it wasn’t enough. We really wanted one more. So we scrounged up money for our third adoption in five years looking optimistically toward the future and another baby. Although the decision to have another baby belonged solely to Phil and me, there was no doubt in either of our minds that our only daughter was dying to have a sister, and if that sister happened to look more than a little bit like her, it might benefit both of them. James was a much-beloved brother to Mikey, but she did not associate her “brown-ness” with his “tan-ness.” Perhaps our family wouldn’t feel complete unless we had another African American daughter. Though we had always been in the transracial program, we knew that requesting both race and gender so specifically could increase our time as a waiting family. Did we want to take that chance? And what if a biracial child (and birth mom) really needed us? There weren’t that many families trained for transracial adoption; would we really turn down a placement like that? We decided to talk through the situation with our long-time social worker, and at least open up a conversation about waiting for an African American girl. We needn’t have worried. As it happened, things moved so quickly that the planned conversation never happened. Two weeks before our scheduled home visit, I got a surprise call. “Hurry up! You have to come to Indiana to get your new daughter in two days! Can we do the home visit tomorrow?” Yes, Yes, Yes! With great excitement I whispered to the kids, “We’re going to have a tiny, African American girl baby!” Mikey grinned. Then she and Danny moved all the couch cushions upstairs to make a bed for the new baby in her room. She was crushed when I reminded her about the crib in the nursery. Clearly, Phil and I expected that Mikey would appreciate having Mia in the family. As the girls grew, we hoped they would be emotional support for each other even beyond what you would normally see in sisters. We underestimated the connection. We simply had no idea how profoundly important Mia would be for Mikey. Within the first 15 minutes of our placement, Mikey was plotting how the girls would wear matching braids and hair beads once Mia’s hair grew a little more. At Mikey’s pleading insistence, I scoured stores looking for matching outfits that came in Girls Size 6 and Infant Size Preemie (there aren’t any, by the way). And once again I had to watch out for Mikey’s loving “little Mommy” tendencies which could have easily harmed our five-pound infant. The expressions of isolation and self-doubt disappeared. “Isn’t she beautiful, Mom?” Mikey would say. Then, unaware of the comical self-compliment, she would add, “She looks just like me.” Mikey and Mia were inseparable. One year later, and they are still inseparable. Maybe Mikey would have come around on her own with time, especially as she grew in understanding of cultural heritage beyond just physical similarities. But for us, the well-researched advice “consider adopting a second child of the same race” has proven applicable beyond our wildest dreams. Mikey needed Mia. Our family needed Mia. Perhaps someday, sibling rivalry will take over and the girls will pester and pick on each other as sisters have done since time immemorial. But I think they will always be close. They have a special connection; they will always need each other. Because as Mikey says, they are “practically twins.” Erin Ruggaber Howard is a freelance writer and stay-at-home Mom to four children, 6-year-old Michalene, 5-year-old Danny, 3-year-old James and 1-year-old Mia. Three of her children joined the family through domestic infant adoption. Howard has a master’s degree in public history from Loyola University Chicago and worked as a museum curator for five years until she left to care for her growing family. She and her husband, Phil, live in Aurora, Ill.

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