Well, we recently acquired a 19 year-old at our house and people are wondering about exactly how that works with my much touted philosophy about the benefits of respecting birth order. Long story short– it kind of doesn’t. But I’m okay with that.
I wanted to give you a look inside the thought process that lead us to feel like disrupting birth order in our family might be an acceptable decision, in case you are ever in a similar situation. And because I don’t want people to assume I’ve changed my mind about the importance of birth order. And also because I know people are curious.
-This person is not an unknown. The teenager currently in our home is a child we helped raise for several years back before we had adopted or biological kids. He has always had a spot in our hearts and our door has always been open to him. We discussed the possibility of him coming to our home a few years ago, so this has been an ongoing discussion and never far from our thoughts. In some ways, this is more similar to deciding to take in your nephew if something happened to his parents than it is like taking in a stranger. We have joked that this decision is really about preserving birth order since he was part of our family first.
-We had the support of our kids. Before agreeing to this situation, we talked to our kids. They were 100% on board with offering our home as a safe place for this young man. It meant rearranging our home and their living spaces (he has bedroom and bathroom space all to himself) and the kids were okay with that. I know our family is a little unusual because conversations like this are never off the table– they regularly ask if we can have new people come live with us because the reality of foster care has always been part of their lives. I fully believe they are confident in their permanency with us, but also understand that other people might have a need our family can fill. I love that about our kids– that they want to offer what they have to those in need. While we don’t have much in the way of financial resources, we have a home and a family we’re willing to share. The honest truth is that as much as I wanted this young man to come be part of our family, if the kids had been resistant, we would have found other ways to help him without having him live in our home.
-We had the support of his family. We have had a positive relationship with his family for about a decade now. We made sure that they were okay with him coming here and that this wasn’t some effort to avoid accountability or get away from trouble we didn’t know about. We talked to them openly about their perceptions of the situation and asked for any information they thought we needed to know. If they had said anything that made us concerned for the safety of our kids, we would have found another way to help him without him living with us.
-We communicated some basic standards before he came. We have a G rated home, if you know what I mean. While it could be totally appropriate for a young man of his age to be listening to more “adult” music, playing adult video games, and watching those kinds of movies and TV shows, that is not the kind of house we’re running here and we needed to know he was okay with helping preserve that environment for our young kids. We asked if he was willing to come to church with us and made sure we were on the same page about issues like underage drinking or cigarette smoke around our kids. The great thing is, he has known us for a long time and our standards haven’t changed. He knew exactly what he was getting by coming here and he still chose to come.
-We are continuing to check-in with our kids. I am regularly touching base with my young kids about how this is going for them– are they getting the attention they need? Do they enjoy having him here? Do they always feel safe? What would they do if they didn’t feel safe? We let our kids know that if they had concerns, they should come to us. We also let him know that if he had a problem with our kids, he should come to us and let us handle it. We want to preserve some kind of big brother dynamic and not make them think he is a babysitter or some kind of fill-in parent just because he’s an adult in the house. So far the kids have had only positive reports and it’s been sweet to see the interactions between them– lots of chess playing and driveway basketball going on that I am just loving.
For years I have been adamant that the safest way to add to your family is to respect birth order. I don’t take back anything about what I’ve said. I continue to be compelled by the stories I’ve heard from adults who grew up in families that provided foster care about how having an older child brought in could cause confusion, competition and makes protecting your child more complicated. I am not naive to these realities and am keeping a close eye on how this situation is impacting everyone involved. I do think there is enough of an age gap that some of my usual concerns about birth order aren’t as relevant.
Even in writing these few paragraphs, I’ve had a struggle. It’s hard for me to write words that distinguish between my legal kids and this young man. I feel weird about saying, “our kids” as though he is on the outside of that group. The truth is, this is one of the kids who taught me how to be a mom. Having him here does not feel like an intrusion or a burden, but like healing, like completing the circle. When I told him I was writing a piece about how we decided to disrupt birth order he laughingly said, “Um, I was here first.” I recognize this is an unusual situation, but I also think it’s one more foster parents need to consider when choosing to invest in kids– what if someday they want to come back to you, even if you haven’t been part of their story in years? Can we be those people? Is there a way to do that responsibly that considers everyone’s needs? I think there is and I think we’re trying to find that path.