Helping a toddler embrace an adopted sibling

Jackie's son shows no interest in his Cabbage Patch Doll "little brother".
Jackie's son shows no interest in his Cabbage Patch Doll "little brother". Photo: Alex Wroblewski

My sister tells me that I parent like the war correspondent I used to be. I go into this mode with my two-and-a-half-year-old son, whom I adopted from Morocco as an infant.

I rarely panic, and I try to keep my head down, especially when there are blocks involved. A public tantrum? Whatever. I've survived al-Qaida. Poop in the tub? Please. I've embedded with the US Marines. Clean it up, bleach the porcelain, move on.

But admittedly, I am a bit rattled right now. A single parent by choice, I am preparing to adopt a second baby from Morocco before my son turns three. Friends have kindly suggested that my spirited toddler, who has been going through a hitting stage for almost a full year now, is going to love being a big brother. I smiled the first couple of times I heard this. Now I cut them off: "He's probably going to hate it."

I'm a realist. My son is a young two, developmentally; a mama's boy who is the center of my attention. What, exactly, about sharing me is he going to love?

So I am faced with a situation that is common for parents expecting a second child: preparing my toddler for the arrival of a sibling. Only I am adopting. There's no baby growing inside me to give my son a physical connection. There's no due date. There's nothing tangible at all except some rearrangement of furniture in what will be the baby's room, which my son views merely as expanded play space for him. He has completely taken over the room for Baby Brother.

"This is challenging from a development lens," said Debbie Riley, chief executive of the Center for Adoption Support and Education. "It's so ambiguous. A toddler can't understand the underpinnings of adoption."

Indeed, many of the resources I've sought to prepare me for the arrival of Baby Brother (the orphanage has not yet matched me with a baby, but it almost certainly will be a boy) seem geared toward older children, preschool age or above. Children who aren't still in diapers and sleeping in the one crib in the house, a hand-me-down from my twin sister, Jenny, the mother of four boys and my main consultant, therapist and expert for all parenting matters.

I recently scrolled through an adoption website, looking for books on the adoption of the sibling. Most of the books were written for children who are older or at least have more comprehension than a toddler whose favorite story lines are no more complicated than Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?and Is Your Mama a Llama? I picked up one new book, I'm a Big Brother by Joanna Cole and Maxie Chamblis, that is not specific to adoption but leaves out the pregnancy and hospital part. Riley recommended the Sesame Street classic Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby. It's not a perfect fit because there is a Gordon to go with a Susan in the book, but we do watch Sesame Street and I'm eager to follow the advice of an expert.


I had already started reading a book to my son that I picked up in my correspondent travels, Be Safe With My Brother and I, a book in Kurdish and English in which Big Brother warns Baby Brother not to play with electrical wires or he will get electrocuted. Big Brother also tells Little Brother not to open drawers, jump on the bed or put crayons in his mouth.

The problem in my house is that Big Brother still does those things.

A few weeks ago, I came up with my own idea, which I know is not original because the spokeswoman at the Cabbage Patch Kids Babyland General Hospital assured me it was not.

I remembered that my sister had a Cabbage Patch doll as a girl, and she came with adoption papers: Wilomena Farley. You don't forget your Cabbage Patch doll's name. Plenty of parents prepare for the arrival of a new baby by giving their toddlers a doll. I like the idea of a doll that was adopted like my son was, like his sibling will be. My sister and I also were adopted, which is the reason she saved up her money to buy, er, adopt Wilomena when those dolls were all the rage.

My son's doll, which we call "Baby Brother," came with the name Jon Bailey. He was "born" on August 9, which is probably around the time Baby Brother was born, given the age I expect him to be if I travel to Morocco in December, as I hope to, pending approval from the US Department of Homeland Security.

The problem: my son wants nothing to do with Jon Bailey. When they met, he smelled him and then tried to bite his nose. He then tossed poor Jon Bailey aside. I try to involve Jon Bailey in my son's play. He stays in the car seat in the new baby's room, in a corner. I talk about how we adopted Jon Bailey, how exciting it is for my son to be a brother and how important it is for him to do "nice touches" with Jon Bailey.

Kichelle Coleman, director of adoption and foster care services at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, encouraged me not to give up. In her polite way, she also told me to ease up.

"Ask him what he would do for the baby," she said. "Make sure it is more about him. You don't want him to feel like he has to be nice. It doesn't have to do with adoption. Make it about what would big brothers do. Have fun. Be silly. Make them laugh. All that other responsibility is Mum's responsibility. Mum's going to take care of that baby. Make it lighter."

My sister shared something she picked up at a sibling class at a birth center as she and her husband were expecting their second child.

"You tell the baby to 'hold on' and 'not now, I need to pay attention to Big Brother'," she said. "The baby doesn't know or care or understand what you are saying, but the toddler hears you not always putting the baby first."

I like that advice, too, and this morning I tried it out. While my son and I were playing with plastic dinosaurs in Baby Brother's room, I called out to the Cabbage Patch doll in the corner.

"Hold on, Jon Bailey, not now," I said. "Mama needs to pay attention to Big Brother."

It was a start.

Washingon Post