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Family Almanac

The Child Who Got Away

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page C08

Q. My girlfriends and I tell each other almost everything, so we know that one of us is facing a lot of pressure.

She lives with her sister, who wants to adopt a young child, and our friend has agreed to stay with her for the first few years. They both are single and should benefit from this family arrangement but there have been problems already.

They went through an agency, had a child selected, received a brief video of the little girl, got everything in order, spent a huge amount of money on the preparations and then were informed -- the day before their flight to Russia -- that the child's mother had claimed the baby. Yes, it was a reputable agency and they were so sorry to convey this news.

Another child came up two months later and amid their grief, they are soldiering on. They expect to pick her up soon, but our friend thinks it will be hard for her to accept this child -- this replacement -- since she had been looking forward to the first one so much.

As her spiritual sisters, what are the best ways for us to help these two real sisters and their new child?

A.You can help by telling your friend that most parents ask themselves the same question: How can they possibly love a second child as much as the first one?

The question is even more poignant if they knew all about this first child, dreamed about her, longed for her but never even had the chance to hold her in their arms.

The child who got away is never forgotten, but the more your friend loved her, the easier it will be for her to love the next one, for love, once given, expands the heart.

Other considerations are more serious.

Many single women -- and some men -- adopt a child with great success, but not many adopt a child and also lock in an auntie to stay with them for a few years. And then depart. This particular path could be fraught with trouble.

A child is not a toy that can be outgrown or a trophy that's put on the shelf. Each day your friend spends with her niece will be etched into her memory bank. The happy moments and funny first words may be remembered most, but even the throwing up and the tantrums will be cherished, because anyone who comforts and cares for a child in distress is charmed by whatever she does.

The leave-taking may hit your friend the hardest, since she found it so difficult to give up her dreams about the first child. Can she move on easily after she's been with this second child, day after day, for several years? Will she leave voluntarily, with good feelings on all sides, or will she take off in a huff, because her sister is the adoptive parent and she is just the helper? And will your friend -- or the child -- fall into a tailspin of grief when she goes?

Remind your friend that she will be the aunt, not the mother; that she can leave if she wants a different sort of life; and that you will give her a great support system until then.

To provide it, your circle of friends could take turns baby-sitting for her -- or paying for a sitter -- every week so she can go out on a date or be with you, and you should phone often and listen well. Motherhood (and aunthood) can be pretty ego-damaging if the mother and the aunt have no time to do anything but work, market, cook, do the laundry and read a few bedtime stories to the child.

Like all mothering women, she will need time to read a novel or take a bubble bath. To achieve, to accomplish, to exchange ideas with other grown-ups. To talk in complete sentences again.

Unless both your friend and her sister must work full time, however, they shouldn't be away from home for more than 70 hours a week -- total -- nor should any parents. It's much more important to spend time with a child than to buy more toys and clothes for her than she can use. Joyful memories, strong traditions and family time build a strong, secure child better than anything else.

"The Irreducible Needs of Children," by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan (Perseus, $15), explains this concept well. And since your friend's sister is adopting a young child, rather than a baby, give them a copy of "Toddler Adoption" by Mary Hopkins-Best (Perspectives, $15). It's a thoughtful, helpful book, since adopted toddlers have somewhat different reactions and different needs from those of other adopted children.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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