Two-Minute Memoir: Alternate Family

A daughter gains security after meeting her biological sister, and two families discover the bonds that link them.

By Larry Rubin Ph.D., published on January 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Rebecca came to us in pieces. She had lived a fragmented existence with a biological mother who understood that she had to save her child from poverty and domestic violence.

My wife and I had wanted a second child, partly for our son, Zachary, whom we had adopted several years before, but also to complete our family. Rebecca arrived as a frightened, sickly, and confused 9-month-old baby. It took quite a few months for her to understand, in that way that only infants can at that most visceral level, that she was finally safe—and loved.

As she grew into a curious, affectionate, and playful child, she had an uncanny capacity to read and anticipate others’ feelings. And she seemed to intuitively understand the meaning of family, the beauty of connection, and the loss that is an inherent part of adoption: During a gathering, surrounded by all four of her grandparents, Rebecca once lamented how sad it must be for her “tummy mommy” not to have her children around her during the holidays.

Rebecca often and abruptly asked, “Do you think my tummy mommy misses me and is sad?” My wife and I worried that we wouldn’t be able to heal her from this adoption, even though we were providing her with a safe and happy home. We never kept secret that she had a full biological sister named Maxine who was a year older than her, whom she could meet when she was 18—that magical age when adoptees can legally begin the search for their birthparents and families.


When Rebecca was 10, a family with a child near her age moved in next door. Rebecca announced that the girl was her “new sister” and they became fast friends. Later that year, when the family moved away, it hit Rebecca very hard: For one short moment in time, she had a “sister,” but that was taken from her. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that event was the impetus for me to reach out and find Maxine.

As a therapist and father, I try to be pragmatic and helpful. I painfully acknowledge that it is not up to me to “fix” people. And yet…I want to be a fixer, even a mender of hearts or a miracle worker. I am a man with a Superman tattoo on my arm, after all. Superheroes right wrongs, and making Rebecca wait until she was 18 to meet her sister suddenly seemed wrong—like a real injustice. But at the same time, my wife and I ran through the nightmare scenario—what if meeting her sister caused Rebecca to be more upset about their separation? I forged ahead anyway.

I called the adoption agency through which Rebecca (and Zachary) came to us, and asked if they could put us in touch with the family that adopted Maxine (through a different agency). Hesitant at first, Maxine’s parents contacted us. We all decided to put Rebecca and Maxine in contact with each other—first through mail and then by phone. Soon after, the girls hung in their rooms colorful bulletin boards of pictures of each other.

We wondered if Zachary would feel left out with all the attention on Rebecca’s sister. Thankfully, Maxine’s older adoptive brother, Miles, reached out to Zachary through e-mail, and the two hit it off. I later heard Zach say to Miles, “Since your sister is my sister’s sister, we are like brothers.”

When Rebecca was 11, my family and Maxine’s, who lived three hours away by car, finally planned a weekend get-together, and drew up a busy itinerary to ward off awkward lulls in the conversation. As it turned out, this wasn’t necessary. From the moment the two girls met, they were inseparable.

They told each other of their lives, shared pictures, giggled, bought identical rock-star gloves and sunglasses, and snuggled in bed as if it had always been this way and they had always been in each other’s lives. The boys skateboarded, traded the names of their favorite heavy metal bands, and even made fun of their sisters.

All the while, the parents swapped stories, filled in missing details about the birthparents that each couple knew, and wondered aloud what the girls’ lives would have been like had they remained with their biological mother. Our chat quenched some curiosity about Rebecca’s beginnings—since she and Maxine were adopted from different agencies, they had different case histories. When you adopt, there’s always a question mark over your child: How much of her way of being comes from biology? Meeting Maxine and filling in some of the gaps in Rebecca’s story gave us a better idea of what she came with versus what we’ve given her.

Maxine’s mom suggested that we take pictures of the fantasy families that never were—Maxine together with Rebecca, with each family. If their birth mother hadn’t left Rebecca in a different agency from her sister, she’d now be living with Maxine and her family. Or conversely, Maxine could have been my daughter. It made me realize how unpredictable and random life can be. When I held Maxine I felt real love for her—and even felt sad that she wasn’t my daughter. The cycle of lost and found continues.

Now that they’ve met, Rebecca no longer intensely and anxiously asks about her sister, but rather makes calm, matter-of-fact inquiries about when they can next see each other. She’s more at peace with her reality and more focused on the present.

I’ve always been conscious at big get-togethers of how other kids have a whole array of biological relatives to connect with. Since we met Maxine and her family, our adoption adventure has become bigger and richer. We’re conscious of how we’ve extended our family in a way that adopted families don’t usually get to do, and that makes us feel less alone. Kind of like we’ve been adopted into a loving family, too.

Read Larry Rubin, Ph.D.'s, PT blog: Popular Culture Meets Psychology.