My oldest son is fifteen years old.
My oldest daughter is thirteen years old.
Or maybe she is fourteen.
She could quite possibly be fifteen.
No one really knows.
When we brought our daughter home four years ago, the courts in Ethiopia assigned her a birthdate. We are fairly certain it is incorrect. She is completely convinced it’s incorrect. She knows she was meant to be the oldest child.
Leah basically raised her three younger siblings. Her mother was absent for long periods of time in order to earn money for their family to survive. Leah was left in charge. She figured out how to strap her baby brother onto her back and carry him with her while she tended the fire. How to entertain her sister with nothing more than corn husks and twigs. How to divide their single meal of the day into tiny portions and spread it out as evenly as possible between the hours and the hungry stomachs. Leah was forced to become a leader and it was not a role she relinquished easily.
My son, on the other hand, was comfortable in his role as firstborn. He was used to being the top dog among our children. He relished his role as king and was not willing to abdicate his throne.
These two were like oil and water. We tried to mix them together to create one family but they would have none of it. Neither one was willing to kowtow to the other.
Those early days together were stained by tears and trauma. Our family had doubled overnight with one signature on an adoption decree. The simple logistics of living as a family of eight would have been enough to overwhelm me. But when I added in the extra issues we inherited by adopting older children, adopting out of birth order, artificially twinning our bio daughter, and adopting a sibling set of four, I was teetering on the edge of insanity.
The issues festering between my two oldest children did not help my mental state. There was constant bickering. Frequent outbursts of anger. Defiance in word and in deed. They were both determined to be at the top of the pecking order, even if it meant wounding each other and their mother to get there.
In December, only five months after bringing our children home, we celebrated my daughter’s tenth birthday. I was battle worn and weary, but determined to prove to Leah how special she was. I wanted to make up for all of the missed birthdays in her past. I decorated and I baked and I wrapped her present with a big bow on top. I invited our family and closest friends to join in the festivities.
The day of her birthday was cloudy and cold. Inside of our home, however, it was bright and cheery. I placed her cake on the kitchen table as I lit the candles. Our family gathered around. For the very first time in her life, Leah blew out her birthday candles surrounded by people who loved her. We sang Happy Birthday as we took her picture.
My daughter hated it. She hated every single thing about it. She did not want to celebrate her tenth birthday because she felt it was a lie. She wasn’t turning ten and we all knew it to be true. But this was the birthdate the courts had assigned to her. It will be her birthdate forever. It is the date chosen to celebrate her life, regardless of the number on top of the cake.
She made her birthday miserable. For herself and for everyone who loved her. My heart broke watching her sabotage all of the joy around her. It was as if she didn’t believe she deserved anything good so she twisted it into something bad with the poison of her words and her actions.
Shortly after her birthday we started seeing a counselor. Singly. In pairs. My daughter. My son. Myself. We needed professional help navigating these tricky waters.
Our counselor was a godsend. She provided us with the tools we were so desperately searching for. She validated our feelings–all of our feelings. No one person’s feelings took precedence over any others. Our feelings were legitimate and deserved; the pitfalls were found in how we allowed those feelings to influence our behaviors.
Our counselor helped me to realize I was overcompensating. I was trying so hard to prove my love for my daughter that I often ignored what she really needed. She did not need a big birthday party with all of the trimmings and excitement. She needed me to come alongside of her as she searched for herself.
She had lost everything she once thought to be true about who she was. She lost her country. Her language. Her food. Her family. Even her name. She was adrift in this new life and was grasping at any token of her identity that might help her find her way. If one of these tokens was her status as oldest child, this was a position I could validate.
Our counselor helped my son to realize there was room for two at the top of the pyramid. He was no less my firstborn than he had been before we doubled our family. He was willing to give a little, take a little, and learn how to collaborate on the job of oldest child.
Our counselor taught my daughter some techniques for coping with her feelings. She put together a feelings bag. Inside was a stress ball, a journal, bubbles, a pack of gum. Whenever my daughter’s feelings overwhelmed her, when she felt she could no longer control her behavior, she was to get her feelings bag and find some quiet space to be alone.
The counselor helped my daughter to realize that the number on a birth certificate did not need to define her. We all acknowledged that number to be false. And yet we were stuck with it. So we made the best of it. We decided that both of our oldest children needed to be afforded the special privileges and the unique responsibilities that came along with their job title.
The first step was re-arranging bedrooms. This was not an easy task for a family of eight who lived in a home with only four bedrooms. We had to build an extra room in the garage. We moved my son out there, into his own “man cave.” Then we gave Leah her own space, the corner room with the windows looking out over the tree tops.
Every night we tuck our four littles into bed and say their prayers. We turn out the lights and close their doors. And then we allow our two oldest children to stay up a little later.
They can choose a quiet activity–reading, finishing homework, listening to music. This “late night” time is something that they both enjoy as a perk of being the oldest.
Every Saturday we have chore day. Each child is responsible for one major chore (a bathroom, mopping the kitchen floor) and one minor chore (emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash). Of course, my two oldest children can handle a bit more responsibility than my littles. They are each assigned something extra. This something extra is completely at my discretion and depends on what I most need help with. Also on what I most hate doing myself. (By the way, I haven’t scrubbed the inside of a toilet for two years. That is my perk for mothering six children.)
The relationship between my two oldest did not improve over night. It took a lot of work to get them to where they are today. We had to be intentional. We had to seek professional help. We had to listen more than we talked.
Last summer I had two junior high-schoolers for the very first time. My son was in Grade 8 and my daughter was entering Grade 7. They decided they wanted to attend a summer camp for teens. Together, they researched and chose a camp near our home town. Together, they collected cans and bottles for recycling money to earn their tuition. Together, they spent a week at a cabin in the woods.
At the end of the week, I drove up the mountain to gather my children. They piled in my car: dirty, stinky, and tired. As I drove home, I listened to the chatter from the back seat. Their words were filled with mundane trivia–which boy was most annoying, which girl talked too much, which meal had been too disgusting to eat. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. They sounded exactly as my two oldest children should sound–happy.