Q: We have two married daughters, one of whom is adopted. The biological daughter has two children who, we recently discovered, have been told that it is wrong to call our adopted daughter “aunt so-and-so” because she is not really family. Nor, according to our biological daughter and son-in-law, is her husband an “uncle.” We’re planning an upcoming visit with our biological daughter’s family. How should we deal with this?
A: Forty-three years of writing this weekly column and I thought I’d heard it all — until now.
First — and I really don’t need to tell you this, obviously — your adopted daughter is legally your daughter. She is not, say, 20% your daughter; rather, she is 100% your daughter. Her legal status is not reduced relative to her sister’s because she is adopted.
If in your will you were to assign half of your estate to each of your two children, and your biological daughter claimed the entire estate, asserting that she is your only child, the challenge would not succeed in a court of law. In other words, the terms “adopted” and “biological” are simply adjectives. That, by the way, is straight from the so-called “horse’s mouth,” the horse in this case being a federal judge.
The argument/claim can be turned around. Your adopted daughter could claim that she was specifically chosen to be your daughter, that your biological daughter was the product of mere chance; therefore she (adopted daughter) is your only true child. Yes, that argument is absurd; nonetheless, it is the equivalent of your biological daughter’s equally absurd argument.
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It may be that your biological daughter and son-in-law are simply and innocently mistaken, but I strongly suspect there’s more going on here than meets the eye. I would wager that this “mistake” is the upshot of long-standing jealousy on the part of your biological daughter.
Let’s face it, a disproportionate amount of attention goes to a new sibling when he or she enters a family — whether by adoption or birth. If, as I suspect from the wording of your question, your biological daughter is your first child, she might not have exactly welcomed her adopted sister with open arms. Instead, she might have felt displaced, deprived of attention that she felt “belonged” to her and harbored a good amount of resentment as a result. To put this another way, she may have long felt that “biological” is a synonym for “real.”
Assuming I am correct, there is a volcano smoldering beneath this issue. I doubt there is a way of correcting what your grandchildren have been told without uncapping the volcano. One option, therefore, is to ignore it. But sweeping matters of this import under a proverbial rug rarely works for long. Sooner or later, this is going to have to be dealt with.
In that regard, there are two aspects to the overall issue: legal and emotional. The legal aspect can and should be addressed by a legal expert. That, relatively speaking, is the easy part. The emotional aspect is the tar pit. In my estimation, a reasonably sane discussion and resolution of the pertinent issues is going to require mediation by a very experienced family therapist.
Even suggesting that is likely — pardon the mix of metaphors — to set the pot boiling. Brace yourselves.