I'm a big sister. I have been since I was two years old, and my little brother was born. Then, when I was 11, I became a big sister to two more little brothers through adoption; a six-year-old and a three-year-old. They were cute, and they were annoying - just like my other little brother. They were mine, and I loved them. 

However, my newly acquired little brothers already had a big sister and a big brother. They had what's known in the adoption world as birth siblings, and for the first year or two, they had direct contact with their “other mum” and “other brother and sister”, as I thought of them.

Direct contact is a well-known concept when you’re inside the adoption or fostering community, but what a formal way of explaining keeping in touch with your family! I used to visit my grandparents once or twice a year as a kid. Imagine calling that direct contact!

As an adult, by the time I got to the end of my adoption training, assessment and matching, this expression - direct contact - was almost part of my normal vocabulary. However, as a child who had just gained two new siblings, it was very alien. Sometimes I think we all need to be aware of the jargon we use, especially around children. As far as I was concerned, as a child, it was just my little brothers visiting their other family at certain times when we were told by social workers that they had to.

Unfortunately, this was not a wholly positive experience for my little brothers. It unsettled them, the older one in particular, and they were torn between loyalties to their two families. I remember lots of challenging behaviour and anger in the days that followed direct contact. It was stressful. Looking back, it felt a bit weird for me. Most of the time they felt like just my little brothers, but then they would go off for the day and be someone else’s little brothers and they would come back full of stories and with little gifts and it was all a bit confusing, for all of us children. They would talk about their other family for a while and then as time went on, they talked about them less, until their next visit.

Their birth mum did not seem able to let them move on and become part of our family, as well as hers. I think she held out hope that they would go back to her and be a family, without us. Once direct contact stopped, things improved for both of my brothers. Gradually, it felt as though their other family faded into the background and often I even forgot they had one. Writing this, I know it does not sound right. It sounds insensitive. I know so much more now about identity and how important keeping those connections are; especially after becoming a mum through adoption myself. But this is just me remembering back to almost 20 years ago, when I was not even quite a teenager.

My feelings towards my little brothers’ “other brother and sister” at this time were of competition, threat, perhaps even jealousy. For the older of my two littlest brothers, the relationship he had with his “other sister” was particularly strong. She had looked after him as a baby, when she was only a primary school aged child herself. He, quite rightly, adored her. In my own insecure, pre-teen mind, I could never compete with this. In fact, his strong relationship with her meant that he bonded with me quickly and I was his favourite for a while, due to the positive association he had with sisters. 

On reflection, I think at that time I wished my little brothers did not have this other family hovering in the background. It complicated things. At times, it was even embarrassing. There was a time my six-year-old brother got into an argument with a school friend over the fact he had two sisters, not one, and I was called upon to confirm and explain that he was adopted. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed he was adopted - I just didn’t want everyone to know in case they thought he was any less part of our family. It was embarrassing because people stared and asked questions that I felt ill prepared to answer. Just writing this, I feel a little ashamed of myself, for my lack of compassion and understanding. But then, I was just a kid myself. 

My feelings now are very different. I am, and will forever be, incredibly grateful to my little brothers’ big sister for taking care of them all those years ago. She is inspiring. I don't know if I could have managed at her age. I hope that one day I can meet her and tell her in person what an incredible person she is. She had a much harder life than me. I have often thought how unfair it is. Through no fault of hers, she lost her little brothers and through absolutely no merit of mine, I gained my little brothers. I could have been born into her circumstances and lost out. She could have been born into mine and gained. Life is not fair. Thankfully, our little brothers are now back in her life again. 

Adoption has touched my life in several ways now. Not only are two of my three little brothers adopted into our family, but my two amazing children are also adopted, and one of them has a birth sibling. So yes, my family is more complicated. We are forever linked with other families who I have not yet had the chance to meet with face-to-face. But complicated is not necessarily a bad thing. It may make life harder work sometimes, but it also makes it interesting, and it means there are more people in the world who love my little brothers and my children. Now that can never be a bad thing. 

Author: Hope Green