Funny, she doesn’t look like your other kids

Penina’s Story

My sister, the baby of the family, was 12 years old when our mother passed away. I’m the oldest, and had just turned 30. All of us were in total shock, since the whole thing happened very fast. The pain of our loss was so acute that none of us thought we’d get over it. All of my other siblings lived overseas and returned to their homes right after the shivah. At that point, I was raising my own brood of six adorable children in a tiny rental apartment. There was no room for an extra toothpick. Still, before I knew it, my sister was my responsibility. It was sort of a tacit agreement. One day she just showed up on my doorstep. My oldest was only eight at the time, and I had no idea how to relate to a teenager. Aside from physical care, she needed meals, laundry, money, and lots and lots of love. I kept on sending up prayers, saying “Hashem, this is Your child. Please help and guide me.” That kept me going. I also reached out to anyone I thought might help. They didn’t have to be fancy therapists, just people who had been orphaned or had raised siblings due to tragedy or divorce in their families. They were very helpful. Without them I would never have been able to get through all those conversations my sister and I had until three o’clock in the morning! We were lucky to have had a wonderful support system when my mother was sick.

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So many organizations reached out to us. I will never forget their caring and chesed. Yet when it was all over and I had to start pulling everything together, I found myself begging for help to make the transition. I felt so alone. It was as if I had suddenly been dumped on a desert island. I couldn’t find any help for bereaved families. My father was too preoccupied with his own grief to be of much help to my little sister. There are eight of us altogether but the other siblings live out of town. I was the only one my sister could turn to. It took a full year for things to start getting back to normal. It was a year filled with phone calls to therapists, agencies and professionals of all kinds. Another thing was that all of a sudden I had no privacy. My sister was too young to pick up on certain social cues, like maybe she should leave the room when my husband came home from work. Up until then we used to spell things out loud if my husband and I had no time for private discussions. That was all over. In the very beginning my sister was so fragile that she just expected me to care for her. She was cocooned in her pain and did very little around the house to help. She didn’t understand that I was grieving too. She rarely offered to help with my kids and wouldn’t even remove her plate from the dinner table. I was always on the giving end, and there was no end in sight. But she wasn’t healthy enough emotionally to give anything back quite yet. Something clearly had to be done. I had to talk to her or else I’d just be simmering with resentment. But I wasn’t sure how to handle it.

Luckily, she’s a smart kid and she picked up on my feelings herself. One day she was sitting at my kitchen table and the tears just started to flow. She told me she felt like everyone resented her. That conversation opened the door to a better and deeper relationship. It was painful and both of us were hurt but it was worth it. I was so thankful that she had taken down the barrier that separated us. I explained to her that if she were my daughter I would demand certain basic things, like cleaning up after supper or at least folding her own laundry. I’d never asked her to do anything because I was too afraid of hurting her, but I was hurting too and had my own family to take care of. As gently as possible I explained that I didn’t need her to buy me gifts or even to thank me every time I served her a meal or washed her laundry. But I didn’t want to be taken advantage of either. We were both really honest with each other. Afterwards, she made an effort to help. If she was feeling really low she would tell me, “I’m just not in the mood today. I need to breathe.” That was okay. Today, she has grown into a sensitive young lady who’s a pleasure to have around and knows exactly when I need my space.

Looking back, that first year was overwhelming. So many ups and downs! Whenever I felt I couldn’t cope I would say, “Hashem, You gave this challenge to me and I can’t deal with it. Either take it back or give me the right tools.” And He always did. There were nights when I just took out my Tehillim and begged Hashem for help. I was fortunate that my husband and I worked as a team. He was always supportive and completely selfless. I was barely 30 years old and felt so inadequate dealing with all the sadness. There’s still sometimes a conflict between being there for my husband or for my sister. I’m only one person and I only have so much time. It’s a constant challenge that will probably continue until she gets married. I’m lucky, though, that I can be open and honest with my sister and tell her when I can’t give her my attention right now. For the most part, my kids seemed to be unaffected by the fact that my mother passed away, although I have overheard them talking about death sometimes. Around two years ago my sister was preparing a speech to give at an event in which she spoke about my mother. Without any warning my six-year-old son began to cry. Everything came pouring out, how much he really missed my mother. He was barely two year old when she died. So there are always surprises, but on the whole they weren’t noticeably affected. I know my kids were sometimes resentful about my sister.

Being older, she took certain liberties they weren’t allowed, like raiding the nosh closet without my permission. I would also take evening walks with my sister if I needed to talk to her privately, and they weren’t always appreciative that I was absent. But we always talked openly about how they felt and worked our way through it. One of the things I had to get used to was going to PTA meetings in my mother’s stead. Interestingly, filling in for my mother always made me happy, as if I was doing something to please her. I’m open about the situation and don’t mind at all if people bring it up. It gives me comfort when they say they’re rooting for me or they’ve taken on certain things as a zechus for my mother’s neshamah. It has now been six years since my mother passed away. Three months ago, I moved to a larger apartment. The arrangement now is a little different.My sister still spends a lot of time in my house. She comes home from school and stays for dinner but then our father picks her up and she sleeps there overnight. She’s also here every Shabbos and Yom Tov. I’m happy to say that my sister has blossomed into a mature and sensible young woman. She fills our home with joy and is slowly becoming my close friend. Three years ago, when she was 15, it was my birthday. I was sitting at the table when she came over and dropped a paper she had written for a school project. I opened it up and saw a poem she had written in my honor. I was blown away. It was all about how grateful she felt and how we were keeping my mother’s memory alive together. I was so touched. I was also stunned that she was able to talk about her loss in such a public forum. The poem is pasted on my fridge. Its edges are kind of worn

Chevy’s Story

My aunt Nechama and I were very good friends. We were close in age and spent lots of time together, especially since we lived so close to each other. When Nechama passed away, my youngest child was already ten. My children had always felt that they were lacking something because we were the only people they knew who didn’t have a baby! None of my aunt’s siblings were prepared to take baby Suri in. Not only did they have to deal with losing a sister but they already had big families, around eight kids on average. Besides, there were three other orphans aside from Suri, ages five, eight and eleven, who would also need support. My aunt’s parents were already elderly and in no position to start raising an infant. I was someone they trusted because I’d been their daughter’s friend for so many years. I had another advantage that most of my aunt’s relatives didn’t, and that was the fact that my husband had been orphaned at a very young age. After being married to him for a while I was very much aware of the challenges he’d had to contend with as a child. I wanted to protect my young cousin from having such pain in her life. The first time Suri came to us she was three days old. Her mother was still alive but she was already very sick. She passed away a few months later. She once confided to me before she died that at least she knew her baby would have a mother, so at least she wasn’t tormented over that.

Taking care of Suri’s physical needs isn’t challenging, at least not yet. She’s only a year old and a pure delight. She’s just a regular part of our family, no different from any of our other kids. I’ve also had tremendous support from my community, which probably makes things much easier. By the time I brought her home, an upscale store in the neighborhood had dropped off two boxes of exquisite baby clothing. To this day, whenever I’m shopping for her and the store owners are aware of her story they refuse to take payment. My pediatrician has also been a great support. When Suri first came to live with us she didn’t have medical insurance. The doctor assured me that he would see her anytime, with or without insurance. It was so touching, as if the whole community accepted this baby as their responsibility. Everyone wanted to help out. Emotionally, though, things are different. I sometimes try to overcompensate and fulfill her emotional needs even more instantaneously than I would for my own child. I jump when she cries. I think about my aunt all the time, and how much she would have loved to raise her. My children are delighted. They’re finally a “normal” family with a baby.

In the beginning, neighbors and friends asked tons of questions. My daughter didn’t even want to go outside to play. I told her she should tell people that she doesn’t feel like discussing things all the time. By now, people have stopped asking a million questions or staring at us. Of course, my husband supports me a hundred percent. It’s been therapeutic for him to be able to give another person something he so badly needed as a child. He loves Suri at least as much as I do. My uncle, her father, visits all the time. So do her siblings and grandparents. The other kids are still living with their father, and a woman comes in to run the house. For them, it’s the best situation. I invite them over for an official dinner once a month. I’ve been asked how come it doesn’t bother me to have such an open house. I think it’s because I realized that this would be part of it. My kids are thrilled to have so many guests. When I see how much nachas and joy the baby brings everybody it makes me happy.

On the other hand, I can’t stop thinking about my poor aunt. But knowing that the situation is completely out of my control helps minimize those thoughts. I’m trying to be realistic. I know that this child, to whom I am now very attached and love dearly, will be returned to her father once he’s back on his feet. There’s no timeline or deadline or knowing when it will happen. But it will. Being open about the arrangement makes other people feel comfortable and less awkward. I know it’s very painful for my grandmother whenever she sees the baby, so instead of having her visit all the time I make sure to call her frequently and fill her in on Suri’s progress. It would be totally insensitive of me to judge her; I will never understand what she is going through. So I take the lead and send her pictures and keep her posted. I know that some people who are raising children who aren’t their own end up feeling resentful that they’re carrying the whole burden, but I don’t. But I have none of that resentment. I have zero expectations of anyone. Everyone in a situation like mine needs a support system, but the biggest need is to have emunah. Just believing that this is how Hashem wanted everything to be, down to the last detail, is the most important thing.

Of course, everyone needs coping mechanisms. I write. And then I just take one day at a time. I took Suri in without any strings attached. I think anyone in my shoes and with my upbringing would do the same. My father lived and breathed Chovos Halevavos. His whole life was for Hashem. His emunah was automatically passed on to his children. When this tragedy befell us my father said, “Hashem, I am doing teshuvah. Please accept it and don’t give us any more misfortune.” He taught us the value of introspection and never blamed anyone for his problems. I really believe that without the powerful gift of emunah I got from my parents I wouldn’t be able to do this. I accept all the help I am offered and walk away from whatever I cannot control. I didn’t exchange any of the baby gifts people gave me because I didn’t want anyone to be insulted or think that I didn’t need their stuff. Suri’s other grandparents live in Europe and I send them photos all the time. They call us often to thank me and hear how she’s doing. From the very beginning I tried to keep a baby diary and write in it every day. Suri will never have a mother who can tell her, “I remember when you were six months old and you got your first tooth.” So I figured I should do it. I’ll admit that I don’t make an entry every day but I do try. My husband grew up without a single memento of his childhood. I wanted things to be different for her. My husband has maybe three picture of himself from the time he was born until his wedding.

So we took about a thousand photos of Suri in the first three months! There are some family members that for reasons not worth mentioning felt slighted that they didn’t get to take Suri in. They haven’t visited her at all but I don’t care. I’m just glad she’s too young to be insulted. I’m hoping that by the time she does understand they will have come around. We’ve also had our share of lighter moments. A woman once complimented me on getting my figure back so quickly after having a baby. I’ve also been told that she looks just like me. When we got home from my aunt’s levayah, my 13-year-old son was really hysterical. His ten-year-old brother turned to him and said, “How come you look a lot more heartbroken about this than Mommy?” He answered him in Yiddish, “Di bist gevoint tzi heren az mentchen shtarben. In meine tzeiten, zenen mentchen nisht geshturben azoy.” (You’re already used to the idea that young people die. In my times, people didn’t just die like this.) Sadly, my son’s assessment is true. My younger children have experienced losses way too often. My little cousin Suri has been a tremendous gift and blessing to us. We’ve done our best to surround her with love from the moment she was born. I hope she will draw comfort from the fact that while she will never know her mother, she will have many memories of a loving and secure childhood.

Rivka’s Story

My youngest sister-in-law, Pessy, was three years old when my mother-in-law passed away. During her illness and hospitalization, all six kids stayed home and took care of each other. My oldest sister-in-law was 18 and basically took charge of the house. Most professionals we consulted strongly discouraged us from removing the three-year-old from the home. They said it was only wishful thinking that she would magically leave her troubles behind, and that she would still have to face the same challenges and struggles when she grew older. While I agreed with much of what they said, I still didn’t see why a toddler had to keep on staring tragedy in the face. But we didn’t intervene. Actually, the first time Pessy came to stay with us her mother was still alive. She was going through a whole battery of tests and we didn’t know yet how sick she was. Pessy was two and a half, and my own girls were four, six and eight, and she loved to spend time with us. So she stayed with us for the month of August. She went back home when school began in September. My mother-in-law got sicker and weaker. By the time Pesach rolled around she was slipping away.

One time I went to visit her at home. Pessy, who was just a little kid, was jumping all over the couch next to her frail mother. My mother-in-law could barely talk, let alone discipline her daughter. I told her that Pessy had been such a delight during the summer that we’d love to have her come to us for a while. She managed to convey that while it seemed like a good idea and she certainly trusted me to take good care of her, she wanted the child to stay with her. A month later she was gone. I still wish my mother-in-law had been able to articulate what she wanted. How much clarity it would have provided! I comfort myself, though, that my motherin-law did think it was a good idea and approved of my home, even though she wanted to keep Pessy with her at the time. My oldest sister-in-law got married shortly after her mother died. The next four siblings were boys, three of whom were in yeshivah overseas. The fourth boy, Avi, was eight years old and in a local cheder. Then there was Pessy, the baby. Avi moved in with one of his aunts who had a son only a year older. He begged his aunt to take him in. He craved the stability. Pessy stayed home by default. My father-in-law was struggling to keep his head above water. He was in so much pain.

Every morning he would take Pessy to my sister-in-law’s house to get her hair done. Pessy had no one to talk to after school and was spending a lot of time with neighbors. She began showing signs of trauma and was acting out in school. Once again, I hosted a family meeting and called up some professionals. Again I got a bunch of no, no, nos! Don’t take her out of her natural environment. It didn’t matter to anyone that her environment was stifling and sad. Every child needs a mother. But if Hashem takes that mother away, some sort of surrogate has to be found. Pessy’s behavior started to deteriorate to the point that her teachers began to worry. My sister-in-law said it was time to act according to our gut instinct and give Pessy the stability she so desperately needed. This time the professionals admitted that maybe it was a good idea. I still wonder why they couldn’t foresee the situation. You don’t have to be a professional to understand that a three-yearold without a mother isn’t going to do so well. But I guess each situation is unique.

In hindsight, the only good thing about having postponed the move is that there was no second-guessing afterwards. She just had to be placed in a functioning home. We invited Pessy to stay with us for the summer. She was four and a half, about a year after her mother died. She didn’t know she’d be moving in for good but that’s how it turned out. We didn’t discuss it with our children. We didn’t give them a choice. My husband and I made the final decision; there was no room for discussion. He was extremely grateful that I was willing to open my heart and home to his sister. But the kids have been angels, very kind and compassionate.  One of my younger children does look at me wistfully sometimes when Pessy calls me Mommy. During our private time, I remind her how lucky she is to have her own mother and to live at home. The older she gets, the less of an issue it becomes. The younger children, ages one and three, don’t really remember that Pessy isn’t their biological sister. I try very hard to treat her like my own, both with hugs and with discipline. I’m very conscious of it. Until Pessy moved in, I could never understand why adoptive parents would want biological parents to sever their connections to their child.

One of our biggest challenges is that we are constantly being reminded that she isn’t really ours. She spends a lot of Shabbosim with my father-in-law and he visits her frequently too, so she’s always bouncing back and forth emotionally. It has to be unsettling. But of course there’s no reason why she should be deprived of a loving father. I’m also dealing with a lot of guilt. Taking Pessy away from my father-in-law must have been hurtful. Everyone else was out of the house. She was the only thing he had left until I, the villain of this story, stole her away. I know that Pessy is grateful to us but she’ll sometimes throw out a casual comment like, “My father’s coming to get me when I’m a little bigger.” She has no idea how it goes straight through my heart. I know she doesn’t mean it that way, but it makes me feel like she’s being held captive and can’t wait to leave. I try not to take it personally. She’s just a kid, and I’m not doing this to get accolades from anyone. It’s hard enough raising my own children. But because Pessy isn’t my biological child, things can get even murkier.

One day I was in a local store with all my kids including Pessy, who’s always dressed like everyone else. I bumped into my neighbor’s mother, who doesn’t know me very well. Staring them up and down, she pointed to Pessy and said, “Wow! She’s the only one who doesn’t look like anyone else.” I didn’t know how to react so I said nothing. I later asked a therapist what to do in a situation like that and she told me to play it by ear. When it’s appropriate I say something, and when it isn’t, I don’t. There’s nothing embarrassing about Pessy living with us and it isn’t a secret. I want her to get that message and feel confident and self-assured. Pessy has only a vague recollection of her mother and feels free to talk about her whenever she wants. She’s also very matter-of-fact about the idea that she once had a mother and now she doesn’t. She’s a beautiful child, respectful and well-behaved. People ask me what I’m going to do when she inevitably gets mad at me one day and says, “You’re not my real mother so I don’t have to listen to you!” I tell them I know it will happen and that’s fine. Biological children sometimes say disrespectful things, so why shouldn’t she? I
expect the same level of insolence from her as from my other kids. It was her decision to call me Mommy. She was only with us a week when one day she started to cry.

When I asked her what was wrong she couldn’t verbalize a specific reason; she was just so sad and missed her mother. My heart melted. We had a little talk, and I realized that she didn’t know how to refer to me in public. I said, “If you want to call me Mommy, that’s okay.” About a week later she called me Mommy for the first time. It was like pulling a cork. She began to call me Mommy at least once every 60 seconds! I understood she needed to feel secure and responded in kind. A few therapists warned me afterwards that I shouldn’t let her call me Mommy but by then it was too late. They felt that she shouldn’t be deluding herself into thinking that I’m her mother. But I really don’t think it’s an issue because we talk about her mother all the time. Besides, what else should she call me? Let’s be practical. She can’t call me by my first name in front of the kids. And I’m not her aunt, so she can’t call me that. I’ve told Pessy that even though I didn’t give birth to her I loved her right away.

As soon as she was born I ran to buy her clothing. I used to give her bottles and spent time cuddling with her. She was the youngest kid in a big family and my mother-in-law had a very busy house so we all tried to help out. I always tell her that we chose her and we love her. One of my coping mechanisms is giving up control. I often say, “Hashem, it’s out of my hands. Here, You take care of it.” Having Pessy live with us is just simpler than if she lived with other family members. First of all, there’s no issue of yichud with my husband. By the time my youngest, the only boy, is nine she will hopefully be getting married. We also have the same last name. There’s much less explaining to do. People feel comfortable asking me about Pessy because I give them cues that they can. I talk about her easily and don’t get nervous or upset if they ask personal questions. I think it’s always best to take cues from the person going through the challenging situation. If he’s open and frank, be open with him. If he prefers not to talk, don’t probe. It also depends on how close you are to that person.

If a stranger comes over on the street and asks why Pessy isn’t living with my married sister-in-law it’s none of her business. Does she really expect me to answer that? I’m not interested in being rude but there’s no need to explain our family dynamics. I usually just say, “I have lots of girls and she’s happy here,” or something to that effect. People often ask me how I deal with all the challenges of raising someone else’s child. Well, nothing in life is easy, and it only gets harder as Pessy gets older. She now has a much keener understanding of what she’s missing. It’s not real stability because she does visit her father often. And while I treat her like one of the family, it’s only natural for her to want to have her “own home,” her “own father” and her “own closet.” Being open is the only way to make sure it works. Now that she’s older, I sometimes have to remind her gently that begging her father to live with him puts him in a very tough position. She also sometimes comes back all weepy and emotional after visiting him. And with six of my own cranky kids I can’t say it’s a walk in the park. I never know what to answer when people ask me how many kids I have. I’m not interested in being the heroine in every conversation.

People sometimes remind me how “amazing” I am for taking her in. I don’t necessarily need or want to hear that. I did what had to be done. All I ask is that others do the same. I get in touch with Pessy’s teachers at the beginning of every school year, same as for my own kids. I make sure they feel free to talk to me and urge them to call if any issues arise. A few months ago Pessy told me she was going to sing a song about mothers in a class performance. She didn’t seem to mind but I was really upset and annoyed. Why did that have to be in a Purim production? All of the teachers and principals were well aware that Pessy’s mother had passed away. Why couldn’t they be more sensitive? I discussed it with someone I respect and she advised me to let it go for the meantime. My husband also told me not to call the school while I was still so upset. It was great advice. Afterwards, I did call to enlighten Pessy’s teacher, calmly letting her know that she should be more sensitive in the future.

Since Pessy gets everything my own kids do, from new clothing to hugs at bedtime to family trips, treats and parties, I’ve decided not to take advantage of the various organizations that hold special Shabbatons and get-togethers for orphans. I just don’t think she needs it. She’s still too young to go on her own, and I also don’t want her to have to live with a label. She knows she is different but she doesn’t have to be reminded that she’s an “orphan.” In fact, one organization sent her mishloach manos this year and I called them to take her off the list. She gets the same nosh my kids do and sends her own mishloach manos to her friends. Their gestures are a constant reminder that she is different. I’m open to the possibility that she may want to participate in such things when she gets older and I would never hold her back, but I don’t think they’re appropriate now, at the age of nine.

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