Adoption reunion top tips
With a friend about to meet his biological mother for the first time next week, I’ve put together my guide to reunion. This is based on my experience and so is purely anecdotal not formed from any research, etc.
How important is a neutral location?
Meeting on neutral territory is a well-known component of adoption reunion advice, but is it essential or could you meet at home? Both have pros and cons, so a café environment, for example, gives you props and subjects to talk about if conversation stalls. But a public location is just that, and you may feel inhibited by the space, the noise or the people around you. It’s tempting to choose a home environment so you’ll be more relaxed, but if you go to your biological parent’s home there may be knickknacks and photographs that could trigger you. And conversely, if they come to your house, you may be revealing more about yourself earlier than you wanted to.
I tend to think of the first meeting as a first date – keep it short and sweet, think coffee rather than a four-course dinner. It’s very likely you’ll want to get away after an hour or so, if only to process everything. Conversely, you may want to talk all day – but don’t let your choice of venue restrict your opinions.
Likewise, if you want to bring a friend or even your social worker for support, go for it. Perhaps talk beforehand about a phrase or signal that indicates you are ready to have some one-to-one time.
Expect to be overwhelmed
Meeting a biological parent for the first time (or first you can remember) is a big deal. Your brain and your heart will be scrambling to make sense of it. At the same time as your mouth is talking, your eyes are scanning their face and body for shared characteristics and mannerisms. Drink it in. Do not feel embarrassed for collecting likenesses like trophies; everyone else takes this stuff for granted remember.
My therapist advises to name the feelings. So just saying out loud, “wow, this is really weird isn’t it? How are you feeling?” may help.
Expect to be underwhelmed
At the very moment your biological parent walks into the room, your imaginary biological parent dies. This ghost will live alongside you for the rest of your life, as you get to know the real person whose genes you share.
I never actually pictured my birth mum as a princess, but I certainly imagined she was someone pretty damn special. The super-charged version of me; an older version of how I secretly hoped my friends saw me. Guess what? She’s just an ordinary person.
Should you hug? I would say yes if it feels ok, go for it. My feeling is you may regret it if you don’t. Some adoptees report feeling something spiritual or “cellular” at that first embrace. Others say they felt ambivalent. Both are ok.
Leave your inner people-pleaser at home
It’s inevitable that everyone will be “on best behaviour”, trying to present the best version of themselves. (Unless you’re being deliberately rude to pre-empt their possible rejection, but as a compliant adoptee, that’s not my area of expertise!)
I know it’s impossible for many adoptees, but try to avoid saying anything that feels inauthentic. It is not your job to make this person like you. It is not up to you to prove you were worth keeping, not giving away. You were worthy. You are worthy. I can repeat this as many times as you like: it is not your job to tell them you forgive them, they did the right thing, and you turned out well.
Talk about future expectations
There is no right time to talk about future expectations, but in my experience it’s better to have that conversation sooner rather than later. Adoption search and reunion expert Julia Feast talks about the importance of the “initial welcome”. I would say it’s a red flag if your biological parent wants to keep your meeting a secret and hasn’t told their partner about you yet.
By all means give them time, but not at the expense of your heart. Adoptees already live with a lot of shame and secrecy, you do not need any more. Before reunion, it may help to talk to a friend or therapist about your expectations for the future and consider your bottom line. On the other hand, if your parent is keen to throw a huge party for you and this makes you uncomfortable, by all means let them know you prefer something more low-key.
How much or little to tell your adoptive parents?
I did my searching without my parents, although they knew I was searching and I kept them informed sporadically. I picked up on some very heavy hints that they didn’t want to be involved and – in hindsight – that really hurt. It felt like a part of me was dirty so it had to be hidden.
I then kept all both sides of my family apart for many years, which made me feel I was living a double (triple?) life. This exhausted me to the point of mental breakdown, and I considered moving to another country and changing my phone number so I could escape the pressure.
In short, you can’t force your parents to give their blessing, but you can know this: it is your absolute right to search, find and reunite with as many biological relatives as you wish to. No ifs, no buts, no debts owed to anyone and please no sneaking around – it devastates the soul.
Don’t look to Long Lost Family for any tips
Deep down you know this. It’s heavily, heavily edited and only shows a tiny snapshot of what really goes on.
In particular, you may not feel comfortable walking in and using the word “mum” or “dad”, as they do on screen. That’s ok. It may come. It may not. This is not about labels. Labels are something other people need to understand your situation. It is not your job to help them understand. Post them a copy of the Primal Wound.
For more realistic adoption search and reunion stories, listen to Adoptees On and check out the two wonderful Jamie Baulch documentaries.
Give yourself time to process
Be gentle with yourself. You know that chart that shows how losing your job or moving house are two of the most stressful events in life? They forgot to include adoption reunion. Book yourself a massage; go for a swim or a long walk; journal until you get a dead arm. There is so much to process. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. My therapist lets me hit a bolster with a baseball bat. Yes, really. How you feel immediately after that first meeting may change. Expect a low once the adrenaline wears off.
Cue up a friend to debrief with
Ideally you need to debrief with another adoptee. If you don’t know any, a friend or partner who can keep their mouth closed while you talk is good too. Stick your fingers in your ears and sing “La la la la la la!” if anyone tells you to feel happy, lucky or grateful.
Enjoy the honeymoon period
It’s utterly mad and inexplicable to anyone who isn’t adopted, but if you find yourself experiencing a “honeymoon” period after reunion, go with it.
Symptoms of the honeymoon period include poring over photos, spending hours texting and talking on the phone and having the lights turned off in restaurants because you overstayed your welcome (oops!)
There’s a wonderful episode of Adoptees On where the host Haley Radkee’s husband talks about how he felt excluded for a few months after she connected with her bio dad. If you have a partner, it may be helpful to listen to this together.
Equally, if you don’t experience a honeymoon period, that’s ok too. Try to keep yourself occupied while you wait for them to get in touch again.
Give it time
My relationship with my biological parents has ebbed and flowed over the years. It’s been difficult at times, but I believe we’ve stuck at it through a mixture of duty, love and stubbornness. Communication is the key, but as adoptees we constantly feel we are walking a tightrope and any minute we could be thrown to the lions. If you find it hard to say how you feel, you are not alone. It takes practice. I found the chapters on reunion in Coming Home to Self to be immensely useful, as well as finding an adoption-competent therapist.
Don’t forget your camera
I don’t care how nervous you are, or how awkward it may feel to ask. Get someone to take a photo of you and your biological mother or father side by side. You will come back to this time and again. And if you only meet a handful of times, or even just the once, you will always have this photograph.
Additional resources on adoption reunion: