Reunion rocks. Reunion sucks.
Being in active reunion is like eating salt and vinegar crisps and forgetting your hands are covered with paper cuts. Here are three early stumbling blocks I came up against...
To the casual observer, I've pretty much "won" at adoption reunion. Through a mixture of good fortune, communication, support and tenacity, I’ve managed to tick off everything on the “good reunion checklist”:
- Parents supportive of my search*
- Search successful – using minimal time and expense
- Both birth parents alive
- Both birth parents pleased to hear from me and keen to meet
- Many (not all) wider birth relatives aware of my existence so not a surprise/shock
- Openness with family about contact with birth family
And my gold badge of honour? My birth father and his family attended my wedding reception. Yeah, suck that closed adoption.
I’m fortunate that my reunion has been largely very positive. My heart goes out to my fellow adoptees who have experienced these REAL scenarios:
- Unable to search as don’t have the right to original birth certificate
- Unable to search as all records “lost in a fire”
- Search ends in news that one or both birth parents are dead
- Birth mother lies about not knowing birth father’s name, or gives wrong man’s name
- Birth parent refuses contact (also known as secondary rejection)
- Birth parent open to contact then disappears (ghosting your own child is some kind of life low, surely)
- Birth parent instructs lawyers to send you a cease-and-desist letter (I mean WTAF)
So yes, I am very fortunate. And yet...
Reunion is hard. It's been a real slog. There's been a lot of heartache and sleepless nights, albeit interspersed with some magical moments I will cherish forever. I could write thousands of words on both my reunions, but for now here's an overview of three big stumbling blocks I encountered towards the beginning.
Three common adoption reunion stumbling blocks:
1. Trying to shortcut the bonding process
One of the issues reunion presented is that my birth parents and I subconsciously wanted to shortcut the bonding process. We were trying to create a bond that should have been formed 25 years ago. We met in adulthood and had relatively infrequent face-to-face meet-ups, in contrast to being together for all or part of every day of the first 18 years of our relationship.
2. Not being our true selves
Another key issue we’ve encountered is the problem of “being on best behaviour”. You know how some people polish their personality on a first date, being extra perky and steering clear of contentious topics. And it’s not just me – my birth parents do it too, and I know because my siblings have jokingly called them out on it. While we’re trying so damn hard to be liked, we’re not being our authentic selves. And as Brené Brown says, it’s impossible to find true belonging if you’re not being authentic.
3. Not knowing how to label this new relationship, and where it “fits”
In early reunion during the flurry of emails, phone calls and meetings, behind the scenes each party is wondering where this “new” relative fits into their wider family. Stories of adoptees and their birth families “picking up where they left off” are all very alluring, but it’s more likely you will feel like an extra in a long-running TV show that has all its main characters.
And as for labels, you have a limited selection of bad choices. “Mother” and “father” are way too emotive – and I know many adoptees who agree, whatever you may have seen on Long Lost Family. “Birth mother” and “biological father” are fine when talking to a partner or close friend, but if you’re talking to an acquaintance they soon stop the conversation dead.
The problem is this budding relationship, although based on genetics, has yet to include any familiarity or intimacy. When I met up with my birth father early in our reunion, anyone looking would guess we were father and daughter but our awkward body language did not reflect that.
I wonder if our relationships are put under additional strain with the weight of these labels? Currently it feels almost like a treasured uncle or favourite Godparent relationship. However, it’s constantly evolving so don’t hold me to this!
Reunion in a nutshell
To anyone contemplating making contact with a birth parent, I will say it has given me a LOT of missing information, a rounder sense of identity and some precious moments of comfort, belonging and even joy. It’s true what they say: you simply cannot beat the feeling of looking into a face that’s the same as yours.
However, it’s also taken me to some very low, very dark places. It’s sent tremors through my relationship with my family** and I’ve spent a great deal of money on therapy.
To sum up, being in active reunion is like eating salt and vinegar crisps and forgetting your hands are covered with paper cuts. The crisps taste good but every handful you pick up stings like hell. Of course, you can’t stop eating – and god forbid anyone take that bag away!
Want to find out more about adoption reunion?
- The AdopteesOn podcast is a goldmine.
- There are some great chapters in Nancy Newton Verrier's Coming Home To Self (The Adopted Child Grows Up).
*Adoptive parents who are not supportive of an adoptee’s right to search, you are a whole other blog. Sit tight.
**More on this in a later blog.