Ah, adoption reunion – it’s the stuff of movies, novels, and reality TV – and it is a big deal. I was in tears at the end of the movie Tangled when Rapunzel was reunited with her biological parents. For me, that was where the movie should have begun, not ended. And although I have not yet seen the movie Lion, I have heard that it is honest and responsible in its portrayal of the emotions involved in adoption search and reunion. But it too, ends at reunion. What happens next?!
Adoption reunion can be a highly emotionally charged experience, or it can be as simple as a quick hello and even quicker goodbye. It can be life changing, but not always. It is different from one person to another. But whatever feelings it stirs up, all those feelings are valid and should be processed in each individual’s own way and in their own time. There are even “survival guides” and handbooks on how to cope with adoption reunion. There is not a one-size-fits-all key to journeying through adoption reunion, but it is definitely a journey that should be handled with care and consideration for the others involved or affected*. There seems to be at least three distinct phases: the honeymoon, the back-to-reality phase, and the moving-on phase.
The first phase can be very exciting and emotional. For the adoptee, reunion can be like finding a piece of a puzzle – a completed sense of self. For the first time they are seeing people who look, sound, or even act like them (although they’ve never met before) and there is enjoyment in discovering these similarities. For the birth parents, that first phase can be felt as a relief – no longer do they have to wonder and worry about what happened to their child. I’ve heard many adoptees and birth parents alike describe this phase as “feeling whole again.” Yet both sides may worry about being accepted. Both sides may struggle to define who this new person is and what role they will play in their life in the future.
*At the same time all this excitement is going on, it can be a very scary time for adoptive parents, siblings, spouses, or children who may worry about getting lost or forgotten. Reunion isn’t just about adoptee and birth parent. Reunions can cause many different emotions for anyone affected by it. Imagine how your mom might feel when she hears you refer to your birth mother as “mom.” There may be times when your spouse would just like to have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around this new person in your life. It can also be confusing for your children, so be aware of how your reunion may be affecting them. Children don’t always see or understand the significance of this new relationship. They will have questions, like why didn’t they know about this grandma/sister/brother until now? They too, need definitions of what these new relationships are to them, which can’t always be defined by you, but only by time and experiences.
The second phase is when the honeymoon is over. That’s not always a bad thing, it just means the high emotions and excitement are being replaced with the reality that you are strangers still getting to know each other. It can be a time of deep soul-searching for everyone involved. Some adoptees may grieve the life they didn’t have, or feel a sense of relief for being adopted, which can lead to feelings of guilt either way. Grief can hit you, and sometimes you don’t even know why. For birth parents, it can mean revisiting emotions or struggles of the past, and having to think about, talk about, or even talk to, the other birth parent. Guilt and shame can creep in as they open their reunion story up to family or friends who didn’t know they were a birth parent. Some may find themselves facing an active phase of grieving that they thought they already worked through. Certainly, there is nothing more confusing than grieving a child who is alive and now an adult. Sometimes we grieve the life missed. Even if it doesn’t make any sense, there is still grief. And it’s OK to grieve.
There are also self-esteem issues here for both parties. If adoptees judge or perceive their birth family in a negative light, it can cause feelings of negativity inward towards themselves and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes this is the phase when the adoptee needs their adoptive family the most, to feel “normal” again. For birth parents, knowing their child had a better life without them can be comforting because that is what they wanted for them, yet still cause feelings of failure at the same time. It is also the phase when birth parents may pull away as they struggle with the feeling that their child has been, and might always be better off without them. They don’t want to disrupt the adoptive family unit. Either side may fear losing the other a second time, so much that they can’t stop calling and wanting to see the other person. Boundaries will need to be defined. Pushing for the relationship you want usually means you’ll get something less than your ideal. As the saying goes, what really messes us up is the picture in our minds of how we think things should be.
The last phase is the moving on stage. Sometimes the newly reunited move on together in harmony after agreeing to a definition of who they are and what role they will fill in each other’s lives. Sometimes they go their separate ways, either happily or unhappily, but at least hopefully with a sense of closure. Acceptance and peace is the key to reaching this phase. For the adoptee it means acceptance of self. They are now free to be exactly who they are because there are no more mysteries. It also means accepting their birth parent for who they are, not who the adoptee imagined them to be. For the birth parent, it means making peace with their decision to place, as well as also accepting who the adoptee turned out to be.
The most important part of reunion is respecting the other person’s privacy. While one person is excitedly posting reunion photos on Facebook and tagging everyone, the other person may be getting a message from an unexpected “mutual” friend who says, “I saw you on Facebook, didn’t know you gave a baby away.” Ouch! Respect and trust are vital for any relationship to exist.
Sometimes when I think about reunion, I think there is a certain cruelty to the fact that it has to happen at all – why couldn’t they just know each other all along? This is why I’m so glad that most adoptions are open now. Both parties could be spared this emotional event. At the same time, it can also be an incredibly joyous event. In Tangled, Rapunzel would sing, “When will my life begin?” For her, we can assume, it began with reunion.
Submitted by Joyce Twite, Administrative Support Specialist, Adoption, Pregnancy Counseling, and Foster Care