Six years after reuniting with my birth family, I’m still learning how to establish healthy boundaries. It’s a constant learning experience as relationships develop and change. I wish there was a recipe I could give other adoptees seeking advice, but truth be told, boundaries are up to you and differ for every single one of us. Maybe my experience can offer a little insight into what to expect. From my own personal experience, here are 5 tips for establishing boundaries after reuniting with your birth family:
Establishing boundaries is uncomfortable, but standing up for what you believe in is critical. For example, I’ll use a conversation that is very likely to come up after reuniting: What do you call your birth parents? It seems like an elementary topic to need to cover with your family (both adoptive and biological), but it made me squirm nonetheless. Both of my birth parents would have loved for me to call them Mom or Dad, but those titles seemed so aberrant to me. My adoptive parents needed to remain “Mom” and “Dad,” without question. What’s more, I felt intrusive calling my biological sibling’s parents (who raised them) “Mom” and “Dad.” I wanted to also respect their boundaries. Bravery helped me stand up for myself and establish that first boundary—that I would address my birth parents by their first names instead.
Be clear, with grace.
Sometimes I think it’s easier to be brave by being vague. Without directly confronting an issue, everybody wins, right? Wrong. Being indirect can actually debilitate a relationship. Giving a problem too much breathing room can make way for it to fester. Express yourself clearly. Let your birth parents know if they accidentally hurt your feelings, or told you too much at once, or didn’t hug you long enough. Considering the delicate family interactions taking place for the first time, misunderstandings are bound to happen. It’s a brand new, unusual relationship that needs to be treated with care.
Tensions might be high initially. You may not be the only with whose guard is up. It takes time to build trust and healthy boundaries. Chances are, you won’t get it right the first (or second) time! As I said, it has taken me years to learn what healthy boundaries look like in relationships with my birth family, and relationships can change quickly.
Go to your adoptive family for support.
My parents have had my back from the day I joined the family, three days after I was born. Nothing about that changed when I met my birth family. In retrospect, it may have made our bond a little tighter. There are a few instances when I had a misunderstanding with a biological family member, and I came home crying because I was so confused about what the truth was. My adoptive parents told me one thing, and I heard something totally different from my biological family member. I was a mess. Having a lifetime of trust built between my parents gave me a place to rest my head for clarity. After venting, hearing their suggestions on handling the situation, learning from it, and setting that boundary moving forward were invaluable. It ultimately helped me build a stronger relationship with my biological family.
Remember this is uncharted territory for everyone.
One of the toughest boundaries I had to set came about while I was planning my wedding. It was so important to me to properly honor my adoptive parents while still recognizing my birth parents. It wasn’t an easy conversation to have with either set of parents. I remember thinking: Of course my adoptive dad would walk me down the aisle and give me away to my husband. Of course my adoptive mother would be escorted by my older brother and seated on the front row. But how do I appropriately honor my birth family, without overshadowing the wedding, my husband’s family, and my family? Do they sit behind my extended adoptive family? Do we list them in the program? Why is there no manual on adoption reunions?! We eventually made the decision to list them as honorable guests in the program, and saved them a row behind my aunts and uncles. Both my moms went shopping together to find dresses that would photograph well together in pictures. My biological father’s mother gave me an old “ha’penny” that she wore in her shoe on her wedding day. I got to incorporate family traditions from all corners of my history.
We, as adoptees, did not choose to be adopted . . . but our adoption reunion gives us the opportunity to make our own choices about our adoption for the first time. Boundaries are imperative as you build trust with your birth family. Don’t be afraid to say no, and remember that a little grace goes a long way.
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