Before being reunited with my son three years ago, I had never even met another birth mother. TV movies, talk show reunions, and “Dear Abby” columns were the extent of my education on the subject of adoption. I had never read a single book. I had no idea there were support groups for people like me.

Even though I didn’t actively search for my son, I never let go of the hope that somehow I’d see him again. Every so often, I’d go through the motions of looking for him– gathering paperwork, looking in old phone books– but in the end, I was too frightened that he’d be angry, that he’d hate me. Still, I had to do something, so on his 18th birthday, I sent my information to International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR) in Carson City, Nevada. Then I just waited, fantasizing about him coming to the door, and sulking as the years went by and it hadn’t happened.

Eight years later, when I got the call from ISRR that they’d matched me with my son, Joshua, I thought that, at long last, everything was okay. We talked, we laughed, we met, and we cried. We loved each other completely. That’s all there was to it, right? Let the happily ever after begin!

It was about nine months later when the glow began to fade, and the illusion I’d bought into more than two decades ago was shattered. Joshua’s life had not been easy. He’d been estranged from his adoptive family for some time. Two children– my grandsons– had been relinquished to adoption after his first marriage failed. Now his second was falling apart, just six months after my granddaughter was born. It became painfully obvious how different our attitudes and values were. We began to argue, and his angry outbursts would flatten me. Josh had left a battlefield of broken relationships in his wake, and I had the terrifying feeling that he was doing his damnedest to chalk me up as another.

Confused and overwhelmed, I turned it all in on myself. If only I’d found a way to keep him! He had suffered, and it was my fault. He was suffering still, and I couldn’t fix it. I began reliving my pregnancy, Josh’s birth, and his relinquishment, obsessing over the details and playing out happier scenarios in my mind. Having never grieved losing him in the first place, I was ill-prepared for the avalanche of emotions coming down upon me. All those years, I had thought there was something wrong with me when I couldn’t just forget and move on. In reunion, the fear and sadness I felt was even more devastating. Even though I had lots of loving support from my husband and friends, I found it difficult to talk to them, to express feelings that even I didn’t understand. I began to lose my grip.

I was at my lowest point when my friend Jacquie called. We’d known each other for years, but had never revealed any personal details. My recent Christmas letter, in which I shared the news of my reunion with Josh, had prompted her call. Did I know she was adopted? No! And she hadn’t known that I was a birth-mother. Just a few years ago, she had searched for and found her birth family. We exchanged stories and I hesitantly admitted to having a hard time. She recommended some books on reunion, told me about PACER, and referred me to a therapist she knew who specialized in adoption issues. It was as if she had thrown me a life-preserver! Suddenly, all of my feelings were validated. I wasn’t abnormal, and I wasn’t alone.

I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and discovered that hundreds of other birth mothers had expressed many of the same feelings and had similar problems in their own reunions. I joined PACER and found a support group for birth mothers. From the first meeting, I was stunned by the sense of belonging that I felt. We were of all ages and from many different backgrounds, yet we had this one tremendous, life-altering experience in common. Even though the details varied, just hearing what others had been through and how they had dealt with it made all the difference in the world. Later, I participated in triad groups where I gained perspective from adoptees and adoptive parents.

That was two years ago. Through a combination of education, support, and one-on-one therapy, I’ve made my way back to a place where I can cope. The roller coaster ride is far from over. Josh and I have lots of work and lots of healing left to do as we continue to carve out a mutually rewarding mother-son relationship. There will be rough times, mistakes made, hurts and disappointments, as there will be good times and victories. But now the ups and downs no longer seem life-threatening.

Knowing what I do now, I wish that I had prepared myself instead of jumping in cold. But having traveled the path I did, I would encourage others– whether birth parents, adoptees, or adoptive parents– to read and learn, attend support groups, and talk to those who have been there. There’s no reason to go in alone.