If you or a loved one was placed for adoption chances are, at some point, you will consider what it may be like to reconnect with them and wonder how to arrange that meeting. Maybe curiosity has you wondering what became of your birth parents. Perhaps you’ve always been searching either consciously or unconsciously and now feel ready to take steps toward healing from this great loss. Or maybe a family secret has recently come to light and there are many unanswered questions.
The decision to start the process of reuniting with a loved one can be complicated and likely stirs up lots of emotions including excitement and hope and perhaps some anxiety and apprehension. It is not a decision to take lightly and there is much psychological work to be done as you prepare to set out on this journey. It can be a difficult decision to make and may be influenced by things currently happening in your life. Regardless of what has triggered your choice to search, preparing yourself mentally and emotionally will go a long way in providing clarity and support for processing feelings that will come up.
It has been nearly 12 years since I was reunited with my daughter that I placed for adoption. The search part of our story was not complicated thanks to changes in adoption openness over the years. Still, I’ve often said there is no single handbook that prepares you for or walks you through the reunion journey. Relationships, in general, are complicated, add in a relationship that has been touched by adoption and a subsequent reunion—it can leave you feeling like you are lost in an unknown world with no map to lead you home. My hope is to share some of the insights I have gained over the years putting more focus on how to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally as you seek out contact with your biological family member.
How a Reunion May Impact Members of the Adoption Triad
There is so much more to an adoption search and reunion than locating a name and address. Thoughts and feelings that you may not have been aware of until starting this process may suddenly flood your mind. Your beliefs and the stories you have been told about the adoption and placement may influence your motives and initial plans. Themes of loss, rejection, guilt, or shame may be present in your life and you may feel driven to get to the root of these emotions. There are many possible outcomes and while you can’t prepare for them all, at the very least, through self-reflection and soul searching, have some ideas about what you want, need, and expect from reunification and how you might respond if things go differently than you planned. Let’s first look at how each member of the adoption triad may be affected.
If you grew up with the knowledge that you were adopted, you may have been told a story about your biological parents, maybe even some details about why they chose to relinquish their parental rights. For someone finding out later in life that you became part of your family through adoption, you may still be processing this new information, trying to make some sense of it all. It’s not uncommon to fantasize about where you came from, perhaps imaging what your birth parents look like, where they live, what they do in the day to day, and maybe what it would be like to live with them had they not chosen to place you for adoption.
As you think about meeting your birth mother and birth father, there may be some conflicting thoughts about a desire to learn about your past while simultaneously wanting to protect yourself from negative information surrounding your birth and placement. Seeking out members of your biological family may help you get answers to your questions, ease unresolved grief or give you pieces to help with identity formation.
As part of my adoption plan, I wrote a letter to my daughter and requested that her adoptive parents give it to her when she turned 16 years old, the age I was when I gave birth to her. My hope was that she might be able to identify with me a bit more as she read the story of how I came to the decision to place her for adoption. I knew I always wanted to reunite with her, but I also believed that the decision, ultimately, was hers. I received pictures of her once a year with a handwritten letter from her mother detailing the past year of her life. The pictures and letters were a lifeline but also played into the story I told myself about her life. I envisioned her growing up with the perfect parents, in the most beautiful home where she lived the life of a princess.
If you are a birth mother or birth father initiating a reunion you may be second-guessing your decision to begin this journey. After all, it was you that signed on the dotted line forever changing the future of a child. Those feelings may be conflicting with the ones that so desperately just want to know what became of your child. Is he okay? What kind of person has she grown into? How will you handle it if fantasy and reality clash?
Secrecy may also be a prominent part of your story. If you chose to keep it a secret that you relinquished a child to adoption, the idea of either looking for your child or having your child come looking for you may not be something you have prepared for. Who are the people in your life that you need to sit down and have a conversation with? And what do you need from your loved ones in order to feel safe enough to open up and share this information with them?
When pursuing reunification with a birth parent or adult adoptee, the adoptive parents’ feelings and beliefs are important to take into consideration. For adoptees, if you grew up in a family that finds it difficult to adjust to new situations or stressors, the idea of a reunion may be intimidating and internalized as a rejection by their child especially if they have not had adequate time to emotionally prepare themselves. The idea of a birth mother or father coming back into your life may stir up jealousy or insecurities for adoptive parents. If communicating those feelings is not easy for them, it may come out as questioning your loyalty to them or asking you to choose a side.
Ideally, when you approach your parents with your desire to search and possibly reunite with members of your birth family, they will be open and supportive. They may find themselves curious and interested in knowing what became of their child’s birth mother and not only encourage you to search but help any way they can with providing information pertinent to your search. It is for you to decide how important it is to have the approval and support of both or, at the very least, one of your parents.
Questions to Ask Yourself as You Prepare to Reconnect
Who do you want to reunite with?
Who is it exactly that you’re hoping to find and meet? It’s natural and probably easy to focus only on a birth mother when thinking about reuniting, but, realistically, there is likely an entire birth family out there including a birth father, birth siblings, birth grandparents, and many other relatives. Reuniting with a birth family can be a very positive experience and building relationships with birth relatives can have a great impact on identity development, especially with birth siblings. For some, the idea of meeting a birth sibling is less intimidating than meeting a birth parent. How might you move forward if your search reveals that one or both of your birth parents are deceased but contact information for other birth family members is available to you?
Why Do You Want to Reunite?
What are you hoping to find? Is it a desire to obtain information such as health history, genetics, or nationality that has prompted this journey? Or is it something bigger such as a need to connect with a part of yourself that feels incomplete? Are you seeking a relationship or just interested in learning the “why” behind your adoption story? In the book Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, the authors share this sentiment, “Classically, the searcher is looking for a relation, not a relationship, he already has a mother and father.” Adoptees and birth parents may have different visions and feelings about what may or may not come as a result of meeting one another again. Even if both agree that it is a relationship they wish to develop, what will that relationship look like? What role will you each play in one another’s lives? What boundaries are needed to create an environment of respect, caring, and support?
In her book Birthright, Jean Strauss describes five phases of an adoption reunion: fantasy, first encounters, the morning after, limbo, and reconciliation. What she goes on to share is how the reunion essentially begins early on through the story we tell ourselves about how our child is being raised or for the adoptee contemplating what their origins are and who is at the foundation of them. When you are brave enough to make that initial reach, the outcome may play into the fantasy or begin to replace it with a differing reality. First encounters can be electric, uplifting, intimate even. Much like the early phases of a dating relationship when you feel intoxicated by the possibilities that lie ahead.
If you have experienced that emotional high of new friendship or love, then you have also experienced the phenomena of the honeymoon phase coming to an end. The moment when you begin to see there are many other layers to these people. They come with their own set of life experiences, values, and a belief system that may or may not fit with your own. It is very similar for birth parents and adoptees. It can be unsettling when you are faced with the reality that while you are biologically connected to someone, they may look like you, sound like you, share your personality traits and yet, at the same time, they are essentially a stranger. The differences suddenly become more obvious and may leave you feeling confused. It is at this point that you begin to truly process all that has happened, and healing can hopefully begin. What this looks like is unique to each person, and it may take time to unpack all these new experiences and feelings. The end result will hopefully find you able to reconcile with these feelings and have a clearer idea of how you will each move forward in this new sometimes uncertain relationship.
What Type of Contact Do You Want?
Contact can range from exchanging emails, talking on the phone, to in-person meetings. How much contact are you comfortable with? Who do you want to include in these early interactions?
Speaking from my own reunion experience we took it slow and steady choosing to start with exchanging handwritten letters before moving on to instant messaging, phone calls, and eventually an in-person meeting. It gave us a chance to build a foundation, create some trust and comfort which ultimately provided emotional safety for the moment we saw one another again nearly 18 years from the last time we were together.
The decision to reconnect with a loved one lost to adoption is highly personal and emotionally complex. It is ultimately a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences, hopes and dreams, questions and yes, sometimes trauma. When you are ready to take these life-changing steps, create a plan to help guide you and keep you focused. Do your best to consider how a reunion may impact the important people in your life while also holding on to the reality that you can’t possibly prepare for every scenario nor can you make everyone happy. A reunion is the beginning of a new chapter in your life story, a chapter that is best written with an open mind, balancing hope with expectations for the possibilities waiting for you.