Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Risk of Reunion

I have something rare in the adoption world: a very successful reunion with my biological mother. I also have something that else that goes along with this. I call it “successful reunion guilt syndrome.” What I mean by this is that when I encounter any of the many variations of reunions that did not go so well, I feel a twinge of guilt and unworthiness. Why me? Why was I so lucky when this other person was not?

(c) 123RF Stock Photos
One of the things I hate about adoption is that in many cases it breaks something in such a way that it can never be repaired. And what it breaks is one of the most basic, primal, and sacred building blocks of human relationship: the bond between a parent and child. The adopted life begins with this break and is built upon the cracked foundation. Open adoption is an attempt to keep the basic, original parent-child bond intact so that something else (a psychologically healthy life including bonded connections to the adopted family and others) can be built upon that foundation. In closed adoption and in failed open-adoption attempts (or “semi-open” adoptions that are really closed adoptions with a different name), the initial break is reinforced by years of separation.

I choose to be involved in the online adoption community. For the most part I find it healing to be connected to this community. It brings me into contact daily with people who “get” me, who understand my experience of being adopted in a way that others can’t. This is something that was missing for most of my life, and I soak it up now that I have it. But being in this community also brings me into daily contact with the collective pain of adoption. And there are days when that pain is almost more than I can bear. Failed reunions, those cases where the break is permanent and unrepairable, are a part of that collective pain.

I’m aware of the many pitfalls that can affect reunion attempts (and I have a post in mind on this topic for a future date), and I can’t say for sure how my original mother and I managed to avoid them except that we recognized the piece of our bond that was still intact (what I sometimes refer to as “the unbreakable thread”) and we kept our focus on that, strengthening it over time as we built a relationship in the present day. We are both aware of elements that are lost and unreclaimable – nothing can give us back the first 30 years of my life – but that’s not where our focus is. The past is past. Somehow we were both able to recognize that our only shot at relationship was to meet each other face to face in the present day. We took that chance, and we succeeded.

It is too early to know if my current relationship with my biological father will result in any measure of healing for me or for him, or whether ours will be one more story of a break that stayed broken. We are currently in that strange place of being strangers and yet not strangers. I recognized the unbreakable thread. It doesn’t matter that I have never met him in person, that I am a grown adult who has lived a full life without him being in it at all, or that our entire “relationship” to this point consists of a few emails, some photos, and one brief phone call. I recognize him. He is my father. Not my only father, but my father nevertheless. But the very keenness of this awareness only brings into sharper focus the way adoption has messed with the natural order of things. I wasn't supposed to meet him now. He was supposed to have been there all along. Reunion offers the possibility of a connection in the present day, but it also brings to the surface an awareness of what was lost. And what remains broken.

My immediate goal for this reunion is pretty simple. I just want to meet this person and to learn some things about who he is and the life he has led. I believe I am likely to meet this goal. He has agreed to my request, and in spite of the insecurities I mentioned in a recent post, I have no real reason to believe that he won’t follow through. For years he has been the final missing piece of the puzzle that is me. I want to know him so that I may better know myself, and I seem to be on track to get what I want in that respect. But I may also get something else.

Meeting him face to face could end up shining a brighter light on all that is broken and unrepairable. Maybe. Or maybe, as with my other reunion, we will somehow find a way to keep the focus on the unbroken part, and to meet each other face to face in the present moment. At this point, with only a few brief interactions to judge by, I really can’t tell. It could go either way.


  1. Barbara Jean WalshJuly 4, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    > nothing can give us back the first 30 years of my life

    Exactly so. I wonder what would have been different for us if we had been part of an open adoption. Wow. What a concept!

    Also, this post reminds me of all the times when some divorced friend has talked to me about missing the kids, and maybe even said, "You don't know what it's like." And when I've said, "I didn't see my daughter for 30 years," the response has been, "Well that's different." How? I think it's similar to the lack of understanding given to women who lose a pregnancy early on. "Well that's different." It isn't. A loss is a loss.

  2. Barbara and Rebecca,

    What do you see as the advantages and pitfalls of open adoptions. Since I have only seen open adoptions in my family, and they are VERY open, I am wondering if our experience is typical, or if they are a fluke. all of my adopted nieces and nephew have at least yearly in person contact with their birth parents, they see their birth granparents most years, and have had visits from birth uncles and aunts at various times. One of my neices participated as the flower girl in her birth mom's wedding. All of our family's adopted kids send cards and pictures, once they are old enough, until then my sister sent the updates. They occasionally skype with birth parents who live far enough away that a yearly visit is all they can afford. They have met biological half-siblings from one birth father's marriage and two birth mother's marriages. All of the kids have pictures of them, with one or both of their birth parents in their rooms, as well as an "adoption book" that has pictures from pictures of their birth mothers pregnancy, pictures soon after the birth, and pictures of them with both their birth families and adoptive families. For all of the adopted kids, the adoptive parents were there at the hospital for the birth, and my sister cut the umbilical cord for their adopted daughter, at the invitation of her birth mother. That same birth mother breastfed the baby while they waited the three weeks required by state law, and then breastfed her for another two weeks when my sister went back "home," so that both moms could bond with her, and so that she would get breastmilk for the first few weeks.

    What is the other side of the story? Has our family been especially lucky, and are there pitfalls that I might not understand because my siblings have made their open adoptions a way to both have children, but also to find more "extended family" as part of the open adoption?

    I know my sister had to ask each member of the birth families to limit presents for birthday and Christmas to one present from each person so tht the gifts didn't get out of hand. And, when they moved they asked all of the birth parents and their family to give them 6 months without visits so that their family could get settled in. While the birth families skyped more during that time, they were respoectful of the request, and my sister made sure to send more pictures and videos so they could get their "fix."

    Are those common problems? Are there other problems that become more difficult when open adoptees hit their teenage years?

    I am so glad I found your blog, and I am really impressed with the depth of thought, that it gives seriously things to think about, especially as the aunt of adopted children.

    This month I am running a contest in my blog based on the questions, "Where did you come from? Where are you going? I hope you and your readers will consider entering and sharing your adoption stories, the generations that came before you, and maybe how you feel about having two set of "geneology" to weigh and consider as an adoptee. The link to all the info on the contest is at:

    The prize is a set of hand made cards, personalized with any photo of you, your family, or anything else that is meaningful to you! This blog community seemed like a good place to share the chance to think deeply about where you, and your ancestors have been, and/or where you hope you, your children and your grand-children are heading!

  3. This right here: "What I mean by this is that when I encounter any of the many variations of reunions that did not go so well, I feel a twinge of guilt and unworthiness. Why me? Why was I so lucky when this other person was not? " resonated SO deeply with me as a bmom. I'm obviously not in reunion as a birth mom or as an adoptee. But I feel guilty when I see other very broken adoption relationships how my relationship can be going so well. I feel similar guilt to you.

    I'm hoping that when you meet your biological father that you're able to do the same thing as you've done with your original mother (hello Barbara Jean!) - move past all that was lost in the past and focus on that very thin but strong thread of a biological bond that I know you share. I've read enough stories and heard enough stories of failed reunions from both sides to know that if you can get past the expectations of gaining all that was lost then that goes a long way toward a successful restarted relationship.

  4. NEVERSAIDGOODBYEJuly 5, 2012 at 6:51 PM

    I have a similar experience- my reunion while very rocky and painful at times is now a solid relationship... it took years tho- and I too feel so awful when I hear of adoptees whose birthparents reject them right off...
    very good post. Broken foundation... it's like I am building a life on sand.

  5. It can be so hard to get people to understand adoption loss. Yes, you can miss someone you've never met. You can have a hole even if it wasn't previously filled.

  6. Hi Julia. Thanks for telling me the story of your sisters family. I can't tell you much about the pitfalls of open adoption, though I can tell you _lots_ about the pitfalls of closed adoption, which is what I experienced growing up. By contrast my experience as an adoptive mom in an open adoption has been overwhelmingly positive.

    You might want to check out I seem to remember that a recent prompt to write about the feelings that come up after a visit brought out a variety of responses, including many about the challenges of visits.

  7. "... if you can get past the expectations of gaining all that was lost then that goes a long way toward a successful restarted relationship." Yes, I think that's key! Thanks, Monika!

  8. I know what you mean. Those stories break my heart!

  9. I know someone who lives in ct and Martha vineyard who didn't give her adopted daughter her address in open adoption so she couldn't find her daughter . This infuriates me


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