Adoption, Reunion and Beyond

by Barbara Free, M.A., LADAC

     People with adoption connections search for all kinds of reasons, just as others may do genealogy for all kinds of reasons. Some adoptees, in fact, may search specifically to do genealogy, or as a result of doing genealogy on their adoptive family, and realizing they want to know their biological connections. Birth parents may search for their offspring to make their own genealogical charts more accurate. Adoptive parents may search or help an adopted son or daughter search so that person has access to their genetic family tree and history. Siblings, both adoptive and birth, may also search for a variety of reasons.
     Most people who search, however, are not thinking so specifically of genealogy in the sense of a written family tree as they are of simply finding their family member(s). For adoptees, that means finding birth parents and possibly siblings, maybe grandparents or other family members. They want to know that identity, their family medical history, even their original name. Birth parents want to know their offspring, their adoptive name, how they have fared in life so far. Most people who search are more or less afraid of rejection, but they search anyway, because the possible gains far outweigh the risk of disappointment.
     Sometimes the one searching becomes obsessed with the search, with the need to make up for lost time, with a need for the other person(s) to validate them. Friends and family may become tired of the emphasis on the search, feeling that their own relationship with the searcher is not enough, which, in fact, it isn’t. No one else is an adequate substitute for the relinquished child or the absent birth parents, or possible siblings. This has nothing to do with the relationship between the searcher and adoptive family, spouse, or children, because the search is not about them —it’s about the searcher and the sought-after person(s).
     Unfortunately, this is not always understood by everyone involved, including the searcher. The searcher may become so focused on the need for reunion that they lose sight of other relationships for a time. If and when they find the person for whom they are searching, they may be so focused on the finding that they lose sight of the need to build a real relationship, slowly and naturally. In their eagerness to “make up for lost time,” they may overwhelm the found person and their family. The same may be true of the found person, overjoyed at being found, or they may be taken so off-guard that they back off, feeling invaded, disoriented, somehow emotionally taken captive. They may not wish to react in this way, but feel afraid of the unknown.
     Then the searcher is apt to feel disappointed, rejected, disoriented, or they may feel “swallowed up” if the found person seems to need more from them than they are ready to give. These possibilities are one of the reasons confidential intermediaries sometimes recommend that the searcher send a short letter and a few pictures, not a long life story and an entire album.
     These complex behaviors, thoughts and feelings are particularly difficult to manage and work through if the searcher or the found person has no or few other close relationships, such as siblings, spouse, or other offspring. A birth mother or birth father may not have experienced the usual ups and down of parenthood and relationships with grown children, so has no frame of reference for that; an adoptee may not have had siblings and certainly may not know how to deal with two or more sets of parents or in-laws. Even meeting a person who looks like them for the first time may be as disconcerting as it is wonderful. Trying to adjust to the reality of the other person(s) instead of their various long-held fantasies, hopes, and dreams is difficult, takes time and possibly the help of others who have been through it, such as a support group. It may also benefit from some professional assistance from someone who truly understands the issues of adoption, search, reunion, and complex relationships. Not every therapist, regardless of degrees and licenses, is trained or experienced in adoption issues; in fact, very few are, so one may need to search for one who is.
     Adoptive parents may see the search and reunion as a threat to their bond with the adoptee for several reasons. If they were told that their son or daughter would never even want to search, let alone actually do it, if they were adequate (i.e., perfect) parents, then the search can only be seen as representing failure on the parents’ part, or something really wrong (bad, crazy, perverted) on the adoptee’s part. There may also be a fear that the adoptee will prefer the birth parent(s), being biologically related to them, perhaps having the same flaws, an even deeper fear. The adoptive parents may have spent many years convincing themselves and the adoptee that they are the only “real” parents, and that their “raising” is more important than any biological or genetic details. With this thinking, they may believe that the adoptee needs to “choose” one family or the other, and might reject the adoptive parents “after all they’ve done for him.” They may feel that their investment of time, energy, love, and, yes, money in the adoptee should have guaranteed loyalty, gratitude, and identity only with them. Some even feel they actually do own the adoptee, having paid to adopt him/her. This may be true even in semi-open adoptions. In our society’s desire to portray adoption as wonderful, rescuing the adoptee from a terrible life with birth parents (orphanages), there is a concurrent need to see adoptive parents as saintly, long-suffering, superior persons (what a burden!), so we don’t talk about any possible hidden agendas, resentment, or flaws they might have. This view does not give anyone the option of being a regular human being, with human failings as well as the capacity for change, for overcoming fears, and for increasing their ability to love not only the adoptee, but all families involved. Adoptive parents, caught in these roles, may resent time, money, and the focus of search and reunion, but rarely are able to openly express that.
     Siblings, both those raised with the adoptee and those raised by the birth parents, may resent the attention paid to the adoptee by birth family in the early stages of reunion and/or the focus of the adoptee or birth parents on search and reunion. They may feel left out, displaced (especially the eldest child raided by the birth parent if they are no longer the eldest child in fact), and they may feel invaded. Siblings raised with the adoptee may be resentful that the adoptee now has two or even three families, while they do not. If they are also adopted, their own issues of grief and loss will surface, along with a desire to search, or fear of searching. If they are the parents’ biological offspring, they may have difficulty understanding the adoptee’s need for search, or acceptance of birth family.
     During search, and in early reunion, it is normal to focus, even obsess to some degree, on the search, the possibilities, the new relationships. There is some infatuation, which may be confusing, and also great fears that one won’t find what one wants, or that the relationship won’t last. These fears are further fueled by use of the term “honeymoon” to describe early reunion, with the implication that it won’t last, will end in anger, rejection, and great disappointment. Persons who write about reunion would be well-advised to use some other term to describe the initial excitement of early reunion.
     By focusing on search and reunion as all or nothing, ongoing bliss or traumatic event, everyone involved sets themselves up for dissatisfaction. No search, no reunion, will solve one’s problems, answer all one’s questions or doubts, or “complete” them as persons. This is not because adoptees or birth parents are so permanently damaged by relinquishment and adoption that they cannot function as healthy, fulfilled human beings. It is because no one person, no one relationship, no one event determines a person’s whole life. Adoption may be a big part of one’s life experience and identity, but it isn’t the whole story. Relinquishment of a child will forever influence a birth parent’s outlook and self-image, but it is not the only important event in that person’s life. Adoption of a child certainly changes adoptive parents’ lives, but it does not determine who they are. Life is the total of one’s experiences, positive and negative. No one is “finished” until death. All of us are constantly acquiring new experiences, knowledge, and insights.
     The challenge of search, reunion, and the development of ongoing relationships is to keep it all in perspective. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is an old saying that illustrates the importance of having more than one option, more than one viewpoint. Be open to whatever search and reunion may bring, even disappointment. Don’t limit yourself to seeing only one outcome as acceptable. In fact, don’t think in terms of “outcome” as much as “adventure.” Bring along several mental and emotional “baskets” in your search and on-going reunion, so that you have room for all those “eggs” you might find!

Excerpted from the October 2010 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2010 Operation Identity