Coping with the Holidays in Reunited Families

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC

     Our society’s winter holidays are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Complicated enough emotionally and logistically in any family, these holidays are even more so in the reunited adoptive family or family with children adopted through open adoption. The entire holiday season, as we’ve come to call it, has emotional overtones, with individuals dealing with issues of approval, love, physical and emotional boundaries, and stress, all at a time when the days are short and the weather is unpredictable. Some people deal (or refuse to deal) with all of this by going to the Bahamas until February. For most of us, however, that’s not an option.
     A reunited adoptive family might include the adult adoptee and the adoptive parents; the birth mother and her current spouse and subsequent children (if any) (and possibly her stepchildren); the birth father and his current spouse and subsequent children (if any) and possible stepchildren; the adoptee’s siblings (if any); the birth parents’ and adoptive parents’ own parents (the adoptee’s grandparents), and, if the adoptee is married, the spouse, possible children, and the spouse’s family. How do all of these people sort out who sees whom and when? How does the adoptee sort out his/her feelings about all of these complicated situations? How do the various parents and grandparents deal with their vulnerable feelings?
     Some families try to make everything even, by seeing each group, which may involve a lot of travel, a lot of money for gifts, and a general state of exhaustion for everyone involved. Sometimes one set of parents or grandparents demands more time or attention in an attempt to “prove” that they are loved enough. Some do not speak up at all about their desires and then feel left out. Geographical distance adds another facet to this complicated situation. None of this happens out of meanness or lack of caring, but rather out of a desire to show love and gain approval. Since the adoptee is quite often seen as the center of all this, he or she may come to dread the holidays and feel pulled in many directions.
     Families and individuals that are emotionally needy tend to see love as a quantifiable substance (similar to money, water, or silver), and as finite; that is, there is a limited supply of love and it must be doled out and divided among everyone. Families that feel better about themselves and their emotional resources tend to see love as infinite and not measurable by any physical means; they tend to see it as increasing among people.
     Families where there is adoption are no different in these characteristics than families without adoption. Reunited families may be more consciously aware of these issues. The term “family of origin” is not appropriate when talking about families of adoption, because the adoptee did not grow up with his/her original family, but the adoptive family has filled the role we normally assign to the “family of origin.” No wonder there is emotional confusion, when even our terms of reference are confusing!
     Holidays also bring up issues of grief and loss, as well as hope and expectations. Most us, even without adoption connections, have seen the glorious holidays portrayed in magazines and movies, where a huge family gathers together for a perfect meal (no one is overweight or allergic, so everyone eats as much as they want of everything), everyone in the family gets along, no one voices resentments or disappointment (because no one has any?), everyone receives exactly the gifts they were hoping for and gives wonderful gifts, having an unlimited supply of time, money, and imagination, and this glorious holiday, with perfect weather, produces wonderful memories for all concerned. Most of us have never experienced anything like this in real life, but our hopes and expectations may be that this will be the year of perfect holidays.
     The real holiday may be more like this: Aunt Livia is angry at one sister and refuses to come; Uncle George tries to make peace and feels caught in the middle; Aunt Mary arrives somewhat inebriated and falls asleep in the salad; Uncle Henry gets into an argument with Grandpa and storms out; Grandma is exhausted from cooking the dinner (which isn’t as good as she used to cook); and Cousin Susan’s unruly children break Grandma’s best antique vase.
     Now let’s throw into the mix the fact that Susan relinquished her first daughter, has now been reunited with her, and wants her to come to the family celebration. All of these uncles and aunts never knew this daughter even existed, because Grandma made sure Susan’s pregnancy was kept a secret. Michelle, Susan’s daughter, was renamed Tara by her adoptive parents, who are really upset that she is considering visiting her birth mother for Christmas, but they are afraid to say so, for fear that she will feel forced to choose between them.
     Does this scene sound familiar? Many reunited families and families of open adoption have dealt with such complicated family dynamics in creative and positive ways. As far as we know, there has not been much information gathered on how families manage the holidays. Since we are just completing a holiday season, this would be a good time to begin such a project. This author welcomes stories of how your family handles the realities of multiple sets of parents and grandparents and extended family around the holidays. Please write your story (or even tape record it) and give it to Barbara Free, 1818 Somervell N.E., Albuquerque, NM 87112, (505) 275-9952. If you wish names or identifying information changed, please indicate that. This is not a study to decide which way is better, or what solutions are acceptable; there is no judgment here. This project will gather information and attempt to put together a realistic picture of how families of adoption deal with holiday issues.

Excerpted from the January 2000 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2000 Operation Identity