It’s All About Relationships

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     Searching for one’s birth family or relinquished offspring is about finding one’s connections and finding the truth, but after that initial contact, the focus gradually becomes developing relationships. While it is true that some who search find that the person for whom they have searched is already deceased, and they are unable to locate living family, and some others have only an initial meeting and no further contact, for most people, some time of ongoing relationships develops with one or more persons. In the best of situations, everyone involved is able to build healthy, multifaceted relationships with each other. In the worst cases, the growth of relationships becomes stunted or gets cut off altogether.
     Reunions we’ve all seen on television and in the newspapers usually focus on that initial contact, the more intense the better, because the drama of instant connection sells better. We rarely learn what happens later, unless there is a follow-up, and that is most apt to happen when the reunion relationships did not develop well. There are exceptions. One reunion was featured on Dateline and a few years later, the follow-up was that the birth mother and birth father had renewed their own relationship and married each other. Our own research project has revealed a few cases like that. But the television shows and newspaper stories are not going to have stories about relationships that develop slowly and positively into loving, relaxed extended families. To hear those stories, one needs to attend a support group such as O.I. on a regular basis and hear members sharing their latest news.
     Someone recently said that a friend was puzzled by her desire to keep attending O.I., since it has been a few years since she found her birth family. It was hard for her to explain to the friend that a support group is about more than searching, that the friendships formed are also important, and that as relationships with family continue to grow and change, a support group is still helpful for sharing the experience and getting feedback from others. O.I. members who have been around for a long time report that the fellowship and support are still important. They also talk about how they and their families continue to learn about each other.
     As relationships deepen, there may be ups and downs. Because our society does not have much recent precedent for reunion relationships, those of us in reunion are pioneers of a sort. There aren’t many books yet on how to conduct these relationships, and maybe there shouldn’t be too many rules written, because every family, every situation is different. Some reunions will develop into big, close families with lots of contact and openness, while others will never get past the polite, cautious stage. This is partly because every individual involved in a reunion has had different life experiences before coming into the reunion relationship. Some look forward optimistically to being close to more people, while others may be afraid of being hurt or offended or left out, based on previous experiences, or even what they’ve read or heard about reunions. We must remember that, in any adoption, all the parties involved have had some loss and grief. The possible joy of reunion does not erase those losses, but does offer the possibility of new happiness, based on reality. Persons who enter into the reunion with that in mind, but without detailed expectations, seem to do the best.
     In the past year, O.I. members have talked about meeting more extended family members, getting together for special occasions, vacations, and casual visits, and have discussed how these times have strengthened and deepened their relationships with all family members, how it begins to feel more “real,” even after knowing each other for several years. There have been opportunities for birth parents to nurture their previously relinquished offspring at times, in illness, or even through being able to give that adult child some toy or book they always wanted as a child. When the adoptive parents are also comfortable with these times, everyone becomes closer.      We don’t have established terms for a birth parent’s current spouse, who is not the adoptee’s birth parent, or for a birth parent’s relationship to the birth child’s other siblings. We certainly don’t have terms to quickly describe the relationship between adoptive parents and birth parents. And what are the various grandchildren to each other? My own granddaughter, upon hearing that her uncle’s adoptive brother and his wife are having a baby, said, “A cousin at last!” Well, not exactly, since that brother is not her uncle. “Well, a cousin once removed, then,” she said. To a child, more relatives are always welcome. They seem to have no problem claiming several sets of grandparents, extra aunts, uncles and cousins. “More people to love me,” said one child.
     Perhaps we could all do a better job of developing happy reunion relationships if we took on these children’s attitudes, instead of sometimes being afraid that there won’t be enough love or attention to go around. Last summer, I heard my granddaughter and another little girl comparing how many aunts and uncles they had, and both of them were counting step-relatives, adoptive relatives, and everyone they could possibly include. They didn’t seem at all bothered by the terms “step” or “half” or “adopted.” One hopes when they get to that family tree assignment in a couple of years, they will be bold enough to insist on listing all the branches of their family orchards.
     One woman recently described her birth mother coming to help out when she had surgery. “It was so nice to have her take care of me. I felt like a little girl, and she enjoyed being able to do that. It brought us closer, and it doesn’t change how close I am to my adoptive parents.” Another reported that her birth mother’s spouse sent her a special birthday card, just for her. Many of us have found the search for appropriate birthday cards to be especially painful at times, when the words say, “We remember all those childhood antics,” when we weren’t around for any of their childhood, or when the card says, “To our daughter,” when she’s only a daughter to one and not the other. Perhaps it’s up to us to coin new terms to describe all our family members, and to let the greeting card companies know our needs.
     In the excitement of initial reunions, sometimes adoptive parents, and other siblings feel a bit left out. After all, if your parents raised you, you don’t have to search for them and have a reunion. We would be wise to include them in the reunion, to whatever degree they are comfortable, and continue to include them, because even those who are cautious at first may become more open as time goes on. We don’t have to overwhelm a newly found birth child with 58 relatives the first time we meet, or invade the adoptive parents’ home with everyone, but we can continue to extend our love and care to all concerned. It’s helpful to remember that what we want are long-term relationships that deepen and grow over time, and that those relationships don’t have to look like something we read about in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1953, because it’s our own family, not a stereotyped model.

Excerpted from the April 2003 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2003 Operation Identity