What happens in reunion that causes the adopted person to pull back? For some the reunion goes well, the catching up between adopted person and you, birth/first mother, clicks along lickety split, you have the sense that this is the continuation of a great relationship--for you did have one with your child in utero--but then, Wham! just when you lease expect it, your child--your adult child--pulls back and away.
Weeks go by without a word. Weeks turn into months. Months turn into years. And nothing. You wait, you wonder, you go over every word you said because surely--it was something you said, something you did. It is all over again: your fault.
At the Heart to Heart retreat last weekend in Boston, "pull back" were words that I heard with greater frequency than any of us first mothers/birth mothers would like, but "pull back" is so often a fact of reunion. Pull back. I found my daughter when she was fifteen and was reunited with her face to face a thousand miles and a few days later, and for many years we had what seemed to be a good relationship. Her adoptive family was also a part of the picture. I was never a secret.
But then, out of seemingly nowhere, she would be gone. Not return my phone calls. One time, when I went to Wisconsin and she still basically ignored me, saying only the minimum number of words to not seem more rude than she actually was. The first time we saw each other that weekend was in church at Sunday Mass. She of course knew I was in town. I was at the end of the pew. She came in and said hello to every possible person she could find to say hello to, though she knew I was there, waiting. When she slid in next to me, she looked away to say hello to one more casual acquaintance. I wanted to be swallowed up by the floor, for everyone who knew her in the small town, in the parish, knew exactly who I was, and her casual rejection of me hurt like hell. I waited. Finally she turned to look at me and say, nod Hello, Oh, it's you. You count less than all these other people and I've done my best to show you and everyone how little you matter. Oh, it's you.
Another mother whose seventeen-year-old daughter was living with her and the mother's other younger son, got up one day and simply walked out. Went to a girlfriend's before she went back to Georgia. Letters were ignored for years. Finally, one day a decade later, the mother heard from her daughter asking for health information and letting her know that she was now a grandmother. My friend went out and bought baby clothes and sent them along with all the medical history. Again, nothing. Again, years passed. And then one day she called, saying she and her husband and child would be in the vicinity, did they want to meet? Yes, of course. The visit went well, and then again...nothing.
Linda has written about attending her daughter's wedding, only to have her pull back afterward and maintain a relationship with Linda's Judas of a sister. Fellow blogger Jane's relinquished daughter is in pull-back mode. Some of the birth mothers who write here frequently talk about their fractured relationships, or no relationship at all following reunion.
It hurts. When you want to have a relationship with your child, and they do not, it hurts.
What can we do? Often times, nothing. The reasons for the pull back probably have nothing to do with anything you said or did, but happen simply because the adopted person wants to have control over the relationship--a control that was denied them when they were placed for adoption in this most crucial fact of their existence. Or the adoptee may feel guilty for having a relationship with the birth mother because it feels as if it diminishes the one with their adoptive parents, and they are extremely protective of them.
Over the course of my decades-long relationship with my daughter Jane, until she died in 2007, I often prized and held close the honesty I felt she brought to the table on occasion about our relationship because I felt she was telling me things that she would never share with her adoptive parents. But that also meant that I was privy to her assumption that always the adoptive family's feelings were tantamount, that it was okay to ignore my feelings in some ways because, well, because I would understand the need not to offend their feelings. In a way, it put me in the power position, the way the person who lets the other person out of an elevator first is in charge of the situation. But still. I never pointed out this disparity to Jane. I simply understood. She knew this dynamic was at work; I knew it was my job to be understanding.
Her relationship with her adoptive parents was in some ways more fragile than hers with mine. The Chinese have a belief that a thin red line connects people who are meant to be together, and though miles and circumstance may separate them, they will find each other again because they are connected by this thin red line. I'm not saying that I was a bastion of tranquility when Jane was gone, for months, for more than a year one time, not at all, but I believed that she was not gone forever. And then, out of the blue, she would call and begin the conversation as if nothing unusual had occurred, as if we had just spoken a week ago. The last time this happened was in the last year before she died. She ignored my emails, and even had her phone changed to an unlisted number. A letter was returned with the word: REFUSED stamped in red on it.
I could not help being reminded by that months earlier she had called sobbing and when I picked up the phone, she simply said: Tell me that you love me. I did. Repeatedly. Apparently her adoptive mother in the heat of an argument had told her that she did not love her.
But within days, her other mother apologized and they were back on track. That was the clearest example of how vastly different my relationship with Jane was. Jane could walk away from me at any moment, for any reason. And I'd better watch it because it could happen again. Her other mother could be forgiven; I might not be. Jane's reasoning must have gone like this: Lorraine walked away from me, she gave me up. I'll show her I can do the same.
So months again, with no contact. And then one day she called mid-morning, I answered, and we both said in tandem: How are you? And we picked up where we had been months before. I knew better than to berate her, or even ask her why. This time we seemed closer than ever, and all I said, after several normal, every-day kinds of conversations, that if she wanted me to be close and trust her, she should not ever simply walk away from me again. Right, she said, right.
So, what did I learn? That pull backs happen when you least expect it. They might even be considered the norm in a post-reunion between adoptee and first mother. That a birth/first mother's relationship with her reunited child is not ever going to be the same as the one with children who have not been relinquished. That no matter how much some of their actions hurt us, we have to be the adult, the mother, and realize that the adopted person is going through as much emotional turmoil and pain as we are, only that it is different from ours.
Some have posited that the adoptee's pain is always greater than the first mother's. I don't buy that. Because in thinking through one's relationship with one's parents, the child always has the upper hand emotionally. As much as I loved my mother, I was the one who moved away--far away--and didn't really miss not living closer. As much as I loved my mother, and we had a powerful and strong bond, I was the one who could hurt her more than she could ever have hurt me. As a male friend once said to me after he had a son: Your kids have you by the balls. Graphic, but he made the point.
From what I could discern during the Heart to Heart weekend, birth mothers who have ongoing relationships with other children were less bothered by the pullback of their only child, the relinquished child. Linda and I are in that group,and fellow blogger Jane has other daughters, and now grandchildren who live nearby and take up her time and energy. That the women who have other children are less stricken by an adoptee's rejection after reunion is simply an observation, not claiming to be scientific, but it makes sense to me.
We first mothers are called upon to be patient, and loving and understanding of the adoptee's need to control the relationship, to keep us secret and separate perhaps even from the adoptive parents' awareness. Though we have heard from many adoptees who have been rejected by the first mother, or who are too critical (see comments), I hope adoptees can find it in their hearts to understand how much power they have to hurt those of us who so desperately want a relationship when they reject us.--lorraine