Friday, August 13, 2010

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Adoptee/Birth Mother Reunion

Why do adoptee-birth mother reunions fail? Why do so many problems occur when the seeker finds who is sought? How can those still searching avoid the traps that foil so many relationships right at the start? I was musing about this with my friend, Thomasina, who does searches (mostly for adoptees, but sometimes for first/birth parents) and she sent me a thoughtful reply.
I hope her words offer some insight for those who are either in reunion, or soon will be:
"We hear from a lot of people in the 'honeymoon' phase of reunion, or just afterward, and one of the most common issues is the speed of the reunion. We hear a lot about how individuals who are found feel rushed into a relationship and overwhelmed by the chaos it is causing in their lives. The complaint does not come from adoptees only, but from whatever person was found, and can often cause the reunion to flounder and even fail.

"Searchers have time to prepare for reunion, and spend time envisioning it. Searchers are also the ones who invest the time and effort to locate their family member, and are likely to work very hard to try to create a relationship once the search is over. The found person does not have time to prepare, contact comes virtually out of the blue, and reunion represents a life-changing event that some people do not want, are not ready for, or are not comfortable with.

"Most people don't like change... and aversion to change is not just an adoption issue; it's a human issue. Change removes people from their routine and, oftentimes, takes them out of their comfort zone, which results in fear, especially when it's being initiated by someone they don't know and aren't sure they can trust.

"We have a natural, innate resistance to change--unless it's change we initiate or change that we see a value in that outweighs the risks involved. There are literally thousands upon thousands of books about overcoming resistance to change, particularly in a business model. The problem in reunion is that the searcher usually doesn't know enough about the found person to know what motivates them, scares them, intrigues them, etc.; and the found person doesn't have the chance to gain trust in the searcher before change starts happening. And so they pull back...don't return phone calls or emails, make excuses for postponing a face-to-face meeting or, if pushed, lash out at the searcher and accuse them of being too pushy...and the reunion ultimately fails."
As for my own relationship with my daughter Jane, I admit back in the dark ages of 1981 when reunions were new and I was green, it took a while before I was fully aware that control over the relationship, or control period, was an issue. However, the first inkling of that came pretty fast when I introduced her as "my daughter," to someone I did not know well at the corner market. As we walked out, Jane pointedly asked me "not" to refer to her as "my daughter," and this led to quite a discussion as to what I was allowed to call her. After our negotiation, she did agree to be a "daughter," when she was visiting us here, and she was free to explain to any and all who I was: birth mother. As was I. This issue resolved itself over time, as she and I knew more people mutually, they knew our story, and no further explanation was needed.

Back in Wisconsin, I was her "birth mother," which made sense as everyone there knew her other mother. But then sometimes she would not want me to say anything about who I happened to be--while she herself had no compunction telling anybody and everybody who I was. It was when I said I was her birth mother--rather than just some woman, any woman, who was there--that she might be upset for what seemed to me for no good reason. Go figure. It was her way of exerting control.

I remember one Sunday afternoon watching a football game at her local hangout, eating steaks sandwiches and having a beer. It was both weird and fun; I could sense everybody looking us over to see how much we were alike. She got a kick out of it and kept telling me it was going on. What took her by surprise was the moment when someone asked us a question and we answered in unison with the exact same words. She kept talking about that; I know she liked it.

The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child As we knew each other for more than a quarter of a century, many things about our relationship got easier, but some never did. The fissure in our relationship, after all, could never to totally bridged, even though at the end we were very close, and she wrote of her feelings toward me and my family, in a way that I will prize forever.

But I seem to have gotten off track here...back to the adoptee's need for control. Where does this come from? Nancy Verrier, psychologist, adoption specialist and an adoptive mother herself, posits it stems from the absolute lack of control the adoptee had over the surrender and adoption in the first place. Most were infants and not able to answer the question: Do you want to stay with your natural mother, the one whose body nourished you for all those months, whose traits you will inherit, and to whom you will bear some resemblance...or do you want to be adopted by strangers? Even if they have more money, a settled life, a pony in the backyard, and promise to love and nourish you? The point is, adoptees never had a choice. For more see Verrier's seminal book: The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.

So as we proceed with a new relationship, no matter if you are the birth/first mother, or the adoptee, be on guard and let the "found" (the findee?) person control the flow of the new connection. First mothers may unconsciously feel that it is normal to assume the role of mother, but many adoptees are very uncomfortable with that and be put off: they have a mother already, thank you very much. But remember, if they purposely hurt you--and do be understanding in what constitutes an offense--you do not have to take it. You do not have to be hurt repeatedly. You can speak out and ultimately, if the abuse does not end, walk out.

And adoptees, go easy on us first mothers; most of us have been waiting and praying for a reunion, while others are shocked and frightened when the initial call comes, given that some will have been keeping this terrible secret locked inside up for decades. We may have to rearrange our lives, people to tell, and some of us older mothers may be unable to do so.* We understand you are now an adult, but our physical and psychic memory of you is locked in that time we had to leave you. To us, you will always be: our child.

Life is a negotiation. --lorraine

* I hate writing about this secrecy because I believe this is a secret no mother should keep, and that we owe our children at the very least one face-to-face meeting. Some birth mothers have been brainwashed by the custom of the era they relinquished to unjustifiably feel they are owed continued anonymity. They are not; rather, they owe their child an identity. And as it has been stated elsewhere, the information of birth is knowledge that inherently belongs to both parties: the mother and the child. Embarrassment alone is not worth denying the other party that information and knowledge. 


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For more on this topic see:Why Reunions Go Awry: What Memoirs of Adopted Daughters Tell Birthmothers and After the Birthmother/Adoptee Reunion: Navigating the Turbulent Waters; and A Birthmother's Fears of Reunion. And the book shown above is also a good read for those in reunion: Reunion: A Year in Letters Between a Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldn't Keep

20 comments :

  1. "To us, you will always be: our child."

    Indeed.

    Even my mother, who does not speak any English, made that adamantly clear when she held my hand and went over my baby photos with me.

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  2. "To us, you will always be our child"

    I think that is probably very common, but I don't think it is true of my mother at all.

    Or if it is, it directly contradicts what she explicitly said to me.

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  3. Carolina WhitefreezeAugust 14, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    I really think that this need to say that adoptees feel "this" and birthparents feel "that" divides us unnecessarily and without basis. There are plenty of issues to go around and, when you take a step back to look at them, I don't think they're all that different regardless of the "side" they're coming from. Instead, I've always felt that adoptees and birthparents are just flip sides of the same coin. Is it really productive to project issues on the other group? More importantly, does that reflect reality?

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  4. "We hear a lot about how individuals who are found feel rushed into a relationship and overwhelmed by the chaos it is causing in their lives. The complaint does not come from adoptees only, but from whatever person was found, and can often cause the reunion to flounder"
    Reunion can cause chaos in the life of the adoptee seeker too and many of us will be familiar with 'the hot potato"
    Evelyn Burns Robinson writes in her books on reunion in a full and extensive way.She is herself a reunited mother.

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  5. Thank you for this thread... Now I REALLY understand WHY my bdaughter doesn't want anything to do with me... I found her and this explains it very well!!

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  6. I think most adoptees are very well aware that they have two mothers, one genetic and the other surrogate. But I can for sure see that they wouldn't want to be 'repossessed' upon reunion as if they once again had no say in things.
    However, I see this less as a 'control issue' than one of respect.
    I think all adoptees deserve to be accepted for who they are, and if the first mother is disappointed or even ambivalent about that, they will sense it.
    Vice versa of course, too.

    IMO it's pretty much a platitude that nobody would actually chose to be born in order to be adopted - just as nobody in their right mind would want to go through nine months of pregnancy in order to give their child away.
    It seems to me that the most commonsensical thing Nancy Verrier has said about reunion is that the best thing a reunited mother can do for her child is to apologize for not being there when needed. No "ifs" or "buts" about it. It's the grown-up thing to do.
    I also think if it doesn't happen naturally and early on, that's a huge obstacle right there.

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  7. Thank you for this post. Helpful.

    I also appreciate that you indicate the mothers, or adoptees, do not have to tolerate abuse. I am astounded by individuals in adoption reunion (both sides) who feel you must, at all cost, tolerate rude, hurtful, abusive, even life threatening behavior. I see this belief most often in certain adoptees but I do not believe it is unique to them.

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  8. anon wrote:"It seems to me that the most commonsensical thing Nancy Verrier has said about reunion is that the best thing a reunited mother can do for her child is to apologize for not being there when needed. No "ifs" or "buts" about it. It's the grown-up thing to do."

    Agreeing with anon on this one. It did help greatly with my reunion when my son called me on always making excuses and blaming other people, and I stopped doing that and took responsibility for my part in the surrender and was just sorry, no "big buts". That, and endless patience:-)

    As mothers, I think we have to get away from the "lost baby" "always my child" mindset and see our adult kids for the unique individuals that they have become, not the iconic "forever baby". Yes, adoption has intervened and complicated the mother-child relationship, but think about the kind of mother who treats her kids as children forever. It is not fun to be one of her children, never seen as an autonomous adult, and adult children treated that way tend to distance themselves from Mama.

    Respect, friendship, and finding things in common you can both relate to are important in post reunion relationships. Try to appreciate all the good things about your child, not just the ways you are alike but the ways he is unique as well, and take a genuine interest in what matters to him.

    Also remember that your child has a whole life and lots of other relationships, and when things don't go as you wish or there is silence or misunderstanding it is not always about you or about adoption. A friend in a very good reunion keeps telling me that, and I think it is often true and good advice.

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  9. Carolina Whitefreeze:

    What are you talking about? Most of the post talks about who is found and who does the finding, but of course there is a difference between the "mother" and the "child." Lorraine did not unnecessarily divide the two groups, or make them seem warring with each other, as you imply. Or did I misread?

    Yeah, we are flip sides of the same coin (adoption), but that's the point, one side is heads, one tails. One side is mother, the other child.

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  10. I don't think mothers are the flip side of the coin to adoptees. I think it's different because we don't juggle the adoptive family and are not caught in the middle of two worlds. I also think that we suffer different pain, it's loss on both sides but I don't see it as the same.

    I do agree that we ought not to project issues on the other side and I hope I didn't do that in my last paragraph.

    Can the pitfalls be avoided? I don't know and can't help but think a lot of good flow in reunion is based on luck. I mean you just can't predict how something you say or do is going to be percieved.

    I also think that if the adoptive parents are fearful and hostile towards the mothers then you are really not going to win over that.

    I find the whole thing so painful and upsetting that I don't know if I can do it anymore. I've tried every which way to make this work and have played every single trick with my head and heart not to feel the pain of this.

    Adoption just destroys the bond between the mother and son or daughter it really does. Reunion cannot ever recover the damage done by us being separated.

    I cannot pretend that it wasn't a huge trauma and I feel like I am not allowed to talk about how it was. I also feel like I will forever be punished by the world for what I did/had done to me.

    Right here and now I feel utterly heart broken and confused and am just going to walk away and give my energy to my work. I can't do reunion anymore.

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  11. Just a P.S. to the concept of apologizing, do it once, sincerely, then both parties need to move on. Some needy adoptees keep demanding endless apologies from their mothers for everything wrong in their lives. That is part of the downside of Primal Wound, that it is portrayed as incurable, and makes a convenient excuse for adoptee failings, and a guilt-inducing weapon to use against their mothers.

    Nancy Verrier did write a second book that attempts to go beyond Primal Wound, "Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up"
    http://www.amazon.com/Coming-Home-Self-Adopted-Child/dp/0963648012
    This book is less known and less popular than Primal Wound, but contains more helpful strategies for dealing with reunion and relationships in a more adult mode.

    I found the second book much more worthwhile and practical.

    Neither side in reunion should take real abuse from the other party, but both have to be generous and careful of what they define as "abuse". Not all distancing, disagreement, or complaint is abusive, nor is not living up to the other party's expectations.

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  12. I did not read Nancy's Verrier's second book, but I just want to ditto what Maryanne said.

    If a mother apologizes, she should do it once. Then it's over. If you keep apologizing for the same thing repeatedly that conveys that the person to whom you are apologizing is not accepting it, and for you it becomes a zero-sum trap.

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  13. K. wrote: "Can the pitfalls be avoided? I don't know and can't help but think a lot of good flow in reunion is based on luck."

    That is an important point to keep in mind, the luck factor that has to be there for any kind of relationship to even get started. Some who search can do everything right, and yet not be allowed any relationship if the person they find just does not want it. A relationship takes two, and if one of the parties won't play, you are out of luck no matter what you do.

    Sometimes a reunion fails because the searcher was too pushy, or one of the parties too needy, or someone did or said some awful thing that could have been avoided, and that is why we discuss it and give advice and general guidelines. But sometimes it is not the searcher's fault, nothing they did wrong but their mother or child just did not want to be found and does not want a relationship. Like some song says, "I can't make you love me, if you don't/ I can make your heart feel/something it won't..."

    Tragic for those with bad luck of this sort, but a fact of life.

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  14. Great blog Lorraine...

    My reunion with my son has been the most challenging relationship of my life. He was one of those adoptees who chastised me for making excuses and asked me to just accept some responsibilty - coerced or not.

    I agreed with him and apologized for having not had the strength or wisdom to fight harder to keep him and for not being there when he needed me. I told him that I wish I'd known how to have done it differently. And I DO feel that way.

    He has plenty of other issues in his life that prevent us from having a healthy relationship; but at least I feel good about expressing to him something he really needed to hear.

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  15. Thank you for writing this. My birthdaughter will be 18 in a few months and so many thoughts are entering my mind...moreso than before.

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  16. K said:

    "I also think that if the adoptive parents are fearful and hostile towards the mothers then you are really not going to win over that."

    Has anyone ever analysed the negative forces that adoptive parents hold over the adoptee's heads, especially in reunion? It may be subtle or not but I betcha it is the undoing of many a mother and child reunion.

    For me it is painful to see my child chastised because of my existence, to be told that he should know who his "real" family is by extended adoptive family.

    I lie in wait until they blow themselves up with their cruelty. We shall see who has the last laugh.

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  17. I'm an adult adoptee, and even though my birth mother (and yes, I am comfortable with that term) put me in foster care for two years before signing adoption papers, I never, ever felt she needed to apologize to me for anything. I love my adoptive family. And I loved my birth mom (whom I met in my twenties -she has since passed away, butwe had a warm relationship for over 2 decades).

    My birth mom made the decision that she thought best for her. She suffered greatly for it, and as far as I could tell, was only made whole again after we met and she saw that I was well and happy. As for me, I can't imagine not having been brought up by my adoptive parents. My birthmother suffered waaaay more than me by the whole adoption thing. For me, I do believe that the best thing was to be put up for adoption.

    So, I guess I don't understand why some people feel the need for birth moms to apologize. Good god, most were young women doing the best they could, and they certainly owe their biological children much less then do the parents-by choice, the adoptive ones.

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  18. I'm an adoptee, and I've been searching for my birthmothers since I was 16- not because I feel I don't belong in my family or for any need of "apologies", but sincerely because I believe a part of me is out there, and I was not given the option to ever find it. I recently was told that I can most likely get my birthmother's name or a birthfamily member's name. I am so ecstatic and happy I can't even describe it. I'm only fearful now that since I've been doing all of this searching and posting all over every adoption site and forum I could find, it could all be in vain. I want to ask for some advice- do you think it means something that my birthmother never reached out or searched for me? Do you think that will make it less likely she will accept an offer to at least meet?
    I am realistic and I have no intention of pushing her or any other birthfamily members I may find into a reunion or meeting, but I wanted advice on how to approach- should I simply give my contact information to them and let them know if they ever want to meet they can always call?
    I would love any advice from birthmothers or birth family members of adoptees! How should I go about the initial contact?

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  19. Chandler,

    I don't think it's significant that your birth mother did not search for you nor does it make it less likely that she will agree to meet with you.

    Most birth mothers who are found are ecstatic and anxious to meet their child.

    Birth mothers don't search for a variety of reasons: they were told they shouldn't/couldn't. They don't want to interfere with their child's life. They are afraid their child was never told she was adopted and feel it would be wrong for them to tell her. They have no idea how to go about searching or they've tried and run into a brick wall. They're are on a different registry than the one their child is on. They plan to search but decide to wait until their other children are grown. They can't afford a searcher.

    They believe that if their child wants to find them, she will. So if she hasn't, it means she doesn't want a reunion.

    They are afraid of rejection so they wait and hope they are found.

    I think it's emotionally more difficult for a mother to search than for a child to search because the mother is the one who did the deed. The child is innocent.

    Regarding the initial contact, many believe phone calls are best but letters work too. Contact your mother directly. Do not contact a relative/minister etc. and ask her to be a intermediary for you.

    Read some adoptee memoirs to get an idea of various approaches. Join a local support group.

    Good luck!

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  20. Chandler, As a birth mother I want to assure you that there are many reasons a bmother would not search for her child. I was found by my birth son. I never searched for him
    because I understood he had a life and
    parents and I did not feel I had a right to disrupt that life. Secondly, I was afraid. Would
    he reject me? What place would I have in his life and did I even have a right to inject myself in his life? Reunion with my bson has been good but I honestly must say I have no idea what my role in his life means to him. Be prepared with reunion to have confusion over
    what form your relationship should/can be
    and sadness over what should/could have been. Blessings in your journey!

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