Demons in Adoption

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Navigating the first meeting between birth mother and child

Jane
Jane and her surrendered daughter, Rebecca, connected soon after Rebecca's 31st birthday in November, 1997. They corresponded via email and telephone and agreed to meet over the Martin Luther King holiday in January, 1998. At the time, Jane lived in Salem, Oregon and Rebecca in suburban Chicago. It seemed best that Jane come to Rebecca's home because, with a husband and three young children, it would be difficult for her to get away.

Jane was slow to exit the plane when it landed at O’Hare, her heart racing; her breathing labored, her legs unwilling to move. The crowd had cleared by the time Jane stepped into the waiting area. This was before the 9/11 security precautions when people meeting arriving passengers could still come to the gate. She searched for a familiar face although she did not know what Rebecca looked like; they had not exchanged photographs.

Jane made eye contact with a young woman on her left but there was no hint of recognition. Then she saw another woman, standing back, holding her hand to her mouth and knew it was her—the baby, the girl, the women—of her imagination. Jane wrapped an arm around her and said “You’re even more beautiful than I thought you’d be.” The woman--Rebecca--pulled back, uncomfortable with the intimacy.

Thus began the first of many meetings. The most recent was a few weeks ago when both embraced.

Based on Jane's and Lorraine's experiences and that of others they've met and read about, here are our suggestions for a positive beginning to a good reunion:

GO IT ALONE
When Jane began planning for the meeting, a good friend asked to come along, perhaps for support, perhaps out of curiosity. Fortunately a wise first mother on alt.adoption cautioned Jane to go alone--don't bring a stranger, no matter how close a friend--and thankfully Jane took her advice. I’ve since heard many stories where adoptees resenting having others around. While you may want your child to know your husband, your other children, your mother, your friends, your child will likely only want to know you--especially at the beginning. A mother and child reunion is just that: two people once bonded by birth, together again and at last. It should be intimate; it should be just the two of you.

Lorraine also went alone to meet her daughter, on her daughter's turf, a must as she was going to meet a 15-year-old that she, Lorraine, had searched for and found. Because her daughter, also named Jane--we'll call her Jane Ann here to avoid confusion--was underage at the time, Lorraine first spoke to her adoptive mother on the telephone, she put "their" daughter on the phone, and Lorraine was on a plane a few days later to meet her and her family in Wisconsin. Lorraine too got off the plane last. You know this meeting is going to be a life-changing event, and although it is much desired, inchoate fear sets in as you take those final steps in the old life of unknowingness. What will the future hold? Will she/he like me? What emotions can "my baby" be feeling? This is actually happening....But she's not a baby now she is.... As the roller coaster that is your heart approaches the top of the first drop, anticipation, fear, excitement all meld there, the car keeps climbing to the the top, moving to that moment when you reach the top and the crazy out-of-control wild ride down begins. That's when you see her face.

Lorraine
Lorraine had no trouble spotting her, or her Lorraine. Her huge smile was a neon welcome sign. Lorraine hugged her close; her daughter kept her hands firmly planted in the back pockets of her jeans. As her father was there, both of them were keenly aware of being observed. She told Lorraine later she wanted to hug her, but did not want to display any affection with her dad watching. It's not that he or her adoptive mother were against this reunion--they could have said no, Lorraine was going to be staying at their house for the weekend--but Jane Ann (Ann, her middle name) did not want to seem disloyal to the only parents she had known all her conscious life.

KEEP THE REUNION PRIVATE
Lorraine did not have to meet anyone that first weekend other than her daughter's immediate family of father, mother, three brothers, one adopted and older than Jane Ann by a few years. After meeting Lorraine once, he disappeared the rest of the weekend; he must have stayed at a friend's house by design (his mother hadn't come looking for him, after all) or came in late and went out early.

Unless it cannot be helped because of your child's age, ask him or her not to have anyone else present at the first meeting. One birth mother got off the plane overjoyed at the prospect of meeting her daughter and was met by both her daughter's adoptive mother and step mother (the adoptive parents had divorced and the adoptive father had remarried) as well as her daughter. These women took over the meeting and the birth mother found herself trying to look good to them, rather than getting to know her daughter.

However, if the adoptee wishes to bring a spouse, or a sibling along, or anyone for support, going along with that is recommended--even if it is the adoptive mother as above. The adopted individual didn't have a say about whether or not he wanted to be adopted, and so let him have his way with the reunion. The birth mother may wish for privacy, but it doesn't always work that way. Yet if you ask for the meeting to be just between the two of you, that may be the opening that the adopted individual is hoping for, allowing him to tell others to let this meeting be private at your request, not hers. Lots of adoptees have a hard time asserting themselves with their adoptive parents; they have spent their lives trying to please their parents in a way that the non-adopted do not.

When meeting a minor, as Lorraine did, assume that at least one adoptive parent will be present. Focus on your shared child, especially in the first few moments, she is expecting you to, and the adoptive parent, or parents, present will be checking out how you react and what you say. While Lorraine and her daughter were both aware of the adoptive father's presence, Lorraine feels it was a blessing for both her and Jane Ann that her mother had made the choice to stay home and meet Lorraine there. Her father, after all, wasn't filling the same role that the mother was.

Public reunions covered by the media will add to the awareness of having to be "on" and doing the right thing, which, indeed, may come naturally. Television shows have been based on the premise of search-and-reunion, and such media help may be the only way some people will be able to find each other. While some may feel uncomfortable with cameras rolling, such public reunions do benefit others: They encourage people who have been thinking about searching to do so. They also help dispel the myth that adopted individuals fit seamlessly into their new families, and that birth mothers forget and get on with their lives. ALMA's office used to be flooded with calls after televised reunions on talk shows in the Eighties, and that most certainly continues today in other venues.

If the first meeting isn't taking place at an airport, consider a neutral place such as a hotel lobby or hotel room, a restaurant, a park, a coffee shop or a bar, giving you a chance to talk without distractions or prying eyes. (Strangers don't count; they don't know what they are witnessing.) After dinner at a Chinese restaurant, Rebecca and Jane went to the bed and breakfast where Jane was staying. Although their  conversation was intermittent and awkward, neither had to worry about what others were thinking. Some mothers and their children talk for hours.

Because Lorraine was staying for the weekend at the home of her daughter's adoptive family, and younger brothers were around, getting time alone was difficult. Jane's adoptive mother sent Lorraine and Jane Ann out for a walk together to let that happen, but it was freezing cold that last November weekend in Madison, and they were back in 20 minutes. Because of her epilepsy, Jane Ann was heavily medicated at the time, and while she did not seem dull, she was not brimming over with conversation. At 15, having her familiar family around did not seem like a bad thing--for Lorraine too. Their presence seemed to smooth over any awkwardness, and the adoptive parents were eager for Jane Ann to get the boost of self-confidence she needed that they hoped meeting her other mother would give Jane Ann. Epilepsy is so very difficult emotionally for the person having the seizures.  Jane Ann gave Lorraine her bedroom for the stay.

KEEP THE VISIT SHORT
More than a few days for the first meeting is probably too long. There’s only so much you can say, and both you and the adoptee are going through emotional turmoil that is likely to be exhausting and overwhelming--the roller coaster ride continues, up and down, hang on, we're heading into a curve. Count on being tired, but you still may have trouble sleeping that first night. Over the next day or two, try to find things to do that you both enjoy--going to a play, a concert or a baseball game will give you a shared memory, a touchstone for the future. You are now building your "together" memories. If the adoptee has to come a long way to visit you, he may well indeed want to do sight-seeing; encourage him or her set the agenda. Three days is a good length of time before either of you reach emotional exhaustion; a week is a long time--for both of you.

DON'T PILE ON THE PHOTOS
It’s tempting to bring lots of photos to the first meeting--many mothers and children have already shared pictures via email—but don’t expect instant recognition or acceptance. On the first evening Jane and her daughter met, Jane took out a photo album with carefully selected pictures of her husband, her three other daughters, her mother, siblings, and Rebecca’s cousins. “Here’s me, my mother, and my two oldest daughters at a family reunion,” I said, and “here’s me and two of my sisters when we were in Girl Scouts back in the Fifties.”

Jane expected that Rebecca would be pleased to see people who looked like her. She remembered reading in Florence Fisher’s The Search for Anna Fisher how seeing no familiar faces in family photos made her realize she was an outsider, and how excited she was when her son was born to know someone who looked like her. She went through the pictures slowly, waiting for Rebecca to acknowledge the similarities between herself and her relatives, which seemed so obvious to Jane. When Rebecca didn’t say much, however, Jane asked her what she thought. “They look like strangers,” Rebecca said.

To your found son or daughter, your extended family doesn't consist of Uncle Tom or Cousin Bill. They are all strangers; whether they look like him or not, she already has uncles and cousins. Take this slow; don't force extended family on your found son or daughter, remember that your family consists of strangers to this person. And she already has a family she knows.

The next day, at her home, Rebecca showed Jane her carefully constructed album. Jane was curious about her adoptive family and wanted to see the pictures but at the same time she found them disturbing. Her daughter was with strangers, usurpers as Jane thought of them, in group photos acting as if they were a family. This was wrong; her daughter should not be in these pictures with these people. Jane became acutely aware that Rebecca's life had gone on without her, that Rebecca had not in some fantastical way been frozen once she left Jane's arms as a newborn until they connected 31 years later. Jane realized how much she had missed in Rebecca's growing up and, most disturbing of all, that she had been replaced. Lorraine's reaction to Jane Ann's family photos of her growing up was much the same: this is what was missed. Lorraine took almost no photos with her, a good thing. Be polite, but don't spend a lot of time on photos of past events and other people. A few photos are fine, but keep the albums for later--if ever.
--Jane and lorraine
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Wednesday: Meeting Friends and Family, and more on how to handle a reunion.
 See later post:

Part two: Navigating the first meeting between birth mother and child

Both Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self and The Adoption Reader: Birth Mothers, Adoptive Mothers, and Adopted Daughters Tell Their Stories are excellent books that may help first mothers and fathers understand more about their daughters and sons during reunion. Being Adopted was written by a psychologist and adoptive father, and a psychiatrist married to an adoptee. The Adoption Reader is a collection of excellent revealing essays by birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive mothers, exploring all aspects of adoption.

THE SEARCH FOR ANNA FISHER
is one of the first books about search, written by Florence Fisher, one of the pioneers of the adoption-reform movement and the founder of the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). This photo of the jacket is taken from the hardcover (currently unavailable it says at Amazon) but it will take  you to the order page for a paperback version, of which there is no photo.

Click on the jacket photos or the red print to order.



26 comments :

  1. Thank you so much for this. I look forward to hearing what other readers who are navigating reunions have to say of the matter.

    M.

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  2. What if you are too terrified to meet the person you want to meet? Too afraid of how it will change your life? I am.

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    1. Hello Anonymous!

      I am both a Birthmother and and Adopted Child. In 2008, I went looking for the son I lost to adoption, but through a series of life altering events, found both he and my own Birth Mother in less than 30 days of each other. Talk about overwhelming on so many levels. 6 months later, I was introduced to my 3 1/2 siblings. I understand the fear that goes along with the journey and suggest that you seek out support groups and others "who get it." You will find that all those thoughts and feelings are "normal" to the journey. Though no one can promise you for sure how it will turn out. . . .you can find support, knowledge and some emotional tools for moving forward.

      Though no reunion, including my own, is without lots of ups and downs, I wouldn't change a moment of it. I not only found my people, but I truly found myself. It has been the most liberating feeling and brought so much peace into my life.

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  3. Hello
    Anonymous whatever position it will chane yor life. If open it will be life altering. There will wonderful things
    in store if accepting. I know it happened to me and my son.
    Must tell you keep reunion between you and child. Many try to input their views. It isn't about anyone but mother and adult child. All others can get over it!!!!

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  4. Jane and Lorraine, I wholeheartedly with you advice. I flew alone to meet my son and since I was virtually the last person off the plane, the crowd at the gate had cleared and I found my son easily. His wife and mother-in-law were there. I stayed in their home for 3 nights, not neutral territory, but it worked out okay. I had to speak up about having some time alone with him. They wanted the whole family to go see the sights in New Orleans, which we did, but at least we got one day out by ourselves. About a month later my son came to our home in California, by himself, and there he got to meet much of my family.

    Taking things slow is SO important. I see now that my son rushed me, and himself, which I believe later led to problems. Our 16-year reunion has been very up and down. We recently reconnected after being estranged for a few years, and this time I am determined to take it slow and rebuild our relationship.

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  5. This blog sure opened my eye's to realize why the meeting with my daughter and I never worked. I relinquishment my rights unwillingly by deceptions and lies when she was 3 1/2 to my aunt. Over the years I was able to see her on occasions if my aunt was there and other family. It always turned out a horrible disaster because my aunt wouldn't allow me to get to close, I would be accused of pushing myself on her and making her feel uncomfortable. Strange thing was my daughter was constantly coming to me hugging and sitting on my lap. My aunt would pull her in a room and drill her for hours. I had to distant myself just to give my daughter some relief from the drilling. I wasn't allowed to say I love you to her because it made her feel uncomfortable, but damned if I didn't because I would be accused of not loving her. I was cut out of her life for years and then let back in. My daughter has a son and still lives at home with my aunt and she rules every thing she does. She's 31 years old now, she see's a psychologist which I'm blamed for. I don't know how, because I wasn't allowed to get close enough to cause her all these problems. But I was cut off again because she slipped and said I love you to me. Everyone in my family say's the only way I'll ever have any kind of relationship with her is when my aunt dies and I'm sorry to say I think they are right.
    But after reading this I see there really couldn't have been a relationship that could have been established because we never were given a chance to connect. If there ever does come a time again I'm going to have to insist on a one on one meeting. I just can't go through the things they have put me through. I know that might sound selfish, but I have to think of my own emotional well being as well.

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  6. Anon, so sorry to hear your story. I always think that in-family adoptions are the best, but yours certainly has a lot of problems that make that seem less than true. The fact that you had your daughter for 3.5 years, however, counts for something; your daughter has to remember those times.

    I am just so sorry that your horrible aunt became such a over-weaning, controlling person and adoptive mother to your daughter and caused so much turmoil for you and her. Maybe one day...but yes, you have to take care of yourself. Until your daughter no longer lives with the "aunt," there will be turmoil and trouble for her. And you.

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  7. Anon at 11:29...

    I understand your fears, especially if you are reading this blog's comments a lot, because they certainly indicate the kind of anger and trouble that may follow a reunion. My own relationship with my daughter had its ups and downs, but then...so did my relationship with my mother. But I was always glad in my heart that I had searched for and reunited with my daughter, despite her periods of silence sometimes. We had our own memories and sweet times, and I wouldn't trade one of them for anything.

    If you want to search, or connect with your lost child, I hope you find the courage to make that leap--and do it. Tomorrow might be too late. If you don't you will always wonder: what if?

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  8. thank you for this post
    my son will be 18 in about 3 months

    the point of pictures being of strangers is helpful.

    i have a question about the first meeting being alone ... i am guessing the exception to that would be original father being there too?

    thank you
    cheerio!

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  9. Cheerio:

    I would assume that if you and the father want to meet your child together, it probably will be welcomed by your son. Just ask.

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  10. I agree - the reunion should just be between mother and child if possible. In my case, I found it best,since we lived near each other, to keep the first meeting to a few hours and meet in a neutral,happy place like a park or an ice cream store. I felt an uncontrollable urge to hug my son when I first saw him and for a week after that, all I could do was sit and stare and-slowly- reality started seeping back into my life after all those years of wondering and imagining"What happened to my baby?"

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  11. To add to the above-When my son, the cutest baby in the world who grew up to be the cutest young man in the world, would get angry at me, he would threaten to get a DNA test hoping to prove that I wasn't his mother. Most of the time,however, we agreed that no such test was necessary Everyone says the resemblance is there and we definitely feel a connection

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  12. Some generally good suggestions here, but I thing as the mother it is helpful to be flexible about the first meeting if your kid wants to bring their spouse or partner along.

    Mine did, and it never occurred to me not to include his wife, who is lovely and a little more outgoing than either of us, (she's Italian:-)so that worked out very well. There was nothing either of us wanted to say that could not be said with her there. I don't have any great need to be alone with my son, just seeing him at all is enough.

    I think it would be tough to have an adoptive family member at a first meeting, but it was just fine to have my son's wife there.
    Plus it was what he wanted so ok with me.

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  13. My son started asking me about who his father was after a few hours during our first reunion meeting. Maybe he realized that I wasn't exactly the Queen of Sheba-but wait-there's still another part to the equation-maybe his father was King of Siam??!!!! Sorry,kid,we're just ordinary people.-and that's not a bad thing.

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  14. Good point, Maryanne. If the adoptee wants to bring spouse or I suppose, even his/her kids, or anybody they wish for support...best for mothers to agree. As you say, sometimes having other more outgoing people around is a good idea. When we repost as a permanent page, I'll include that.

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  15. My son came to the city where I live and the next weekend I went to the city where he and his father lived. We all went out to dinner. I will never forget seeing them hug and then inviting me in too.

    I think the ideal situation is to be alone with each other at first meeting. Not all spouses are supportive and sometimes there is jealousy of the adoption reunion. I didn't experience this but I know others who have.

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  16. You may want to add to your list some advice about money. It is likely that one reunion member will have more money than the other. Offers to pay for dinner and entertainment might be sincere, but may make the other party feel uncomfortable, like they are obligated to the other.

    Or the party footing the bill may later feel resentful.

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  17. Thank you for this post. We are currently in the process of finding my father's birth mother. It is a long process, but maybe one day we can find her.

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  18. Hi Jane,
    Thank you, yet again, for an important post. I can remember so clearly every detail of the first meeting between my daughter and myself, since she was born. In many ways, that first reunion went well. However, I think it was a bit too long. She had come so far - over 3,000 miles - and so we thought 10 days would be OK. (as I recall). Probably a bit too long, but good in many ways.

    Today, we are going through a silent period. I hope it ends someday, but I don't know that it will. But, no matter what, I will always have the memories of our first real time together. That is something no one can take away from either of us because even if she's not speaking to me right now, I would be amazed if she never thinks of me.

    Angela

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  19. I'm an adoptee who has been reunited with my birthmother for over 12 years now. It is still an awkward, developing relationship with some recent friction on how to relate to each other. After 12 years of calling her by her first name, she now feels I should address her as "birthmother" to her face and Mrs (lastname) in letters. This just feels uncomfortable. When and how do you figure out "names" to call each other in the reunion process? What do most people do?

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  20. The only thing that feels comfortable to me and my son is first names although he refers to me as his 'birthmother' or if we're out in public simply'mother'

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  21. I am an adoptee and have been in the reunion process with my biological mother for 7 months. I found her after birth certificates were opened to adult adoptees in my state. In the beginning we emailed each other weekly with a few calls over the past 7 months. We finally had the opportunity to meet a little over a month. We spent 12 hours together just talking and walking around the city. When she returned home she sent me the most amazing letter explaining that she was excited about this relationship and that she looked forward to a life long friendship between us. I responded via email as well as called her. None of my communication has been returned since our first meeting which was just over a month ago. I am trying to understand what happened, what she may be going through and why she has stopped communicating all together. Any advice you may have is appreciated.

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  22. Hi, Anonymous, Email me through forumfirstmother@gmail.com and I'll get back to you. Or check in here later. I have to take care of something and this nor'easter storm we are having could kill power at any moment.

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  23. I just found mine as well as this forum when I searched, "what to wear to meet birth mother," and all the other links referred to pregnant women looking for an a-mom. When I showed others pics, they could see resemblances, but I can't. I was told to expect mirror images. lol. B-mom is very accepting but has not yet told my grump of a b-dad. Flying out to visit in a week!

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    1. Hey, Weather, your comment was amusing--like no one ever imagines that the adult child will meet the birth mother! Imagine my anxiety when I went to my daughter's wedding in a small town in Wisconsin--and I'm the "New York career woman." There isn't a single word in there that isn't a putdown! said like that. Means: Not one of us. Feminist. Eek!

      I used to imagine that I would meet my daughter wearing a black men's cashmere turtleneck and black pants. Didn't happen that way. Wear what makes you comfortable but presentable on a plane trip. And remember your mother will be going through the same anxiety over what to wear. !

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  24. Oy va voy! I'm a feminist but that means many things, and we've all been "othered" enough to a degree.
    Sounds like good advice, Lorraine , thanks!

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