The media often presents the dramatic and heartwarming aspects of search and reunion, but for those involved, the reality is much more complex. This article explores the common questions and concerns of adult adoption constellation members involved in search and reunion.
Jenna – age 20, shares that her mother thinks she has found Jenna’s birth mother on Facebook. Before making contact, her mother thinks Jenna needs to talk to someone before they attempt to contact her birth mother.
Diane – age 54, is recently in reunion with two birth sisters. Her birth parents are deceased. She reports feeling anxious about how these relationships are going, especially with one sister who appears jealous whenever Diane spends time alone with the other sister. Diane is also unable to get past the distress she feels for having waited so long to find her family and missing the opportunity to know her parents. Her fear of rejection was the major reason she did not search sooner.
Tom – age 27, after coming back from meeting his Korean family is filled with guilt and regret at cutting the visit short. He met both birth parents, five sisters and two brothers. He shares that he was overwhelmed by his birth mother’s constant attention – and her repeatedly saying that he was now “back” where he belonged. It felt like so much pressure.
Lynn – age 71, a birth mother in reunion for five years with her son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren comes in to say she is thinking of ending her relationship with her son. She feels hurt a great deal of the time, finding her son to be cold and rejecting at times. Her son is only willing to see her with the family – never one on one. She worries that they don’t really have much in common. However, she doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her grandchildren.
These stories are composites of the ones therapists hear from adult adoptees and birth parents who come to Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) for assistance. While the trend today in adoption is toward openness and open adoption in every type of adoption, there are still many adults involved in the process of search and reunion because their adoptions were closed, or their families lost contact with birth families. The search process and all stages of these new and unique relationships in reunion can bring challenges. What kinds of assistance do members of the adoption constellation need to successfully navigate this incredibly powerful journey?
Why is preparation so important and what is involved in preparation?
Frequently, members of the adoption constellation have had little emotional preparation for this life-altering and deeply complex experience. Jayne Schooler in Searching for a Past writes, “The word search is not limited to its literal meaning of a physical effort to make a connection. The meaning expands to include all that is part of the adoptee’s quest, for it is an emotional, psychological and spiritual quest.”
While adoptees may certainly know what is motivating them to search, they do not always have a clear comprehension of all their feelings, fears, fantasies, expectations, hopes and dreams let alone potential challenges involved in search and reunion.
Understanding the reasons for wanting to connect with birth family is therefore a critical part of preparation. They need to address many questions:
- Are they looking to fill in the missing pieces for medical, genetic and other significant information?
- Do they want to ask their birth mother the burning question, “Why did you place me for adoption or not try harder to keep me?”
- Do they feel they cannot truly form a cohesive identity without knowledge of where they came from?
- Are they driven to search because they want to know what has happened to their birth family members and let birth parents know they have had good lives?
Adoptees should reflect on some key questions:
– How do your parents/siblings feel about your desire to search? Are they supportive or worried or feel threatened?
– If they are worried or threatened, what impact does that have on you?
– What are your concerns/fears (if any) regarding search and reunion? E.g. won’t find birth family, invading their privacy, they will be rejected, siblings will feel resentful, they will be deceased, they won’t like/approve of me, I won’t like/approve of them, we are too different from each other, etc.
– What kind of relationship are you hoping to have with birth family members?
Adoptees may be quite articulate about these fears and feelings or quite surprised to discover answers to questions they hadn’t contemplated. Many adoptees are often unaware of the intense feelings of loss and grief that may be triggered by this process.
Many who have had the opportunity in the past to acknowledge and grieve for the losses connected to their adoption may be surprised to find these feelings have come back with a vengeance. And for those who have not, it can be especially distressing.
In this preparation phase, the adoptee may finally be coming to terms with the myriad of emotions that encompass this process. It might be sadness at not growing up with siblings. It might be anger over the reasons for placement or fear of rejection. Perhaps it’s guilt that wanting this connection must be disloyal to their adoptive parents and therefore hurtful. It might be worries that they won’t feel they will fit in with their birth family because their adoptive family is so different ethnically, racially, religiously or socioeconomically. Whether surfacing again at this juncture or being expressed for the first time, it is clear why these very normal, predictable feelings should be addressed BEFORE meeting and attempting a relationship with the birth family.
Preparation of this kind does not mean these feelings will be resolved during search and reunion. But it can certainly help prevent the feeling of being completely caught off-guard and overwhelmed. When adoptees have not had the chance for such exploration, the therapists at C.A.S.E. often see them after reunion – when things have gone awry and both their well-being and relationships with birth family and/or adoptive family are in jeopardy. Unprepared for how they have been triggered, adoptees are not equipped to handle or cope with their distress. That is why preparation also involves providing adoptees with strategies to handle and manage the circumstances they encounter and the emotions that surface. For example, the adoptee afraid of rejection can be prepared to know that the extreme hurt will not last forever. As they consider who to take with them or have nearby for a first meeting with birth family, their companion can be prepared to provide the support they may need. Or the adoptee concerned with dealing with the fall-out of the impact of reunion on their adoptive parents or other family members can work with their family members to address their concerns before reunion to help ensure their continued support after reunion.
Part of the preparation process is education around the common challenges that can surface in these new, unique relationships and how to address them. As adoptees explore their own fears and feelings and loss and grief, they must consider these feelings from the perspective of their birth and adoptive families. For example, they may fear a birth sibling’s resentment but not understand why this would happen or how to address it. If they understand that birth siblings may be resentful because they see their birth parent being completely enthralled with the adoptee, or the adoptee’s presence changes the dynamic of ‘birth order,’ they can carefully think about their behavior. Armed with this knowledge, the adoptee can be more prepared to observe and understand the sibling’s reactions better.
Decisions regarding how to conduct a search are influenced by the adoptee’s feelings. Preparation includes exploration of feelings regarding the mechanics of the search process and decisions regarding meeting and visits with birth family.
Meeting Challenges Post-Reunion
Education includes understanding the typical phases of reunion. Understanding of the progression of these unique relationships can do much to prevent frustration, disappointment and threats to these sensitive relationships. In addition, setting boundaries, limits, expectations and resolving conflict of all kinds regarding these relationships is extremely important and will not be a one-time learning event – but ongoing throughout.
Through search and reunion, everyone that is significant to the adoptee – spouses, partners, parents, children and close friends must also be prepared so they can be supportive and understanding of the adoptee. The adoptee does not need anyone to question their motivation, or suggest they end a relationship with birth family at the first hint of conflict or trouble. Parents can read and talk to other parents whose adult children are in reunion or consult with an adoption-competent professional. Significant people can attend support groups with the adoptee. Significant others should be prepared to be part of this relationship if the adoptee desires them to be so, which is usually the case. Nothing is more hurtful to adoptees than the parent who says, “I support her relationship with birth family, but I have no desire to be part of this.” Unless there is a mutually agreed upon reason, adoptive family members should make every effort to embrace the adoptee’s birth family. Adoptive parents who are supportive have the strongest relationships with their adult children.
A whole set of new challenges begin post-reunion. All of the feelings explored in the preparation phase may still be there during the various stages of reunion, especially again – intense feelings of loss and grief. Adoptees must figure out how to integrate these new relationships into their lives, and what they mean for their sense of identity. Sometimes they need to reflect on what kind of relationship they want, if any. For example, an adoptee could find that they are disappointed in the relationship with their birth mother, but enjoy spending time with an aunt. Another adoptee may feel that their political views were not aligning with their birth family’s views, and was creating a barrier between them like never before. While these kinds of differences can crop up in all families, they can be especially disturbing and daunting in relationships between adoptive and birth families who have no history of relationship security or resolving conflict. Before anyone decides to withdraw from a relationship, it is strongly recommended they seek professional assistance. Such assistance may result, unfortunately, in the cessation of the relationship, but more often may result in a redefinition of the relationship and even stronger bonds.
In reunion, as adoptees work to understand and manage their own emotional responses, they can feel overwhelmed by taking on the unmanageable task of addressing everyone else’s reactions and responses as well. If adoptees are in therapy, most therapists will advise bringing in the family members whose distress is presenting challenges for the adoptee. These family sessions are intended to provide support to the adoptee in resolving conflict in the relationships, setting boundaries and encouraging family members to seek their own individual assistance as needed and appropriate.
Birthparents seeking reunion often struggle with complex feelings as well. They may worry that they are not entitled to search or request contact or relationship with the child they placed for adoption, or had their parental rights terminated. They need preparation as much as adoptees do to work through their feelings and understand all that can enfold in reunion, including the impact on spouses, partners, children and other relatives. Unfortunately, if they are the ones that are found, they may be very unprepared. Adoptees should recommend they get assistance and if this happens in reverse, it is important that adoptees seek assistance for preparation.
Search and reunion in international adoption presents additional, unique challenges. Cultural and language barriers can make search difficult and painful. Some countries’ governments are assisting in the process, like Korea and DNA data bases are helping make connections that were not possible before as with China. Searchers are finding birth family in Guatemala, Russia, Ethiopia and other countries. Long-distance relationships can be challenging but social media and advances in technology have helped many people maintain contact. Adoptees may benefit from guidance around managing these special circumstances.
Both adoptees and birth family members need to be educated about Genetic Sexual Attraction. Information regarding GSA is listed under resources.
Reunions can bring healing even when there is disappointment. Adoptees who find deceased birth parents or birth parents unwilling to form a relationship, though devastating, can still establish meaningful relationships with other relatives. Many adoptees and birth parents say they do not regret having had the experience – that the benefits they gained outweigh the hardships.
Professional Assistance and Other Resources
While consulting with a therapist skilled in adoption-competency may be extremely beneficial, there also a number of excellent books and online resources, support groups, etc. that can assist in the process of search and reunion.
- Searching for a Past by Jayne Schooler
- It’s Not About You: Understanding Adoptee Search, Reunion & Open Adoption by Brooke Randolph
- Birthright: The Guide to Search and Reunion for Adoptees, Birthparents, and Adoptive Parents by Jean A.S. Strauss and Clarissa Pinkola Este
- The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide: Preparing Yourself for the Search, Reunion, and Beyond by Julie Jarrell Bailey and Lynn N. Giddens
- American Adoption Congress
- A Single Square Picture by Katy Robinson
- All There is to Know by Nicole Chung
- Documentaries – First Person Plural; Somewhere Between, Closuredocumentary.com
Written by Ellen Singer, LCSW-C, a former C.A.S.E. therapist trained in adoption competency.