Guest Blog: You don't know what you've lost 'til you've found it!
Some thoughts on Mother/ Adult Child reunions.
After more than 30 years of talking to and guiding adoptees and their birth parents while in search, and while in reunion, I’m starting to get the “long” view of how these interactions and intersections work. And of course, like most things in life, as soon as you try to pin something down and try to make a definite statement about it, the thing slips away and changes and you have to consider yet another twist to the story and its analysis.
I say all this because I have learned over time that the “event” -- the reunion with the lost relative -- while almost making one crazy at the beginning, inevitably morphs into something different. My answer to that most common of adoption questions “How long will it take for my reunion and relationship to become normal?” has changed as well. In my early years I would have said “a year or so," later it would have been “five to ten years”, and my thoughts and experiences now suggest “a life-time." It is a life-long process which I see in my own life and in the several thousand reunions I have been part of.
The second most common question I've encountered is “I’m a nice person. So why won’t my birthmother/birth son/birth daughter respond to me, want to know me, stop ignoring me?”
Let me start by saying that I am not a psychologist. I am not a social worker. I came to the subject of adoption and reunion through my own personal journey begun in 1986. I am a very happily reunited birth mother and after finding my daughter way back then, I just stayed with an organization called Parent Finders to help others. Some reunions I have been involved with very closely – weekly for years. Other reunions I have checked in on occasionally and noted their progress. While others I may hear from only a few times throughout the process. Those long years have given me invaluable insight into how reunions can and cannot work. Please understand that obviously the statements I make are not EVERYONE’S story! But this is what I have seen.
The Deep Freeze
Many mothers and adoptees suffer for years. Let’s start with mother; often young, often unsupported emotionally, sometimes abandoned by the birth father, and most usually without financial and medical backing. For her, the entire experience was one of shame, one of grief, and one from which she cannot wait to escape! Once the “event” (for this is not usually a birth full of joy) is over, the mother may go into a full closing down. I always liken it to a large block of ice that forms from her neck to her knees. A psychologist might call it “denial." I call it a “deep freeze." Starting with the birth itself, I have had some very damaging experiences described to me. In the past, many hospital employees were highly judgmental about the “unwed” mothers in their care. They seemed to feel the need to make sure this young woman did not “do this again” by harsh words and treatment.
The deep freeze is intensified by the confrontations with family members who may or may not have been supportive, and the meetings with social workers which were often embarrassing, humiliating, invasive and punitive. Many mothers cannot recall the date of the birth, the circumstances and events, even the sex of the baby. These memory lapses add to their shame when they confess to me that they cannot remember anything! It is all over and gone.
Fast forward 20 or 30 or 40 years: Mother may now be married, have children, a fulfilling career – a life. The memory, like all memories, fades more and more. It takes on the quality of an old dream, half remembered – and not really “real”. So many mothers who give away their children get into this safe place, and baby recedes into fantasy. She may or may not have told her partner, her children or her friends. Of course some do, but in my experience this subject is not one of common discussion and often is not told at all.
And now we come to the reunion. Mother and/or adult child initiates a search and re-connection. Mother may initiate because she has reached a place where she feels safe enough psychologically and/or socially. The adult child, because they wish to know who they are, what their background is, what their Chapter 1 looks like, and most usually a deep need to know the truth. Some adoptees also have a strong sense of the political injustice that was done to them.
When mothers are contacted there can be several reactions:
The first is complete denial as in “You’ve got the wrong person.” or “Oh no, that’s over, I do not wish to deal with any of that.” or “No one in my family knows, and I do not wish them to.” or “I told my husband when we got married, and he made me promise it would never be discussed again.”
A second possible reaction is a big gasp and “Oh my Lord I’ve waited for this all my life, when can we meet?” or
Third, “Give me some time to digest this news and I’ll get back to you.”
The Big Thaw
Here is what happens when the big thaw sets in: like any big thaw, there is a flood to follow. One mother I knew cried for a full six months after finding her adopted adult child. She could not stop! All the repressed stuff came pouring forth. She was 18 again. She was alone. She was shamed. Thank heavens her daughter lived far, far away and was not put off by the weeping. Eventually as the adoptee became “more real” to Mom, the lost "dream baby” disappeared and Mom stopped crying.
Another mother peppered her 40+ year old son with emails – day after day:
“Why won’t you write back to me?”
“I just want to know you.”
“I love you.”
Her son, who had been fairly receptive in the beginning, backed way, way off and refused to answer her ever again. With a little guidance, he might have been more sensitive to her emotional epiphany and the reunion could have been helped. He just thought he was dealing with a basket-case and he shied away. She refused to take any guidance, and became more and more frantic. She even called his office, blabbed her story to his secretary and embarrassed him. Goodbye reunion.
A last example involved a mother who was so very guilt ridden and unrealistic about her son’s real psychological and emotional problems was so self-punishing that she allowed herself to be verbally abused by him. Her own relinquishment guilt led her to permit aggressive, punitive behaviour and ultimately a failed reunion. She could not see that her son had big (personality) problems that she could neither understand nor repair. It took 18 years for her to understand and see the truth of the situation and to make it real. In this case, her several counsellors (including a psychiatrist) were unable and untrained in maternal adoption trauma to effect any change. Time eventually stepped in.
With such a heavy emotional outpouring how can any adoptee react confidently? For many adoptees, the search was merely to learn more about their genealogy, their medical history, or the truth of their origins. The emotional piece had not been taken into account. I am often asked “How can she say she loves me when she doesn’t even know me?” or “I have perfectly good and caring parents, why do I need another mother?” or “She didn’t want me, so I don’t want her.” The adoptee’s pull-back can cause yet more intense behaviour and frantic outreaches from the mother. With little adequate understanding or preparation, the adoptee response may be very negative.
I have found (and I say this with no intention of bias) that son-mother reunions are harder than daughter-mother reunions. Daughters tend to be more empathetic and more sympathetic about the maternal unwed pregnancy dilemma. They seem more willing to accept the heavy emotional content of reunion. And, they exhibit more curiosity about their birth families generally. One male adoptee said to me “When I come home after a hard day’s work, I put my feet up on the coffee table, I watch TV and the LAST thing I want to do is fuss over emotional stuff. Anyway I have a mom!” That to me just about summed it up! Nevertheless, after saying all this, I must confess, that some of the happiest reunions I have witnessed were mother/son. If the son is willing to try and understand mother’s situation and point of view and vice versa, it can be wonderful.
Enter the adoption counsellor support person! People talk about self-forgiveness and how many mothers need to reach that place in their hearts. Only, really, they should not have to forgive themselves. They are not “guilty” of anything. This is about feelings, not reality. It’s like trying to judge history. We can observe it, we can make intelligent statements about it, but we cannot change it. We can only move forward with understanding. We may be triggered completely unexpectedly by a song, a memory, a birthdate, and be plunged right back to “the birth”. It is neither the job of the adoptee to be a counselor to his mother nor for her to be one to him. Their needs are very different.
Thus the necessity of intensive preparation and education before embarking on the perilous reunion voyage! And, lo and behold, we discover and learn how difficult it is to find good therapists, counselors and support. There are acres of good books to read, movies (not from Hollywood) to see and organizations to advise them. But the players in the drama must seek these resources out.
In the past, adoption reunions were viewed with suspicion; not to be encouraged. Then the pendulum swung and reunions were viewed as the cure-all for all problems as in “If I know who I am, everything will be better in my life.” This too is not always true. Everyone who sees a therapist or other professional should interview them first and ask “What do you know about adoption reunions?” We often have to educate our own therapist!
The journey to “finding what was lost” is very complex -- we all need all the help we can get.
Monica Byrne has been associated with adoption reunions since 1987. Director of Parent Finders Canada, and Registrar of Parent Finders Ottawa, she is a happily reunited birthmother since 1986.
Formerly Co-Chair of the Adoption Council of Ontario, she has been actively involved in successful legislative change to adoption disclosure law in Ontario. She received the Governor General of Canada's "Caring Canadian Award" for her volunteer work in adoption.