"A Delicate Balance"

Years after reconnecting with her son, a birth mother explores her place in his life.

A group of people stand together, holding a wooden heart after adoption reunions

On March 20, at age nineteen, I gave birth to a baby boy, whom I'll call Andrew. I had five days in the hospital to shower maternal love on him. Then, I took him to a local adoption agency, walked through unmarked doors secretly reserved for birth parents, and said goodbye.

Twenty-seven years later, I learned from my adoption agency that Andrew wanted to contact me. Hearing that knowing me was important to him triggered a rush of relief, a glimmer of hope. I would have a chance to explain myself. When I shared my story with my local pastor, he simply said, "Lynn, this is grace!" My perception that I was alone in the world was gone in a flash, replaced by a subtle sense that my universe was expanding.

After I learned that Andrew wanted to contact me, I was euphoric, relieved, impatient. Instinctively though, I followed advice that we learn something about each other before meeting. Hearing details of Andrew's life from a social worker was surreal. I heard about a stranger, and from a few facts, the truth began to replace my fantasy of him. He, too, was hearing about me. Separately, we were trying to form images of each other.

Overwhelming Feelings

Although I was unquestionably happy to be found, I was overwhelmed by intensely painful feelings, feelings that had been buried too long. Telling my own parents about Andrew ended years of silence about what had happened. I began to retrieve painful memories of my pregnancy and relinquishment. I admitted to myself the shame I felt for having placed my son for adoption. In those days prior to meeting him, I began to relive the depth of the loss I had experienced. In retrospect, I was taking the first steps toward the healing necessary to establish a relationship with my adult son.

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Many birth mothers, I've learned, relive their childbirth and relinquishment feelings during search and reunion. Those who search have the advantage of working through their feelings prior to the actual adoption reunion. For those of us who are found, raw emotions can be overpowering. Birth mothers who are found unexpectedly, without having sought a reunion, may resist a meeting, at least initially, because of fear that at first seems unbearable. The timetable is different for everyone. Having support at this time is critical.

Andrew had sought me out, and he set the terms for our reunion. He wanted to speak first and meet soon after. I understand now that taking charge is important for the person who was adopted. On my side, I felt that I had no rights because of my act twenty-seven years earlier. I realize now that my hesitancy was partly based on fear of rejection.

Will He Look Like Me?

Before we finally met, I was struck by how much time separated us. I was full of admiration for Andrew's courage in facing an uncertain outcome. I desperately wanted to make a good impression and show that I loved him even though we were "relative strangers." Yet I didn't want to overwhelm him with my own emotion. When the doorman buzzed to announce his arrival, my heart jumped. In those last seconds, I wondered, "Am I dressed appropriately?" "Will he like the way I look?" "Will he look like me?" And then he was there—a tall, handsome young man with my eyes and flowers in his hands.

After our first joyful meeting, Andrew encouraged me to call anytime, and he followed up with a call himself. After writing a letter thanking him, telling him what he had always meant to me, and promising I would follow his lead on pacing, I called and felt for the first time his need to slow down. I learned later that, although he had prepared himself to find me, he had not anticipated what would happen next. And his mother, who supported his search, was now feeling anxious.

Fortunately, I had been told about the range of experiences possible in adoption reunions. An initial honeymoon phase can last a year or more, only to be followed by a retreat by one or the other. In extreme situations one of the parties might withdraw completely. In our case, two months passed before Andrew called. In retrospect, I know it was a short time, but the silence was excruciating. The advice to allow Andrew to set the pace was helpful. I am thankful now that I did not call him before I heard from him again.

["Intimate Strangers"]

I realized that Andrew was struggling to assimilate a new world of unfamiliar "relatives." At the same time, he needed his parents, whom he loves and whom he was worried about hurting. Happy as I was for our connection, my separation from his everyday life reminded me of the shame of my original exclusion. I had to focus on what I had rather than what I was missing. There is no formula for the kind of family we are—no recipe for fixing a broken gestalt, no instant intimacy.

Realizing What I'd Lost

When I first visited Andrew's home, I met his wife Chloe, an angel who has welcomed me wholeheartedly. I watched films of Andrew's toddler years and I saw his wedding video. My heart ached for what I did not have and simultaneously filled with love for the family I saw on the screen. It was then that I realized how challenging it would be to find my place within the family dynamic and how hard it would be for Andrew to fit me into his world.

In today's world of open adoptions, we compare ourselves with other blended families and in-law relationships. However, reunion cannot undo the effect of years of separation. Genuine relationships can grow—between birth parents and adult child and between birth and adoptive families—but building trust and establishing a new equilibrium take time.

Ongoing relationships between birth parents and their grown adopted children, I've learned, are not automatically ordained. Often one person feels more urgency to pursue the relationship. Some birth parents express their needs intensely, and, not surprisingly, are met with ambivalence, resistance, even anger. Conversely, some adoptees feel a strong need to merge with their birth families, one that is equally difficult to accommodate. In this complexity, adoptive parents are often fearful of losing their hard-won role as "real parents." And yet their children need their unconditional support more than ever.

["The Birth Parent Reunion Roller Coaster"]

A Delicate Balance

The euphoria of that first meeting has evolved over the years into a loving and steady, if still sometimes delicate, relationship, one that requires care and sensitivity on all our parts. Although Andrew has generously welcomed us into his life, I am always aware of the pressure on him. Andrew has a full life with his wife and children, parents, step-mother, in-laws, brother, a world of friends, as well as a career. Adding me and my family to the mix is not easy.

Gradually though, we've established a rhythm. I visit his home several times a year, usually for an extended weekend. For the last two summers, Andrew's family has shared my life through visits to my vacation home. We try to get together annually with members of my family—always a logistical challenge—but we are managing. In the process Andrew has developed a very strong affection for my mother. Today, his dad and I enjoy a warm and easy connection. His mom, while supportive of Andrew's decision to develop a relationship with me, is more reserved.

Finding my way with grandchildren has concerned us all. My granddaughter Emma was five weeks old when I met her. She is now a beautiful and bright seven-year-old who strongly resembles her daddy. Little William, now four, loves to snuggle in bed with me. Emma is just beginning to understand that her dad is adopted and that he grew in my tummy. Recently she asked, "Are you an aunt or a grandmother?" Taken off guard, yet wanting to be honest, I answered, "Well, I really am a grandmother, because I'm your Daddy's birth mother, but I'm like an aunt, too, because I'm not an everyday grandmother like your Gramsi." She looked up at me with her eyes like mine and said, "But you're family, right?" So while I would have preferred to give her a less qualified response, bottom line, that's it, isn't it?

Holidays are tricky, especially Christmas, but we always celebrate together at some point. This year, I joined with his in-laws in a pre-Christmas weekend visit. Mother's Day is still the hardest for me, because it brings back the memory of the lost years. In my heart, Andrew was always my son. In recent years, I have participated in a Birth Mother's Day, a ceremony that gives me and other birth mothers a way of commemorating our experience and affirming our children's meaning in our lives.

Those of us whose lives are touched by adoption know that it changes us forever. Although I still fight the demon of unworthiness, I return to the blessing of knowing Andrew and his family. We are increasingly comfortable as we create our own rituals. I have a sense of place in the family, and I treasure my own growing databank of memories. Almost eight years have passed since that first meeting, and time is on our side now.

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Guidelines for Reunion Participants

Julie Jarrell Bailey and Lynn N. Giddens, M.A., co-authors of The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide, advise reunion hopefuls: "Remember that no two people are alike. You can't expect your birth mother or relinquished child to accept you in reunion as readily as someone else's did. Don't make comparisons and gauge the success of your reunion relationship against another person's. There is no formula for success in reunion, only commonsense guidelines." Bailey suggests that triad members utilize what she calls "reunion aerobics." "Exercise caution, compassion, responsibility, and patience every step of the reunion journey. If you exercise these four principles, then you'll know that you've entered your reunion honorably, regardless of its outcome." The co-authors further remind reunion participants that:
  • Reunion should be embraced, not feared. Through reunion, many past fears and curiosities can be put to rest for all three members of the adoption triad.
  • Reunion may bring out the best or the worst in everyone. It unlocks emotions that have been buried for decades.
  • Relationships aren't built overnight. This is particularly true of reunion relationships, which develop through stages over time.
  • There is a lifetime of familiarity missing; your pre-reunion relationship was based on fantasy. Once you meet, you must come to terms very quickly with the fact that nobody is perfect. People are not built to live up to fantasies.
  • Having a support system in place is vital to reunion. Involve your family and close friends from the beginning, and maintain an open line of communication with the people you care most about.
  • Reunion, like all relationships, takes two active participants to work.
  • Take baby steps in the relationship.
  • Don't take anything for granted.
  • Realize that, although you are dealing with a blood relative, this person is in fact a stranger to you. Show him or her the same, if not more, respect that you would show a new friend.
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