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What is a Successful Adoption Reunion?

After The First Hugs, What Gives an Adoption Reunion Staying Power?

Let’s face it ; we all love a good adoption reunion story. The media loves a reunion story. Most people off the street love a reunion story. In AdoptionLand, we especially enjoy hearing that another family separated by adoption has managed to beat the industry rules and find their way home. We marvel at the similarities and “near misses”. We get teary eyed seeing the cries of joy and the airport hugs. Yet, what happens after that first contact, that first find, that first phone call, that first hug is really where the determination of “success” comes into play.

So what does an adoption reunion look like when it works?

Adoption Reunions Mean Different Things to Different People

Personally I think it’s really hard to spell out precisely what a “successful” reunion looks like. What might be perfect for one set of people might be completely intolerable for another. Maybe for some folks it looks like a complete mend of the adoption separation. I know families where the adoptee is able to be “adopted back” to the original family. I know of families where they adoptee has moved back into the family home. I know of families where the adoptive family and the birth family have completely melded together into one big happy blended love fest. I know other families where there was contact and the contact was good, but now they basically keep in touch on birthdays and holidays and are happy. So there are no hard and fast rules for what a successful adoption reunion should look like, the key thing, I believe, is that it works for the parties involved. The key here is BOTH parties.

It doesn’t mean that one person calls all the shots and the other person is left waiting and wondering.  It doesn’t mean that one side is demanding and the other side complacent. It doesn’t mean that one side is content and the other side is wanting more or putting up with too much.

A successful adoption reunion means that both parties are able to have what works for them most of the time and when it doesn’t work they can be open and honest about the negative feelings without worrying that the whole relationship is going to get taken away from them ( too much. it’s unrealistic to say that anyone ever really feels 100% secure!).

A successful adoption reunion means that there is room to grow and mature as the relationships grows in trust and mutual understanding. It’s a big compromise, a dance, where both parties are willing to do what they can to make it work.

A successful adoption reunion meets the needs of both parties equally with each member carrying as equal loads of fear, insecurity, worries, etc.

No One Knows What to Expect

After rejection. one of the biggest fear of reunion contact  I see is the worry that one person wants more than the other.  Part of that is definitely fed by media horror stories or even personal stories where  one party is possibly relentless demanded contact, or the feared “asking for money”, or just being overwhelming. Personally, I think these fears are human in nature and quite universal.  People do not want to get involved in things that they fear might be more demanding than they are willing to give. There is a natural fear that we can’t live up to  expectations and really don’t want to disappoint an other. Think about the natural trepidation when asked to help do anything whether it’s a PTA meeting, helping a friend move, or a new job. We worry that we might not be able to do what is required, or even want to do what is asked of us, and sometimes, it feels safer to say no.

With an adoption reunion, just like anything, but especially before one even knows who is on the other end of the search, the job description of this new role you might find yourself taking on is nonexistent. It would be a heck of a lot easier if non identifying adoption information or adoption search registries had clear expectations  of reunions built in:

  • Birthmother in Search of Son Adopted: Never had any other children and really looking forward to possible grandkids. Will fly all to Disney World, but only if you are into that.  I might try to buy back your love out of guilt.
  • Adopted Female searching for Birth Family: I really only need to know my medical information  and am very scared of actually letting new people into my life. I tend to be a control freak and will need to take the lead if, and only if, you fit the ideal of what I am looking for.
  • Adopted Male Desperate to Find Birthmother:  Unhappy about adoption placement and longing for what I missed. I am ready to move back into your basement, but I have a big laundry basket full of issues and want you completely involved in my drama.
  • Birthmother looking for daughter:  Been crying for 30 years and hope you can dry my tears. I need someone to save me. I’m not healthy and not rich but will call you constantly about everything and get rather annoyed when you don’t drop everything to come to my calls. If you ever choose your adoptive family over me, I will be angry and hurt.

Granted, I suppose if that happened then people might be even less likely to make contact. Now I purposely made up some bad scenarios here and these pretend folks have obvious adoption baggage. The fact is we all pretty much do, even if we are not aware of the full impact.  It’s  kind of safe to say that most people don’t really go into an adoption reunion aware of their possible issues. It’s like a surprise. You don’t know what’s in the box until you take off the wrapping paper. (yes, that was another horrible adoption equals gift analogy!)

But it is also, I think, safe to say that the same” bad” situations listed above, might work for some people. The key, I think,  like any relationship, is that both parties mesh.

The Ties of Blood and Biology

Sometimes, it seems like that happens naturally. Perhaps it is due to similar personality traits between biological family members. There is a natural tendency to view things the same way, to see relationships with a similar viewpoint, to meet new situations with a recognizable attitude.

In my own reunion with Max, almost ten years after I have first found him, I do chalk up much of our ease with everything due to an innate “sameness”. I mean, I knew him before I knew him. I naturally understood and “got” him because we approach things in a very similar way. He is a willful, strong minded, rebellious, non conformist,  goofy, kind. confident freak.  I knew all that from seeing his MySpace page and first hearing that he kept a rubber chicken in his briefcase that he brought to high school. I had no doubt then, before we ever spoke, that the genetics shaped who he was and I would recognize my own


But other times, perhaps the genetic residue is only that, thin lines of DNA that cannot withstand the change of scenery. Not all blood lines are strong. Not everything gets passed down. Even in families that are raised together without adoption separation, there are family member that don’t fit in or are throw backs or black sheep. Maybe the person at the end of your adoption search looks like you, but doesn’t think like you or feel things like you.  It doesn’t mean that things are doomed to fail, it just means that you might need to work a bit more to make it happen. A bit more understanding and compromise.

Add in Adoption Separation

And then, we do have to add in the affects of adoption.

If you are the original family, then there is a good chance that the adoptee was not raised in the same environment or with the same values and life experiences. If you are the adoptee, then there are good changes that your original family has had different experiences as well. That’s the easy stuff!

Then we can have an adoptee who might or might not have known or unknown levels of the “Primal Wound”  and an original family who might or might not have dealt with the loss of the adoptee over the years. Both, either, or neither could have started preparing, might have done research. maybe had therapy or support or might not have a clue about adoption at all. If either party has zero support or tools or unresolved adoption damage/ trauma, then the only touch point they have for a reunion is pure emotion. For anyone the emotions of an adoption reunion are all over the place, so they really aren’t not a good guide at all. Of course, one party being prepared and the other party being all over the place doesn’t always work either. It’s very hard to be the support or therapist in a relationship that you are part in. It’s like getting in a fight with your best friend and then you can’t go to that best friend to vent about them and figure out what to do next! The best we can sometimes do for the other party is point them in the direction of peer support and hope they take that advise. Then we have to make sure we stay on the healthy high road and not get dragged into the drama!

Timing Hurdles

The other important factor to think about is timing in regards to preparation. Usually, one party in an adoption reunion is the “searcher” and the other party has been “found”.

For the most part, the person who has searched has a measure of control over the situation. They have thought about it for a while, waited until they felt ready, initiated the contact, and probably had some time to at least begin processing emotions, imagining what they might feel and think and do, while the search went on. Sometimes, they might have three days, sometimes they might have 30 years to prepare, but they still are the one who made it happen.

In the same vein, the “foundee” might or might not have also begun searching. Maybe they have thought about it, but didn’t make it a priority yet. Maybe they planned on doing so at a later date. Maybe they haven’t given it much thought at all. Maybe they never thought they even could start searching. Maybe they were trying their best to “never think about it again” or were pretty convinced that “adoption doesn’t affect me.”

My overall observations  have lead me to believe that if an adoptee doesn’t start searching right around 18, then they often wait until they are in their 30’s and have had their own children. Sometimes, adoptee loyalty keeps them from looking at all until one of both of their adoptive parents pass. And in all cases, the search itself can take years.

On the other side, many birthmothers, especially older BSE moms, are taught that they cannot search. Whether it is the actual relinquishment and surrender consent forms that clearly stated that they “will never interfere” or just the generic “Birthmother Rules”  that say  “wait for your adoptee and be there when they are ready”, many moms do not search believing that they don’t want to disrupt or upset the adoptee, or still carry over the shame and feelings of unworthiness. If you were not good enough to raise your baby, it can sometimes be hard to understand that you are good enough to search and be found. Again, adoption support and education can help eliminate some of these feelings that were instilled by the adoption industry .

In any case, the searcher needs to be aware that they might have anxiously been looking forward and praying for this day to come, while the other party might be completely shell shocked when first contacted. What the searcher has been living and feeling these emotions for years, might be rushing forth from the foundee all at once.  Allowing  a “grace period” to regain some equilibrium and allowing time for the foundee to catch up emotionally to the searcher is good to remember.

Great. All I have done so far is listed more unknown values and I bet this hasn’t helped define anything positive at all!

What Works in an Adoption Reunion?

Understanding, Patience, Hope, Openness, Honesty, Support, Trust, Realism, Self Awareness, Acceptance, Validation, Acknowledgment  and a willingness to work. Doesn’t that sound pretty?

Again, it is the same basic values that are needed in any good relationship; a friendship, a marriage, a work environment.  I often like to measure a reunion related question with comparison to a regular relationship.  It’s like a mental check point: what would I say if this person was my sister, or my spouse or my friend? How would I interpret their actions? What would I say normally in response? Of course, that is easier said than done BECAUSE the other person is known, but we are talking about after the initial reunion contact here, after the first impressions. At some point, we have to begin to be real and show ourselves, even if it means letting go of the fear that the other party will find fault with who we really are.  That’s hard enough in regular relationships when people are confident, self assured and have positive self esteem. Adoption tends to be a self worth, self esteem vampire for all at times or a create a need for control at other times.  Did I mention that we need to be self aware of our own issues yet?

So, while I can’t claim to be an “expert” on this. I do get asked a lot for advice and suggestions. I have noticed that I tend to say the same things over and over again and people seem to like it. I was going to go into more of the tools that can be used in a reunion, but I think this is enough for today and I’ll do that tomorrow!  Please add your opinions! Share what you think!

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