'And he rang her up and said, "Where is she?? Where is my birth mother? I want to meet her!"'
For the women that have reunified with their adoptive child the process was often lengthy and demanding, in time, money, and the emotional toll the process took. Some felt the process was part of their journey towards healing; others felt it unnecessarily lengthy and difficult, while some are still in search of their child.
One participant in this study has successfully found her child, but has been unsuccessful in reuniting. This is painful but not necessarily surprising as adoptees and birth parents often have very different expectations and needs around reunification. To further complicate this, for adoptees they may not know they are adopted or may not wish to hurt their adopted parents or family who are still living. Many have commented that it was not until their adopted parents had passed away that they felt comfortable in seeking out their birth family, as they were afraid to otherwise offend or hurt the family which raised and loved them.
For the seven participants who have reunited with their children, the reunions occurred under varying circumstances and with differing results. One has had an ongoing and loving relationship with her son for over two decades, while another is still seeking a balance in how to move forward with the relationship. The moments of reunion for all were described as emotional and carried strong feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, anger and grief.
For women who went on to have more children, reunion with their adopted child invoked a unique element of fear. While all were unanimously open about telling their husbands prior to marriage about their illegitimate child, only one within the group had told their other children prior to their being found. This perhaps made a moment already tense with renewed memories and grief to become even further complicated by a fear of rejection from the children they raised. The participants frequently spoke of the torment they suffered leading up to telling their other children, losing weight and feeling lost, so much so that their children often became concerned that something more fatal was at the heart of the issue. The women feared their children would lose respect for them, and distrust them for keeping this secret. However, the majority welcomed the news of another sibling and expressed distinct relief that their mother was otherwise ok. One participant remarked how much times had changed that a child out of wedlock wasn’t perceived as problematic to her other children, their only concern was for her wellbeing and a curiosity to meet the new sibling. One area which did complicate a generally receptive group of siblings was in the case of the eldest child. A number of eldest children struggled in discovering they were in fact a middle child, thus shifting their role in family dynamics and in how they perceived themselves within the family. Some were able to work through this, while others continue to struggle.
The reunion process for the birthmothers has been rewarding, but has also brought about a number of complicated emotions they were not always prepared for. One of the most common statements from participants in this study, and which is echoed by other research, is that ‘suddenly there comes the relief of at least knowing that their child is alive, and that the possibility exists of actually seeing him or her. Then comes the realization that it is a twenty-, thirty- or forty-year-old person they are talking about, not the infant they remember; a stranger, not really a daughter or a son; someone else’s grown up child.’ (PAC, p.138) Participants frequently felt this, and the feeling often came as a shock, as they looked upon their grown child and realized they were in fact grieving for the infant left behind. Reconciling these emotions may perhaps be some of the most challenging in the process of grief, and points toward the lack of emotional or mental support offered at the time of relinquishment so that the return of an adult child invokes such acute sorrow.
Upon reunion many, generally one or the other party, or less frequently both feel the need for time to adjust and breathing space in between their interactions to absorb everything the reunion has brought up. This can be painful for both parties, for the party receiving too little response it can feel like a slow rejection, and for the party in need of breathing space it can feel like a need to adjust to the shock the revelation has uncovered.
For those that enter into a relationship with their reunited child there tends to be a pattern to the early stages of the developing relationship, described by the Post Adoption Centre and confirmed by descriptions of building relationships with the participants in the project. The early days of reunion often bring a surge of euphoria mixed with shock, an overriding sense of relief; joy and excitement fuel the beginning stages of getting to know the other person. After time this may give way to a ‘mundane sense of reality’ setting in as getting to know the other person in their everyday life occurs. This can dull the excitement, and may bring into focus the others’ faults or shortcomings, while putting strain on existing relationships. The need to determine what sort of relationship will then proceed is often a difficult one, requiring hard work and clear communication, though fears around emotionally trampling upon the other can hinder the process. There are no clear guidelines to how a birth mother fits into the lives of an adopted child; as a result each new relationship must define this for themselves. This can become significantly complicated when the birth parent and adoptee wish different things from their newfound relationship, and finding a balance that works for both can be complex and painful.
The euphoric moments of reunion shared by participants in this study had an interesting thread of occurring at points of transportation. While this is fairly unsurprising given the way people move about in England, and the ease as a meeting point, it is interesting. One woman met at the airport, a number of others at train stations. One met at a train station on the same line she had to take on the day of the adoption to relinquish her child, thus invoking a whole other layer of emotions on the day of reunion. The women expressed consternation over whether it was appropriate to hug their child, or if they should just shake hands. Though invariably upon seeing each other the two hugged each other in an almost genetically predisposed manner. Women often commented upon how much their child looked like the father, sometimes an unsettling surprise they had not necessarily given thought to beforehand. Most were struck, either initially or much later, by how ‘grown’ their child was, realizing their suppressed desire to see their infant child again. Almost unanimously they had intended a short meeting, but instead spoke for hours, poring over photographs, walking through a nearby park or soothing their nerves over a pint at a nearby pub as they got to know the child they had thought of for decades.
NOTE: This reunion is not one of my participants, but is an image from the article "Adoption Reunion is a Delicate Matter" published in The Guardian on 20 April 2011.
Where is my mother? I want to talk to her!
'So I got another birth mum, someone who does a bit of liason stuff, she wrote to him for me. In case he didn't know, or he didn't want to have contact. But, the marvelous thing at this point is that I know he's alive. Which has always been my big kind of thing, is he dead? Is he alive? ... So she wrote him a letter, and he got the letter and he phoned straight away. Phoned her...'
What was your first meeting like?
'Oh, it was so nerve wracking! [Where did you meet?] Seven Oaks train station...ironic really, because I'd actually gone on the train to give him up and now we were meeting at a train station. It just happened that way, it was just the easiest meeting place. My sister actually she took me, her and her husband took me to just give me support. There was this nice pub opposite the station and we got there a little bit early, and I just needed a drink to give me some dutch courage!'