Disclaimer: This article provides a framework for setting boundaries in an adoptee and first birth parent reunion. Both parties work together in deciding how the relationship will be and set goals and expectations prior to entering into the reunion. All communication is done with empathy, understanding, and compassion with both parties keeping an open mind and respecting the fact that they will have different narratives and perspectives entering the reunion.
Why do 70% of adoption reunions break down?
Because there’s no roadmap.
In the 21st century, with the advent of home DNA kits and ancestry search services more and more adopted people are finding their birth parents. In fact, the numbers are staggering and the test results happen so quickly, oftentimes people get caught up in the excitement and adrenalin of the discovery and want to reconnect with their past as quickly as they can.
This often results in unsuccessful and even damaging reunions since neither side is properly prepared for the emotional impact and reality of the circumstances involved. Another obstacle, on top of this sense of urgency, is a plethora of archaic and restrictive state secrecy laws.
Reuniting birth parents with their offspring has not been encouraged over the years, in fact, it has been actively discouraged which has helped create a void in providing a safe and reliable roadmap of best practices that could help ensure a successful reunion regardless of the final outcome.
It is only natural for people to want to connect with a newfound family member, especially an adoptee who feels a void in their personal history as soon as possible but unfortunately there is no Reunion Best Practice brochure titled, "What to do next? Now that you found your long-lost mother or father?’
This article is meant to address just that.
As a psychotherapist, and fellow adoptee in reunion, I have also stumbled, hit roadblocks, and blazed a trail of uncharted territory with no path to follow. I founded Celia Center in 2011, a non-profit named after my first birth mother, to provide mental health services for all members of the adoption constellation via support groups like ‘Adopt Salon’ as well as semi-annual adoption Art Festivals and educational Conferences. All of this is to assist and support people who must cope with the lifelong seven core issues in adoption.
Lately, Celia Center events and support groups have been inundated with adoptees who have recently ‘found’ their birth parents and are experiencing an onslaught of feelings from being overwhelmed with optimism to already having experienced the pain of another abandonment and rejection.
Obviously, the largest fear for all involved in the re-traumatization caused by separation. Oftentimes, when entering into reunion unprepared, one party will feel compelled to press the gas pedal, while the other one is wanting to put on the brakes and slow things down. Both are bravely searching for the invisible road signs to help them navigate this emotional road blindly, which is a recipe for disaster.
Common questions we hear are:
How do we set boundaries?
What happens if they ghost me?
How do I know if I'm ready or if they're ready?
In November 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I organized the first all-virtual National Adoption Conference because I wanted to make sure these and other issues were being addressed during this most difficult and isolating time. It was very important for me to have a session on Reunion with the outcomes being a focus on Best Practices. I commissioned an adoptee, Dave Campbell, and his birth mother Sarah Burns, who have been in reunion for 18 years to help develop a framework. Their relationship has been tried and tested and their wisdom has come from the tread marks on their soul made by many mistakes and successes and through their joint experiences, I felt we could learn much.
Sarah said, "I learned early on, don't judge the other person. We are each other’s people."
Together we created the ROADMAP TO REUNION for adoptees and birth parents to use as a framework. This was presented at the National Adoption Conference on Saturday, November 14th on Zoom. It was a great success and now I'm happy to share it with you.
We begin with these stipulations to which all involved agree.
Everyone has been victimized.
Everyone has experienced loss.
Each person’s loss is incomparable.
Everyone will make mistakes.
Practice forgiveness over, and over and over again.
David said, "Reunion doesn’t make you whole, trust the process."
THE EIGHT PACTS RECOMMENDED...
1. HAVE EMPATHY: Hear each other. (and this may take time - see Pact #2) Try to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes before guessing their motivation or thinking you know why something happened. Respect each other’s experience. We can not assume we know the other person’s story. Get to know the person first, not focus only on the questions you have.
2. ASK PERMISSION: Ask each other permission before sharing important adoption or personal information, Whether it be regarding photos, family, letters, birth documents, or ‘reasons’ ask permission first to help build trust and control. Respect each other’s emotional bandwidth and vulnerabilities. If dialogue is tense or difficult at first, write questions or thoughts down to provide to each other and agree to only answer what you feel comfortable with. As you grow more trusting and more comfortable, you can answer more in-depth questions. Also, ask each other permission before inviting more people into the relationship. Never assume.
3. CREATE LEVEL OF CONTACT: Neither party has the right to control the contact. You get to negotiate the relationship together. It will be hard, but it’s worth it. Ask each other the following questions: How do we connect after the reunion? What do we feel comfortable with the phone - Facetime, text, email, letters? How about on birthdays and holidays? Gifts or no gifts?
4. SHARE YOUR STORIES: Provide space for each other to share your individual stories. The retelling can feel re-traumatizing, especially for mothers. Use “I” statements when sharing each other’s pain towards the other “I feel…. I want… because….” Refrain from blaming to lessen re-shaming. No one’s pain is worse than the other.
5. BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN HEALING: You are not responsible for each other’s wounds. You are self-responsible for your own emotional and psychological pain. You can’t fill each other’s voids. You will regress to the age of relinquishment. It’s ok to attend therapy separately and together at times and join support groups. You can’t rescue each other from their pain.
6. RESPECT THE RELATIONSHIP: Commit to the relationship, do not abandon each other or threaten each other. Because both the birth parent and adoptee are fearful of losing each other again. Ghosting is another form of betrayal. Stay in communication, but be honest about boundaries. Hold regard for each other that this relationship matters. Respect. Take your time.
7. SHARING WITH OTHERS: Secrets don’t help people, they hurt. Plan together how or when to tell extended family or friends /acquaintances of your reunion. Come “out of the fog” to support each other if the fear is being “found out”. If you want to have relationships with extended family members- ask each other permission to do so.
8. RECOGNITION OF YOUR TRUST TREE: Respect the loved ones closest to you, and the other relationships on your trust tree.
You can’t contract behavior but you can create respectful experiences!!!
EMBRACE THE JOURNEY
E = What is your expectation?
M = What is your motivation?
B = Make room to Breathe
R = Respect
A = Accept
C = Choose to be present and available
E = Embrace the experience
Gain access to all the sessions recorded at the National Adoption Conference HERE
If you are a member of the constellation: adoptee, first birth parent or foster adoptive parent, consider attending an adoption support group at Celia Center HERE