Adoption and Reunions: 5 Things I Have Learned as an Adopted Adult.
This piece was first published on Huffington Post and featured on HuffPost Life. I have made some adjustments.
I am an #adoptee from the closed adoption era. This meant that my history was shrouded in secrecy, and I grew up not knowing anything about my biological families. There was scant information (and in my case erroneous) and the practice was based on the misguided premise of “clean break theory” (AIFS, 2017). Accordingly, any identifying information was locked away, my original birth certificate was sealed, my name was changed and I was issued a new identity. According to the experts, adoptees were all meant to live happily ever after. Well many didn’t. It is now broadly recognized that our biological connections are integral and the past practices of closed adoptions are considered inhumane by other dissenting adoptee activists, including myself.
People who aren’t adopted can’t fathom what it is like to live with this secrecy and they frequently judge dissenting adoptees from their privileged position of knowing their biological family and ancestry (bio privilege).
Here’s some musings from other adopted adults:
“I was then taken into a family that didn’t look like me, didn’t think like me, didn’t smell like me and didn’t know how to love me (Community Affairs Reference Committee, 2012).”
“It’s like you don’t really belong in either world (Adoptee, Twitter 2017).”
“It’s not having anyone in your life that mirrors you. (Adoptee).”
“I’m a bastard and a new identity won’t change that (Adoptee).”
Growing up, I held idealistic and unrealistic expectations of my biological family. I had convinced myself that reunion was going to be the answer to all my deep insecurities and grief around being adopted. I courted feelings of rejection and abandonment and I was not prepared for the complex path of reunion. Here’s some things I have learned:
1. Mirroring. Meeting biological family members that resembled me in looks and temperament (mirroring) finally made sense of me. In that respect, pieces of my puzzle started to integrate. This was overwhelmingly satisfying and essential to me as a human being and is consistent with the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child (noting that America has not ratified this convention).
2. Preparation/Support. Despite my confidence, I was not necessarily prepared for the emotional roller coaster ride that comes with reunions. Being the adoptee, I always feel like I straddle the “middle position” of trying to please or reassure all members of my family (adoptive and biological). In that vein, I think it’s important to seek support. I can’t list all the support services but I recommend you checking with other adoptees in your area. Personally, having other adoptees in my network to reach out to grounds me and normalizes me. There are many adoptees who engage via social media and using the hashtag #adoptee can link you in swiftly. Keep in mind, that as with any community, there will be different views and experiences so I recommend that you familiarize yourself. For me, linking with other like-minded adoptees has been a life changer.
3. Intimate Strangers. My experience is that reunions sometimes start out with a heady honeymoon period but then reality sets in. Although we are related we are intimate strangers and we bring different sets of values, expectations, beliefs, judgments and experiences to the reunion. In addition, not all members of the family (adoptive or biological) are going to necessarily welcome this reunion either.
4. Happy Ever After? Unlike the reunions depicted on TV, they don’t stop once you meet and you certainly are not guaranteed of living “happily ever after.” Not all of my reunions have been successful and I am testament to that. I know I certainly made lots of mistakes and I must live with that. In addition, I jumped in naively with too many expectations and without professional support.
Also, I’m a mature woman with my own life, set of belief systems and values reflective of my adoptive family and I have mannerisms that I have inherited from one side of my biological family. So, I am certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
Likewise, my activism is confronting and others do not understand me as an adoptee, nor my adoptee grief and loss. Some subscribe to the narrative that I should be grateful and have no understanding that many adoptees struggle. Not all of our family (adoptive or biological) will have the time or inclination to understand our experience as an adoptee and this may engender anguish or reinforce feelings of rejection and disenfranchised grief.
5. Risk. Reunions take enormous energy and courage on the part of the adoptee and with that comes risk. That is, risk of rejection from our biological family or indeed our adoptive family. In addition, you may discover confronting family secrets related to your adoption which you were not prepared for. In that light, some may welcome you with loving arms but others may view your very existence as threatening or with contempt.
Each experience will be different so I can only offer general advice based on what I have learned and it is this: you have a right to know where you come from, go slowly (I didn’t), have at least one confidant who understands and supports you (and who can walk alongside you on this journey), seek out support from a service (if possible), link with other like-minded adoptees, be realistic and most importantly, please practice healthy boundaries and self-care! I also recommend that you read, talk and find out as much information about reunions as you can. Clearly, I am no expert and everyone will find their own way to traverse this complex terrain!
With all that said, and despite the difficulties, I am glad that I searched and I am profoundly lucky to have a loving adoptive family who have supported and understood my need to know. Like me, they do not believe that closed adoption was in my best interest. They have witnessed the life-long challenges I have experienced as a function of being adopted and my reunion experiences. They really have been my rock! In that context, I want to acknowledge that while I have been supported, not all adopted people are loved, accepted or cared for by their adoptive family! That’s covered elsewhere in articles, but it’s reasonable to say that the fairytale ‘better life' narrative is fallacious!
Notwithstanding the issues explored above, I am thankful to the members of my biological family who took the time to meet me. Likewise, I am sorry to other biological family members who I let down through my own clumsy naivete and expectations. I will always be on the outside looking in and wondering. It is what it is!
Finally, thank you to all of you amazing adoptees who support me, I hope those of you who have gone through a reunion might consider writing some comments for those adoptees who have yet to embark on this journey.