Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Hazards of Adoption Reunion

Adoption Reunion is a goal for many adoptees and in conversations with hundreds of other adoptees, I have learned that for many of us, once we make the decision to search, we tend to dive in head first without realizing the pitfalls and hazards of adoption reunion.  Much has been written about the benefits of adoption reunion and in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls. However, knowing in advance what the pitfalls can be, is helpful in better preparing you for them.

This blog is in no way discouraging reunions, as I strongly believe searching and reunion is a normal and healthy desire.  All people, adopted or not, have a general curiosity about where they came from and in some cases, to want to know the people who brought them into the world, in addition to knowing their siblings and extended family.

Many adoptees are getting information handed to them via opening of original birth certificates in some states or through generous and talented search angels in addition to a bit of good luck with social media or genetic genealogy.  The information is coming faster than we can process it at times, which is good, but overwhelming.

Let's talk about Information versus Relationships.

Information is good to have and I would say that gathering information is the first stage of adoption reunion.  We may build a family tree if we have a name.  We may search public records hoping not to find a criminal record or we may  look at photos on our relatives' Facebook or Instagram accounts. We may be reading our ancestors' obituaries or wedding announcements.   This is the information gathering stage in preparation for the next stage which is Attempting Contact. 

Attempting contact is a choice that not everyone will make; however, I would say the vast majority of adoptees who have been searching will make some form of contact.  A good rule of thumb is to remember that we have a right to know who our families are, but we don't have a right to a relationship.  Relationships must be mutual.

Attempting Contact has several purposes.  For some adoptees, they hope for an actual relationship to develop with a family member.  For others, they are seeking some basic information such as medical history or family photos, but are not expecting a relationship.  Some adoptees will not attempt contact for their own personal reasons or if one or both birth parents are deceased, they may decide not to contact family members for a variety of reasons (one big one being that they fear they are the family secret).  If one does attempt contact, this is the point where the hazards and pitfalls will begin to appear.  And that is what I want to talk about today.

We would not have made it this far as a species if we did not have a natural distrust for outsiders and people that we don't know as "family" (I include close friends as family too).  You will more likely trust your next door neighbor who you have a 12 year history with over a stranger who messages you on Facebook.  This is normal and this keeps ourselves and our loved ones safe.  Getting a random Facebook message from a stranger is kind of what "getting a knock on the door" used to mean. People may be naturally suspicious of you. They may have been watching alot of crime T.V. (my favorite) and wonder if you are scamming them or lying to them in some way.  They may immediately wonder, "what does this person want?".

Defenses go up and depending on the personality, you may get the following responses:

IGNORED - This is exactly what it sounds like. Your messages may be read but not answered.  Or your messages may never be read.  Your snail mail letters will go unanswered and your phone calls will not be returned.

BLOCKED - in my view, being blocked on social media is more than a defense -- it is going on the offense.  Not only do I want to pretend you are not there, I am going to actively stop you from ever bothering me again.

ACKNOWLEDGED BUT LATER IGNORED - you get a return message, phone call or email and the person may answer a few of your questions and have many questions for you (i.e. are you sure you are John Smith's daughter?  I know all of his kids and you aren't one of them!" ).  Later on the person stops speaking to you and you can only imagine they talked to John Smith who may have given them the smackdown for being in touch with you.


Some found members of your birth family will automatically assume that you want something other than what you say you want.  They may think you are there to claim the family fortune or to hurt or harm them in some way by dredging up the past.  Some family members could be jealous and not want to share their parent/relative with you as they see you as a threat in some way. On the other hand, family members may give you the benefit of the doubt and understand that you are very brave for putting yourself out there without any guarantee of a positive reception.  These are the types of people you are hoping to find -- good, kind, understanding and empathetic to your situation.

REJECTED - See my blog titled What to Do When Your Mother Refuses Contact or Information.

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WELCOMED - Being welcomed is what you see on different talk shows when they feature adoption reunion.  Everybody is happy and sappy and welcoming to you -- the lost bird.  I list this as a potential hazard because it's what happens after the honeymoon wears off that can be hazardous. In addition, being welcomed can be overwhelming for the adopted person when a huge group of family begin calling and sending emails and photos from every direction.  This is both positive and negative when suddenly you are "big news" in the family.  Suddenly, you have way more attention than you were preparing for.  


Closed Records

This is the biggest hazard of all for adoption reunion.  The state you live in may be withholding your records in addition to the adoption agency.  These facts alone cause many adoptees to give up on their searches.  Fortunately, there is something you can do now.  Take a $99.00 DNA test and get involved in opening original birth certificates for adoptees in your state.  If you have a name, get an membership and start building your family tree and reach out to the many search angels in the adoption community.


We are usually not aware of what is going on in another person's life if we are not currently in active relationship with them.  Has there been a recent death in the family?  Is someone filing for bankruptcy or dealing with a lawsuit?  Is the person in the middle of divorce?  The term "timing is everything" applies in adoption reunion.  In my own reunion, my timing was good due to my birth mother recently revealing my existence to my siblings who never knew about me.  I was fortunate. Many times timing can work against you.

Circumstances surrounding conception

This is an area that can trip up many adoptees, who usually have no idea of the circumstances of their conception when approaching a family member.  This puts you at a great disadvantage.  If you were the reason people divorced or if there is a lot of negative emotional energy surrounding your conception, relinquishment and birth, you may receive the full brunt of that negative emotional energy directed at you when you make contact.   On the other hand, if you are the result of two people who were deeply in love and could not be together, you may be the recipient of a lot of positive energy.  It truly is a crapshoot, a roll of the dice, as nobody can control the circumstances surrounding their conception and birth and how others respond to that.


Some of us who were naive going into reunion (raises hand) may be surprised to learn that you are a family secret -- a skeleton in the closet.  Your appearance may remind people of infidelity, sexual abuse, under-age sex, or a bad first sexual encounter and in a minority of cases, rape.  All of these situations create shame in family members and unfortunately, they may take it out on you.  Decide beforehand if you are o.k. with a family member asking you to "stay the family secret".  Some people cannot tolerate secrets on any level (raises hand again).  It is important to understand that due to the sensitive nature of many family situations, discretion when dealing with other people's secrets can protect others and yourself.   It's possible you may be such a huge secret that your mother never told another living soul about your existence.  Sadly, these mothers many times are the ones who reject contact with their adult children.  

If you learn you are a secret, then you have a very important decision to make about contacting extended members of your family.  This is a heavy burden and will put you in a position of either protecting the secret keeper or being the family whistle blower.  Opinions vary widely on how to handle these situations, but each person has to decide what is best for them.

Emotional fallout  

I mention this one last because it is the one that hit me the hardest and the thing I was least prepared for.  After the initial high of meeting my birth family, I was an emotional train wreck.  This went on for months without any support.  I muddled through, but you don't have to.  Join a support group. Read books/blogs written by other adoptees.  Talk to someone you trust about the feelings you are going through.  

Being prepared is half the battle and will help you to understand that when you make contact, that approach, timing, patience and a bit of good luck will go a long way.  Ultimately, we cannot control how others react to us, based on their own life experiences and the circumstances surrounding our births, relinquishment and adoption.  

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We can still hope for the best and embrace those family members who also embrace us.  If nothing else, I can guarantee you after your search, you will be better qualified to dig up information than any private investigator and these new skills will help you to help others who are also searching.

The hazards are many, but have faith in yourself that you will be able to mitigate any fallout and embrace the amazing parts of this journey. 

I wish you the best!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Raise Your Hand if You are Adopted

As I was sitting in church on Mother's Day, I was hoping for a great mom-parable or just something "light" and "happy" to celebrate this day -- a day where I actually wore high heals and a dress (rare!) to church.  Sitting next to my daughter in our pew without my husband as he was home getting the festivities ready for both of our mothers and me, I glanced over at my daughter.  I was  watching her draw a picture, and my attention was drawn to the pastor discussing how God brings us into His family --- that He "adopts" us.

I pay attention when I hear the word "adopt" as it is thrown around quite frequently in the legal field as new laws are adopted and occasionally at church used in the sense of God bringing us into the fold.  So I was completely taken aback when I heard these words from the pastor,

"If you are adopted, raise your hand."

My eyes quickly darted around the church at the congregation and I noticed a couple hands went up. One of those adoptees was a teenager who still remembered living with his original family.   I then looked to my left at my daughter and her hand went up.  I sat there not moving.  Then the pastor looked at me and said something referring to me also being adopted (I later learned my daughter was pointing at me!).

Honestly, I heard but didn't really hear the comparison of our adoption by God with earthly child adoption via law.  I was somewhat shocked that this was the sermon topic and even more shocked that adoptees were being asked to raise their hands.  What was said after that point no longer resides in my memory.

This scenario was mortifying to me.  In a similar way that it's mortifying when I hear an adoptive mother tell me that she asked her daughter to stand up in front of their church and talk about how fortunate she is to be adopted (creating a sense of obligation).  The same way I feel mortified when I hear in a sitcom someone telling their sibling they are adopted is being used as a joke (Obviously, it is being used as an insult).  The same way I feel mortified when I overhear someone at work talking about her sister's "adopted kids who feel this or think that". (as if anyone can know how anyone else feels about their own adoption).

It is presumptuous to ever believe you know more about being adopted than someone who is actually adopted.  You don't and you never will understand in the way people living it can.  I will go out on a limb and say if you aren't adopted, you should never preach or speak on the topic at all.  And if you do, I hope you have done your homework and have educated yourself that the media portrayal of adoption and the typical Christian comparison of adoption by God versus earthly legal adoption is not accurate in portraying the actual lived experiences of those of us who are adopted.

Critical thinking is a must.  We cannot continue to wrap up adoption with a bow and discuss it in black and white terms.  It is a complex, emotional journey that cannot be simplified and compared to God's love in a 15 minute sermon.

Although as a child I had no problem telling people I was adopted (I wasn't brought up with any shame for being adopted), as an adult I have a very different view.  Being adopted is my business and nobody else's.  I happen to be an adoption blogger; however that does not mean I walk around with a T-shirt that says, "ASK ME ABOUT BEING ADOPTED".    It does not mean I want to be singled out and discussed as part of the sermon making a not-even-close comparison of  two completely unrelated concepts.

I tell my daughter all the time it is her business that she is adopted and if she chooses to share that with friends, that is up to her.  She does not have to feel obligated to share it with anyone at all. There is no reason to feel ashamed, but I recall that even though I didn't feel shame about my adoption, other kids in middle school told me I was "weird" for being adopted.  Kids will tell you that your original parents didn't want you and that is the reason you are adopted.  Adults assume all sorts of stereotypical things about you the second they learn you are adopted and many times will ask you to be a spokesperson for all-things-adopted.

Asking someone to raise their hand if they are adopted is not like saying, "Raise your hand if you like the color red."  It is a violation of privacy and not appropriate to do in public.

What is difficult to manage when one is adopted or raising an adopted child is a happy medium approach when the topic of adoption status comes up.  You don't have to feel ashamed but you also don't have to draw attention to yourself and invite people to speculate about your history, either of your families, or the circumstances surrounding your adoption or subsequent reunion (all private).

The experience of living adoption in a non-adopted society is this:  we are a minority and have already experienced being singled out in many other ways as we were growing up adopted.  The non-adopted majority in society really has only one narrative of what they perceive being adopted is, "a blessing, lucky, special, second-best or God's will" depending on the person.  It's time we eradicated these stereotypes and allow adopted people to be fully recognized as being multi-dimensional in a way that non-adopted people are.

Please stop putting us in a box or asking us to raise our hands.

Some guidelines:

*Don't single us out in public -- it's not appropriate to ask people to out themselves as adopted any more than it is o.k. to ask people to raise their hands if they are gay.  Just don't.

*Don't make assumptions about how adoptees feel about their own adoption status.  Some are happy to share the information and some will be mortified with your prying.  Some see adoption as a win-win and many of us see adoption as a lose-win and there are others who see it as lose-lose.  If you don't know, don't assume.

*Avoid talking about other people's adopted children or adopted adults you know and making assumptions about "how they feel about being adopted".   Your cousin's sister's adopted teenager does not confide in you about her true feelings -- avoid projecting your own ideas about adoption onto a virtual stranger who happens to be adopted.

*Don't repeat stereotypes about adoption such as, "you never know what you will get" or mentioning adopted characters in books or movies or in real life who do bad things, such as serial killers or "the bad seed". This is no different than being careful not to make racial or religious slurs.

*Educate yourself and others on how God adopting us into his family is nothing like earthly, legal, money-exchanging, U.S.A. adoption and speak up if you hear a sermon or other generalizations being spread to the public about how the two are the same (they are not!).

*If you are a pastor, please educate yourself on how adoption today is nothing like the concept of adoption was during Biblical times and should not be used in illustrations involving God's love.  This is hurtful to children's developing concept of God.  ("did God not want me to be loved by the family I was born into?") -- this topic can be many other blog posts, but I will send you on over to Adoptee Restoration for Pastor/Adoptee Shrodes to educate you on those topics.


*addendum* -- after  this blog was posted, my husband reminded me that my memory was a little off.  Although the above blog is a true story, this actual event occurred the Sunday before Mother's Day.  My husband was actually sitting beside me in the church pew and was just as baffled as I was that adoptees were being asked to raise their hands.


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