Sandee sobs as she tells me her story. Adopted as an infant, the now 51-year-old flight attendant from Florida struggled for most of her life trying to make peace with being adopted and figure out her place in the world. She’s always felt like a fish out of water, but never before has she felt as unmoored as she does today.
A 20-year reunion with her biological mother recently ended, Sandee’s birth mother summarily dismissing her after years of clandestine conversations. Sandee was devastated by the rejection. That she will meet her biological father in a few weeks adds to, rather than eases, the confusion she feels.
“It’s hard to break that feeling in your head of not being wanted,” she says. “I wanted her to want me. I wanted to be a part of their family, I wanted to be acknowledged and told that I was worthy. Now I’m in survival mode, doing everything I can to get through this phase of life.”
Like most of the 100 adoptees I’ve interviewed for my forthcoming book on the adoptee experience*, Sandee always dreamed of meeting her natural parents, of finally learning her ethnicity and where her features and talents came from. And also like most adoptees who reunite with biological family, she quickly found that reunion is fraught with as much – if not more — confusion and dissonance as the rest of an adoptee’s existence.
Ironically, in reunion an adoptee, who started out life having to learn how to be part of a family of strangers, must now learn how to be part of the family with whom they share DNA.
It doesn’t always go well. A great many reunions implode before they ever start, with adoptee or birth parent quickly shutting the door on this painful chapter once and for all. Others start out tentatively, perhaps fueled by a sense of obligation, grow slowly over time or fizzle out.
It’s no wonder a great many reunions fall apart. There’s emotional baggage on both sides: each party typically has a different expectation for the relationship; some birth parents cling to control, keeping their now-adult relinquished children a secret and/or withholding information about the other parent; and many adoptees struggle to forge even the simplest of relationships.
To be sure, some adoptees and birth parents make it work. Rebecca, a 51-year-old adoptee from Maine, is one of these, having spent years working through things with her birth parents. They are now close and spend a lot of time together. “I have good relationships with four parents. How lucky is that?” she says.
It was challenging to get to this place, she acknowledges. “I often say I’m a lucky adoptee because I have a good reunion story and not everybody has that. But wouldn’t real luck be to not have had the separation happen in the first place? There were times in my life when I was very despairing, in grief and mourning. I had to go through hell to get to a place where I’m feeling happy and balanced.”
Rebecca’s case is rare. More often, reunion is brutally hard. Plagued by years of self-doubt, confusion and perhaps anger over being relinquished, an adoptee may find it hard to get close to people. Often she will wall herself off emotionally or push people away rather than face a possible second rejection from a biological connection. The behavior sparks a self-fulfilling vicious cycle: That coolness is taken for indifference, so the people being pushed gladly accept the shove and move on.
On the flip side, some birth parents struggle to open the door to this painful chapter in their lives, signaling with their words and actions that perhaps the adoptee is still merely a problem to be managed. They withhold information, assume a passive-aggressive attitude and try to dictate the terms of the relationship. Others cling so tightly to the adoptee’s reappearance in their lives that they suffocate any chance that a relationship will take root.
When I found my birth mother and her family four years ago, one of her sons, my half-brother, Chris insisted, “It is only weird if you make it so.” But the truth is that for adoptees who have never had anyone in their lives (expect perhaps a child) who mirror their looks and actions, it is freakin’ weird to finally meet biological family. Ironically, interacting with them can feel unnatural, which perhaps explains why we see each other infrequently.
A case in point: A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to be invited to a 50th birthday party for one of my brothers on the paternal side of my biological family. I found my father in March 2016, and it is with him and his sons that I share the most physical resemblance. At the party, I was fascinated to study shared features and body language. More than once that day, I caught myself and one of my brothers gesturing in the same way, or having our arms and legs arranged in mirror image as we talked. Still, many of our conversations took place on parallel planes. My worldview doesn’t match those of my brothers. I have a different outlook on much of life, and with no shared experiences as a touchstone, I felt like I spent the day walking on uneven terrain.
Part of the reason I’m struggling may be because for me and many other adoptees, reunion equals identity crisis. Finding natural family answered many questions and gave me access to life-saving medical information, but it also raised other issues: Who am I? How much of who I am is hard-wired? How much is the result of my upbringing and the behaviors I adopted to adapt to life in my adoptive family? What would my life have been like had I not been relinquished? Who would I be instead? Am I the person I’m supposed to be?
These are some of the dizzying questions Sandee, I and many other adoptees grapple with. Sandee, especially, seems plagued by questions of who she would be if she hadn’t been adopted, and has sought the help of a therapist to work through it.
Finding someone to help her was difficult, for even today with open adoption the standard and efforts underway nationwide to open sealed adoption records, we adoptees are little understood. We remain marginalized and gagged — problems to be managed, children to be shushed, the butt of the joke. (Witness the quick “he must be adopted” quips that accompanied news of Donald Trump Jr.’s ever changing explanations for the meeting with a Russian attorney to get dirt on Hillary Clinton during his father’s presidential campaign).
No one gets what it’s like to be raised a blank slate with no information about our now-secret identity sealed by our state of birth or told that we have no right to know our true selves.
Few people even try to. Up to now the adoption dialogue has been shaped by adoptive parents, social workers, lawyers and agencies who place children: Wasn’t this what was best for us? What on earth are we bitching about?
No one ever bothered to ask adoptees how they felt about the arrangement or what it has meant for them.
Sadly, people will never get it if we don’t work together to flip the script and take ownership of the dialogue around adoption.
“Our stories must be heard,” Sandee told me.
Yes, they must.
* Searching for a publisher and happy to entertain suggestions and connections.
I dont have the great reunion story, I was hoping for at 22 I finally found my birth mom and she refused to have anything to do with me. and she took that to her grave so now I will never see her or have any answers to my questions. unfortuanatlry in the end my adoptive parents relinqushed their rights when I was 8years old so I ggrew up in the system. truly their rights should have been taken for the abuse I endured.
Thank you for your eloquently written article, as it speaks of a truth that every adoptee, who isn’t “fogged”, knows so well.
That said: No infant or child is truly a blank slate, because the bonding process begins with our birth mothers during pregnancy! We recognize our mother’s voice & even her scent when we’re born, just like every “kept” newborn does.
Every infant knows the familiar sounds we heard, while still in the womb, as well as the heartbeat of our biological mother.
Not to mention the DNA we share with both sides of our birth families, our physical health & appearance, personality traits & talents, etc. Our biology/genetics do matter because they make up the foundation of who we are & will become, in addition to the home environment in which we grow up in, along with the experiences we go through.
When a infant /child is taken from their birth mother they experience the trauma of separation, which never fully leaves your memory. Rather it imprints it’s impact upon you so deeply, that it will be a triggering factor over & over again, as that separation is so rooted in fear, grief & loss. Being handed over to perfect strangers is yet another latyer of trauma for any newborn. Our earliest emotions from infancy are instinctual, & as such they come up seemly out of nowhere, when you’re an adult. When something threatening occurs later in life, it will trigger the original causes of trauma, and reactions of feeling overwhelmed, and/or frozen, mentally, emotionally & physically, even to the extent of anxiety & panic attacks.
Adoptees, & those raised in foster care, frequently suffer from deep levels of anxiety that affect every aspect of their lives. This is all related to PTSD & C-PTSD, which can be worked on, but will always be a part of who you are. Adoptive parents & counselors need to acknowledge that early childhood experiences cause deep levels of stress & trauma. Even when these children reach adulthood the effects will still be with them.
Adoption affects the child & the adult they become. It affects your ability to bond with others, which in turn affects the ability to form friendships & intimate relationships. It affects your self esteem & your sense of your own identity. It makes it impossible to see yourself clearly when you don’t see the faces of those who reflect your own, or know where your personality traits or talents come from. It removes the history & knowledge of your ancestry. Many adoptees struggle with self worth & self esteem issues, along with depression, substance abuse and much more.
While you may reunite with your family as an adult, those relationships aren’t simple, because you don’t have the same shared history that siblings raised together will have.
Thanks for reading and taking time to respond.
Great post, Terri. Looking forward to your book. It’s interesting (and even more confusing and complicated) experiencing both sides of reunion–rejected by BM (I found her 30 years ago and she never wanted to meet me) and welcomed by BF and in “reunion.” It’s hard for me to call it a reunion with my BF, since he never knew I existed until I found him with a one-in-a-million DNA match just 4 years ago. I call it a meeting of common hearts–and friendship and deep love has grown from it. I am lucky and thankful for it. But I still am paralyzed emotionally by the continuing rejection by my BM.
I look forward to following your story, including your journey toward publishing.
It’s complicated to say the least and so difficult to explain to people who aren’t adopted. Wishing you the best.
Thank you Terri for giving myself & many other adoptees a voice. You were able to eloquently put into words, the feelings that I sometimes have a hard time expressing. Every adoptee’s journey is different. What may bother some doesn’t bother others, however all of our feelings matter. No matter how wonderful our adopted families are, it doesn’t take away the primal desire to know where you came from.
Life is so multi-layered. I am so thankful for the people in my life that wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t adopted. However I am also glad to have found out about my biological family history even if not all have been welcoming. Next weekend should be interesting. I will update you on how the next reunion goes…
Sandee: thank you for speaking with me and sharing your story. Ours is indeed a richly complicated existence. Together we can help make sense of it. T
I really enjoy your writing, Terri. Thank you for being a reliable voice for adoptees as we navigate the emotional extremes of birthparent reunions. Oddly, there is comfort in knowing that there are other adoptees feeling and experiencing the same things. I’m five years into my reunion and although it hasn’t all worked out the way I had hoped, I am eternally grateful for the blessings I have received.
Thank you, Gary. I think about our chat often. And yes, there is great comfort in knowing that after a lifetime of feeling the odd person out, we are not alone.
This is a very complex subject matter, and I’m pretty sure there is no one answer fits all. I was born to a mother and a father but around five, said father just up and walked off. I have entertained similar thoughts and challenges especially when I was young. As I became an adult, it was still a part of who I was, but it wasn’t as all consuming. I stopped worrying about whether it was my fault, what I did or didn’t do, or what might have been different with the other half of my family. Why? How? I have no idea, except I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and trying to enjoy what I did have. A couple of weeks ago, I did send in my DNA to get a feel for the entire picture of where my ancestors came from as a type of closure to this chapter in my life. I think we all have to do what burns in our hearts to be accomplished. I wish you all the best in your relationship with your other families and the publication of your book. Your Mom and I have some great conversations which I always look forward to. 🙂
You are very sweet. Mom always enjoys chatting with you. Wishing you the best with the DNA test– that’s turned out to be an amazing game-changer and not just for adoptees. Eager to hear how your quest turns out if you’re willing to share. In the meantime I’ll keep looking forward to your blog posts my inbox !
Yes, I will definitely share the results in case someone else wants an idea of how it works and whether they think it might be of interest to them. I’ll also look forward to hearing about your publishing adventure.
Sooooo proud of you! Well said. Well thought out. I know first hand a lot of your struggle all these years, before and after finding your parents/families. I wish I had the answers for you and all adoptees. If only it were that easy. But you’re on the right track, and sometimes it’s enough to just do what you can, even if it seems insufficient at the time.
Families, relationships, biological or not, are so damn complicated.
I love you. You never cease to amaze me. I have been blessed to have you and Traci as daughters. My life has never been the same….happily so!!
((((hugs)))) Love you, too!
I’m looking forward to your book! Indeed our stories must be heard! (I am self-pubbing via Createspace and Kindle, BTW. )
Thank you, Paige!