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.