Disclaimer: This article provides a framework for setting boundaries in an adoptee and birthmother or birthfather reunion. So, both parties decide together how the relationship will be and have set goals and expectations entering into the reunion with empathy, understanding and compassion, have an open mind, and respect they will have different narratives entering the reunion. You can’t contract behavior but you can create respectful experiences.
Why do 70% of adoption reunions break down?
Because there’s no roadmap.
The 5 agreements:
Everyone has been victimized.
Everyone has experienced loss.
Each person’s loss incomparable.
Everyone will make mistakes.
Practice forgiveness over, and over and over again.
THE 8 PACTS
GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER: Try to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes before thinking you know why something happened. Respect each other’s experience. We don’t assume we know the other person’s story. Get to know the person first, not focus only on the answers.
ASK PERMISSION: Ask each other permission before sharing important adoption information, regarding photos, letters or birth documents to build trust and control. Respect each other’s emotional bandwidth and emotional vulnerabilities. Write questions down to provide to each other, only answer what you feel comfortable with. As you grow stronger, you can answer more in-depth questions. Ask each other permission first before inviting more people into the relationship.
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 reunion? What do we feel comfortable with phone, Facetime, text, email, letters? How about on birthdays and holidays? Gifts or no gifts?
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.
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.
RESPECT THE RELATIONSHIP: Commit to the relationship, do not abandon each other or threaten each other. Because both the birthmother and adoptee are fearful of losing each other again. Ghosting is another form of betrayal. Stay in communication, hold regard together that this relationship matters. Take your time.
SHARING WITH OTHERS: Secrets don’t help people, they hurt. Plan together how or when to tell extended family members 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.
RECOGNITION OF YOUR TRUST TREE: Respect the loved ones closest to you, and the other relationships on your trust tree.
Adoption is not the end of the process; it is, in fact, the beginning of one! Post-adoption care and services play an integral role in making any adoption successful.
Being personally acquainted with the situation, I had long recognized the importance of high-quality post-adoption and foster care services to ensure permanency, stability, and well-being for children. But that’s not all; certain other aspects demand our attention.
Post-adoption services help address sensitive aspects such as trauma (young children, adults, and even parents can suffer from it), loss, separation, sense of familiarity or belonging, etc. Such services can also help children and their families address their specific needs and help family members strengthen their bond and deepen their attachment to sustain the relationship.
Previously for many years, post-adoption services were only viewed as services provided after the legalization (finalized process) of the adoption – and in some cases, only for very short intervals.
However, now adoption professionals and families have recognized that a comprehensive continuum of multiple forms of support that vary in intensity levels is necessary to ensure well-being, long-term stability, and true permanency for adopted children and the families.
Post-adoption services are a vital support to the families raising the children in cases where they suffer from severe emotional, behavioral, or psychological challenges. With the help of support groups and sessions offered at the Celia Center, families can remain committed and effective. Our services help parents nurture children while catering to their special needs. As well as providing adoption competent therapy to children, teens and parents offered at Yoffe Therapy.
“There is evidence of a strong relationship between providing support to adoptive families as a matter of course or in the form of preventive services and positive outcomes in terms of the health, well-being, and stability of the family (Groze 1996a; Smith & Howard 1994)”
At Celia Center, we work to serve the goal of:
Support understanding of adoption by removing confusions surrounding the adoption process.
Improve parenting skills so they are able to deal with their new family dynamics.
Help parents and children cope with their traumas associated with adoption or foster care.
Improve child functioning.
Bridging gaps between the relational bands.
Prevention of adoption disruptions.
The importance of post-adoption services and support groups can be viewed in a survey of parents receiving post-adoption services. 80% of the respondents reported betterment in their households. Some excerpts from the survey are as followed:
“Research has shown that adoptive families’ needs are multidimensional and may arise at each developmental stage for the family and the adopted person. From a program development perspective, the research makes clear the need for flexible programming that permits families to return for services when needed and does not limit the extent to which they may receive services.”
“Adoptive families have a need for an array of education, support and therapeutic community services. And they need to be able to access this array episodically. This mix of services must be provided by service providers and therapists with an adoption-competent knowledge base and core values, who can see child and family strength amidst complex circumstances and concerning diagnoses.”
“For moral, social, and economic reasons, it is in the public interest to assure that families remain intact and strong. The pendulum has swung and society again recognizes the importance of strong family systems in combating society’s ills. Adoption support and preservation services help build strong foundations for families created by adoption. By developing and implementing these services, families involved in adoption, service providers and policy makers are assuring adopted children of every opportunity to become useful, productive citizens.”
Some concepts behind the support groups of Celia Center are:
Respite care and child care
Services for children and parents, including groups of people from every age group
Support services including support groups and informal contact with other similar families
Celia Center was not my goal as I started, but it eventually became one. As I kept progressing, it became the highlight of my life as I could see my efforts bringing positive results.
Being a foster child myself who also went through adoption, I was aware of the miseries one can experience in this process. These were not the miseries that life caused me but the miseries which developed from my detachment from the world.
We need to realize that there is a ‘need to heal.’ There is a need to break the ice for the people who never get the chance to speak about how they feel. Even when they do speak, they are either shut down or not understood. They are received in a way that pushes them deeper into their shells, where they develop several traumas and social dilemmas.
To heal is to recover, to be at peace. It means to overcome the inner demons holding you back from moving forward. To heal is to set one’s soul and mind at peace. Healing cannot be achieved overnight. You have to go through a process, or sometimes a series of processes, to reach that state of mind where you are no longer bothered by what used to haunt you.
In order to heal, you need to stand tall in front of your fears and deal with them. You need to be reminded that you are loved, cared for, valued, and that you cannot be suppressed any longer. In order to heal, we need to break the chains of quietness, desolation, and life of fears. We need to come out clean to the greener side of life. The journey to healing could be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
People who have been through traumatizing events tend to experience heavy emotional burdens. It’s as if, over the years, the time has chipped away a significant part of them. This fear and struggle, if nurtured over a longer period, breed physical and mental disorders. These diseases devour the person slowly and gradually, leaving behind nothing but a hollow shell.
I can understand that after going through severe trauma in your life, it is difficult to grow from it. But for how long? For how long are you going to sit in that dark room? For how long are you going to absorb the pain? We have all experienced one of those dreaded days where you don’t want to get out of your bed. You just lie down, contemplating life and past events – it’s relatable.
Speak up! Talk about the things that are bothering you. Don’t just sit there taking it all in. Don’t empathize with your misery. Be the master of your senses; don’t let anyone else control it or take hold of it. Healing is the process that will lead you toward recovery. Eventually, you will be able to break through the chains of depression, fear, and anxiety, and breathe freely once again!
When we don’t talk about these things, they grow bigger inside us. If they are not dealt with at the right time and with the right guidance, they explode in the form of anger, violence, traumas, and other such issues. To understand this better, consider a human being like a spring.
You keep pressing and pressing the spring so it will absorb all the pressure and reduce in size (getting oppressed), but when you reach the contraction limit, it will pop up. The spring will jump up even higher using the energy that compressed it, directed in the opposite direction. The same is with human feelings and emotions.
Don’t let your stored emotions burst into some kind of retaliation or anger. Don’t let it corrode your body and soul from inside. Don’t live with your fears. Value the life that you have been granted, and make the most of it by making it better every day. Believe in the power of healing, and believe that in observing your struggle you will surely be rewarded with something great.
For a free mental health consultation please visit Yoffe Therapy an adoption competent mental health center in the state of California.
 “Research on Postadoption Services: Implications for Practice, Program Development, and Policy” in The Postadoption Experience p. 295.
 “Perspectives on the Need for Adoption-Competent Mental Health Services,” Casey Family Services, October 2003, p. 72.
 “Adoption Support and Preservation Services: A Public Interest,” Spaulding for Children, revised May 2005
A reunionwith your birth family can be a wonderful thing but when I searched for my mother, I really had no idea about who or what I would find. I remember being fully prepared for being rejected, to be honest I was expecting it but I hoped at least I would know what she looked like and maybe she’d tell me about her life. I had spent years feeling abandoned by a person I had never met so I had built up some serious walls of defence around me. It had taken me years to build up the courage to find her, I was looking for something but I wasn’t quite sure what it was at that point. I think my natural mother dealt with it really well, she let me lead the way in our newly forming relationship but let me feel safe and secure to do so. She never rushed me and it began to feel natural to open up to her.
I feel like I was never told the information I was needed when I was growing up. Everything was pretty vague, I mean I knew I was adopted but I never knew why or who were these mysterious people that gave me away. How could I know about my story if I didn’t know theirs and why could I not know? Did my adoptive parents know more than they would tell me? So many questions and no answers! I could sense it upset them and quickly it became a taboo subject like the elephant in the room, always there but never mentioned. I really appreciated my natural mother being completely honest about everything that happened, It allowed me to make sense of not only my story but hers too which to be honest I had never considered before. I never realised that she suffered, I always imagined it was an easy decision for her and I was just an inconvenience so you see how hiding the truth can be damaging. She told me the truth about my adoption and even wrote it out in story form which she’d read would be a good way for us both to make sense of what happened. She did so even though it was painful for her and I loved and respected her all the more for it.
When people hear about reunion stories they instantly think of tears of joy and a happy ever-after story. I doubt they could ever imagine that we would need to grieve, I mean why would we need to do that? We should be so happy! When I began chatting to my birth mother more and more it became apparent to me that not only was she was someone who I was becoming close to, she was a part of me that I had always felt was missing but lacked the language and understanding to know and express it before. Mixed in with the highest of highs and pure feelings of love and happiness at finding this most wonderful person who had created me was ever increasing feelings of despair and sadness for the time we had lost together. All the parts of my childhood I could have shared with her were gone forever, all the shared experiences that bonded her to her other children were elusive to me, eternally beyond my grasp. I also grieved for the way the adoption had effected me growing up, I wondered if I wouldn’t have felt so lonely and out of place if I had stayed with her, my rightful mother. I cried a lot on my own but I felt that maybe we needed to cry together as a way of bonding with her or maybe for the support and acknowledgement of the loss I had experienced, something which I never had growing up. I remember being upset that I couldn’t cry with her the first time we met and only did when I was on my own the next morning, maybe I was still as guarded as I had been all my life and unwilling yet to share my emotions. The next time we met we spent some time alone and chatted about the adoption and were able to speak more openly. All of a sudden I felt my walls crumble and my tears flowed, my mother gripped my hand and cried too and I feel like we connected at that moment and I realised to my surprise that we both grieved for the same loss. It was painful but healing to share that feeling of grieving together. Both adoptees and birth mothers had their grieving denied to them, it is disenfranchised grief, a delay to an inevitable and natural process that is cruel and damaging to deny. Sharing that with her made me feel even closer to her and her to me.
Feelings can easily consume you if they are kept locked up inside. When I was growing up I didn’t have the understanding or knowledge to know that my feelings of sadness, loneliness and not fitting in were to do with being adopted and neither did my adoptive parents. In the closed adoption era adoptive parents believed they were receiving the gift of a baby with with a blank slate, they wouldn’t remember or care about about losing their natural mother, why would they? They’re just a baby. Maybe it’s what they needed to believe in order to truly feel like it was their child and they wouldn’t want to feel like their child was in pain either so just hope for the best! Well it seems that babies do remember, they spend 9 months growing inside and listening to their mothers heartbeat. The mother might speak to them as mine did, they are ready to hear her familiar voice and to be soothed by the only person who can, they lack the ability to self soothe. I was a baby waiting to meet my mother and she wasn’t there, instead I was taken away and handed to strangers. My adoptive parents often told me how quiet I was as a baby and rarely cried even if I was hungry. They thought it was great, I was easy but I guess crying for my mother didn’t work so why bother? Instead I went into shut down mode and I think that must have continued throughout my life because I often was very quiet and withdrawn. Adoptees seem to become very observant and can be hyper vigilant looking for signs that we might be abandoned although this is usually subconsciously. Some adoptees like to test their parents but others like me don’t want to upset them so we keep our feelings to ourselves, locked down deep inside where they fester and do their damage. The first time I ever spoke about my adoption, what it meant to me and my feelings about it was with my natural mother. If I ever try talking about it to others I am either shut down with comments like yeah but you had a good family etc. Society doesn’t validate the feelings of birth mothers or adoptees. My natural mother made me feel like I could open up about it and she truly wanted to understand me, talking helped us both understand each other and ourselves better.
5. WE OFTEN FEEL OVERWHELMED.
Reunion is full of highs and lows and you never know what intense feelings are going to come next. We may have feelings of intense love for a person you barely know or feelings of deep grief and sadness for the loss of that same person. We may even feel like we have regressed in age and not fully understand why this has happened. I honestly believe these feelings are natural and important, it’s the situation that is unnatural so it can be frightening and confusing unless you have researched and read about the effects of adoption. Talk to your child about how they are feeling and maybe recommend books or video, my birth mother and I are always swapping articles and book ideas! Either party may however deny that it has affected them so it may be frustrating if they don’t open up at first but with time I’m sure they will. It really helps to understand that these feelings are normal and they can be worked through together. There are so many facets of reunion that can be overwhelming especially if there’s a whole new family dynamic to fit into and adoptees are especially sensitive to the potential of being abandoned, we subconsciously look for signs! A lot of patience and understanding is needed on both sides and I truly believe all reunions have the potential of being successful if both parties want that.
This is something only someone who has been taken from their natural family will ever truly understand. We grew up with no reflection of ourselves in our adoptive family with constant reminders that we didn’t have what others did. In my extended adoptive family there was always talk of who looked like who and took after certain traits of their blood relatives and it was the same at my friends houses. I often wondered if there was anyone who looked like me but it was strange because I still couldn’t picture my natural parents, they remained ghosts to me. I wondered if my artist talents were inherited because no-one in my adoptive family had any kind of creative flair, my adoptive father was very serious and practical and did not get me in he slightest. I often think he would have loved a son that was an echo of his own genetics and there are losses unresolved with adoptive parents too. Meeting my natural parents and siblings was equal parts wonderful and surreal, I could finally see myself in someone. I felt giddy scanning for physical resemblance’s and traits and it was wonderful to hear about the music, art and quirky sense of humour in my birth family that I had inherited. We are so starved of this that we crave it, we want to hear about how we look and act like members of our natural family because it validates us a person and makes us feel less alone in the world.
7. WE FEEL SPLIT.
There are many ways in which adoptees feel split. We often have the feeling that we don’t fit in or truly belong in our adoptive family but then we find our natural family and find we don’t truly fit in there either. With one we share experiences with no blood and shared genetics and the other we share blood and genetics with no experiences. We often feel like the baby that was relinquished died and we became a separate person to that child. I never really felt like I had been born until reunion which is probably hard to understand. It was like I was dropped off by aliens or just found somewhere. This makes sense because our connection to those who created us had been cut off and that which most take for granted was never there for us. We feel the need for connection, the true connection we were denied but we also reject it because we expect to be abandoned. Our brains weren’t shaped by the loving bond with our mothers but by the need to survive in a world that seemed alien and avoiding abandonment seems key to that survival even though that doesn’t really help at all.
Our lives didn’t begin when we were born, we spent 9 months connected with and protected by our mothers. Our whole world was literally our mother and the sounds surrounding her. Her world was ours. We were preparing for life outside of mother but it was ok because we would still be protected by her world and our bonding would continue. Likewise the mother’s body has prepared itself physically and spiritually to care for and protect her child. They know each other and are connected. We lost that connection to our universe and were suddenly surrounded by genetic strangers. Instead of being full of the love hormone oxytocin our bodies were full of stress and adrenaline in order to survive. It’s the premature development of the ego. All my life I felt like I couldn’t rely on anyone because they would just let me down. I apparently became a “stiff arm baby” and maybe I instinctively knew that spiritually I was on my own but physically needed these strangers to survive. The baby who was supposed to continue the natural bonding process with mother was frozen in time and in reunion is woken ready to continue what was broken. We don’t know how to do that as an adult, gazing into our mothers eyes and constantly being held by her is no longer appropriate so we don’t know how to bond or even if it’s possible.
9. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL YOU.
In reunion you are familiar but you are still a stranger. In our adoptive families we develop roles and grow up with a mother and and a father and we are taught to call them mum and dad or mom and pop. Then you come along, our real parents but we already had parents who felt real and who have already filled those roles. So who are you to us? Maybe we want you to fill those roles or maybe we don’t or at least no longer need that, that time and that need has passed. But calling you by your name can also feel wrong, you gave birth to us, you are the reason we are here and our connection to creation. That is everything, you are more than just a friend. Much of our looks and personality is genetic and because of the two strangers who created us. I often want to call my natural mother “mum”, it feels right but it also feels wrong when I see it written it down or after I’ve said it. It wasn’t her fault but she wasn’t there in my developmental years when these roles are being formed. We may start calling you something and then stop and then begin again. Recently I’ve started calling my natural mother “mama” and it feels right or at least more right than “mum” or her name.
10. WE DON’T KNOW WHERE WE FIT.
We lived a life and grew up in our adoptive family and developed family roles whether that felt natural or not, likewise our birth families often went on to start or continue families without us. All of a sudden in reunion I found I had siblings, cousins etc that had spent their childhoods developing their family relationships with shared experiences. My mother wants to bring me into her family which is wonderful but I also don’t know what that means or how it works. All of a sudden I have a new world full of blood relations and extended family and I don’t know my place in their world or if I have the right to be there. My mother wants to bring me into her world and part of me wants to be there but part of me doesn’t trust this new world because it once rejected me.
“Adoption is a lifelong process for all involved. Helping a child understand their adoption story, supports healthy identity development, healthy esteem, and above all encourages compassion for all of their families.” Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.