Adoptive Parents and Misidentified Jealousy in Reunion (an Excerpt from the Book!)

Working on the cover.
(c) Carlynne Hershberger
After blogging for over 3.5 years, I have been given the unique opportunity to re-work my best blog posts into a series of short stories and essays. These freshly edited pieces will be collected together and published as a book. As I go through over 660 posts for the purpose of this book project, I am struck by the very physical representation of my growth as a person, especially where my adoptee identity intersects, over these years.

As I posted yesterday on Facebook, to me, this book project isn't just a collection of things I've mused about over the years. Each post is being re-worked, and part of that re-working enables me to breathe new life into my old ideas. I am able to come back to good thoughts that I had and redevelop them using what I've learned so far. I am representing in this process what I've said since day one of blogging: being adopted lasts a lifetime and what that means to me will change and grow as I change and grow.

I wanted to give my readers an exclusive sneakpeak of what this looks like by publishing one of the new essays.

The essay excerpt below was originally published here at TDA about 1.5 years ago in a blog post titled "Reunion & the Jealous Adoptive Parent." You can read the original here.

Please note that on the new essay has not yet been worked over by my editor Carla's magic.
Adoptive Parents & Misidentified Jealousy in Reunion

I have lost track of how many times people have asked me, "What do your parents think about your reunion?" Some are more specific, "How did your adoptive mother handle your reunion? How did it make her feel?" People ask these questions for many reasons. Fellow adoptees may be trying to gauge how their own adoptive parents might react if they revealed the “I’m searching” news. Others may be curious for less innocent reasons. People tend to think of adoption exclusively as a service to build families for adoptive parents. With this mindset, adoptee reunion may be perceived as “disloyal” to the adoptive family for identifying outside of the adoptive family system. They picture the adoptee toppling over a neatly stacked apple cart that the adoptive parents worked hard to establish, with apples chaotically scattering on the ground. Regardless of why someone wants to know, it is true that an adoptee’s reunion can be a very emotional time for their adoptive parents.

Over the years, I have met adoptees whose adoptive parents vary wildly in their support of search and reunion. One friend's mother helped facilitate her reunion, and was so involved you would have thought she had found her own mother. I have another friend whose adoptive parents stopped speaking to her after she reunited. Yet another friend had her adoptive parents’ blessing to search but they have forbidden her to speak of it.

My parents were somewhere in the middle. They accepted my search, but my reunion was initially hard for them. They sought out ways to become more supportive while respecting my space as an adult.

I was adopted during the tail end of an era of modern adoption where most private infant, agency-facilitated domestic adoptions were closed. It was still common in adoption practice to make adoptive families appear as close as possible to biological families. According to my file, my agency matched me with my parents because they thought our features were similar enough to pass as biological kin. I was, as the law says, "as if born to." My parents were told that while I may have some questions about my adoption, we would be exactly like all other families. This was the extent of the post-adoption support they received. There was certainly no preparation for possible future reunion.

Despite growing up in a loving and supportive environment, announcing my reunion to my adoptive parents was still very hard. I anticipated that my search might hurt their feelings. I did not talk about being adopted very frequently when I was growing up. I knew this was going to be “coming out of nowhere” for them.

When I finally decided I needed to actively take the steps toward finding and reunion, I felt like I needed my adoptive parents' blessing. Them withholding their blessing would not have stopped me from searching. However, I sought reassurance that I wasn't going to be alone. This is why I needed my husband's support too.

When I first told my adoptive mother that I wanted to search, she confided in me that she had anticipated that this day would come. I don’t think any amount of anticipation prepared her to deal with feelings of being replaced. She feared losing her place as my mother and as a grandmother to my children.

My adoptive mother tentatively accepted the news of my search, and requested that I keep her updated on my progress. When I would share details of my search progress with her, I could feel the hurt and stress emanate from her. When I did not share things with her, she felt left out. It developed into a painful catch-22.

One day, she asked me to consciously explore her experience of having an adopted daughter who was searching for her original mother. I had recently become a mother to my oldest son.

"Amanda, what if your son, all of a sudden wanted to go search for another mom out there? How would you feel if you had to share him?" She wanted to know.

I did stop for a minute to imagine how hard it might be to not be the only mother in my son’s life. My gut reaction was to feel an emotion that was overwhelming to me. What was it? Jealousy? Fear? Defensiveness? I imagined that feeling like I shared my son with another might be hard, if I chose to approach the relationship that way. On the other hand, isn’t this what step-mothers, mothers in very open adoptions, and mothers in same-sex relationships make expert work of everyday of their lives?

I realized that part of the hardship between us in the search and reunion matter was how the place of “mother” was being framed.

"My son is not adopted. I am. He does not have another mother out there. I do. I suppose that if I had adopted my son I would have to acknowledge that he does have another mother and anticipate the fact that he would also see her as mother and want to know her. I would not expect him to deny what is important to him and part of him in to support my feelings. That wouldn't be fair." This was my reply.

In the end, my adoptive mother’s gut reaction to my reunion was not her fault or anything that she could initially help. At the time of my adoption, adoption policy and practice set up the expectation that the adoptive parents replace the original parents in every way imaginable.

It would have been wrong for my adoptive mother never to move past that gut reaction. It would have been wrong for me to never move past the hurt I felt in response to her gut reaction. When the adoptive family and original family do not know each other, this reality breeds fear. The status of my original mother as mere myth was quickly dispelled when my adoptive mother was able to see her. She discovered that my original mother was not an enemy who sought to take her place, but a real person with vulnerabilities and fears of her own.

Do the fears and insecurities, what may be mistaken as “jealousy,” ever completely go away? I cannot speak for my adoptive mother. Things certainly have become easier.

The searching adoptee embarks on a journey that can be full of unknowns and worries. We do not know if we will find open arms, a door slammed in our faces, or even a grave. We may have religions, worldviews, political ideas, cultural practices, and languages that differ from those of our original families. We may fear that, even if a connection can be made, we have too little in common to carry on a relationship. The fear of rejection is compounded by the reality that one’s adoptive parents may make emotional distance or an emotional cut off as the result of the reunion.

So the question must be asked: is search and reunion worth it if an adoptee will lose every connection they have?

This is the message that I bring to every person who loves an adoptee who is searching or who may one day search. Be aware of the emotional rollercoaster the unknowns of closed adoption search may present for the adoptee. They may be carrying invisible worries that you cannot see. Remember that search and reunion for a closed adoption adoptee involves undoing things that were done on our behalf as children. Some of us must unseal the records impounded by the court. Some of us must petition for access to the birth certificate that our Birth States never anticipated we would want to see.

All of us ultimately seek to re-establish the connection and communication that was severed when we left our original mothers’ arms. We must board planes and visit our States and countries of birth, believing wholeheartedly that we belong there and are entitled to be there. This requires empowerment rather than trepidation. Adoptive parents have the unique opportunity to be a source of empowerment for the searching adoptee. This is a job, much like the job of being a parent itself, which cannot be taken lightly.