Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Reunionversary: 9 Things I've Learned in 5 Years of Reunion

My necklace of our matching pair.
I had already known my original mother's name for several months before we reunited. As is the practice in my birth state, most adoptees can have their original birth certificates and know their mother's name using the established government channel. We are forbidden to reach out on our own as the civil and criminal legal consequences of doing so are thoroughly explained and signed off on before our records are unsealed. My mother, my first mother, had given me permission to see my original birth certificate. I received a copy of her handwritten permission letter addressed to the Department of Children's Services. I traced my index finger along the curly writing imagining that she must be so nice.

Saturday marked the 5th anniversary of the first time I heard my mother's voice since infancy. Our "reunionversary" was something that took me a year to put into words. In the past four years, I haven't written much about my reunion because keeping boundaries between my public blogging life and my original family's very private life helps maintain the stasis of our relationship (more on that in a minute). Also, not until now have I had any words of reunion wisdom to offer.

Seek Stability--not Perfection
A "successful" reunion to me has little to do with a relationship looking a certain way--attending events together or exchanging cookie recipes, so on and so forth. It's when two people in a relationship are able to stay connected and mutually benefit from that connection in some way. When they are flexible with obstacles to avoid a tipping point that might send either walking in opposite directions.

Talk about Expectations
How often do you think we should talk on the phone? What makes you feel loved and appreciated? What do you want me to call you? How often should we visit? Reunion relationships present a challenge when it comes to expectations. We want a mother-daughter relationship which is different than a friendship. Yet the care-giving years, which is our reference for how parent-child relationships are formed, are well-behind us. So where do we begin? An adoptee and original parent might have very different ideas of what "a parent-son/daughter relationship beginning in adulthood" should look like. For example, an adoptee might expect a Christmas card because that's how they feel loved. Their mother might not send a Christmas card fearing it's too intrusive. When expectations are laid on the table, you can work around them.

Understand Personality Types
People with different personality types give and receive energy differently. It's important to consider how an adoptee or parent's personality type might influence how and where they'll meet, their behavior in meeting places and events, and whether they'll feel energized or drained when interacting with new family members. At large family gatherings, no matter which family I am with, I need to periodically wander away and stare at my phone for 10 minutes. Not because I am ignoring people or am obsessed with technology (as we often like to accuse people of in our society). I am an introvert--it's how I re-charge so I can return and stay present in a large group with lots going on. Give each other space and time to re-charge.

Don't Give up Before Getting On-Track
It has been theorized that adoptees go through three stages in reunion before reaching a fourth and final "empowerment" stage where they are able to move forward with a relationship with their original family. In the first stage, the adoptee may feel paralyzed by the connection and the overwhelming amount of information and how it may challenge previously established conclusions about their narrative. They may become quiet and withdraw, then erupt with emotion, and then begin processing the grief and loss imbued in their narrative and that of their original parent(s). All the while leaving their original family wondering if they've done something wrong.  I personally cannot attest to having gone through sequential stages but I offer that adoptees have a variety of responses to reunion that shouldn't be taken personally.

Give up When you Should
This doesn't apply to my reunion but is too important to be ignored. Numerous adoptees and original parents have asked me, "Their behavior hurts me. Can I give up on reunion?" Self-care is important and there's nothing wrong with stepping back from someone who puts toxic energy into a relationship. If you don't establish appropriate boundaries when necessary, irreparable relationship damage may threaten a positive re-connection in the future. Although typically used to assess marriages, Gottman's "Four Horses of the Apocalypse" aren't healthy in reunion relationships either. Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling are communication styles that damage relationships when used frequently. Seek support and counseling when appropriate.

Work Through Trauma
Interaction between two people is a highly stimulating experience. Add trauma to this, decades of loss and missed time, and the anticipation anxiety the search process builds and you've got two people who can easily trigger and over-stimulate each other without intending to. Trauma makes stability in reunion relationships hard work. It is hard to be triggered by someone you want badly to be connected with. It is hard to be that person who represents Trauma--a "BIG T" Trauma--in someone's life.

Evaluate Goals and Boundaries
In a reunion relationship, you can only be as close as the person who wants the least amount of closeness is willing to be. This is often a dynamic that needs to be accepted. Adoptees and parents who want to achieve closer connection but struggle to do so can benefit from adjusting what objectives each believe achieve the goal of "closeness." If your objective toward being close is to talk on the phone every Sunday, you may feel as though you've failed when your loved one doesn't like talking on the phone (I hate talking on the phone). Find another way to connect that you can both be comfortable with.

Establish Pathways of Healing
When I gained access to my state adoption file prior to reunion, I learned that my original mother had purchased twin bears and requested that I be given one of them. The other she would keep with her and the bears would serve to keep us connected through time and space. In the 80's, I knew it was commonplace for agency workers to accept such gifts but fail to pass them on, assuming it would impose upon the adoptive family. And while my original mother carried her bear with her until we met again, I certainly never received mine. The thought of my special toy being discarded as meaningless was distressing to us both. Today, we both have matching, one-of-a-kind necklaces that no one can take away.

Be Fair to Your Reunion
If you ask me, I will tell you that the energy exchange in my reunion relationships is positive and mutual. Not perfect. Stable. However, this isn't to say that the energy exchange in my (for example) adoptee/mom diad would meet the relationship needs of another adoptee/mom dyad. It's unfair to compare one reunion to another to determine what's "successful." I might be a little envious when I see Facebook pictures of my friend who just went shopping with her original mom again. But my mom lives 8 hours away and not going shopping twice per month like some moms and daughters can doesn't mean our reunion isn't worthwhile.

So there you have it. 5 years of thinking and learning with many more to go.

When flipping through my mail stack on January 2, 2010, the Department of Children's services logo finally appeared in my hands. Advertisements and bills in the stack cascaded from my grasp to the floor as fingers from both hands instinctively moved across that special envelope to find its opening. With one hasty movement, I freed the papers inside but not before sustaining a nasty paper cut. As hot red glowed down my hand, I inventoried the check boxes that appeared on the paper before me. Yes, yes I can contact her.

Today, as I look at photographs of my relatives and me comparing hands, I reflect on the symbolism of my index finger that day. The same finger that comfortably traced my mother's writing as I imagined what reunion would be like moved vulnerably against crisp sheets of paper to be painfully laid open and bleeding at the very moment I saw my connection to my blood relatives restored. This is how I would describe reunion. Not a march off into the sunset as romanticized narratives on The Lifetime Chanel need us to believe. But an experience of being vulnerable, feeling joy but also feeling discomfort and even pain. It's being a witness to pain and to joy in another person. Yet, for a great many of us, it is an experience that we would not trade for the world.