1. Different responses to meetings

distant sunset image of contact with a birth family

Unexpected responses when you make contact with a birth family member for the first time.

Written from experience and expertise and also with help from research: The Adoption Reunion Handbook by Julia Feast, David Howe and Liz Trinder. (Wiley 2004 p.43)

1. Rights and Entitlements.

In non-adoptive families you will have gradually built up and understood expectations of each other covering issues about communication, sensitivities and expectations. But when you are meeting your birth family for the first time these things must be negotiated and understood gradually. There will be expectations and assumptions on both sides. All kinds of simple everyday events might cause confusion or discord i.e. how often will we see each other and who knows what about who. One family for example may commonly use Facebook for communication, whereas the opposite person may never use Facebook and may consider it a terrible way to communicate. One person may be used to being outspoken on family issues, another may think that silence and privacy are paramount.

There is no easy answer, and I always say that these journeys with a new family just require patience and communication. Most of all they require kindness and consideration with respect to each other. These things may be easy and come naturally, or there may be barriers and problems along the way with potential for misunderstanding. The best position is to try to be realistic about what to expect, and its best to stick to the rule that everyone is different in their style, and then you can’t be too disappointed. You cannot people to be the same as you. Try to stick to the second rule which is – take your time with dealing with these things and ask for help if you need it.

2. Differences in Commitment.

The easiest reunion will be where both sides give equal importance to the process of meeting up. Sometimes there is a lack of balance, and one person will be really excited, whereas the opposite relative may not feel excited at all. In fact, they may feel very differently or even half hearted. If you find that a relative shows no excitement and appears to be less committed, try not to be disappointed. It does not mean that they are not interested. It may mean that this is their way of coping with such a demanding situation. Again, the best rule is that this requires sensitivity and patience, and it may take time before the experience feels comfortable. It requires sensitivity to others and I always say – just try to be respectful to the other person even if their level of commitment does not appear to match up to yours. Don’t take an unenthusiastic response personally – the other person is entitled to their style of coping. It is best to avoid a situation where one person feels let down and then the other feels pressured and made to feel guilty, or even feels ‘pursued’ and harassed by an over enthusiastic birth relative with high expectations. Remember some people are just not as emotional and extrovert as others. Talk this situation through with our service for support.

3. Roles and Names.

Another challenge is to work out what role the new family member is to play in your life. This might be easier with siblings. It is not always so easy with birth mothers and fathers given that you already have an adopted mum and dad (unless they are deceased or removed from your life and estranged). The helpful thing to remember here is that this is perfectly normal, and it takes time to build a new role. If you make a decision in the first five minutes you are bound to be wrong it may be too concrete or based on false assumptions. So give time to at least several meetings and get a feel for things. It is about noticing your expectations. If you expect to be the long-lost son or daughter who is loved beyond measure, you may be disappointed. But if you can stay open and curious you may find the process is more rewarding than you expected. Better to find that you really like this person and can be their friend than be loved one minute and dropped the next. Try not to make assumptions, and try to talk complications, thoughts, and feelings through by reflecting with someone so that you can make sense of things and reduce stress for everyone. My counselling service is there to help you with this.

4. Genetic Sexual Attraction.

This is hard to talk about! But it is an issue that needs to be raised and you do need to be warned. Sometimes adult relatives can find themselves sexually attracted to their new birth relative. It is as if the normal taboo say between a parent and adult child or brother and sister is taken away. This can also happen with sibling and half siblings and other relatives. The experience can be quite shocking for people, and they can be overwhelmed and confused, so we do have to warn you about this. This does not happen for everyone, and we don’t need to sensationalise the point, but we just must help you be aware that this has been an experience of other adopted family members often leading to great upset. We don’t know exactly why this occurs, but there may be different factors, such as the lack of shared family experience with the usual boundaries and taboos in place, and maybe the attraction could be fuelled by the deep love you suddenly feel towards a new person who is so like you. You may mistake this love for passion and some impulse in you is desperate to make up for lost time. This may represent itself in a physical way. But don’t panic. This does not necessarily happen a lot. It is more likely that you might just feel confused about deep feelings for a stranger. Sometimes a full sexual relationship may develop, and this of course would be a mistake to pursue with any birth relative and would have very complex consequences, including breaking the law. If you find you are confused about your feelings, then please talk it over in confidence with our service. We will understand and we won’t judge you for this, but we will help you make sense of your feelings so that you remain calm and in control.

5. Finding Common Ground.

It may be the case that as an adopted person you have been brought up and raised in a very different way to that of your birth parent or birth family member. For example, you may have been raised in a wealthier environment or you may have been raised in a poorer environment, you may have been privileged and gone to a private school or you may have been under privileged. You may have gone to university and have a degree, and your relatives may have taken up a trade. Your adopted parents may be of a different race or ethnic group. There may be a world of difference in the way that you have been brought up, and this may be very surprising when you meet your birth relative. Our best advice is that you try to respect this and see the positives in the other person. You may meet a relative who has major personal difficulties in their life. They may have struggled with addiction, alcoholism, or mental health problems, or may have been involved in criminality or indeed you may have had these difficulties. It may be hard to see this as a positive, and this is where we would say if in doubt be compassionate towards the other person and talk to our service if it is affecting you. Nobody walks into difficult circumstances intentionally, and often it is a result of a difficult life. It is best to try and establish common ground, and it is not impossible to make a connection even through the greatest difference. In fact respecting these differences can be the basis of a strong and realistic relationship. Just as in ordinary families, some get on and some don’t. So, give yourself time if you are finding it hard to accept this disconnect from your expectations. The relationship may just fade out if you can’t bridge the gap, but this can be done with kindness and respect for one another, and you can say with pride that you have given everyone a chance despite the differences between you.

6. Anger about what may have been.

Parents don’t give up their children at birth easily. It is not a common event and our attachment to our children makes us hold on to them and protect them at all costs. For some children who have been adopted this sense of injustice and anger at being given up can be very present for them in their reunion with a birth parent i.e. the question ‘why did you give me up?’ and you may feel angry about this or feel you need to find answers. You may want to blame someone or hold them to account. Equally birth parents may be angry that they had to give their child up. But in truth it is no use walking into a reunion with a cross face and a clenched fist because it will unsettle everyone. You are fully entitled to your feelings, your questions and your confusion. It is often best to have talked the emotion of anger with someone first before your initial meeting so that it does not need to be raised there and then. Either talk this over with your adoption counsellor or with a close friend or relative in whom you can confide if you prefer. You have every right to feel a sense of injustice and have strong questions, but it will get in the way of a first meeting if you are not careful.

In our work we are often advising adoptive adults that it is frequently not their birth parent’s choice that they had to give up a baby at birth. Even if it is their choice, parents give up their children for the right reasons i.e. they feel they cannot give a child a good life. Often parents will have children taken away by Local Authorities through the courts if they are not able to care for them. This is always very painful for the parent concerned. We have expertise in this area, and we know that every parent forced to give up a child always says they love the child….it is just that life events gets the better of them. Some adoptive adults may want to blame others, such as Social Services, for enforcing the separation. Some may find in their files that their circumstances at birth were worse than they thought, and this is the reason we offer counselling for support. Some may not feel angry with their birth mothers at the beginning but may find that feelings come upon them sooner or later if they find it hard to accept that the birth parent had no choice. Some adoptive adults feel angry that other children have come on the scene and taken their place, and this all needs to be given attention and consideration as all feelings are valid. Sometimes though it is best to talk the emotions through with others or an adoption professional before broaching the subject with a birth parent because – we are confident – this will be as hard for the birth parents as it is for the adopted child – even if nothing is said.

The key to dealing with anger is to be honest about your feelings, talk them through with an adoption counsellor or with a confidant who will understand. Eventually, as with all of us, reality must be accepted. You might be able to see that the birth parent had no choice, or you might be able to see that you had a much better life, and when we accept these things we can move on to a new place mentally and emotionally. Our best advice is don’t launch into a new relationship with a birth parent with your anger – it will make it hard for everyone including you. Do talk to your adoption counsellor about these emotions.

7. Fear of Rejection.

In truth we all fear rejection. Nobody likes to be pushed away. When you move towards reunion you will naturally have some concerns in case you are not wanted. In fact, you may have lived with these feelings for most of your life, secretly fearing that you were not wanted. That fear can get in the way of actually enjoying the process of reunion, and it can cause anxiety for you. You really need to be able to acknowledge how brave you have been to get this far, and to be able to affirm every day that you are a good person doing your best to cope with a complex situation. That is the most any of us can be. Some people try not to show any feelings at all as a way of protecting themselves from all this anxiety, but it is natural to feel nervous about new things. You may avoid discussing difficult issues or asking questions because you are afraid of rejection. It does take some courage to move forward. There are no actual guarantees about what the outcome will be, and human beings can be unpredictable. We all prefer to know what comes next! The best thing to do is talk with your adoption counsellor about any of your anxieties so that we can see which of your thoughts are realistic and which thoughts are just causing a problem. We call this anticipatory anxiety – it is natural to anticipate the future and feel anxious about it when it is unclear and unknown. Try to imagine that the birth relative you are seeking will feel just as anxious in their own way and tell yourself every day that you are a good person, just doing your best. The outcome may not be perfect, but you will have done the most you can do and your birth relative will at least know you have attempted to find them. We say ‘well done you!’ and we will know that your relative will have done their very best too.

8. Self-development and Knowing Yourself. Who do you think you are?

As with many changes in life this is an opportunity for self-development and self-knowledge. Even if your relatives don’t wish to be in touch, you will know you have done the best you can do and they will know that you made an effort. As you will have gathered, sometimes this is the best that can be done. But there will be many changes – you will know a little more about your background and your heritage. You will be building a new relationship with yourself. You will understand more about your identity, the sense of who you are in the world as well as how you are in the world. There is a genetic inheritance that is uniquely you, and you have to get to know that person better. The fact is that this search may stimulate thoughts and feelings about being yourself and your self-identity, and many people can be surprised by this. You may need to take time to come to terms with new thoughts and feelings about how (who) you think you are. This is a big psychological journey, and you may enjoy the self-development. Some people find this unnerving, which is why we at Joanna North Adoption provide psychological and emotional support. Please let us know if you are struggling with this journey as talking and clarification will help you to settle.

9. Take note of your Expectations.

We all have expectations about the future, and we would not be human if we did not. Everyone going into the adoption journey will have dreams about what it may be like. You may imagine that your life will change drastically, and you may hope that your dreams will come true. In truth – sometimes this can be a very ordinary journey that eventually settles into ordinary life. We advise people to be cautious of high expectations, and even to talk these over with us so we can help you make adjustments to your thinking. As we have been trying to say in these notes – reality is often very different from our hopes and dreams. This is very much a journey of facing the reality of getting on with life once we have found (or not found) those to whom we genetically belong. Sometimes settling into ordinary life can be comforting as you make changes to accommodate new relationships and new people. It’s a bit like having a new baby – eventually the new person becomes part of your life. The key is to be able to face reality and accept it as it is whilst taking good care of yourself in the process of this dramatic journey. Tell yourself every day that you are brave to wake up and face reality, and that the birth family member you are searching for is also having to be very brave indeed. The rule is to make allowances and adjustments to your thinking as you go along.

A few Golden Rules of this Process

  • Use our Adoption Counselling service for help as soon as you feel you need it. We can give you advice or counselling whichever helps the most.
  • Talk to us about your process so that we can follow it through with you.
  • Gain support from helpful people in your life whom you can trust.
  • Stop think and reflect before taking action. Make sure you are confident with your decisions and that they are fair to others.
  • Try to take the other person’s views into consideration.
  • Watch out for unreasonable expectations.
  • The bottom line is you will have done your best if all else fails.
  • If a birth relative does not wish to see you it will not be your fault.
  • Tell yourself every day that you are courageously facing change.
  • Be kind and non-judgemental of yourself and others.

Dr. Joanna North.

Consultant Psychotherapist Adoption.

September 2024.

Joanna North Adoption (Ofsted registered)

distant sunset image of contact with a birth family