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Finding Your Guiding Principles: Tips for Adoption Reunion (and relationships in general)

Marni Hall is a long-time volunteer at Adoption Network Cleveland and co-facilitator of our Columbus General Discussion Meetings.

When Ohio opened its adoption records in 2015, many adoptees found biological family and were thrust into navigating the complicated path of adoption reunion. Such was the case for Karen and me. The following describes how we approached setting boundaries and how it provided a safety net to meaningful conversations, which led to a foundation of trust.

After submitting the paperwork to receive my original birth certificate on March 20th 2015, I received my original birth certificate and health history on April 4th. Karen had read the records were opening and sent in my medical and family history before the deadline. From the information received, I contacted Karen with the sole purpose of thanking her for my life. I sent pictures of my family so that Karen would know that I was okay. Nothing was expected from her in return. Karen wrote back thanking me for sharing my story and thanking my parents for raising me with the values that gave me the faith and skills to take this journey. We started communicating with each other by writing letters, which eventually transitioned to emails and text messages. I read two books – The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide and Reunion: A Year in Letters between a Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldn’t Keep. In addition, I attended adoption support group meetings and participated in Facebook groups for adoptees.

It became apparent from correspondence and from our first meeting that we had lived extraordinary lives prior to our reunion. Not extraordinary in a pompous sense, but extraordinary in terms of families, faith, driving motivations and careers. We would not want to change the lives we had lived leading up to our meeting. We both embraced this reality and agreed that we didn’t want to entertain any “what ifs” as we moved forward in getting to know each other. We also didn’t want our existing family relationships to suffer due to the time we spent together. From this reality, we developed our three guiding principles that we used to establish common ground and to structure our communication:

Marni and Karen’s Guiding Principles for Reunion:

1. Our new relationship must not interfere with our pre-existing lives. This relationship is in addition to, not a replacement of, our pre-existing lives.

2. Our relationship will look forward, not back. There are no “what ifs"!

3. We must allow ourselves to celebrate and receive the gift of reunion.

Once the guiding principles were established, we realized that there were several important topics (issues) to be addressed in order to blend our lives and move forward. I was fairly vulnerable at first and couldn’t use the word “issues”; therefore, we agreed to call them “topics”. From our different perspectives as an adoptee and a birthmother, we both contributed a list of topics that addressed our respective needs. Periodically we met to tackle these topics, and we added new items from time to time. We also established some basic ground rules for discussing topics. As long as we honor our guiding principles and follow these discussion ground rules, we will be able to work through our topics. I am an accountant by trade, so I took on the task of formalizing our guidelines and topics into a written agreement. It may sound formal, but I do this with my friends when we travel together, so it is just the way I organize.

Marni & Karen’s Discussion Ground Rules:

  • No questions are off limits
  • No wrong answers
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • It’s okay to disagree
  • Be respectful
  • Be honest
  • Be brave

List of Discussion Topics:

  • Birthdays & Holidays – How, where, when and if we will acknowledge and celebrate these events
  • Other family events– How, where, when and if we will include each other in preexisting family events
  • Disclosing Karen’s Birthmotherhood – How, where, when and if will Karen disclose her relationship with Marni to her family and friends? What boundaries will we set around the issue of ‘outing’ oneself and ‘outing’ each other? How can we respect Karen’s need to lead her disclosures among her own friends and family? How can we create safety for Karen as she confronts the stigma and prejudice faced by birthmothers from the 60’s?
  • Disclosing the Relationship within Marni’s Circle– How, where, when and if Marni will disclose to those in her own circle? What language will we use when talking about the nature of our relationship? How can we respect and acknowledge Marni’s personhood as an adoptee while navigating the uncertainty experienced by Karen as she ‘comes out’ as a birthmother?
  • Frequency of communication – How often do we communicate with each other? In what form? What are the expectations around receiving a response? How do we ask for more time? How do we communicate that we aren’t ready to discuss something?
  • Existing family dynamics- How do we navigate the everyday interactions between our families?
  • Future activities – What kinds of things do we want to do when we get together?
  • Grandkids– What will the relationship between Marni’s children and Karen be? What is desired?
  • Roller Coaster Emotions – How do we acknowledge the roller coaster emotions of reunion? How do we respect ‘where we are emotionally on any given day?
  • Exploring Mother/Daughter dynamics – Will we experience those since we didn’t grow up together?
  • “Titles” in the relationship- What will we call each other? What will we call extended family members?

When we started working through these topics we had to table a few. I learned through Karen’s guidance, you don’t have to solve everything at once. Over time we circled back to work through some of the more difficult ones. We now communicate freely and participate in family gatherings. Having made huge strides in processing my adoption grief and finding my identity, I am now ok calling these “issues” without freaking out.

Karen is a retired middle school guidance counselor. As I read the books and attended the meetings, she helped guide me to better understand myself, which helped me embrace this reunion along with opening my heart to a better appreciate of my pre-existing relationships. Having a retired guidance counselor as your biological mother has been very helpful, except she doesn’t cut me any slack. She is my accountability partner. Karen has used her job and life skills to help guide us through this journey.

For example, early in our reunion my oldest daughter went away to college in the fall of 2015. We had extended family and friends over to say goodbye and I invited Karen. She had been with my immediate family on two occasions, but she had not been to an extended family event yet. We were in the early stages of our reunion and working through our list of topics. Because this social event should focus on my daughter, we decided to follow guiding principle #1 (GP #1) - our immediately family comes first. Since then, Karen has become a regular and welcomed part of various family events. Taking it slow helped these extended family relationships to develop in their own time.

While the guiding principles were crucial in those early months, they continue to be useful nearly four years into the reunion. While we enjoy our visits, Karen makes sure I don’t get distracted from nurturing my relationship with my spouse and children. On occasion I will send her a picture or note while on a date with my spouse. She will remind me that I’m on a date and I should follow GP#1 – immediate family comes first. I might have rolled my eyes at the time, but I knew she was right.

At first the guiding principles served as a safety net as we shared with each other. However, as the relationship matured, they became much more. By maintaining these boundaries, we were able to build a foundation of trust. With trust we were able to tackle the tougher conversations. For example, I was able to share with Karen that my adoption made me sad. As a guidance counselor, she was familiar with the stages of grief – one of which is anger. With a little prodding, she was able to get me to recognize and accept I felt anger, an emotion I had stuffed inside for years. Through that difficult conversation, I reconciled my feelings and wrote Karen a note of forgiveness. Later on, as the trust continued to build, I asked her why she never looked for me. I don’t think I would have ever had these emotional conversations without the boundaries we established and the trust we built.

As life circumstances change, so do the guiding principles. I added a fourth principle as we both age and experience different health concerns. I realize that life is not everlasting. I became paralyzed with grief thinking of my future loss. Karen can see it in my eyes when I worry, so we sat down and talked about it. Just like we can’t change the past, we also can’t predict the future. Therefore, I now embrace today not worrying about tomorrow.

Through our periodic heart to heart conversations we continue to peel away the layers I built to protect myself from rejection and failure. I was surprised by how easily I could be triggered once I “came out of the fog”. I didn’t realize how my adoption impacted how I approached life until I found Karen and started processing my grief. Finding Karen helped me find myself. I believe the boundaries we created and followed were crucial in the outcome of our reunion.

Karen and I know we are lucky. Not all reunions are positive or characterized by good communication practices. Establishing these guiding principles helped us look at this process objectively and helped us celebrate this gift of reunion. Otherwise, it would be hard to stay focused on this emotional journey. It took a lot of work, but we are worth it.

Every adoptee and birthparent is different. To help guide your journey, consider working together at the outset to identify what your values and needs are. From there you can develop your own guiding principles to lead the way. I hope you find these suggestions helpful as you travel down your own adoption reunion journey.