"Start writing a new chapter, for if you live by the book you’ll never make history." – Ben Sobel
I am feeling the need to write but at a loss for words. Lots of malformed thoughts, expressions, feelings running through the hallways of my head. Instead of coming up with my own, I will post an article by Joss Shawyer that I stumbled across today. I have read it before. It hits me differnetly every time. Like so many adoption books, stories, articles, as I advance farther down my own path, previously read material takes on new meaning.
The Rocky Road of Reunion – by Joss Shawyer
The reunion path is pitted on the one hand with the emotional pain of an adopted child’s first mother, who has tried to cope with her grief and loss by burying the experience in the ‘getting on with life’ recipe dished out to her by well meaning social workers, family members and friends, and on the other hand with the insecurity of the lost child, now found. Shock is always a factor in reunion because there is always one party who did not know the other party was searching for them. Thus one person is always better prepared than the other. Because it is usually the adopted person who has been engaged with the process of searching for their first mother it is the mother who is most often shocked when the first contact happens. It is so sudden and comes without warning. Buried feelings surface and can overwhelm her.
Fear of rejection is the main emotional ingredient suppressed beneath the adopted persons search for their first mother. They search. They find. They meet her. The early stages of reunion are often described almost as a love affair, when the euphoria of meeting takes precedence over every-day, entrenched emotional coping strategies that have developed over time to deal with mutual loss. The key to understanding the extreme emotional see-saw often experienced by the lost child, now found, lies in their own issues of bonding and attachment to their adoptive parents, especially when that attachment was weak or did not happen at all. The lack of emotional attachment to substitute parents and the resulting insecurity that may have been a major factor in driving the search to find the lost mother, is most powerful after reunion and when the ‘honeymoon’ period is over. The fear of rejection that originated in the adoption itself, returns with a vengeance.
The found child, now an adult, cannot cope with feelings of old loss coupled with an intense fear of new loss. The solution is often found in a withdrawal from the forming of the new relationship. Old insecurities are revisited – ‘why did she give me away’ – and can be strengthened by their first mothers own emotional pain that follows reunion. The insecurity of failed adoption entrenches itself in a lack of trust in others and in a self-doubt so strong that the lost child cannot believe they are wanted; having searched in the belief they are will find a self of identify, they can be blown away by the love and the welcome that they did not expect. They cannot respond. They don’t know how. They panic. They run away.
Upon reunion a mother’s old grief and loss washes over her in a way she could not previously have imagined. Sometimes she too withdraws from reunion contact, needing to distance herself from an emotional turmoil that threatens to swamp her. Often her child does the same. Adopted people have described how they became trapped in what they experienced as an emotional dependency on their first mother so strong, so frightening, that they could only withdraw from contact, for fear of losing themselves. They return to their old coping strategies, their own adaptations to growing up in a family where they may not have felt they belonged but where the dysfunctional relationships at least provided the comfort of everyday familiarity. With their new world turned upside down, they run back to the old – it hurts too much to stay.
The lost child, on being warmly welcomed back into the first family, also has to cope with half-siblings who have clearly had the affection they themselves have lacked. This is very, very hard for them to accept. This hurts. Adopted children have no political understanding of the framework of the social engineering policies that drive adoption. This makes everything they experience personal, and only about them. Thus they blame themselves for their lack of worthiness that determined that they were not loveable, and hence not loved. It can make sense to them that they were given up whereas the next natural born child was not – such is their sense of unworthiness. Unwanted. A mistake. This is what they believe they were, what they believe they are.
Adopted people who were loved and did attach to adoptive families, display much more emotional stability throughout the reunion process. They find it easier to bond and have no need to run and hide from the affections of the found family. Rather, they revel in it, and are able to do this because they have found themselves in familiar territory. Their search was based in a need for identify, the need to know where they came from, rather than driven by an unfulfilled need to be loved. Consequently they accept new affection with a graciousness that originates in the confidence of emotional security, as if it is their right. They display the self-esteem that originates in self-love. They are unafraid of rejection – they don’t know what it is.
The lost-found child who is insecure will not risk the new relationships, and so they cannot risk conflict. They find it easier to slip away, unable to ask the questions that could damage this fragile new friendship with a mother. It is easier to return to the old life where there is no longer emotional distress, just an acceptance of a place in a family and a community that has become familiar. They do not ask the question ‘why did you give me away’ for the reason they already know the answer. Or think they do.
The found mother who must now reclaim this child a second time, has to apply a tough tenacity to the task ahead. First she needs to learn to understand the dynamics of any rejected, damaged child practiced in the unconscious art of ‘testing’ out all new relationships, with the primary goal of finding themselves wanting, unworthy and thus safe in the place where they are always rejected, safe from a need for the love that they know can only bring pain. The answer is for the mother to prove to this adult son or daughter, that her love is unconditional, regardless of what that lost-found-lost child does to reject her affection.
To achieve this the first mother must deal with her own pain in another forum, by entering into therapy, by talking to other women who understand, by kicking holes in a wall, by doing whatever helps. This is a big ask. She must separate out her own second loss from the baby she lost so long ago and see that child clearly and separately to herself, her own needs, for although this child may be an adult in terms of years, inside them is a sad, rejected child desperately wanting the love they have never had but are now too afraid to accept. Thus this failed adoption goes on and on, overlaying the reunion process and interfering in it. Adoptive parents threatened by the reunion often actively sabotage the process, thus identifying themselves as selfish adversaries to their adopted child’s well-being, and against the driving need for emotional health to be found in a first belonging. When adopters choose to see the natural mother as their natural enemy, they turn the reunion process into a personal war.
There is only person motivated enough to reach the hurting child and change that destructive process – the mother whose love was so great at their first parting, that she sacrificed her own needs in the powerful, if mistaken belief that adoption was a choice for her to make.
She must now make another sacrifice, for that’s what real mothers do in the natural order of things – they put aside their own feelings of rejection in order to reach their hurting child, and they never concede the power of their own unconditional love. No surrender, no defeat, and only one rule of engagement – remember, it is always ethical to lie to the enemy – and the spoils to the victor of this particular battle are surely worth the struggle.
Voices From Exile February 2003 "The Rocky Road of Reunion"
Copyright © 2003 Joss Shawyer