Meeting in Person and One Birth Mother’s Experience.
Today, I talk with Anne, a 60-year old birth mom, who is navigating meeting in person her birth daughter, I’ll call her Shelly, whom she had recently connected with over Ancestry.com. They had texted each other and met on Facetime, and they scheduled a time to meet in person. Shelly canceled at the last minute. In fact, Shelly has canceled at the last minute more than once when it came time to meet in person. Anne told me that she didn’t understand it. She wondered if this was a reflection on who Shelly is as a person or how she feels about Anne.
Anne isn’t sure what type of relationship she wants with Shelly. She said that she was hoping that meeting in person would have a cathartic effect for her. Anne isn’t exactly sure what she wants to get out of it. However, she knows that she feels really disappointed every time Shelly cancels. Anne says it feels like an emotional rollercoaster and she’s not sure if she’s ready for it.
I told Anne that anxiety about meeting in person is really common.
Anne and Shelly have met a couple times through Facetime. So, Anne is confused as to why Shelly seems hesitant to meet in person. Meeting on FT is not the same as meeting in person. You have a lot of control over a FT meeting. If you’re feeling uncomfortable on FT, all you have to do is hang up and then blame it on a poor connection. There’s a distance and a comfortable barrier with FT that you don’t have with meeting in person. On FT, you can wear your pajamas, play with a fidget toy, manipulate lighting and sit in the one clean room in your house. FT gives you some control, meeting in person does not. We are more vulnerable in person.
So many things about our appearance, our mannerisms and our emotions are on display in person when they are not online. For all of these reasons, anticipating a meeting in person can create anxiety.
Meeting in person can take a relationship to the next level.
Like any new relationship started online, meeting in person is a big step. In many ways it’s a commitment to take things to the next level. We have expectations when we meet in person; we are looking more carefully at that person and forming more definitive opinions. Maybe we’re making judgments, subconsciously or not. Most important, meeting in person makes the other person real. We each become someone with feelings that can be hurt and expectations that might not be met. When we agree to meet in person, we know this intuitively. Meeting in person for the first time is anxiety producing in the best of circumstances; add to the equation the sadness and loss and complicated emotions around adoption, and that first meeting is an overwhelming hurdle. Some will not want to or be ready to jump over.
Anne assumes that Shelly is ambivalent about Anne or that she is insensitive to Anne’s feelings.
My advice to Anne was that she not assume that Shelly knows how she is feeling or that she knows how Shelly, the adoptee, is feeling. I have always been a believer in the mantra that honesty is the best policy. The only way to know each other’s feelings is to talk about what those feelings actually are. You might think the other is afraid, confused, feeling regret, feeling unloved or abandoned. If this is the case, you might very well be wrong. Sharing what’s in your heart by talking about how you feel is usually a really good idea.
Talking about feelings can be complicated.
Talking about feelings isn’t easy, especially feelings we avoid or can’t identify or have been taught are not okay. Some birth parents and adoptees are afraid that talking about feelings is the same as telling the other person what they think, passing judgment. Talking about our feelings isn’t the same thing as telling someone what you think of their behavior or what you assume about them.
Talking about feelings can mean telling the other person what you need from them. Sharing with your birth child that you are confused and scared and not sure what you want from this relationship is not the same as saying, you feel like a stranger to me or I don’t feel like your mother. Describing to your birth child the incredible sadness and loss you felt at the time of the adoption is not the same as saying, getting pregnant with you ruined my life.
Shelly might be confused about how she’s supposed to feel about this new relationship.
Adoptees and birth parents may have no idea what they want from their relationship with each other. This creates anxiety and maybe ambivalence about meeting in person. What if one wants more than the other is able to give? Their can be a real gap between what the adoptee and birth parent want from both the meeting and relationship. Some might feel it’s easier to just not meet in person so you don’t have to deal with the consequences and figuring out what’s next.
Keeping some distance and respecting boundaries might be the best thing for everyone. If you aren’t an adoptee or a birth mother, it can be difficult to understand why reuniting isn’t a joyous and cathartic experience. It’s a romantic notion and, honestly, not a realistic one, especially when the reunion happens many years later.
Every meeting in person is different.
For some birth parents and adoptees, the reunion feels like coming full circle and filling in a void that has been missing. That missing piece is finally in place and everyone can heal and move forward, sometimes together. However, everyone is so incredibly different: our backgrounds, upbringing, social and familial influences. Because of this, every adoption and every adoption relationship is going to look a little different. For many adoptees and birth parents, their lives have moved on to be very full and complete.
Finding a bio family member, either intentionally or not, isn’t always an earth shattering or life affirming experience. For some, just knowing the other is out there in the world, happy and thriving, is enough. For others, taking the next step of meeting in person will satisfy a curiosity and affirm the good choice, and then they will move on. It’s not uncommon that adoptees and birth parents will reunite and then have very limited contact in the future: updates at the holidays or birthdays, maybe a phone call or FT when a major life event happens. Combining lives and moving forward together as a newly reunited family is not always the case.
Dealing with anxiety from meeting in person.
It’s not surprising then, that this relationship can be challenging when one side wants more from the relationship than the other does. This uncertainty can be anxiety producing and a barrier for many birth parents and adoptees to reconnect. Extended families are frequently part of the equation as well. Sometimes a birth parents’ spouse or other children are not as interested in a relationship as the birth parent is, and this can create conflict at home.
Life changes can be scary, especially changes to the family unit. Most people rely on family for stability and continuity in their lives. These challenges don’t mean that adoptee and birth parents reconnecting is a bad idea. It’s just important to be sensitive to these potential factors. Be patient with each other when one side is really enthusiastic about moving full steam ahead and the other is feeling hesitant and wanting to take things slow.
Some advice for reconnecting with you birth child.
When reconnecting with your birth parent or your birth child, you can always take it slow. Many of us do this in new relationships anyway. Some fall head over heels and jump in with both hands and feet, without looking; but we aren’t all wired this way. It can take time to build trust and to get to know other people. This doesn’t mean a lack of interest! In the context of adoption, there’s a lot for birth parents and adoptees to consider. How will this impact the stability in their lives? Will it be disruptive? How will a spouse or partner or other children feel about this new relationship? How will it impact them?
Facing your fears.
Many birth parents haven’t told extended family about the birth child. Starting to get comfortable with that may be their first step. Birth parents and adoptees feel all kinds of different fears: fear of being rejected; fear of confrontation and being forced to explain your choices. Many people will want to take this slow, take it step by step and sit with it for a while. Sometimes there’s an amazing honeymoon period. Everyone is feeling exhilarated and fulfilled and ready to take some big steps toward incorporating each other in their lives…and then it cools down. This is normal and I encourage you to be patient with each other.
It’s okay if you don’t feel a maternal or paternal connection to your birth child. I’ve spoken with many birth parents over the years about how it feels to meet their birth child, and of course I have my own experience as well. I’m always interested, and in some ways relieved, to hear that they felt like I did—that it was amazing to see the child all grown up and happy and thriving, but that they had feelings of guilt as well. Not guilty because of the adoption, but feeling guilty that they didn’t feel an overwhelming maternal connection. They are frequently surprised by this as well.
Adoptees and birth parents probably have similar feelings about meeting in person
I don’t get to talk to a lot of adoptees about how they feel about their birth parents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was similar. Many report feelings of love and connectedness, like a really special family member. I bring this up because I wonder if these feelings are sometimes a barrier to birth parents and adoptees meeting in person. Many feel anxiety about how this will feel before they meet. I want to put it out there that if you don’t feel that maternal or paternal connection, it’s really normal. And it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you don’t respect, care or even love each other. It shouldn’t be a reason not to try to connect again on whatever level feels mutually most comfortable.