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Reunions come in many styles and with many variations, but the essence is still the same. This is the "meeting" - the reconnection - of two people who for all intents and purposes are closely related, but who are relative strangers. Like the development of any relationship, that of adoptee and birth relative takes time and effort. There is something profoundly mystical and magical about reunions. They require lots of work, lots of concentration and, above all, a sense of humour. Rules of etiquette which have been developed through experience may make things run more smoothly:
Do be honest. There have been enough lies and secrets.
Do share information as appropriate, both in the initial call (if there is one) and later, when you meet. Sometimes questions come as a reflex and may not need to be answered that very moment. For example, to "How did you find me?" you might respond "It was not easy. I'll tell you the whole story sometime. Right now let's enjoy this wonderful meeting." To "Who is my birth father?" one might respond "I will tell you the whole story, but right now I need some time to reflect on what has happened. But I promise I'll tell you the truth." A related principle is that if an immediate answer to your questions is not forthcoming, try to be patient - within reason - with the other person.
Do try to laugh. This is a joyful situation. Don't make it into a frightening experience. There is enough inherent drama in the incredible event taking place without adding to the tension. Be prepared to go whitewater rafting and hang on tight!
Do try to keep it simple. In birth parent searches, do not try to find both parents at once (unless, of course, they are still together). The emotional upheaval that may ensue could spoil the hope of future successes.
Do plan your first meeting in a place where either party can feel confident and safe. The situation is emotional enough without adding to it the fear of not being able to "get away" if there is a problem. A cozy corner in a public place (behind the potted palms in a large hotel lounge) can be just fine. If you decide this is working well, you can move to somewhere more private.
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Do keep the first meeting shorter rather than longer, if possible. This gives everyone time to take a breather, re-assess the situation and consider the future relationship. It is always easier meeting for the second time. (If you have to travel some distance to meet, the "second time" may be the day after your initial meeting.)
Do try to avoid a huge family picnic as the way to introduce your new-found relative to the clan. It can be very overwhelming to meet 50 relatives at once.
Do keep an open mind. The birth family may be very different from the adoptive family. Try not to judge one against the other until you get to know them better.
Do have realistic expectations. The moment of reunion is not the time to decide you really only wanted "medical information" or that you are not ready to pursue a relationship. It is cruel to set the other party up to expect more than you are prepared to give. Be honest with yourself and try to look at your reasons for searching and the limits of what you can accept. Talk with your support system ahead of time about the limits; if you're in an uncomfortable situation, try to resolve it directly and privately.
Do have a frank discussion of how the adoptee will address the birth parent and other birth relatives, and vice versa, following the reunion. Some birth mothers want their surrendered children to call them "Mom," but adoptees already have one "Mom" in their life and may not be comfortable using that title for anyone but their adoptive mother. Likewise, some adoptees are eager to call their birth mother "Mom," but the birth mother may not be comfortable being called "Mom" by a child she did not raise. Good manners would also direct that any discussion of how the adoptee will refer to his or her birth relatives not take place in the presence of a roomful of relatives. One needs to be very flexible. If this issue becomes one of contention, a re-examination of expectations may be in order.
Don't try to compete with established family holiday procedures unless everyone agrees. Like the name issue, this is not worth the anguish it can cause. Keep it simple. Many reunited relatives get bogged down in the minutiae of names and festivals instead of being thrilled that they have found each other.
Do try to respect the other person's wishes about sharing the reunion with other members of the family. For some birth parents, a reluctance to share can go on too long. Try to set limits to your impatience and wait it out. At some point adoptees in this situation may need to re-assess their expectations and make decisions about the future path of the relationship. Advice from an experienced searcher or support group is recommended.
Do be stoic if the other party feels a need to pull back for a while. It is very wise to agree without a huge fuss, great grief, or gnashing of teeth. Such need to pull away is often seen in the reunion process. It allows the person to take stock or re-assess the reunion and its effect on his or her life. Although very painful to the other person, it is best treated with patience and lots of reading. Support groups are great for dealing with the sadness. No one can fix anyone else. They can only fix themselves.
Don't blame yourself for problems in the other person's life. Birth mothers often feel great guilt if the child they relinquished did not grow up as advantaged as they might have hoped, or if religion is not as important in their child's life as it is to them (or vice versa). Adoptees can sometimes feel guilty if the relinquishment experience had a negative impact on the birth mother's life. We cannot turn the clock back no matter how much we might want to. Your relationship starts from the day you meet again. Keep it positive.
Don't plan on moving in with your new relatives. They may be delighted to meet you but they are not looking for a permanent house guest.
Do enjoy the reunion. It's a gift from God.
© Monica Byrne
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