E. Kay Trimberger Ph.D.

Adoption Diaries

Adoptive Parents and Adoption Reunions

Adoptive parents should participate in their adult son's and daughter's reunions

Posted Sep 19, 2014

    Most of the professional literature on reunion, and many memoirs written by adult adoptees about their reunions with birth parents, assume that adoptive parents will play no role.  There seems to be an assumption that they will be hurt or hostile.  So, I often felt insecure when I, as an adoptive parent, took the initiative in my son Jamal’s  reunion when he was twenty-five.  

    During his childhood, we had talked about his birth families (one white and the other African-American)  and the possibility of his contacting them once he became an adult.  This was what adoption professionals  recommended in the 1980s and into the 1990s, before the current advocacy of opening up adoptions as early as possible.   As a young adult, however, Jamal was too scared of rejection to pursue it.  But he was enthusiastic when I told him that I had met awoman at a book talk who told me how to contact a finder, someone who for $200 would do an internet search and then make the first contact with the birth parent.  Later, I learned that  two-thirds of adoption reunions are facilitated by an intermediary.

    Jamal especially wanted to communicate with his black birth father, something I had anticipated many years before. When he was four years old,  I had the foresight to ask the San Francisco lawyer who had arranged the private adoption to obtain the birth father’s name.  But twenty years later, the finder couldn’t locate him with the name I’d been given, although she easily found his birth mother who still used the name we had.  Within a day, the finder was on the phone with Louise, Jamal’s white birth mother, who had long hoped for this call.  Louise told the finder that she was eager to talk to Jamal, and to introduce him to her family, which included two more mixed race children.   She would help him find his birth father.

            The next day, with the finder mediating, Jamal and Louise spoke on the phone for thirty  minutes, arranged to exchange pictures and to talk again.   Louise wanted to get together right away, but Jamal needed more time.   Even though this seemed like an ideal reunion story--no secrecy, no ambivalence, and complete acceptance--Jamal had never liked change or upheaval.  Four months later, he met Louise and his brother in Southern California.  Jamal wanted me to go with him, but I demurred.  I thought that he should take this initiative and not me. So he took his girl friend with him for the four-day visit.

    Six months later, Jamal accepted Louise’s invitation to come for a visit to her home in a southern state.  During a ten-day stay, Louise introduced  Jamal to her extended family and found his birth father, Reggie, who didn’t know he existed.  Jamal physically resembled his birth father and Reggie and his  black extended family embraced him.  Jamal soon  went for two extended stays in the South,  one for six months and another for four months, where he lived consecutively with Louise and then Reggie.  Early on,  Jamal invited me to come for a visit, but it wasn’t a good time for me.  Although I had phone contact with the birth parents and a few other family members, it took me several years to go  with Jamal to visit both extended birth families. They were very welcoming to me.  More recently, I was in the south for a professional meeting and went for short visits on my own with Louise, Reggie and other family members. 

    Like most adult adopted children who usually renew their bonds with adoptive parents  after a  reunion with birth parents, Jamal came back to California and still lives near  me.
I feel good about the role that I played in my son’s reunion, although perhaps I should have done what he asked - going with him for the first meeting with his birth mother and coming for a visit in the South the first time he invited  me.  

    These considerations were raised for me when I saw Closure, a recent adoption reunion documentary.   The well-made, emotional film records the search and reunion of a twenty-six-year-old black woman, Angela,  adopted at a young age by a white couple. She looks for and finds her  black birth father and mother and their extended families in the south.  Her adoptive  parents and her white husband (the film maker) helped in the search and accompanied her on her first two reunion trips.  Angela says  in the film that she always imagined doing the reunion alone, but she appreciated her family’s support.  While supportive, did Angela’s family accompanying her to the reunion, enforce  their family’s claim on her?  Did she  have the space to explore her own feelings about these new families?  Maybe these were not  issues for her, since the film ends not with closure, but with the birth mother visiting Angela and the adoptive family in Washington State.  (See my longer review of Closure on the Huffington Post.)

    In both Jamal’s and Angela’s  reunion stories, adoptive parents were not just approving, but involved,  and not just with birth parents, but with whole extended families.   Rather than being threatened by an adult  adopted son’s or daughter’s  desire for reunion, adoptive parents  should welcome it as a way to strengthen their family bond and to open up the possibility of a more extended family linking adoptive and biological relatives.
    

About the Author

E. Kay Trimberger, Ph.D., is professor emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University

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