OBG Editor’s Note: Ohio Birthparent Group has been privileged to be a landing place and sounding board for countless adoptees and birth parents who have reconnected with each other as a result of Ohio’s new open records law that went into effect earlier this year. It’s been quite some time since we posted a guest blog from one of our members- let’s just say we’ve been pretty busy helping folks navigate big changes in their lives! Like many new relationships, adoption reunion can seem like an obstacle course of communication challenges and uncertain boundaries. In this blog, OBG member and 1967 adoptee Marni Hall shares how she and her birth mother built a foundation for communication and boundary-setting in their reunion. (…Wondering how an adoptee can be a member of Ohio Birthparent Group? We have support groups for everyone!)
I have been blessed by a successful adoption reunion with my birth mom who I will call Lynne, the name she went by in the home for unwed mothers. I will protect her true identify for the purpose of this article because she still faces the prejudice of the 1960’s. Before I share the tools we used to guide our relationship, here are some background details leading up to our reunion:
- After submitting the paperwork for my adoption information on March 20th 2015, I received my original birth certificate and health history on April 4th. From the information I received, I contacted Lynne with the sole purpose of thanking her for my life and sharing the opportunities I was afforded because of the adoption. I sent pictures of my family so that she would know that I was okay. I expected nothing from her in return. I received a letter 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 participate in Facebook groups for Ohio adoptees.
It became apparent from our correspondence and from our first meeting that Lynne and I both had extraordinary lives due to the decision that was made 48 years ago. Not extraordinary in a pompous sense, but extraordinary in terms of our families, faith, driving motivations and careers. 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. From this reality, we developed the first of three guiding principles that we use to establish common ground and to structure our communication:
Marni and Lynne’s Guiding Principles for Relationship
1. Our relationship will look forward, not back. There are no “what ifs”!
2. Our new relationship must not interfere with our pre-existing lives. This relationship is an addition to, not a replacement of, our extraordinary lives.
3. We must allow ourselves to celebrate and receive this gift of reconnection.
Once the guiding principles were established, we realized there were several important topics to be resolved in order to blend our lives and move forward. From our different perspectives as an adoptee and a birth mother, we both contributed to develop a list of topics that addressed our respective needs. Periodically we meet to tackle these topics and add new items from time to time. We also established some basic ground rules for discussing topics. As long as we honor our overarching guiding principles and follow these discussion groundrules, 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 & Lynne’s Discussion Ground Rules
No questions are off limit.
No wrong answers.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
It’s ok to disagree.
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 pre-existing family events
- Disclosing Lynne’s Birth Motherhood – How, where, when and if will Lynne 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 Lynne’s need to lead her disclosures among her own friends and family? How can we create safety for Lynne as she confronts the stigma and prejudice faced by birth mothers?
- 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 Lynne as she ‘comes out’ as a birth mother?
- 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 Lynne be? What is desired?
- Roller Coaster Emotions – How do we acknowledge the roller coaster emotions of reunion? How do we respect ‘where we’re at’ 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?
We haven’t had time to reach consensus on every topic yet, but as I have learned through Lynne’s guidance, you don’t have to solve everything at once. Our written agreement continues to be a work in progress.
Lynne 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 better appreciate my pre-existing relationships. Having a retired guidance counselor as your birth mom has been very helpful, except she doesn’t cut me any slack. She is my accountability partner. Lynne has used her job skills to help guide us through this journey.
For example, my oldest daughter recently went away to college and we had extended family over to say goodbye. I invited Lynne to my family’s gathering. She has been with my immediate family on two occasions, but she reminded me of our second guiding principle. Our pre-existing family events come first. Even though I hope to include her in some extended family events in the future, her place in the family is still one of our topics to be resolved.
I have experienced several “aha” moments through our journey. As stated above, I have been able to open my heart to better appreciate my existing relationships. I have allowed myself to feel emotions that I had stuffed inside for years. This part was a little scary. As these emotions came forward, I realized that I had experienced a sense of loss throughout my life that I didn’t realize. Plus, I realized that my need for acceptance as an adoptee had made me an overachiever in many positive ways through academics, youth leadership, adult community service and my career.
Lynne and I recognize that our lives have been extraordinary because of the decision made in 1967. We know we are lucky. Not all reunions are positive or characterized by good communication practices. Establishing these guiding principles helped me 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.
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. – Marni Hall
Clarification: In the edited version of this post, Marni and Lynne’s Guiding Principle #1 was swapped with Guiding Principle #2 for ease of reading. Marni writes to clarify, “Though we settled on three guiding principles to live by, the one that Lynne and I refer to constantly is “our pre-existing families come first”. In our day to day lives we refer to it as GP#1, though it is listed second in this blog.”