The Birth Family Reunion

D, Katie and Andrew at the top of the Hancock

There was the predictable anxiety before the visit.  

M rented a car and left her hometown early on Friday morning with her two kids in tow.  She expected to arrive in Chicago at 3:00 pm.  Andrew made a 6:00 pm dinner reservation at Mity Nice Grill in Water Tower Place.  

Katie was antsy Friday morning, and we were glad that she had a full day of camp to keep her busy.  As the afternoon wore on, M called to say she had run into major traffic outside Joliet.  We moved the dinner reservation to 6:30, which would be a push for my girls, who usually go to bed around 7:00.

At 5:00 pm, we headed into downtown Chicago so that the girls could walk around while we waited for M to arrive.  Katie made a beeline for the American Girl store.  Within twenty minutes of looking at dolls and dolls and dolls and more dolls, Andrew was about to lose his mind.  Even I had to admit that the store is a bit overwhelming, overpriced and over stimulating.  The clothes sure are cute, though.

M called again to say that she was now stuck in traffic caused by the Bon Jovi concert (we didn't know there was a concert or we would have planned better), but they were having fun looking at all the limos.  We moved the dinner reservation to 7:00 pm and tried to entertain the girls at Macy's.

M called again to say she missed her exit off Lake Shore Drive and was stuck in traffic on LaSalle.  Andrew told her that we needed to go to the restaurant and start dinner because our kids were close to falling apart.  

When we explained to Katie that we were going to order dinner on our own, she began to sob.  I felt so sorry for her.  She had been waiting and waiting for this visit, and she had all this pent-up anxiety, and now things weren't going as planned.  They never do.

Still, Katie was a trooper, and she understood that we were spending the whole day with M tomorrow, and that she and her little sisters were exhausted and hungry, and she rallied as soon as she had eaten some bread.

Birth Family visit 2010 214.JPG

To our delight, M and the kids arrived shortly after we ordered, and the
dinner was salvaged.  There was a muddle of chaos and hugs when they
showed up at the table.  The restaurant was noisy; we fit right in.  

At one point, Katie called, "Mommy?" and M and I both said, "Yes?" at
the same time.  M said, "Oh, sorry," and Katie didn't even notice.  I
went over to assist her with cutting up her chicken, and the moment passed.

Throughout dinner, Katie talked and played easily with her birth
brother, D, who is 11, and her birth sister, E, who is 14.  Annie Rose
was somewhat miffed that these people had come specifically to see
Katie.  She is used to being the center of attention, and this was a new
world order for her.  However, the lack of attention didn't stop Annie Rose from cheerfully
singing Disney Songs at the top of her lungs throughout dinner, and
before the night was up, she was perched in M's arms, giving and
receiving kisses.  Everyone succumbs to her charms eventually.  

We left the dinner feeling very relieved that it had worked out.  At
home, Annie Rose and Cleo fell asleep immediately.  Katie was unable to
relax.  She wanted me to stay in her bed and snuggle, far more so than
usual.  I think she is torn in her loyalties.  She yearns for M; she
clings to me.  Finally, around 10:00 pm, she drifted off.

Saturday morning arrived with a clear sky and a high sun.  We met M and
the kids at the Shedd Aquarium.  It was a good venue for us.  The
exhibits around us created a focal point for our conversations, which
kept things from feeling too intense.  

The one thing our two families really have in common is Katie.  She is
the link holding us together.  M and I talked about that, about how
vastly different our worlds are.  Just that morning, M and the kids had
taken their first ever cab ride.  M had photographed the parking
garage outside her hotel, because it was so unique to her.

We laughed as we remembered how Andrew and I took pictures of hay bales
and grazing cows when we first visited M's rural town.  Each of us is captivated by
the trivial details of the other's daily landscapes.  

We left the Shedd and took a boat ride to Navy Pier, where M and the
kids played the role of tourists.  Andrew's parents came along, and
their presence really helped Annie Rose, who was somewhat lost on the
periphery.  Usually, Katie and Annie Rose are glued at the hip, equally
loving and torturing each other, as only siblings can do.  But now,
Katie had eyes just for D and E.  She wanted nothing to do with Annie
Rose, who was not used to being marginalized by her idol.  Andrew's
parents scooped up Annie Rose and kept her occupied, and Andrew and I gently reminded Katie to include Annie Rose a little more.

We ate dinner at Riva, and when the evening ended, M was worn out.  "I
just need to get away from the crowds and go sit in my hotel room," she
said.  I felt sympathetic.  It was much easier for us to adjust to the
quiet hayfields than it was for her to adjust to the hectic city.  

We were all tired.  The day had started very early.  Katie had slept poorly the night before and Annie Rose never
got a chance to nap.  I was still recovering from giving birth to Cleo
seven weeks earlier, and at night I don't get a lot of sleep.  It was
time to part ways while everyone was still holding it together.

Sunday morning came upon us quickly.  Andrew's family, including our
sister-in-law, Kim, and our nephew, Roscoe, joined us for brunch.  His
parents took us all to the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the
Hancock, which gave M and the kids a phenomenal view of the city.  

"Okay, okay, I can see the appeal of living here," M laughed, as she marveled at the skyline below us.  

All too soon, brunch was over, and it was time to make our goodbyes.  I
was curious to see if Katie would cry, but she seemed okay as she gave
out big hugs.  At bedtime, however, she burst into tears, crying and
moaning that she missed M, E and D.  

"M picks me up, and I like that, and you never do that," she wailed.  

"Katie, I can't pick you up.  M is a lot bigger than I am, and it isn't
as hard for her.  I am just not strong enough to pick you up.  But you
can sit on my lap and snuggle with me, and I can give you hugs.  Plus, Daddy
picks you up."

"You only pick up Annie Rose and Cleo.  You only love them," she cried.

"I pick them up because they are littler and younger, not because I love them more."

"It's not fair.  I wish I were a baby.  Then you could pick me up too," she told me.

"I know it's hard.  I did pick you up when you were a baby.  But now you
are a big girl, and we get to do things together that the little ones
can't.  We go on bike rides together.  We read Narnia books together. 
We cuddle in your bed and talk at bedtime."

For several weeks, Katie has been lamenting the fact that she is the
oldest in our family.  She liked being the youngest with M and her
kids.  I knew this was coming. 

"I know you miss M.  They miss you, too," I said to her. 

"Well, I miss M as much as you miss your dogs," she cried, changing the subject a little.

"What dogs?" I asked her.

"The dogs you grew up with!" she yelled, exasperated.

I moved away from my childhood home eighteen years ago.  All of the dogs
I grew up with have long since passed away.  But I murmured to her how
much I miss them, stroking her hair and holding her close.

"I just want a dog," she wailed.  "I want a dog to snuggle with."

I turned my head away so she couldn't see me smile.  Sometimes I forget
she is not even seven years old.  She was winding down.  It was time to
read a book and say goodnight.  

It has been three days since the visit, and she has not mentioned the
birth family.  This happened last year, too.  She was obsessed with them
in the weeks leading up to the visit, and then she went back to life as
usual.  Today she had camp, followed by Spanish class and dinner with friends.  This weekend we are heading to Michigan, and she is full of chatter about the beach.

The birth family goes back to their lives and we go back to ours.  We are worlds apart, united by Katie.

There is the predictable calm after the visit.   

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  • Carrie, I get a lot from reading about how you handle Katie being a part of two families. I am living the flip side of your story...sort of. Three years ago we fostered a little girl, Nina, for thirteen months. She came to us (through Child Protective Services) as a 9 month old baby while her mother, Rayna, battled bipolar illness, alcoholism and drug addiction. While Rayna was in rehab, she had regular visits with Nina. I could see that Rayna was working very hard to overcome her demons. Having very few friends or family, she relied on me to teach her how to parent Nina so she could be better prepared for her once she had completed rehab and stabilized on her medications.

    In the meanwhile, we strongly bonded with Nina as our daughter. She was the first child we ever raised, having lost our biological son at 5 months of pregnancy. And the more Nina became part of the fiber of our being as a family, the harder it was for me to face the reality of reuniting her with her birth mother. I had raised this beautiful, intelligent girl in a stable home and consistent environment - and I loved her so fiercely, passionately, as my daughter (still do, which is why I don't think I can ever feel like an "aunt" to her). Now I was going to have to return her to her mother who loved her just as much, but who had a long road ahead to get her life back together (To this day, Rayna is on state assistance and does not have a permanent home).

    The day we returned Nina, 22 months old, to her birth mother Rayna, and the months following the reunification, were among the most profoundly sorrowful times for my husband and I. We also worried about Nina constantly - where was "our" daughter today? Did she get fed? Did she have a place to sleep? The void was even larger for me because I had developed a relationship with Rayna as well for over a year- upon reunification, however, Rayna told me (understandably) that she wanted to focus on building a relationship with Nina and preferred not to stay in touch with us.

    Three months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Rayna called me out of the blue. She said Nina missed us a great deal- would we like to meet her in a park? We couldn't wait - and oh was it ever so wonderful for us to feel her in our arms again!

    Since that day, almost 2 years ago, we have maintained regular contact with Rayna and Nina. Nina spends two days with us every other week. She is happy, highly chatty, very loving, and seems to have adjusted to having two families - her birth family consisting of Rayna (whom she now calls Mom) and two older half-siblings, and her former foster family that now includes her "baby brother" Lenny, a little boy we adopted a year ago. I suppose it is an informal joint custodial arrangement.

    Have there been emotional ups and downs? You bet. I remember how hard it was for me during our initial get-togethers to refrain from rushing to Nina's side, or from telling Rayna how to do things just the way Nina likes them, or to accept that I was no longer Nina's mother. And I remember how tearful Rayna was when she called me one afternoon to tell me Nina had a fever and wanted me, only me, to feed her and hold her and put her down for a nap - and how hard it was for me to rock "my" daughter, Nina, to sleep in that small dingy room while assuring Rayna that she is a great mom and to not take to heart what Nina says in her sick, vulnerable state. I also live with the underlying awareness that Rayna could change her mind at any time and say she no longer wants us to see Nina. I know losing contact with Nina again would be devastating, and I imagine Katie's birth mother feels that vulnerability as well.

    And then there is the most important being in all of this - Nina, who I know (like your Katie) is sometimes conflicted and torn. Like after her last visit with us two weeks ago, when she said, "I want to live here forever. Why did you give me away to Rayna, mommy?" (she hasn't called me "mommy" in at least a year). And I held her and we talked yet again about how your mommy Rayna is the kindest, gentlest person I know, how very much she loves you, how she only asked if you could live with us for a little while because she was too sick to care for you, how your mommy is so very generous to let us share you with her because she knows how much we love you, how you will always have two homes and two families who love you very much.

    What all of us adults in Nina's life are hoping for, from all of this, is that Nina gets the benefit of a close bond with her roots and identity, her birth family, while deriving comfort from the stability of the one place where she has her space, her room, photos of her growing up, a sense of constancy - our home, and the people in it who will always love her a whole lot. In this, and practically only this, Rayna and I are absolutely in sync - we love Nina and want her happiness more than anything else.

  • In reply to jiyer:

    Wow, you are a strong person. My husband and I just read your comment together, and we were amazed by what you have been through. I don't know how I would survive giving Katie back. Rayna is really lucky to have you, and Nina is even luckier to have you. It's strange how life works. None of us would choose such complicated families, but this is how it happened, and we love our kids so much that we will settle for whatever we can get. I wish you the very best. Carrie

  • In reply to CarrieGoldman:

    Thanks Carrie. In retrospect, my husband and I feel enriched by this experience but in the year following Nina's return to her birth mother, we each wallowed in our private grief and it really tested our marriage. We still don't feel terribly strong - but certainly blessed.

    On a somewhat lighter note, I smiled at one of your earlier posts because Nina is in a very similar situation to Katie. She is the oldest child and big brother to Lenny in our home, and she is the baby at Rayna's with two older half-siblings: a 7 yr. old brother and a 11 yr. old sister. I feel that your Katie and my Nina are lucky to get the benefits of being babied as the youngest as well as getting the importance of being #1!

    I commend you, your husband and Katie's birth mom for getting together and nurturing Katie in the best way possible. Keep writing - it reminds me that I am not alone in this "balancing" journey!

  • In reply to CarrieGoldman:

    I love reading and hearing about birth and adoptive families who share time and a real bond. We send pictures and letters to our son's birth mother, but we have not heard back from her at all. He has four siblings that I would really like for him to know. I truly hope that some day his birth mother will be as strong as M.

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