The first time we took our daughter K to visit her birth family was almost twelve years ago. Our daughter was ten months old, and it was the first time her older sister (age 7) and older brother (age 3) would be meeting her, because they had been in a different foster home than she was.
Several months before our first birth family reunion, our daughter’s birthmother, M, had successfully regained custody of the two older children, and when we arrived with the baby, it was the first time M had all three of her children in her arms at the same time.
My husband, who was taking a black and white photography class, brought his camera, and he carefully snapped portraits of our daughter with her first family. After the trip, he developed a series of 8×10 prints, and we sent gorgeous photos to M.
During that long ago weekend, we organized a dinner at a restaurant for all the people who had been part of Baby K’s life before she came home to us – the social workers from Lutheran Children and Family Services, the foster parents, K’s guardian ad litem, our adoption attorney.
I still remember how we all sat around an outside table together, passing our beautiful baby from arms to arms. K’s foster parents, Susan and Keith, were delighted to see her again; Susan had cried when she said what she thought was her final goodbye six months earlier.
M was mostly silent at that dinner, struggling with more pain than she knew what to do with. It was an emotional reunion, and it was more difficult for M than either she or I thought it would be. I was a new adoptive mom in a new open adoption; my heart and intentions were pure, but I was oh-so-naïve.
I thought that if I booked the plane tickets and brought the baby to M and let her hold the baby, see that the baby was plump and pink-cheeked, smiling and growing, thriving and loved, then M would heal from the pain of placement. In truth, I later learned that the visit was agony for her. It nearly broke her to see K cry and reach for me instead of her.
I had read books about birthmother pain, but I know now that I didn’t get it. Still recovering from my own hideous grief at losing our baby, I was focused on how desperately I wanted a baby. When I learned about Baby K’s situation, I was over the moon with delight. There was a baby that needed a home! We were a home that wanted and needed a baby!
It was not until I witnessed K’s first family torn asunder by terrible circumstances (the specifics of which are not my story to tell, so do not ask for details) that I first began to appreciate that my joy was someone else’s worst grief. I wonder if the parents of children who are saved by organ transplants feel something of the same guilt, the ever-present knowledge that we are parents because someone else’s child is no longer with them.
That first reunion was followed exactly a year later by a second reunion. I had learned from the previous reunion that a large dinner with all the members of Team K would be too much for M. We kept the reunion quieter, just us and M and her two older kids. I thought it went well, and it did, but four weeks before our third annual reunion, M called to say she couldn’t do it, that it was too painful for her.
Four years passed before M was ready to see K again. Just before K turned six, we took her and our two-year-old daughter back to K’s hometown. In the weeks leading up to that visit, K struggled. She was terrified, riddled with anxiety. She would have meltdowns and scream things like, “Just throw me away in the garbage.”
Although we had always told her she was adopted, she hadn’t seen her birth family since she was 22 months old, and she couldn’t make sense of what was happening. We worked with an adoption therapist to prepare her, and after the visit, when K finally realized we weren’t “giving her back” and that her life wasn’t changing except for now knowing some awesome new people, she settled down and returned to her easygoing self.
Because it had been so difficult for K to prepare for the reunion, I spoke with M and said, “She’s older now; she isn’t a baby. There has to be consistency. We have to do these reunions each year, now that she is old enough to understand, because I’m afraid that she will feel abandoned again if we resume visits and then you call them off.”
M felt the same way and we committed to annual reunions. At first, they were hard on our family, and I’m sure they were hard on M’s family, too. K would become disregulated each summer in the final few weeks before the reunions. Our daughter spoke through her behaviors, and the language was undeniably rough.
I was no longer the naïve brand new mom of a bouncing smiley baby in an open adoption. I saw that nobody is left untouched by the separation of birth mother and child. But along with the pain and the scars, we also were discovering the buds of growth, the welcome splash of color that marks the flowering after the cold.
M and I had something going for us that made all the difference in the world – we were partners in our open adoption. We were both focused on K. We streamlined the annual visits, so that now I fly alone with K, and my husband stays home with our younger kids. This allows K to be the center of attention with her older brother and sister. In our home, she is the oldest child. During our birth family reunions, she sheds that skin for a weekend and delights in being the fawned-over youngest child.
Each year, K has had less anxiety and more excitement prior to our reunions, until finally, we tipped the balance. Just tonight, I asked my daughter, who will be thirteen in a few months, how she is feeling about our trip tomorrow. “Nervous? Excited?” I wondered.
“More excited than anything else,” she replied. K and I are close. We snuggle. We hang out. I drive her crazy, as moms tend to do, and she drives me crazy, as middle-schoolers do, but we have a deep and strong attachment.
All these years into our open adoption, we are currently at a sweet spot. M and I love each other and we all love K. She is loved unconditionally.
We are making plans for M and K’s brother and sister to come to her Bat Mitzvah next year. It will be the first time K’s entire families are together – her birth family, our nuclear family, and our huge extended family. In fact, our family is now so large that her Bat Mitzvah will mostly comprise family members; how joyful for a child who was once living in foster care, her future undetermined, a family being the only thing she needed.
Our synagogue has never had a Bat Mitzvah where a Christian birth mother stands beside a Jewish adoptive mother and father as they watch their beloved daughter read Hebrew from the ancient scrolls of the Torah. Nothing could make me happier.
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