Tell Me Your Story: Of Reunion

A typical family reunion is filled with joy and laughter, but for adoptees and their birth parents, a reunion is anything but typical. It’s complicated. Adoptees can feel stuck between embracing their birth families and not hurting their adoptive families. There may also be feelings of rejection and long buried anger and bitterness towards their birth families. And what is the mother’s role in her child’s life now? She nurtured and bonded with her child during pregnancy, but now she is a stranger. For many adoptees, reuniting with their birth families is a dream come true, but for others, it brings on another set of problems they are not ready to face. Because of the deep emotions involved, reunions are rarely easy, but with time it is possible to forge a new and different relationship. In her own words, Kimberly shares how she reunited with her son, and how they are trying to move forward despite many obstacles.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.47.35 PMI relinquished my son to adoption in 1990.  It was a semi-open adoption. For us, that meant his adoptive parents sent a letter and pictures every year until he turned 18 years old.  They honored this agreement until his 18th birthday.

I had expected to get a letter or phone call from him on his 18th birthday.  Two years passed (July 2010) until I received a phone call from my adoption caseworker stating my son wanted to send me a letter.  Of course I said yes and confirmed my address.

I received a letter from him in September 2010.  I remember feeling a thousand feelings just holding that envelope in my hand.  I was overwhelmed with memories of my past.  Memories of my relationship with his birth father, the fact I hid my pregnancy from my family (I finally told my parents and immediate family what I had done about 10 years later), visiting him at the foster home where he was cared for until the adoption was finalized (now I know I could’ve changed my mind during that two weeks), and saying good bye to him at the courthouse as I handed him over to his new family.

I think I held it for an hour until I had mustered the courage to open it.  It was addressed “Dear Kim.” The letter was short.  He wrote that he had a good life, he was happy, explained his current living situation, described his girlfriend, and he would like for me to write back and send some pictures if I wouldn’t mind.  He ended the letter “From your son” and signed his full proper name.

I grabbed my computer and ferociously wrote a four-page letter (my handwriting is horrible) and labeled about 50 pictures of my family.  He later told me when he received the letter and pictures, he just cried and cried feeling so overwhelmed by actually seeing current pictures of me and knowing about my current life.  I wanted him to know everything about my family, my past, and me.  Most important, I wanted him to know how much I loved him and will always love him. We exchanged a couple more letters over the next couple months (he’s not much of a writer). The last one he wrote included his phone number asking me to call him if I ever felt like it.

I waited until I had an afternoon off of work and my other two children were at school so I would have privacy to call him.  I held the phone in my hand staring at his phone number for what seemed to be a lifetime.  Again, memories of my past were scrolling through my mind.   Honestly, I prayed that he would answer and say he didn’t hate me, that he understood why I made the choice I did, that he will be able to forgive me and he wants to try this reunion thing.

I was incredibly nervous, excited, scared, and full of anticipation when I dialed his phone number.  When I heard his voice answer “Hello” I immediately felt so much love, it’s really indescribable.  I told him who I was, there was a long pause, and then it seemed we couldn’t talk fast enough.  I let him do most of the talking, just listening to my son’s voice for the first time. Relishing every moment, every second.

After close to three hours, knowing I would need some time alone to process all the emotions of this call, we set up a time to talk again.  It was funny because neither of us wanted to hang up. Even in that awkward silence, it was as if we were afraid of losing each other once that call was disconnected.  When we did finally hang up, I couldn’t stop crying.  I cried because I was happy, because I was sad, because I loved him, because he is my son.

I followed up with an email that night, just to make sure he was doing ok and to let him know I was doing ok.  He responded, “It felt so good to hear my mom’s real voice”.

We continued to call and email each other frequently the next month or so.  The question of when do we meet began to creep into our conversations.  We decided to set up some boundaries prior to meeting.  Unfortunately, neither of us had done any reading/research so we had no idea what kind of “rules” to put in place.  I took the lead and came up with a few: He decides where our relationship goes, parents (adoptive) first, and we will be open and honest with each other at all times.

Up to this point in my adult life I was orderly and efficient at any task. My to do list was always completed at the end of the day and as I worked full time as a registered nurse, had a home, two small children and a husband, and I attended school full time to obtain my Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.  No easy feat, but for me, as controlled and determined as I was, I could do anything.  Complete Type A personality!

Since the first letter, I could feel myself slipping.  After the first phone call, I found myself thinking about him all the time, about nothing in particular, just “him”.  Then the “What if’s”? started coming.  What if I would have told my mother I was pregnant? What if I chose not to follow the “rules” and ran away with him after I made the adoption commitment? What would our lives have been like? And so on and so on and so on.  My husband and friends started to notice I wasn’t myself after that first year. I was crying all the time.  I would do an activity with my other two children and begin to cry because I missed out on that same milestone with him. I did choose to see a therapist.  She helped me see I was grieving! Grieving is something I hadn’t done 20 years ago.  I went through all the stages of grief and then back again.  The first couple years I was a complete mess!

Our first face-to-face meeting took place in November 2010.  He chose a bar and grill close to his home.  I think it was in order to make a quick getaway if needed.  I honestly don’t think I had ever been so full of anxiety, hope, anticipation, and love as I was when I saw him walk through the door.  We greeted each other with hugs, sat down and literally stared at each other for what seemed like forever.  Personally, I was taking in all that was his physical presence.  Did he look like me or more like his birth father? Are his mannerisms similar to mine, etc?  That first meeting was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster ride filled with happiness, sadness, regret, grief, and love that neither of us had been prepared for.

The first year we met at least a couple times a month.  Because he was living at home with his parents, and he didn’t feel he was ready to meet my husband and other two children, we often met for lunch or dinner.  I enjoyed listening to him talk about his trials and tribulations growing up.  He said right off the bat that he isn’t one to trust people easily.

I told him about my life growing up, how I ended up pregnant and alone at age 19.  He knew a little bit about the relationship between his birth father and me as I wrote a letter to him that was given to his parents and left for them to decide when he was ready to read it.  He said he read it when he was 16 and actually became quite angry when he found out his mother sent me pictures and a letter once a year. He knew I was a psychiatric nurse and said his friends warned him not to lie or cover up things because I’ll know. I found that funny.

During this first year, I learned that he was an addict, had no real relationship with his parents, and legal issues.  This added another dynamic to the already complicated issues with come along with reunion.   We developed a trusting and loving relationship, bonding quickly.

After that first year, a push/pull cycle began between us.  He would feel that we were getting to close and start to push me away.  I would feel him pulling away and do whatever I could to keep him.  The first two years this cycle was very intense for both of us.  He knew I would’ve done or said anything to make sure he didn’t leave my life.  Part of that was the “addict” manipulating me and me the “enabler” playing along.   The part of our story that includes addiction is a monster all it’s own.  One that had him cut off all communication with me since his DUI in January of this year.  As I write this, I haven’t spoke to him or seen him in almost 11 months.  This separation has rocked me to the core.  I know it’s not about ME, but it still hurt just the same.

The main struggle for us in the process of reunion has been other people interfering.  His adoptive parents, especially Mom, have expressed jealousy and insecurity throughout the past four years.  According to my son, he has been made to feel that he is abandoning his family when spending time with me.  His mom would tell him how her feelings would be hurt when she would see pictures on Facebook of us, know that we were going to dinner, or just hanging out.  He would lie to her at times about spending time with me. When she found out, she expressed to him that hurt her feelings even worse.

His adoptive mom and I “friended” each other on Facebook and started exchanging messages.  Over the years I’ve asked her many times to meet in person.  She has refused every time.  She has made comments to others that I have been selfish and not considered her feelings during my relationship with him.  I’ve had comments made to me by friends close to him that I have no right to have a relationship with him, I gave up that right 24 years ago when “I gave him away”.  “Ouch”! That one stabbed me right in the heart.  He knew it too.  After seeing what his friend texted me, he did show concern for me by talking with his friend and explaining how inappropriate those words were.  I felt validated and relief that he did really listen to the “Why’s” of the choice I made so long ago.

I will always feel that he has been put in an unfair position of having to choose sides.  He’s told me many times he feels like he’s from a divorced family.  This also breaks my heart.  He’s confided in me, felt safe with me, and truly feels a loving bond with me.  He shouldn’t have to choose.  If I were an aunt or a cousin, our relationship wouldn’t be put under the scrutiny it has.  I try very hard not to take this personally, as anyone who would be his birthmother would be treated the same way.

His legal and addiction issues have complicated things this year as he is on house arrest (at his adoptive parents home) and must comply with the rules.  His release date is December 8th.

So I wait again, wondering if he’ll write to me, call me, or text me as I did when he turned 18.  I have written him short notes every couple months this year so he understands that I love him, he’s my family, and I’m not going anywhere. It’s taken me about seven months to adjust to him not being in my life.  We were getting to a place where he was comfortable in my home with our family.  I miss him dearly, I love him always, and I know this is not the final chapter in our story.

Brown Bread

Adoption stories usually focus on adoptive parents, birth parents, or adoptees, and a lot of time is spent on hearing narratives from the adoption triad to improve the adoption experience. But there is another voice that is just as important, and that is the voice of the non-adopted sibling. And in order to truly understand the scope of adoption, this voice must also feel welcome in the conversation.

Brown Bread is a film that seeks to be that voice. The documentary is directed by Sarah Gross and tells the story of her interracial adoptive family growing up in 1970s America. Sarah and her older brother James were born in 1964 and 1967 to Margot and Peter Gross. Having read an article about minorities being hard to place in adoptions, the couple decided to adopt. Daniel was adopted in 1970 at 6 months, and then Adam was adopted in 1972 at 6 weeks old. Daniel and Adam seemed to adapt to the family seamlessly, and Sarah and James were happy to have playmates.

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Daniel, Sarah, Adam, and James

A few years later, in 1977, Margot and Peter adopted Carl and Carla, siblings who came from a very dysfunctional and abusive foster home. Carl and Carla were 8 and 9 at the time, and all of a sudden the two became younger siblings to Sarah and James, but older siblings to Daniel and Adam. In the years that followed Carl and Carla’s adoption, the family was turned upside down, with each child trying to figure out their place in the family.

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Adam, Carl, Daniel, Sarah, and Carla

The documentary is mostly made up of interviews of the family members reflecting back on a  time that was filled with both laughter and pain. The interviews are honest and give a glimpse into a family trying to blend with each other and with the rest of the world. The film is a genuine look at what happens when families are created through adoption, and sometimes the results are not what you think. Watch the trailer for Brown Bread, and then read on for my interview with Sarah!

The title of the movie comes from your mother making homemade brown bread, and sending you to school with brown bread sandwiches when you longed to fit in with everyone else and have sandwiches made from store bought white bread. I can relate to those awkward teen years wanting to fit in and be “normal.” Did you have a group of friends who helped you through those years?

At the time of our last adoption, our family began going to the Unitarian Universalist Church, where over the years I was able to process some of the turbulent feelings I was experiencing and where I met many of my closest friends.  Quite a few from there had adopted themselves, or had mixed race families, or some other lifestyle choices which pushed them outside the “norm,” which meant we could all kind of relate to each other and support each other in our struggles.

Also, in the first years after the final adoption, we lived in Knoxville, Tennessee in a supportive and mixed-race community, where all of us had friends who looked like us (or didn’t) and it really didn’t matter so much.  Funnily enough, it was when we moved to California that the racial divisions of the outside world came to play an increasingly large role in our own individual developments.

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Margot and Peter with their six children

We often think of loss in adoption in terms of adoptees and birth families. But there can be loss for children who receive adopted siblings. Do you ever think of how your life would be different had your parents not adopted? Did you ever resent your parents or adopted siblings for taking that life away from you?

I guess every child imagines what life would have been like “if”…  (her parents hadn’t divorced, or Johnny hadn’t been born, or if her parents hadn’t adopted Suzy…)  But given our family situation, there wasn’t any room for this kind of question while we were growing up.    Since the adoptions in our family occurred in two stages, with the little ones Adam and Daniel being adopted as babies and within the space of two years — then Carl and Carla being adopted as much older children, I have occasionally found myself imagining what things would have been like without Carl and Carla being part of our family, but never without Adam and Daniel, because they are part of the origins of who we are.  But even thinking about not having adopted Carl and Carla is very painful for me.  Painful because I love them both and am who I am because of their joining us.  And painful because so many things would have been easier and perhaps better for us, especially for Daniel and Adam, without them.  Yet if they hadn’t come to us, Carl and Carla would have most likely grown up in a context of abuse, crime, and very few opportunities to develop themselves beyond all this.  How can you weigh such things? I never resented my siblings but sometimes my parents for forcing these mind- and heart-expanding experiences on us, yes.

You and your brother seemed to have accepted Adam and Daniel, who were adopted at 6 months and 6 weeks respectively, into your families quite easily. It was harder for you to accept Carl and Carla who were 8 and 9. Your brother said he wanted to escape from the fighting, yelling, and total chaos in the years that followed their adoption. Throughout those difficult years, did you parents ever seem to regret their decision to adopt?

My parents never let on that they regretted having adopted.  I don’t know that they did ever regret it.  It is not part of their psychological makeup to go back and wish things had been different.  I think the biggest issue was that my parents went into it thinking that enough love can make anything possible and now know it is just not so.  So rather than regretting the adoption, I think they perhaps regretted their inability to cope with and rise above the challenges.

It’s interesting to see the lifestyle choices that you and your siblings have made as adults. What prompted your move to Germany? How did your very nontraditional childhood shape some of your decisions as an adult? 

Since my mom was from England, we had always spent a lot of time over there visiting relatives.  I had been relatively good at languages at school and felt myself drawn to Europe.  During a gap year after high school I went and travelled extensively in Europe.  During college I spent a year studying in France.  It seemed only natural after finishing college to then apply for scholarships and find a way to return to Europe.  I received a scholarship to study in Berlin, found myself dating a wonderful German man I had met in the U.S. and ended up making a life for myself here in Germany, almost without planning it really.  But looking back of course I can imagine there was a subconscious desire to be far enough away from my family to get a little distance from the painful deconstruction we’d been going through those past ten or so years.

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The Gross family all grown up

Your documentary steered away from making any judgements about adoption, but let viewers form their own opinions. Having had first hand experience living in a transracial family, is there anything you could share that could help prospective families?

Having shared a lot of painful stories of growing up in our family, I wonder if this might dissuade prospective parents from adopting transracially.  But this is not at all my intent, on the contrary, I am really proud of our family.  Much of our experiences will never be repeated because a) children don’t get adopted out of chronological order any more and b) we had very little post-adoption support, which has also gotten much better since then as far as I know.  Race and class get so mixed up in our heads, and adopting any child at 8 or 9 years from abusive foster care in a deeply impoverished environment will be hard for a middle class family.   The issues of interracial adoption need to be seen separately, which have more to do with claiming identity and finding good supportive mixed-race communities and role models.

I am developing a multi-media project called The “Normal” Adoption Project, where we hope to inspire people all over who’ve been touched by adoption to tell their stories, thereby building a mosaic of what adoption means to us.  Creating mentor relationships between older families who adopted a long time ago and younger families just beginning the process would be a wonderful part of the “Normal” Adoption Project and could be a great help to both sides.  We welcome people to become involved by writing us at info@normaladoptionproject.com or visiting the website at www.normaladoptionproject.com

What’s next for the documentary? Where can people view the film? 

Brown Bread will be distributed in North America by Kino Lorber.  We will make the film available for community screenings for organizations such as churches, adoption networks, schools and colleges. DVD and streaming will also follow.

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To follow Sarah’s documentary and see upcoming screening dates, visit http://www.facebook.com/brownbreadthefilm