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.

Akin to the Truth

Unknown-2Akin to the Truth is a memoir written by Paige Adams Strickland after reconnecting with her birth family. Throughout Paige’s childhood, her adoption is never kept a secret, but there is little discussion of any details. When she does ask her parents about her adoption, they tell her to “have gratitude and not fuss so much” because out of all the kids they could have chosen, she was “the one they fell in love with and picked.”

Although Paige yearns to know more about her birth family, she feels powerless to do anything about it. Afraid of being labeled an outsider or a freak, Paige keeps her adoption a secret from almost everyone.Like most adolescents, she wants to just blend in, and but as much as she tries to hide her adoption on the outside, she can’t deny it on the inside. As Paige continues to experience important milestones, the identity of her birth parents, especially her birth mother, becomes more important.

Every summer Paige and her family vacation in Florida, which eventually prompts her parents to relocate the family from Cincinnati to Saratoga. Paige says goodbye to her high school sweetheart, Scott, and enrolls at Manatee Junior College. Eventually she transfers from the Junior College to Florida State University and graduates with a degree in Multi-lingual/Multi-Cultural Education. Paige makes her way back to Cincinnati and Scott where they eventually marry, and she begins her career as a high school Spanish teacher.

The newlyweds settle into married life, and Paige sees that many of her friends around her are having babies, which makes her think about her own family and her missing pieces. With Scott’s encouragement, Paige takes the first step to getting the answers she’s always wanted. She writes the state of Ohio for her official adoption papers and begins lifting the veil that had kept her in the dark for so long.

Paige’s story helps readers understand the experience of an adoptee from childhood to adulthood. Paige never stopped yearning for the truth of who she was. Although she is at first motivated by knowing the truth more than she is finding her family, Paige finally gets the answers she was looking for. At the end of her journey, she is finally “free to walk, work, fly, or be anywhere without obsessing about who was who ever again.”

Read on for our interview!

I can relate to your avoidance of talking about your adoption, and you pretty much kept it a secret outside of a few close friends. Growing up, you wanted to take “amnesiac” breaks from your thoughts of adoption. When did you get to a point where it became natural to discuss your adoption?

It became more natural after I found birth relatives.  Then I felt I had something meaningful with honest answers to talk about.  As I met new people, I felt more at ease discussing what happened.  However, with old friends, it was still difficult to talk about because I’d been in such a habit of covering up for so many years.

Your adoption was considered closed as you had no option to contact your birth family, and the unknown information was a source of frustration for you. What are your views on the more open adoptions today?

I think if the adoptive and birth parents agree to it, it’s the best plan out there.  It’s the most honest form of adoption there is.

I cringed when you were assigned the family tree project in 7th grade. You turned in a project that was not “scientifically factual”, because admitting your adoption “was a potentially deadly move, especially in junior high school.” You also wrote that during this time “adoption made you feel like an outsider or a freak.” What would you say to a young person who is struggling with their identity because of adoption?

At some point you will have to come clean about who you are and who you might be.  For example, I knew my future husband had to know.  I would never have wanted to lie to my own children either.  If you are struggling because you aren’t satisfied with who you are or because you only know a “fall-back story” and you want more facts, then go search as much as you can.  Learn everything you possibly can. I felt that finding out who I was may have been more important than meeting the birth family.  Getting enough facts about how I started out in life was my first goal.  Meeting relatives was like getting bonus points or the game-winning grand-slam.

Towards the end of the novel, you start searching for your family. You waited until you were married and completely independent of your parents before you started searching. Do you think the timing helped or hurt your search?

Timing overall helped.  I was still a kid and would never have had the power to find and meet my birth mother.  She died too early on.  Had I procrastinated my search by more than a year, my birth mother’s former (widowed) husband would have sold the house and moved out of state.  I had one address from her death certificate.  Had he moved out of there, my letter might have come back to me, and I wouldn’t have been able to connect with my sisters.  In my case, timing was everything.

Like many families, yours had its share of secrets and lies. Did you feel any apprehension about writing a book that included some very personal details about your adoptive parents? How is your relationship with them today?

I had a lot of apprehension about writing about my adoptive parents. My Adoptive dad passed away in 1996, so I didn’t have him to deal with.  I don’t think this book would be out to the public if he were still living.  It would have been impossible unless I were to write it secretly and just wait for some day.  As for my adoptive mom, she has mixed feelings, but I made the decision to publish it and hope she would have enough understanding, like she did when I conducted my actual search.   My dad’s situation is no longer a secret, and hopefully readers will see my mom as a woman who came into her own, grew stronger and more independent because of what happened in their marriage.

How does your experience as an adoptee shape your role as a mother today?

I do the best I can to not be a “helicopter mom”, but I think I have more fears than most parents about my kids’ safety and being unintentionally exposed to harm.  My biggest fear, when they were very small and unable to speak for themselves, was that somehow,  we would become separated from one another. That may have to do with not just being adopted but because that did happen to my birth mother when she died young. I have tried to instill in both my girls a deep appreciation for their heritage(s) and who is who in our family.  My daughters are over 21 now, but I’ll never stop wanting to find enriching experiences to teach them or ways to protect them from wrong-doings. Oh, and as a pet “mom”, I adore my animals and feel for all homeless fur-babies.  I’d have a barnyard and a kennel if I had the resources!  LOL

Do you have any future projects? Will there be a follow up book?

I am in the process of compiling reflections and stories about my 30+ years in education.  It won’t be adoption-related so much.  I have thought about writing a sequel to Akin to the Truth.  Many people have asked about that, and I left the story open for that possibility.  I have written an “epilogue” of sorts, which equates to about 10 book pages, so obviously I have more work to do if I go in that direction.  My other writing related projects involve writing adoption-themed essays and entries for anthologies, which will help to promote my book and my name as an author in the adoption community.

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Paige Adam Strickland is an educator and writer and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and two daughters. You can find out more about Paige on her blog at www.akintothetruth.squarespace.com

Book Review: The Eye of Adoption

The Eye of Adoption by Jody Cantrell Dyer is a candid look at the process of open infant adoption. The book takes readers from the struggles of Jody and her husband to conceive to the finalization of their adoption, and the title is based on Jody’s experience that adoption is “a storm of faith, fear, paperwork, hurt, healing…devotion and hopefully, a delivery.”

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Jody tells her story in a way that seems down to earth and relatable. It feels at times that you are a friend sitting across the table from her at a coffee shop as she describes both the best and worst of the adoption process. The book begins with Jody’s description of the pregnancy and birth of her first child, Houston, and her struggle in the years that follow to conceive again. Jody is honest with how infertility strained her marriage, and how she and her husband arrived at adoption.

Jody explains how the MTV show Sixteen and Pregnant, among other programs, showed her that infant adoption was very much an option.  Inspired by Catelynn and Tyler’s open adoption from Season 1,  Jody watched and was “mesmerized and enlightened by the birthparents’ loving attitude toward the adoptive parents, and vice versa.” The show gave Jody hope, and gave a face to open adoptions.

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Brandon, Teresa, and baby Carly with birthparents Catelynn and Tyler from Sixteen and Pregnant

Throughout the book, Jody shares the tremendous loss felt when a match falls through, and her determination to have a baby. For anyone considering adoption, she lays out the specifics. There are detailed accounts of filling out endless paperwork, completing a home study with a social worker, and creating a family profile book.  And then there is the wait. In the waiting period, Jody and her husband have to deal with The Question (Have you heard anything yet?), and consider practical issues like when to set up a baby nursery.

Jody’s book is not just an adoptive mother’s account, but she also includes the story of her husband, Jeff, who was adopted in 1963 at 10 weeks old. Jeff’s story of adoption, which was shrouded in secrecy, contrasts the Dyer’s very open and transparent adoption today. There are also parts of the book that heartbreaking. The real and raw pain of a birthmother placing her son in adoption was difficult to read, but necessary in understanding the full scope of adoption.

Adoption is a family affair, and Jody also shares how Houston felt about welcoming a new member into their family, and how both sets of grandparents offered their support. Finally, Jody provides an interview at the end of the book with her son’s birthmother that gives readers an intimate look at the relationship between the two women. From start to finish, the The Eye of Adoption was engaging and informative, and it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about open adoption.