American Adoption Congress familes rooted in truth

Search and Reunion

Search and Reunion Etiquette:
The Guide Miss Manners Never Wrote

by Monica M. Byrne

There are as many adoption search and reunion scenarios as there are people involved. Everyone who has worked in this field, who has been part of the process, or who is a member of one of the supporting families will tell you that this is a world of shifting sand and unclear rules-a minefield of potential disasters. Who in his or her

right mind would embark on such a perilous journey without a map and compass? In fact, why would anyone leave the safe harbour of the known to travel to this unknown land?

The answer to this question lies deep within the heart of the matter. The "matter" being that, at some time and in some way, the natural course of a family's shape and structure has been disrupted by the removal of some fundamental part-the parent of its child or the child of its parents, brothers and sisters of each other and grandparents of their grandchildren. These disruptions may occur for a variety of reasons, not to be examined here, but the end result is one of an imbalance in the order of things and a need experienced by many people to regain that order.

I have likened the reunion process to watching a beautiful mosaic spread out before us. Into this picture one throws a new tile-a tiny piece of marble-and every one of the hundreds of little tiles must shift and move to accommodate that new tile. The picture will change in many subtle ways. But the regaining of order does not come easily or without cost. Each one on this very personal journey will need to understand the variables. And each will need the help of a guide or a support system. This is where

the rules of the game enter the equation.

First one has to divide the "search" from the "reunion." These are two separate and distinct parts of the adoption journey. If you think the search is hard...wait until you try the reunion! Many reunions take from five to eight years or more to "normalize" and reach a stage where the participants have built up shared memory and familiar relationships. Each reunion, therefore, must be studied and planned with a careful, almost military, precision, if the goal of the exercise is a long-term relationship with the new-found relatives.

The Search
It is important to remember that the onus of the search will fall on the searcher. It is his or her responsibility to learn as much as possible about reunions, to read as much as is available, to talk to experienced people, to listen carefully to the advice that is given and to work out a careful game plan. The "searchee" knows none of this. He or she will not be prepared. He or she may be shocked at being found and may feel like the only adoptee or birth parent in the universe who has been in this situation. Many books have been written about searching and search techniques. Often these books are just lists of state laws and information on the availability of personal information, with addresses for various offices and organizations. There may be some "typical" form letters to copy, but not much direction on what to really say! The books describing what to do with information that you now possess-the name and address of your birth relative, the location of your surrendered child's new family-are few and far between. Although each case is very different, there are some basic rules around searching that never lose their truth. Even Miss Manners might recommend the following, in no particular order:

Do be very discreet. Do not, if at all possible, discuss the adoption story with anyone except the person you are seeking. Many, many times searchers are so excited about finding a family member, that they will blurt out the whole reason why they are looking for "Millie," thereby blowing Millie's cover. The person contacted will now be in possession of information that Millie may prefer to discuss herself. Sometimes, discretion means being economical with the facts. Some sources of information, like funeral parlors, cemeteries, or churches, can be very helpful, but the discretion rule applies 100%. It is not necessary to tell the whole story to everyone!

Do remember you may only have one chance to make a certain phone call. Try to get it right the first time. Have a prepared list of the questions you wish answered to jog your memory. If you call back with more questions, you risk raising suspicion about your right to know. Once a family's drums start to beat, there is no way to stop them. Phone calls can alert everyone right away. Phoning may be the wrong move in some situations.

Don't assume that the other person will be as thrilled to be found as you are to

find them. There may be much more to the story than you have ever guessed. Every family has its own special dynamic.

Don't phone everyone in the phone book with the same name, especially if it is a rare name or they live in a small community. A searcher should exhaust other options first before resorting to this. Use search tools such as Internet sources instead of contacting everyone indiscriminately. The moment people start asking questions in some families, everyone knows. The person being sought may feel defensive.

Do remember that every source of information you use may be of use to the

people coming after you. They would like that resource to remain available, so do

not talk too much about how and what you are researching. Some libraries and archives are very willing to assist a "genealogist," but not an "adoption searcher." Even when people are not helpful, a searcher should remember that others will

come afterwards, and your reaction to the non-helpful person may color how that person will react to the next searcher asking for "genealogical" information.

Do make good search plans and keep good records. All original documents should be photocopied and the originals stored in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box. Keep a search binder with clear plastic sleeves for the pages you are likely to look at again and again. Be sure to keep good notes of whom you call, whom you speak to, what was said and when. You do not want to repeat parts of your research because you kept poor records. When you meet your birth family member this careful system

will show how very committed you were. In addition, it will serve you as a "diary" of your journey.

Do be patient! Rome wasn't built in a day, and a search can take a very long time and require painstaking application. But searches can also reach a point of "critical mass" and just take on lives of their own. When that happens there is sometimes no turning back-you must just hang on and ride to the end of the line!

Do seek out the assistance and/or guidance of experienced searchers and support groups. Sometimes days seem like years and waiting can be stressful, exhausting and frustrating. A good search buddy can keep you from making a move that could seriously disrupt the potential reunion. Also, a search and support group is often a safer and more appropriate place to share the emotions of search than casual friends or acquaintances. It's important to respect the privacy of what you learn in a search and support group, however. Sometimes we get caught up in the enthusiasm of a search, our own or someone else's, and end up sharing information at a support group meeting that we later wish had not been shared.

Do try to make the call or write the letter yourself. If this is really too difficult or stressful, get the help of someone who is experienced. Practice your call with a friend and try to anticipate the obvious questions.

Note that the previous "Do" is also one of the most controversial in the search and reunion business. Some searchers, both those who charge fees and those who do not, argue that having the assistance of an experienced mediator will go a long way to making the initial reunion connection better. They note that the experience of the negotiator may help to bridge the awkward spaces and help an older birth mother to discuss this very private part of her life with some sense of safety and confidence in the mediator's skills. And indeed, a skilled intermediary may be able to say the right thing and ask the right questions at the right time by sensing the "temperature" of the event. Another school of thought says that nothing can replace the spontaneous nature of the one-to-one call between principal members of this reunion! It is harder to say "no" to one's own flesh and blood than to a third party, some believe. When making contact directly, the awkwardness of the questions or the moment are offset by the tears and the intimacy that are real. As in most things in life, nothing is carved in stone. The decision to use a third party or make contact directly will be up to you. If you choose to use a third party (or if you are required to), however, be sure you are comfortable with that person's style and approach before the initial contact takes place. There's only one "first" call.

The Reunion
Reunions come in many styles and with many variations, but the essence is still the same. This is the "meeting"-the reconnection-of two people who for all intents and purposes are closely related, but who are relative strangers. Like the development of any relationship, that of adoptee and birth relative takes time and effort. There is something profoundly mystical and magical about reunions. They require lots of work, lots of concentration and, above all, a sense of humour. Rules of etiquette which have been developed through experience may make things run more smoothly.

Do be honest. There have been enough lies and secrets.

Do share information as appropriate, both in the initial call (if there is one) and later, when you meet. Sometimes questions come as a reflex and may not need to be answered that very moment. For example, to "How did you find me?" you might respond "It was not easy. I'll tell you the whole story sometime. Right now let's enjoy this wonderful meeting." To "Who is my birth father?" one might respond "I will tell you the whole story, but right now I need some time to reflect on what has happened. But I promise I'll tell you the truth." A related principle is that if an immediate answer to your questions is not forthcoming, try to be patient-within reason-with the other person.

Do try to laugh. This is a joyful situation. Don't make it into a frightening experience. There is enough inherent drama in the incredible event taking place without adding to the tension. Be prepared to go whitewater rafting and hang on tight!

Do try to keep it simple. In birth parent searches, do not try to find both parents at once (unless, of course, they are still together). The emotional upheaval that may ensue could spoil the hope of future successes.

Do plan your first meeting in a place where either party can feel confident and safe. The situation is emotional enough without adding to it the fear of not being able to "get away" if there is a problem. A cozy corner in a public place (behind the potted palms in a large hotel lounge) can be just fine. If you decide this is working well, you can move to somewhere more private.

Do keep the first meeting shorter rather than longer, if possible. This gives everyone time to take a breather, re-assess the situation and consider the future relationship. It is always easier meeting for the second time. (If you have to travel some distance to meet, the "second time" may be the day after your initial meeting.)

Do try to avoid a huge family picnic as the way to introduce your new-found relative to the clan. It can be very overwhelming to meet 50 relatives at once.

Do keep an open mind. The birth family may be very different from the adoptive family. Try not to judge one against the other until you get to know them better.

Do have realistic expectations. The moment of reunion is not the time to decide you really only wanted "medical information" or that you are not ready to pursue a relationship. It is cruel to set the other party up to expect more than you are prepared to give. Be honest with yourself and try to look at your reasons for searching and the limits of what you can accept. Talk with your support system ahead of time about the limits; if you're in an uncomfortable situation, try to resolve it directly and privately.

Do have a frank discussion of how the adoptee will address the birth parent and other birth relatives, and vice versa, following the reunion. Some birth mothers want their surrendered children to call them "Mom," but adoptees already have one "Mom"

in their life and may not be comfortable using that title for anyone but their adoptive mother. Likewise, some adoptees are eager to call their birth mother "Mom," but the birth mother may not be comfortable being called "Mom" by a child she did not raise. Good manners would also direct that any discussion of how the adoptee will refer to his or her birth relatives not take place in the presence of a roomful of relatives. One needs to be very flexible. If this issue becomes one of contention, a re-examination of expectations may be in order.

Don't try to compete with established family holiday procedures unless everyone agrees. Like the name issue, this is not worth the anguish it can cause. Keep it simple. Many reunited relatives get bogged down in the minutiae of names and festivals instead of being thrilled that they have found each other.

Do try to respect the other person's wishes about sharing the reunion with other members of the family. For some birth parents, a reluctance to share can go on too long. Try to set limits to your impatience and wait it out. At some point adoptees in this situation may need to re-assess their expectations and make decisions about the future path of the relationship. Advice from an experienced searcher or support group is recommended.

Do be stoic if the other party feels a need to pull back for a while. It is very wise to agree without a huge fuss, great grief, or gnashing of teeth. Such need to pull away is often seen in the reunion process. It allows the person to take stock or re-assess the reunion and its effect on his or her life. Although very painful to the other person, it is best treated with patience and lots of reading. Support groups are great for dealing with the sadness. No one can fix anyone else. They can only fix themselves.

Don't blame yourself for problems in the other person's life. Birth mothers often feel great guilt if the child they relinquished did not grow up as advantaged as they might have hoped, or if religion is not as important in their child's life as it is to them (or vice versa). Adoptees can sometimes feel guilty if the relinquishment experience had a negative impact on the birth mother's life. We cannot turn the clock back no matter how much we might want to. Your relationship starts from the day you meet again. Keep it positive.

Don't plan on moving in with your new relatives. They may be delighted to meet you but they are not looking for a permanent house guest.

Do enjoy the reunion. It's a gift from God. Search and Reunion a good thing? You bet! Should it be carefully thought through? Absolutely! Will it be 100% successful? If we knew the answer to that, we'd be setting up shop in Las Vegas!


Monica M. Byrne has been associated with family reunions since 1987. She has been

the Registrar of Parent Finders, National Capital Region for many years and was formerly the Co-Chair of the Adoption Council of Ontario and the Canadian Liaison to the AAC. A member of several adoption reform groups, she is active in lobbying for legislative change

to adoption disclosure law in Ontario. A happily reunited birthmother, she enjoys a

positive and ongoing relationship with her daughter. In 1999 she was a proud recipient

of the Governor General of Canada's "Caring Canadian Award" for her many years of volunteer work in adoption. In 2005 she was awarded the "Vilardi Humanitarian Award"

by the American Adoption Congress. For further information or for assistance with

adoption reunion questions Monica can be reached at:


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