Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thoughts on Family after a Decade in Reunion

The definition of the verb reunite is straightforward: to be together again after being apart for a long time. But we perceive a connotation of family when we use the word reunion, don’t we?

Family is not one universal thing. It is thousands of permutations of people interacting with each other as some kind of cohesive unit. The glue may be love or duty or tradition. Blood plays into it but is not the whole of it, except in the sense of ancestry. Our spouses are family in a non-ancestral sense, by means other than blood. Our lost blood relations may never become family in the way we desire. These are our people by blood, yet we do not understand their conventions. We are foreigners to each other.

Adoption reunions can begin in unpredictable ways: we call/write/message but receive no response; we connect yet feel ignored/slighted/rebuffed; we meet, with hugs and kisses and promises.

The finders have all the control and many expectations.

The found have reactions, then expectations of their own.

After the contact or the connection—good or bad—the hard stuff begins. How to integrate these strangers into our lives. How to become less strange to our own blood. Sometimes we’re lucky and the desires of both sides align. Sometimes every communication is a struggle that will never get any easier.

We are blood, but we’re not the same. We have learned different customs. We value different things.

We are blood, but blood is only one part of family. We look like them. We think like them. We prefer the same color or flavor or style of dress. But because we lived apart for so long, we are clumsy and we stutter. We cannot put our words in the right order so that they make sense to each other.

We have lost something that can never be regained. We cannot create the family that might have been, no matter how badly we want to, no matter how much we try.

We must give up on the impossible dream. Our only chance at becoming family now is to meet each other where we are, to look ahead rather than behind. Our only chance at healing and becoming whole is to accept our reality.

For a while, we will need to cry over what we’ve lost, otherwise the pain will become a cancer that chokes compassion and understanding. We must allow the impossible dream to die, so that a new, attainable dream can grow in its place. In this dream, we own all of our selves—the self we were born with, the self we grew into, the self we choose to be now—and we let go of those expectations we brought with us to our reunions. We cannot do over the years that we’ve already lived. All we can do is start today to live differently. We can live honestly in our own truth and allow relationships with our long-lost blood relatives to grow or to wane naturally, as relationships do.

We have no control, except over our own actions and words. Our shared DNA alone is not enough material to build the kind of family in which members care for and celebrate each other. The ties that bind were cut long ago. We must create new ties if we want to matter in each other’s day-to-day lives. We must be interested and attentive, kind and respectful. This requires effort from both sides. We cannot create this family we want to build on our own, no matter how sincere our intentions are. Relationship requires active participation from two people. Here is yet another reality we must accept.

Reunion does not itself heal the wounds adoption caused. What reunion can do is answer questions, open closed doors, create opportunities to know that part of ourselves we were born with. Reunion does not necessarily return our lost families to us. We are all different people than we would have been if adoption had not entered into our lives.

Repeat it with me: There is no going back. There is no going back.

Now let go. Allow yourself to grieve what has been lost. Then get up and begin moving forward. It may take weeks. It may take months, or even years. But it is necessary. Begin today.

Karen Pickell was born and adopted in Ohio in the late 1960s. She reunited with her birth mother in 2005 and with her birth father in 2007. Her husband is an adoptive father of two children, now grown, from his first marriage, one of whom was adopted from Korea. Karen and her husband live in Florida with their two biological children. She holds a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University in Georgia; she has published poems, essays, and stories, and is currently drafting a memoir. She previously served on the board of directors of the Georgia Writers Association, as editor for the Georgia Poetry Society, and as associate editor of the literary journal Flycatcher. Karen recently founded Adoptee Reading Resource. She blogs about writing, adoption, and other topics at