emotions, Reunions, Support

Approaching Your Birth Family

When I first found my maternal Uncle I pretty much barfed my entire personal journey and every last piece of information I had to him in an email. Until he received my email he had no idea that I existed. Nor did he really care. Why would he? I was just another random person in the world.

However, I knew he existed. I knew he was the youngest of six kids. I knew the names of his siblings and their ages and I knew the names and occupations of his parents. I’d carried that information around from house to house and through 3 marriages. That folder with my non-identifying information was my touchstone and I had turned the people in that folder into semi-fictional characters.

Every year that I couldn’t find them, the less real they became.

Thus the barfing the information into my Uncle’s email box.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t do that. Thankfully my Uncle is a gracious and kind human who was genuinely happy to be found. He welcomed me to the family with no strings attached.

Looking back, I have some recommendations in case you are looking for a way to reach out to your newly found biological relatives:

  • Stick to the facts that are directly pertinent to the person you’re communicating with. If your non-identifying information has personal details about other members of the family, leave it out.
  • When connecting with someone on a DNA site, stick to the DNA facts. It’s often best to resist the urge to state that you’re an adoptee looking for family. Many people on DNA sites are surprised to find out that a member of their family had an out-of-wedlock child and to identify yourself as such can shut down all future communications as the person tries to determine how to bring the subject up to their family. Instead, let the person know that you’re doing some DNA research and have found a connection and ask them if they’d be willing to communicate to try to find where you are related. (In my search I reached out to a third cousin match with my adoption story and he responded with an earful about his cheating brothers and some not-so-nice terms for his sisters. Frankly, he scared me and I stopped communicating with him pretty quickly. Yes, we are still DNA matches but not immediate cousins.)
  • Remind yourself that even though you’ve known about these people for years, they may have no idea you exist. Don’t take it personally if they ask you for proof or even respond saying that you must be mistaken. If the relative you are directly connected to is a sibling or parent who has died, the person you reach may want to protect that person’s name or reputation and thus deny any connection, even if they have suspicions and know for a fact that DNA doesn’t lie. It’s easier for them to keep the secret than to change the way they see the person in question.
  • Understand that any reaction isn’t personal. Although you share DNA you don’t have any other connection. Getting to know someone and building a relationship takes time. If they do or don’t want to continue conversation it’s not about you, it’s about them working through this new information.
  • Try to be an observer. Put your observer hat on and gauge which reactions are like ones you have and which you feel are so different. I started putting those in my “nature” vs. “nurture” files for future reference.
  • Respect the other person. I know many adoptees don’t agree with me on this point and that’s okay. As a human, I believe we all have a right to our feelings and our own process, even if it’s difficult. I wanted people in my biological family to like me and be okay with me being in their world. I wanted them to like me. Even so, I respect the feelings of those who aren’t psyched to have me throwing a wrench in their lives. I don’t like it. I just remember that it isn’t about me and that it’s not my job to judge them or convince them.
  • Feel your feelings. As Adoptees, we are prone to compartmentalizing our feelings and turning off our feelings if they are uncomfortable. We may do this by lashing out at the person in question or others in general or we may do it by shutting down. Either isn’t an optimal solution for the long term. If you’re sad, own it. If you’re angry, feel it. Let your feelings sit with you and then they dissipate. If you shove them away or pretend they don’t exist you end up prolonging the pain. (I recommend finding an outlet to deal with your feelings – for me, it’s writing and painting.)
  • Give it time. When my biological father and I first spoke on the phone he was shocked! He had no idea I existed. My biological mother sort of disappeared from his life when she got pregnant (as he recalls) and here I was, 52 years later saying, “Here’s a cigar! You’ve got a girl!” While he was gracious, he needs time to process this information and I understand that. I’m hopeful that someday we’ll get to know each other.
  • Ask for help and support if you need it. Adoptees don’t love sharing our “stuff” with others, but asking for help and support are truly outstanding ways to cope with the feelings that come up during a first connection. If you have a social worker, a search angel, a coach or a therapist use them to help you. Or tap into your friends, clergy or other people who can hold the space that you need to navigate this new situation in your life.
  • Resist the temptation to wallow in anything. Whether it’s pain or joy, instead of blasting it everywhere right away, give yourself time to process what is happening in ways that are healthy and affirming for you. There’s a big difference between feeling your feelings and wallowing – one is enriching and the other is destructive. If you’re not sure of the difference, please find someone who can help.

In no way is this a comprehensive list, but hopefully it will help you navigate the process of meeting your biological family.

Those of you who have gone through this – what else would you add?