After making contact with my birth mother, those first months of reunion were a blur of emotions. Elation, obsession, happiness, fear and uncertainty all swirled constantly. It was overwhelming to the point where life felt like an ongoing dream. I was absorbing new people, names, histories, medical information – it was basically like weaving a new parallel story arc into my life. But I still had to go to work and continue living life, paying rent and bills. It was hard to focus on anything during those first months.
My birth mother and I didn’t meet right away. Instead, we decided to ease into things. I’d had the months of search to prepare me, but Carolyn was adjusting. She was trying to get her life in order. Newly divorced, her life was in full upheaval (and now here I was as well). She said she bumped into a lot of walls during those early days.
We spent hours on the phone getting to know each other and sharing the facets of our lives. We didn’t look very much alike (I looked more like her mother), but we found many other similarities. Both introverts who loved animals and could get lost in books for days on end, it was incredible knowing someone who was like me (that’s a big deal to adoptees who may have grown up feeling a bit disconnected or different). She wanted to know about my family and I could actually feel her relief that I’d been raised in a solid home with parents who had been married for close to 50 years, at that point in time.
Six months after that first call, I met Carolyn and her daughter (my younger half-sister by five years) in San Francisco. It was my first time visiting California, and it was an incredible reunion experience. We were a threesome the first couple days exploring the city. Carolyn and I then spent some time along the coast in Monterrey and then Yosemite. She wanted to show me her favorite parts of California, and it was amazing. I fell in love with all of it.
Those first months of knowing Carolyn and then meeting her brought an avalanche of unexpected emotions. After the glow of my search ending successfully, I began to feel very angry, like I had been snatched away from my tribe. Then I would feel relief that I was snatched away. It got very confusing, so I read a bunch of books about adoption and reunion, as well as the psychology behind it, to help me understand what was going on in my head. It helped tremendously. Working hard to recognize and deal with the emotions head-on gave me a feeling of empowerment.
My half-sister was another hurdle. I’d always wanted a sister, but this is not what I expected. She had not known about me and it changed her world. Carolyn would never tell me the full extent of the relationship issues they worked through, but I do know it was rough for a while. When I moved to Los Angeles a few years later in 1998, my half-sister did come down to spend time with me often, but that phase didn’t last long. While we had some things in common, we’d been raised too differently to have any type of authentic closeness. Contact tapered off. After Carolyn’s death, we did not stay in touch. It was sad in a way, but also a relief. The dance with ambivalence continues to this day. Thankfully, regret is not part of that choreography.
Gaining Strength Through Struggle
During the first few minutes of our initial phone conversation, my birth mom gave me the name of my birth father. Actually, I was quite surprised she told me about him so quickly. I’d expected it would take a while … and that I might even have to pry it out of her at some point (based on some of the things I’d read and learned during search). But she was completely open about all that had happened. While she didn’t know where he was or if he’d stayed in the military after Vietnam, she provided his full name (which consisted of three very common first names). I expected this search to be somewhat difficult. But by then I had more investigative skills than I was giving myself credit for (and I was still in a search-crazed obsession for truth). I located him in just a couple of days spent in the library and online (it wasn’t as easy in 1995 as it is today).
This time I decided on calling instead of writing a letter, as I did when reaching out to my birth mother. I called him on Dec. 29, just three weeks after connecting with Carolyn. Compared to the ease of my reunion with her, this one was much more difficult. I later realized I should have taken more time to adjust to my first reunion before plunging into another abyss.
My birth father was retired from the Air Force, a bird colonel, and lived in the Midwest with his two sons. My sudden appearance was, of course, a complete shock, even though he had known about me (he thought I’d been a boy). Our first few months of contact were quite intense and filled with anxiety. He called all the time and once said that I was his soul mate (which was awkward and unsettling for me). He asked me to have a DNA test (by mail) for peace of mind, which I completely understood. It cost about $400 back then and the results matched 99.86 percent.
Like my birth mother, I also found him in the midst of divorce. Venomous resentment from his former spouse was being vented directly at me, through ambush phone calls and hate-filled email messages. She would send me the worst photos of my birth father she could find (of him fixing a toilet), while sending glamour shots of herself. I felt like I was being stalked by a teenage mean girl. I know my birth father felt terrible about the intrusion, but the pressure still became so overwhelming at one point that I severed contact altogether for more than a year and began seeing a counselor to help me sort it all out. Growing up, I had never been exposed to that level of dysfunction and was very inexperienced in dealing with it. At first, I felt very guilty. It was, after all, my illegitimate existence that was causing such conflict. Like many adoptees, I was raised to believe my adoption status was a good thing, which made this rejection — even from an angry ex-wife who had obvious issues — particularly painful. It took a long time to accept that it had nothing at all to do with me. It was simply a depressing snapshot of their relationship. In the end, all it served to do was provide another moment of gratitude for my parents.
A year went by and after much soul-searching, I finally concluded that it would be better to face the situation rather than spend the rest of my life running and hiding from it. And because of that decision, I met my birth father and both of my younger half-brothers in the summer of 1997. I took a six-week sabbatical from my job for this reunion, knowing it could be intense and that I’d need some down time to process everything. After four days of reunion with my birth father and half-brothers, I spent a couple of weeks in California with Carolyn and then headed to Boulder, CO, for a month to hike solo around Rocky Mountain National Park, write and clear my head.
While I didn’t share many physical features with my birth mom and half-sister (besides curly dark hair and a few other things), I looked so much like my half-brothers that it was just weird. We took a lot of pictures. I got along well with the youngest and we’ve stayed in touch here and there through the years. He is a good man and even sent me a care package when my dad passed away in 2008. The oldest had no interest in a connection, which was fine. I completely understood his perspective (because INFJ) and was happy to wish him well in life and continue along my own path.
My birth father and I settled into a more relaxed relationship after our meeting. Strangely enough, but not uncommon is these situations, he and my birth mother rekindled their friendship for a short time. Neither would share much about it, but I do know they traveled to see each other several times. I wish I could have seen them together just once.
I remained in contact with my birth father, as did Carolyn, until his death in August of 2000. Like Carolyn, he opened his life to me despite the consequences. Even with all the angst and drama, I’m still thankful I had the chance to meet him and share those years. It gave him closure and it made me a much stronger person.
(I realize this story would be much better with photos, but that would be an unforgivable invasion of privacy for the other people involved. Thanks for your understanding.)
Next post coming soon: Sharing the news, my family’s reaction