The Pain After Reunion

The dynamics of the Second Rejection.

by Marcy Wineman Axness

Your phone call takes too long to be returned. Your letter goes unanswered for an unnerving number of weeks. You concoct exaggerated scenes inside your overtime mind, clamoring to make sense of it all, to somehow feel sense of it all.

Ah, reunion.

For a long time, searching adoptees and birth parents considered reunion as a panacea, a magical turning point in their lives. In the generation since the search movement began, we have come to understand that there are intensely complex issues imbedded in the process, the relationship, the roller-coaster experience that attends reunion. And there’s a big old elephant sitting squarely in the middle of this room, one almost everyone sees — or rather feels — trampling their already-bruised toes, but hates to mention for fear of making it real. But whether we name it or not, it’s frustratingly, tenaciously real. It is Rejection.

Second Rejection

For many adoptees, it’s experienced as the Second Rejection. My friend Amy’s birth mother, upon being found, said that she needed time to adjust. She told Amy to call her in six months, and upon doing so Amy found that she had moved to Germany. My friend channeled her renewed feelings of abandonment into her own healing, thereby transforming what might have been an immobilizing turn of events, but she still knows frustratingly little about what’s at the heart of her birth mother’s rejection.

Dr. Randolph Severson, a writer and psychologist specializing in adoption issues, explains that behind many kinds of reunion rejection lies a grieving for the might-have-been. And people respond to that grief in different ways.

“I think there is a stage that some people go through where they feel rejected, really, by life. [They recognize] that all these things that could have been — or, along a different kind of life trajectory, would have occurred — simply aren’t going to be. Too much of life has already been lived. And people withdraw. The anxiety is just too great, the disappointment is too great.”

This kind of withdrawal can happen on the part of the adoptee as well. “What a lot of adoptees seem to go through is a stage where they realize that the birth mother or birth parents are really not going to be able to answer to their wish, when their fundamental wish is `I wish none of this had ever happened to me.'”

Irrational desire

Dr. Severson says that an underlying desire of many adoptees — unconscious, irrational, and understandable — is that through reunion they will somehow become un-adopted, become like everyone else.

“The second rejection sort of occurs when folks realize that this just simply can’t happen. And sometimes it creates a little bit of a distance that the birth parent then complains about, too. It’s like an almost impersonal rejection that occurs as a result of finding that the reunion simply can’t erase, eliminate, or undo everything that’s gone before. The wounds still exist.”

Overwhelming reactions

Another common theme of rejection can occur when birth parents encounter the fullness of their children’s emotions and responses to the reunited relationship. “They can be overwhelmed about the intense, deep sorts of needs and yearning that adoptees often have. And they can withdraw; it’s just too frightening.”

This can also happen with the adoptee being overwhelmed by the needs of the birth parent.

Obstacles to reunion

Sometimes the birth parent — most often the birth mother — doesn’t feel free to respond to her newly returned “child” in the way her instincts would guide, hamstrung by allegiances to her existing family and their sensibilities. Dr. Severson notes that it is most often her husband who presents obstacles to an unfettered reunion relationship, even if he’s been sympathetic and accepting of his wife’s past – – including her unwed motherhood and relinquishment — throughout the years.

“It seems like it’s been almost built into their relationship, this deep understanding and all, and in fact it’s pretty easy to accept somebody who doesn’t exist. But when they arrive in flesh and blood with needs and desires and aspirations of their own, and you see in your spouse a sort of primordial response to that, it’s whole different ball game. When the full weight of what this means bears in on a spouse — and for a while the birth parent becomes almost a stranger — that spouse can put a whole lot of pressure on the birth parent. “

This can lead to painful choices that pit a birth mother’s instincts and heart’s desires against the harsher demands she may feel pressing in on her. In this way, the birth mother experiences another kind of second rejection — the sort that occurred when she had to reject an entire realm of response within herself to relinquish her child for adoption. This in turn can stir up old anger, another elephant in the reunion room who sits in many laps.

Understanding anger

Whenever I attend our local support group, I can count on hearing at least one birth mother complaining about her adult child’s confusing, ambivalent, “push-pull” behavior, which she will often perceive as rejection. I usually offer some insight into primal anger, for I believe that regardless of how we — including adoptees — frame the experience of relinquishment within our adult, intellectual perspective, there is rooted in the adoptee’s experience a profound sense of rejection registered at our most tender marrow. Dr. Severson cautions against regarding the anger as simply a “stage,” which implies some sort of time limit.

“It co-exists with all these other feelings, and it doesn’t go away. It exists because it’s reality-based. It’s human. And then when it comes boiling out, it frightens everybody, especially if they’ve not read anything or talked to anybody, are not in therapy or a support group, and it’s kind of like ‘Where’s this anger coming from? It shouldn’t be there because after all, we’re having this nice, happy reunion.'”

And that’s when the phone call doesn’t come on time. And so it goes.

© 1998 by Marcy Wineman Axness. From Jewel Among Jewels Adoption News, Winter 1999. Used by permission.