Over the past five months, I’ve been reflecting on our young daughter’s successful birth parent search.
Were there things I wish I had known or I’m glad we did?
Are there regrets I have?
This article will be adoptive-parent centric, because it is written from my perspective as an adoptive mom who lived through a rapid and successful search and reunion within the China adoption community. I acknowledge my privilege and have wrestled with the guilt of that these past several months.
Please extend grace as I try to best share parts of my perspective while fiercely protecting the privacy and details of our story. (Lydia, I am imagining you reading this as an adult, and I don’t want to disappoint you. To my daughter’s other mom, we are in a unique and cross-cultural relationship, and I want to honor you too.) Because my daughter is young, my role in the reunion and now open adoption is more pronounced than it would’ve been if she were a teen or adult. There are many details I am leaving out intentionally. I won’t write about my daughter’s perspective because that is her story. I won’t write about the details. My perspective likely varies from my daughter’s and her birth mom’s perspective, and I acknowledge that my perspective is not the most important. Reunions within the China adoption community are rare though, and we have a perspective having lived this.
When a family is in process to adopt, there is ample advice and wisdom shared by agencies, online training, and adoptive families who’ve been through what the pre-adoptive family is experiencing. But, there are far less shared experiences for China adoptive families who have located birth families and might be now in a cross-cultural open adoption (especially those of us with young children).
The most common question I get from adoptive families is, “From your perspective, what was it like to find her birth family and reunite with them?”
It was life changing. It changed me to the core. I experienced every emotion you could fathom. I felt gratitude, too.
There are few moments, if any, that compare to how life-changing the search and reunion were. Our search only lasted 26 hours. We did not know we would meet my daughter’s birth mom and birth maternal grandma until thirty minutes before we met them. The word “whirlwind” is an understatement. Yes, we knew we were going to China to search, but did we really expect to find her birth family? Not really. It happened so fast.
I will never forget stepping out of the tuk tuk near my daughter’s finding location and seeing her birth mother standing at that very spot 100 yards away. Her birth mom had no way of knowing that this very spot was twice a life-changing parcel of earth for our families. I’ve heard people discuss full-circle moments — but this…
As I firmly held my daughter’s hand, I remember feeling the desire to put my daughter in a protective bubble or run away. Yes, I thought about running.
Lord, please don’t let them say or do something that would hurt our daughter.
Lord, please let them see her preciousness and please protect her heart.
Father, please don’t let our choice ruin our daughter’s life. Are we ruining her life? Was this the best choice for our daughter?
Father, please give each person grace and strength.
Yes, we were going to meet my daughter’s other mother, but she was also a complete stranger to us. Was she a safe person? Some might get angry and scoff that I wondered this, but if a parent does not wonder, they are clouded in naivety.
It was in this moment that I wanted to tell my friends who are adult adoptees that I suddenly understood why some of their adoptive moms wanted them to wait until they were older to meet their birth family. Before this very moment walking down that rough gravel road, I didn’t understand how or why their adoptive parents stood in the way of a reunion. I thought it was selfish (and some voiced selfish reasons). But now? I understood perhaps part of the reason for some of the adoptive parents. Protection. We made a different choice for our daughter — one that I am not sure was ‘right’ if there is a right — but I suddenly was fighting the desire to say, “STOP! We will do this when she is 18 years old!” and running back to the perceived safety of the tuk tuk. I wanted to keep my daughter’s heart safe. I was trusting her heart to someone who once wounded it.
In the first few moments of the reunion, I remember immediately bursting into tears as I looked at the woman who shared my daughter’s first moments. “Oh, Lydia! She is so beautiful. She looks just like you.” I couldn’t stop crying and telling her birth mom thank you. Thank you for being brave and meeting us. Thank you for giving birth to her. Thank you for creating the most special and precious girl on this earth. She really is the most precious little girl. I saw a woman — my daughter’s other mom — who was a stranger to me but whose facial features were the most familiar. It was as if I was looking at my daughter in 20 years. I’ve memorized my daughter’s features as I stare at her each night when she falls asleep.
I didn’t know her, but I did know her, but I didn’t know her.
I knew that expression. I didn’t know her.
I’ve never experienced something comparable.
Each person in the triad had imagined what the other would be like, this I know: what the reunion would be like, what the person was like, how each person would respond, and what the relationship would be like going forward. Some of it was accurate and some of it was not.
Some of it, for each of us, was naive. The one thing I will say is that even simple expectations for each person in the triad took time to adjust. Though I didn’t think I fantasized about what my daughter’s birth family was like, looking back, it was impossible not to. Those details of my daughter’s story that were unknown, my brain filled with plausible details. My daughter did the same. Her birth mom did the same. We each fill in details, and some are fiction. If you don’t think your child wonders, they likely have. If you don’t think you’ve fantasized, you probably have too. It’s impossible not to wonder.
So for families searching, what advice would I give as someone who does not claim to be an expert, but as someone who has lived it?
1. I am thankful my daughter had an established relationship with a therapist. We talked with our child’s clinician before our search, texted her during the reunion, and re-established appointments for our daughter once home to continue to process her experience. Whether you are five-years old or thirty-five years old, finding your birth family is complicated, emotional, and life-changing. My advice if you are an adult adoptee going through a search; get a therapist. Adoption is complicated.
2. Each family’s reunion and ongoing relationship is as unique as the people, personalities, and details involved.
3. If your child is young, talk with your partner and an open-adoption social worker/therapist about what an open adoption looks like for your family. What are healthy boundaries for each? Does your family have any preferences for what your child’s birth family calls your child? Does your family have any preferences for what your child calls his or her birth parents? How often will you return to China? What will the level and frequency of contact look like? Make sure this conversation is facilitated by and is informed by a professional who is well-trained in open adoption and the latest research about what is healthy. Whatever you do, check your selfishness/motives, and make sure you are truly making wise decisions for your kid. We did not meet with a social worker ahead of time about open adoption best practices because we did not expect to find our daughter’s birth family so quickly. Even if you do not expect to find the birth family, it is prudent to do this. Is this initial conversation informed by your child’s birth family? No, it is not. But I wish we had at least had the conversation with an informed professional before we navigated this in a jet-lagged, highly stressful situation. In the beginning of a reunion, a family could easily over-promise because emotions are high.
4. I am thankful we had a guide with us who was not only a translator, but someone well-versed in the culture, adoption, and who had walked other families through successful searches and reunions. The latter is the most important. Adoption is not common in China, so our guide was an essential educator about adoption and American culture. My daughter’s birth parents’ understanding of American culture is based on a couple of American movies, so we have lots of cross-cultural learning opportunities.
5. Get a therapist for you, the adoptive parent, who is well-educated in the adoption triad and open adoption. A few months after the search, I realized I needed a therapist for me to help me process the experience, grief for my child, my feelings, my history, and help me navigate this complicated and important relationship moving forward. I am very intentional as a mom and often careful with my words, but there was a moment when through the exhaustion, stress, and my own history that I know my words wounded my daughter when she asked me a question that stung. Many five-year-olds who just had their world rocked would likely ask the same question. But, I know that I cannot successfully parent from wounding and so I promptly called a therapist.
6. Be hospitable and extend grace to each person in the triad, including yourself. Very few have walked down this path, and each person in the triad will be stressed, and experience varying emotions. It is so complicated and each of us are flawed and broken people, meeting flawed and broken people, loving flawed and broken people across two cultures that could not be more different. When I was in China, I posted in one of the China birth parent search groups asking for advice because I was in over my head. One of the first responses said, “You should be grateful.” I am. I was also in over my head and that response was not helpful. Give yourself grace and space. Give each person grace and space. None of us have this all figured out.
7. Record everything. Have someone film it. Record the audio. Have the birth family write details down in a journal. You will forget important details. You will miss important details. I heard one crucial detail of my daughter’s story and my husband told me he heard something else, so we had to go back to the audio to clarify. Get photos. And then don’t share those videos, details, or audio publicly. My husband is a filmmaker, and though we have footage and audio and it has all the makings of a movie, this is not for public consumption. We will make a film for Lydia and her birth family of our reunion because her birth family wants that, but we won’t share it beyond the immediate triad. Why? Because we cannot unshare these details and they are so sacred. It would’ve been easy to overshare in the initial excitement.
8. Read and re-read Stories from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran. I met four birth moms in China while conducting our search and each shared stories that echoed the experiences in this book. I read it when we were in the adoption process, but recently re-read it and it’s helped me understand more about the government, culture, family planning, and the role of women in China. It is a MUST read and re-read and re-read and re-read. It is a challenging read but very, very accurate to what we’ve learned.
9. Prepare to feel protective of the birth family.
10. Prepare for lots of curious questions if others know you reunited with the birth family.
11. Prepare for cross-cultural conflict and miscommunication. Study about the culture. Though I’ve taught about Chinese culture as a college professor and even studied in China, a person experiences culture at its strongest in the family. Prepare to lean into the awkward and cross-cultural conflict for your kid. Prepare to eat delicacies in abundance. Be a gracious guest. Be hospitable. My daughter’s birth mom knows that I do not enjoy century old egg, and is convinced I have yet to try one that is fixed to my liking. There is far more century old egg in my future, and my daughter is more than worth it.
12. A couple of days before we left for China to do our search, a story went viral about a Chinese-American adoptee who met her birth parents on a bridge in China. While reading the story, I read several paragraphs where the birth parents were extremely critical of the adoptive parents allowing their daughter to work during college. That is something very common in America (and encouraged), but demonstrates the differences in parenting in different cultures. Our cultures are opposite. In the first few days after meeting my daughter’s birth family, they were very vocal about aspects of our parenting that they did not approve of, but that are steeped in cultural differences. I would be lying if I did not admit it hurt, but for my daughter, I smiled and nodded. I did not expect them to be grateful, but the disapproval of some of our Western-based parenting cultural norms stung.
13. Prepare to wrestle with your privilege, even if the birth family is wealthy.
14. Prepare to hurt for all involved. Prepare to face brokenness like never before.
15. Learn about the role of shame in Chinese culture. Then learn more. Shame will be a dominant guest at the reunion and in the establishing of a relationship. It’s very different than our culture, and beginning to learn about this is important.
16. Whether you are five years old or an adult, there are stage to a reunion with a birth family. This article has been helpful for us and very true of our experience.
And most of all, prepare for none of this to prepare you for such a life-changing and important event.