Guest Blog: What Happens After Reunion-My Maternal Reunion
Guest blogger, Jen Matthews, Founder of Conversations About Adoption Facebook Group shares her own adoption journey. She shares her raw story from the initial contact to how life after reunion feels. Please note this is her personal story, please respect her journey she has chosen to share with us.
On June 18, 2001 an intermediary for Orphan’s Court of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh, Pa) was the one who actually made initial contact for me.
I had searched for years in the early days of the Internet. I poured over mutual consent reunion registries for hours at a time. I had no real information to go by though.
All my life, the only info I had about myself and my natural parents was very sparse. I had my birth date, the name of the hospital where I was delivered, the Doctor’s name, and that my mother was around 16 or 17 and from the North Hills area of Pittsburgh.
After she spoke with my grandmother, and my grandmother checked with my grandfather, the intermediary was granted permission to fill me in and give me their phone number and names.
My mother had passed away April 19, 1982.
I was devastated… But didn’t know it yet. The grief would come later.
When the intermediary told me what my mother’s name was… I was struck with the feeling of familiarity that I had never experienced before. My mind said, “Oh yea, that’s right. That is what her name was. You’ve known this all along, but just forgot.”
I called my grandparent’s house.
My grandmother answered. She was SO happy to find out that I had been raised by a good family, and that I was “OK”. I was told that I had a younger half-brother, and an Uncle. Neither were ever told of my existence.
While talking to gram I realized that I already knew my brother. He had been expelled from his high school. His paternal grandparents (who raised him) wanted him to get his diploma so they paid tuition at a nearby High school so that he could finish… It just happened to be MY high school. He had been one of my bullies the last 2 years at school.
We talked about when I could meet them. My ENTIRE natural family lived less than 20 miles away from where I grew up. My grandmother said she would have to tell my uncle first.
I went to my adoptive mom’s house and frantically raided the photo albums for pictures I wanted to show them of me when I was little.
On June 20, 2001 I met natural family for the first time. My adoptive mom drove me to my grandparent’s house for the reunion, and I am quite glad she did, as I was a bit of a nervous wreck on the way there. I was so filled with anxiety, and fear, and excitement… I remember I couldn’t sit still in the front seat of her van. I kept saying, “I can’t do this.”
Mom would say, “Yes you can.”
We arrived at my grandparent’s house. My grandmother met us out in the yard. She hugged me really tightly. Tears were flowing. Then she hugged my mom and said, “Thank you for taking care of her.” And mom said, “Thank you for giving her to us.” (Which in retrospect feels a little weird.) In the moment it was magical.
We entered into the house by the kitchen. There I met my grandfather, who hugged me, and then chuckled and made his way over to the living room couch. Then I met my Uncle. He and I stared at each other a lot.
I remember the first time I saw my grandmother, I thought, “Well that’s what I am going to look like at 71.” It was THE first time I had ever experienced genetic mirroring, and it was that profound. I feel like I resemble my uncle too.
(Now I know I look like my dad too but that is a whole other story.)
The entire experience of meeting them was just amazing and TOTALLY OVERWHELMING.
It was a sensory overload. Most of my memories of that time spent in their home are a blur. Except I remember thinking to myself, “she was pregnant with me in this house.” There were multiple small moments like that.
My gram brought out family pictures. She showed them to my mom, and I tried to look at them, but I was in such a state, that focus was difficult. I do recall hearing my gram point out certain pictures to my mom. They were all pictures of my mom with various animals. Ironically the photos I had selected of myself was a collection of me with various animals. I found out that she had had ponies, and a horse up till she was married. That really blew my mind because I have been obsessed with horses for as long as I can remember.
We went back to their home the following Saturday so that my brother and I could “meet” again. I always remember wishing I had a little brother. He said that he wished he had an older sister… I wonder if our mom told him about me when he was too young to consciously remember. All of it was a LOT to deal with emotionally. There was a HUGE blur of activity for several weeks after initial reunion.
My uncle had been planning a surprise 50th wedding anniversary for my grandparents the following month. I went up to help my uncle put up decorations on the day before. When I got to his place, there was an older lady there already putting up decorations. I had no idea who she was, and I had no idea if it was OK to tell her who I was. So this lady and I were working side-by-side, and of course we started chatting. She started to ask me how I met my uncle… I kept my answers vague. (Because in these situations you never know who knows what.)
Due to the direction of her questions, I got the feeling she thought he and I were dating.
I excused myself and went to find my uncle. I told him what was going on, and he explained that it was OK to tell her, because she knew. She was my great aunt! My grandpap’s sister! I was so relieved that I could tell her. I went back, and told her, and she was SO happy. She cried, and hugged me. She had known about me too, and always wondered what had happened to me. I had to work the day of the party, so I didn’t arrive till later in the evening… which was fortunate. I didn’t want to accidentally take the focus off their party. I was introduced to all these people… and it was an absolute whirlwind! I barely remember any of them. But I do remember my grandpap, a little bit intoxicated, grabbing me, hugging me, and calling me his baby girl. It made me feel so cherished and awkward at the same time.
After a few months the frequent contact died down…
Through all this, I had been in a support group, and we had weekly online chats on Sunday evenings to check in with each other. Another girl in the group had just located her parents. She found what I call, “The fantasy”. Her parents were high school sweethearts. They stayed together, got married, and she had several full siblings.
I still hadn’t fully processed the fact that I had “found a grave”…
It was as if I had been kicked in the gut. I started sobbing. I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve… It wasn’t logical in my mind to grieve for someone I had never met. My phone rang, and it was the first mom who ran the support group. She knew what was going on. I cried, and she told me it was OK. I told her that I didn’t even know her…
How could this hurt so bad.
She gently reminded me, “Yes. You did know her. You were a part of her, and you did know her. You knew the sound of her heartbeat, and her voice. You knew her smell.”
The flood gates opened. It hurt so badly. The realization had finally hit me that my mother was dead. I would never ever get to talk to her. The finality of death punched me in the gut.
I am not unfamiliar with death, but this was entirely different.
I sobbed, in a way I had not before, and it went on for over an hour. The first mom on the phone the whole time, supporting me, and being there for me.
I had been emotionally numb since after initial reunion. I knew it too… But I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I did not know that I needed to grieve. I had to let the pain out.
It helped. But I’ll never be the same again. I’ll never be in the fog again. Can’t go back in. Can’t unlearn what I have learned.
Now I needed some time.
I called them less often… I wasn’t trying to fully insert myself into their lives. I understood they had lives of their own, I and didn’t want to assume I could just insert myself into their lives.
Hindsight being 20/20, I realize we never communicated about any of it. What was OK, or not OK? How much contact did they want? Etc… I was just so afraid of stepping on toes I tried to play it cool… be aloof, not be too demanding. I had a fear of being too much for them. When I was with them, I couldn’t help but ask questions… a LOT of questions. I could tell that my questions made my grandmother a little uncomfortable… but I had questions… My mom was not around to answer them, and my grandma was the only person I had to talk to about any of it, especially since my uncle never even knew about me.
There were times that she said things that felt kind of... hurtful. For example, one time we were standing in my uncle’s kitchen, and she told me she only wanted to meet me to see if I looked like Deb.
Very flatly, she said, “You don’t.” and that she was disappointed. OUCH! There were other things too. In my mind, I was “just” the adoptee… I didn’t have to be where I was.
They didn’t have to allow me to be a part of their lives, yet I was. I was just so glad to be there, to be able to be with them, and learn anything I could about them, my family… I just dealt with it.
I did question my grandmother about why I was relinquished, and I am sure that is what made her most uncomfortable. But, to her credit I feel like she was 100% honest with me about all of it.
I asked her why? She told me that my mother had to finish school, and she (gram) “didn’t want to raise another baby”.
I asked her if she came up with the adoption plan. She said, no the doctor came up with the entire plan. My mother stayed in school, and had a Doctor’s excuse stating she had a fibroid tumor so she didn’t have to participate in gym. Over spring break, the “fibroid tumor” was removed.
I asked her if she saw me when I was born. She answered, “No”.
I asked her why… she struggled to respond, so I asked, “were you afraid to see me?” She nodded.
I asked, “were you afraid that if you saw me you wouldn’t be able to leave me there?” She nodded again. Quickly the subject was changed.
That was hard… It feels like my entire life pivoted on that one moment. If she had seen me, I may have stayed with my mother.
Then I asked her if anyone saw me. She said that yes, “My mother insisted on seeing you”.
I inquired if she had said anything about me. Gram answered, “yes, she said you had strawberry blond hair, and you were cute.”
So much to process…
Time went by, and I would check in with them every so often, and with my uncle. They sent me birthday cards, and Christmas cards. And there were occasional visits. It didn’t completely fade away… I still wanted to be a part of their lives, and at the same time I was busy with my life.
On Father’s Day 2004 I had been planning on making cookies to take over to my grand pap. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling up to it, and decided I would just visit them later in the week.
On Tuesday my uncle called to tell me that Monday evening, my grandpap had passed away. It was completely unexpected.
He hadn’t been feeling well all day. Gram told me she thought he had the flu or something. She told me that he laid on the couch all day. When she called him into the kitchen for dinner, he walked in, sat at the table, and just slumped over. My poor gram was so distraught. She relied on him for nearly everything. She told me that she didn’t even know how to make coffee. He made it every single day.
My uncle needed to go and make funeral arrangements, he asked if I would be able to come and stay with gram on Wednesday while he did that. Of course I agreed! I spent the majority of that week with them. To my amazement I was included in my grandfather’s obituary… This was a really big deal to me.
I did a really stupid, thoughtless, impulsive thing at the first viewing. We were the only people at the funeral home. I saw the guestbook, and for some reason, instead of just signing my name I wrote, “Baby girl B____” Then my name next to that.
I immediately realized my mistake and offered to rip the page out. I was the first one in the book. No one would’ve known a page was ripped out. But gram said to leave it. (in hindsight, I wish more than anything in the world that I had ripped that page out anyway.)
During the viewing I met many people who were wondering, “just who was this other person standing by the coffin”? I felt like I had to explain myself repeatedly. I would take a break and go stand on the front porch of the funeral home. People would approach me to find out who I was. I had several amazing quick conversations with people who knew my mother. There was a lady who was a friend of hers that surprisingly knew about me. My mom had confided in her back when they were kids. She told me that she and my mom would jump in mom’s car and skip class. (She was apparently a little bit of a rebel.) It was really cool to hear that story.
Friday was the funeral & wake. All seemed to be fine…
On Saturday, that all changed.
My partner and I were driving to a dog event for a rescue I was involved with. My cell phone rang and it was my brother.
He starts with, “yeah, gram isn’t happy with you bad mouthing the family, and she wants you to stay away for a while.”
My mind reeled. WAIT?!? WHAT?!?!
I frantically started replaying the past few days in my mind and could recall not one single instance of me “bad-mouthing” the family. I told my brother, “I would never bad-mouth the family! That’s just crazy! And how long is a while???”
It was that “a while”. It freaked me out. It was too vague, too uncertain, too long… What does “a while” MEAN?!? My brain latched onto that short phrase.
I remembered that my brother is not someone I trusted completely… and I asked, “If that’s the case, why doesn’t she just call me herself and tell ME?”
He said, “She asked me to.”
My brother who had been in jail, and was still on house arrest, who I visited both in jail, and while he was stuck on house arrest… Who even though he was a SHIT to me in high school, I was attempting to make it a point to try to have a relationship with him BECAUSE he is my brother. The fact that he just did her bidding without speaking up for me, felt like a huge betrayal. I realize that could’ve just been my emotions… but I tend to rely on gut feelings.
I called my grandmother to try and get some clarification…
(Disclosure: this was a long time ago... I’m trying to remember how it went best as I can… Since I was really distraught, I only remember bits.)
I was sobbing hysterically. I told Jeff what had just happened. Took a couple breaths and called Gram’s house.
She answered, and I told her about the call I had just received from my brother.
I asked, “What do you mean by bad-mouthed? I would NEVER do such a thing.” She answered with something about some other family members “overhearing” me “Bad mouth” the family while I was talking to someone else on the porch of the funeral home.”
I said, “So instead of talking to me about it… instead of asking me if this actually happened, you are just going to have my brother call me on your behalf, and ask me to “Stay away for a while”? And what does a while mean anyway?”
She said something about not wanting to talk about it.
Pretty sure I was bawling my eyes out…
I don’t remember much else until she said, “You know, you focus too much on being adopted. And, you ask too many questions.”
I about lost it. I said, “I AM ADOPTED! This is WHO I am!”
Then I said, “Of course I ask questions! I went 30 years not knowing where I came from. My mother is dead, I have no one to ask but you!”
I honestly can’t remember much else of the call. That was the final straw.
My gram and I never spoke again.
My uncle refuses contact too… I imagine he must feel like he’s in the middle? I don’t know, because he won’t talk to me.
Over the years I attempted to reach out to them here and there with no response.
In 2010 when I was pregnant, I wrote 2 letters, one addressed to my uncle, and one addressed to my grandmother. I explained how I was so sorry for any mistakes I had made. I included an ultrasound photo, to let them know I was expecting. I was really hoping it would soften my grandmother. But what I didn’t know is that she was ill. She had developed dementia. Again, looking back, I remember seeing the signs. But as I didn’t know them all that well I assumed they were just personal quirks.
In 2013 friends of ours got married, and their wedding was near where my uncle lives. We spent the night in the hotel after the wedding and we made a surprise visit to my uncle’s property. I found him sitting out in his woods near the creek. We talked. He told me what had been going on with Gram. I told him that if he had let me know, I would’ve been glad to help. He went back up to the house for a while. Jeff, Derek and I waited down by the creek. Derek was about 1 ½ and he had a ball playing in the creek.
Finally, my uncle came back down to the creek, but this time he was accompanied by his girlfriend. He introduced her to us. He also brought down eggs, and bacon, and other breakfast stuff. I cooked a meal over a campfire, and we all had a pretty good day. While we were there, he gave me his cell phone number, and I took a photo of him and I together that I totally cherish.
I have called & texted numerous times since. No response.
He will not reply to me.
It breaks my heart, and I have left messages that probably make me sound like an insane person… but only because I get so overwhelmed with emotions.
I have kept in touch with my brother’s ex via FB. She is a lovely person and is the mother of my niece. (side note we met them this year. I really wanted to meet my niece, and for Derek to meet his cousin, so we went to her birthday party. She is a sweet kid.)
Around Christmas of 2016 I had messaged my brother’s ex to wish them a Merry Christmas. It was then that I found out that Gram had passed just about 10 days prior. I was devastated that my uncle never reached out to let me know. I don’t exactly hold it against him. I understand that he is in a weird situation that he didn’t ask for either… But it really hurt my feelings. And… I was not included in her obituary. I am not surprised… but after being included in grandpap’s… Well…
More time has gone by…
I have connected with other members of my maternal family. Cousins of my mother, and they have been so sweet, and welcoming. I’ve even been getting little gifts from them… Photos of my mother, a drawing she did when she was little. To them it may seem like it’s not a big deal, but to me they are precious treasures, and when I see them tears well up in my eyes.
It’s hard to find a grave… There are so many questions left unanswered. There is really nothing I can do but accept the fact that my mother is dead, and I will NEVER meet her, see her, hear her voice, or feel her hug me. It hurts. It hurts bad.
I am still hopeful that my uncle and I will have a relationship again… Whenever he is ready, I am here.
Would I do it again, even with all the heart ache?
Every adoptee is in a life situation that they did not choose. I get it, none of us chose to be born. But I feel like removing a newborn from their natural mother, and putting them with a different family is like disrupting fate. It changed where I was meant to be. No one asked me if I was OK with it. Life is hard enough already, but being adopted adds another layer of pain, low self-esteem, ADD type issues, depression, and fear of abandonment… The list goes on and on.
We have the right to know our heritage, who we look like, what our medical history is, and so on.
My advice for people looking to reunite:
You can try to mentally prepare, but nothing can really prepare you for the emotional roller-coaster that you will go on. I HIGHLY recommend that adoptees, and reunited natural family members communicate about what level of communication is acceptable.
Set ground rules. How often contact is expected, are you going to be a part of the family now? If not, you will have to accept that. What are people willing to talk about, set boundaries if needed, remember that NO ONE is perfect, and your recently found family members will have flaws just as you do. You will learn amazing things about yourself, and perhaps find the craziest coincidences.
Have a good support system available to you. Communicate about what is affecting you with your partner instead of withdrawing into yourself. Remember, they love you and only want the best. It’s important you can open up to them. I wish someone had told me that a long time ago.
Lastly, try not to have expectations.
I think being an adoptee means you have to become a pro at acceptance. (it's not fair, but it is what it is.) We are put in these circumstances where we have no choice but to accept a lot.
As for my paternal side, I have done DNA, gotten results, reunited… But that is a whole other story for another time.
Written by, ~Jen Matthews ~Adoptee
If you are interested in sharing your story after your reunion please visit Jen's After the Reunion Blog to post your story. The link to her blog can be found here.