Nothing in life is one size fits all—especially in adoption. Admittedly, my experience with reunions is with my young children. They are all smart, emotional little beings, and all unique in their ways. Ever since we added our second child to our family through foster care, our oldest has become increasingly curious about his birth mom. We have always talked about her, his extended family, and told him abbreviated versions of his/her story. We express our love, frustration, and concerns about our children’s birth mothers like we do with any relationship and always appropriately in front of our children. We feel it’s important for them to understand, even now, the challenges of navigating these relationships. That life isn’t rainbows, unicorns, and fluffy clouds. We have two children who have already made idols and created fantasy realities surrounding their birth moms. I’m not concerned, but we do try to include them in the reality. Sometimes our birth moms don’t show up, or they cancel last minute. We always give them the truth as to the reason, though many times we clean up truth to make it appropriate for their ages.

We have been disappointed in huge ways by our children’s birth moms and inevitably, so have our children. As with most anything, people are people and can disappoint us in a drop of a hat if we have unrealistic, and let’s face it, unfair expectations of the relationship. We have discussed this at great length with our children already. Since two of our children visit their birth moms more frequently, on average three to four times a year, it gets messy. Here’s a little of how we prepare for each child. Each relationship we have with birth families is unique. Some of our birth moms expect to see their child monthly. We have discovered it really isn’t healthy for our child and have had to limit that interaction.

Our youngest child regresses greatly whenever we have a visit with her first mom. She remembers living with her, and we only stopped visits with her about a year ago. This relationship is, by far, the most demanding of the birth family relationships. It’s not negative, necessarily, but it can easily become burdensome and demanding rapidly. This birth mom expects monthly visits in the summer, and while that sounds lovely, it’s not a reasonable expectation of our 4-year-old child. She simply can’t handle that much interaction. And while I understand trauma on a limited scale, I can see and hear the immediate changes in her. In the time that we are with her birth mom, she goes almost completely non-verbal. For whatever reason, they have a method of communication that is made up of a series of non-verbal noises. My smart, funny, very verbal child is simply unable to communicate with words at that point. I don’t correct her in the moment, I try to let them be and be comfortable to interact in their way, but sometimes this very human mom has a really hard time with the behavior. My sons have also noticed the behavior and my oldest will say, “Why isn’t she talking?” or, “Stop making those noises.”

We prepare for the visits by talking about the situation. We make decisions about what we want to do ahead of time so I’m not pressuring her. She’s not choosing the behavior, on that, I’m very clear, so I try to relieve any of my expectations of communication before the visit. We talk about our feelings, how the day will go, and usually how long we will be there. Every visit has gone well. My daughter seems to thoroughly enjoy her time with her birth mom, and is, at this point, always happy to see her. After the visit, I allow her complete quiet. Both of my younger children are fairly emotional and when they’ve been taxed emotionally, they want to sleep. I’m always sure to bring along her favorite comfort items: a special doll and her blanket. She sleeps on the journey home, and when we arrive home we sit quietly and snuggle, have close body contact, and just be. We don’t usually push her to talk about the visit until hours later when she’s had time to process. All of my kids seem to want to protect me, even though I’m the one actively fostering these relationships, so I try to be positive, empathetic, and upbeat. Even if I’m frustrated, I save that for later processing with my husband. I don’t want this to become another event that they feel they need to hide from me, emotionally.

When we began visits with our second child’s birth mom, it was a complete disaster for our emotional little being. He simply could not handle it all. He was a mess. We were a mess. And we were completely, and naively, caught off guard. For days following the first visit, he was filled with rage, completely defiant, and just plain angry. He wouldn’t listen to anything. Thankfully, he was also very young, and we were able to work through it in play therapy. We gave him time to heal, to grow emotionally, and the next visit went really, really well. This relationship, due to the people in it, is the one we must watch the most closely. Our son is very much like his birth mom in many ways. In some ways, it’s a fun connection; in other ways, we will have to be diligent in communication, realistic expectations, and be consistent with therapy.

They love each other very much. And if allowed, my son would plant himself firmly in her lap/bosom and not leave. Ever. She would be completely content with that, even at the age of 5, and a very unhealthy cycle/relationship would continue. With this relationship, we are more honest than in others. She faces different life challenges than the other birth moms we know, and there is just a higher likelihood of future hurt. We do our best to support her in every way we can, but we are also frank and honest about her illnesses and challenges, age appropriately of course. Our second son tends to romanticize this relationship in a big way. I’m not concerned, we have discussed this in counseling a lot, but we do need to be consistent and honest with him. She is a good, kind person. She struggles greatly with sobriety and mental health. We use blanket words like “sick” to explain why we can’t see her at certain times. When she was jailed for an extended period and he wanted to see her, we told him that she “went away.”

For him, she is mother incarnate. She is patient, sits and gives him the one-on-one attention that he craves in this crazy house of three kids. She talks softly and never corrects him. She moons over him as much as he does her. It’s quite frankly, a dream for him. It’s also not reality, but he’s too young to understand that. We have chosen to not leave them alone. Not for any reason than to keep him in the reality of this family. That he is expected to participate in our family, and we include her in that. She is always respectful of our parenting and relationship and understands and supports our decisions. I’m sure she doesn’t always agree. That’s not to say that we don’t allow them any alone time. We do, just in the presence of the family.

When I take her home, my husband will approach the winding down in much the same way we do with our daughter. We allow him to have quiet time or sleep, his favorite comfort items, a snack. We snuggle, read, comfort in the ways we can. The visits have been so much more relaxed and enjoyable. He recovers well and is generally comfortable asking about her, asking when he can see her again, etc. I think, in time, it will blossom into a comforting relationship for him. I’m sure, in time, there will be the hard conversations of what took place. But we will work through all of that, just like we work through this.

This summer, my oldest finally had a chance to meet his birth mom. She is a wonderful woman, a great mom to the children she parents, and a lot like my son in her anxiety and fear. She has always been fearful that he would reject her in some way. I knew that wouldn’t happen. He’s just a little boy, curious about the woman who gave him life. But she was terrified. This journey was the hardest to prepare for. First and foremost, she chose adoption. She chose us to raise this boy, and we love her deeply and widely. She and the son we share are so much alike, that I recognize the anxiety in her voice, her written words and in her face. She also parents two sons that don’t know about the adoption for right now. That’s her choice and we will always support her. I hope that they realize how amazing she is when that day comes. He also had to travel many hours and thousands of miles to see her. In the past, she let fear win and didn’t show up. So, we were all nervous about one thing or another.

Since we have three small children, and time and money are not always flush, we decided to send only my son and husband. It was painful. I was an emotional wreck. Not because I didn’t want this to happen. Because I miss her. I have wanted to put my arms around her and hug her long and hard for many years now. I knew they would all be anxious and I’m the binder, it would be easier with me there. But they did great. They ate and chatted and just saw each other. He asked her hard, hard questions. She gave him the answers she had and the answers he needed. He opted not to hug her and while that might have been hard for her, she respected it. This boy also has some sensory issues which were more likely the reason for not choosing a hug than his emotions. He came home happy and content. He knows her now. They have started their relationship, and we will nurture that the best we can.

For all our children, one thing is consistent. We have a great therapist. She is excellent at playing them through the emotions of loss, rejection, love, and bonding. They are not all in therapy at once. It seems to stagger, bend, and weave. Inevitably, they will all have things to work through at varying times of their lives that we just don’t have the skills to get them through. That’s okay. I’m getting better and better at admitting my strengths and weaknesses. I’d much rather understand that I can’t do it all and find them the right person and tools that can help them unpack and work through their pasts.

If you’re starting the journey to reunification, then read and devour stories and guides—anything you can get your hands on. Listen to others. Seek out support groups in your area. A good place to start is here. There will be a list of support groups in your area to connect with. Contact your agency and ask them for resources. Seek therapy. I firmly believe that working through key elements of pain and loss can only help—before, during, and after. Try not to have expectations; I think this is extremely difficult for anyone. It’s human nature to expect something, anything. If they’re high, lower them. Expect only to meet. Maybe you won’t even want to seek a deeper relationship, maybe you will. Maybe it will be easier than you think, maybe harder. Confide in someone. Have them be your cheerleader, supporter, and confidante. Hopefully, this experience will bring you the answers you need to heal more completely. To find the peace, understanding, empathy that you all need to put the past behind and move forward.

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Karla King is a passionate open adoption advocate, adoptive mom, foster mom, wife, reader, avid creator of food, a stay-at-home mom, and Christian. She loves taking care of her family, supporting others on the adoption journey, and watching the world through her children’s eyes.