The Challenges of Reunion…

(c) Susan Harness. All rights reserved.
(c) Susan Harness. All rights reserved.

A friend of mine asked if I would ever be interested in helping adoptees search for their birth-families, or assist in some way an adoptee’s return home.  Or perhaps I could work with them to understand the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead for them once they make that decision.  However, how do you tell people that the road they may travel will be long and bumpy, filled with rocks and places that the spring rains had washed out?  That at some point the steepness will be overwhelming or that there will be a snowstorm in July?  If we haven’t had those experiences, in other challenges, but especially in terms of a relationship, how could we ever possibly imagine what that will truly be like?  We can’t, no matter how much someone prepares us.

And it doesn’t help that there is a social mythology of genetic remembrance, that we will fall in to each other’s arms, long lost family reunited in love and longing.  Usually by the time we make those connections there is so much water under the bridge.  And the emotions surrounding the event, for everyone in this mixture of adoption – the adoptee, the adoptive parents, the biological parents, the biological siblings, the extended family of all, the community – are astronomical and chaotic.  My mom was supportive, yet there was a sadness that somehow she might “lose me”.  My dad was furious that I would search.  My birthmother was ashamed that she wasn’t able to do what was needed to keep me.  My siblings were at once curious and resentful.  Who had I turned out to be and would I be stuck up and look down on them, believing they were less than?  My extended family on my mom’s side wondered why I needed to make this search; my extended family on my birthmother’s side wondered what took me so long.

There were challenges, some bureaucratic and others personal and intentional, against finding my family.  There was a whole society of American Indians that didn’t want me back in the 1980s and 1990s because I wasn’t “authentic” enough. Many of them were from the boarding school generation and they believed federal assimilation programs stopped with them.  But it didn’t.  It continued into child placement.  There were so many barriers!  Too many for me to navigate in my early 20s and beyond.  So I gave up because it hurt so much.  It hurt to be racially and culturally different, dismissed by the society in which I was raised as well as dismissed by the society from which I’d come.  That dismissal didn’t just come from individuals, but family and community as well.   Although there seemed to be no one in my corner, I kept trying to come home.

And I finally did, in 1993.  However, twenty years later the road is still bumpy.  My mom doesn’t want to talk in depth about this family that used to be mine and I can’t blame her.  My birthmother is dead.  Of the four visits we were able to have, one was healing.  My birth-sister, while wanting to have a close and loving relationship, still acknowledges a certain resentment; that somehow I received something she didn’t and should have.  And we dance this dance of fear and anger until the chaos overwhelms us, and then we come back and try to establish a relationship again.  One birth-brother, though we are close, is wary of how I might judge his life and I am as wary of his judgment as well.  A second birth-brother is happy with our connection.  I have two other birth-sisters who do not communicate with me, and a third who is neutral; she can take me or leave me and I give her the same option.  I have a third birth-brother with whom I have no relationship whatsoever.  I have an aunt and uncle who have been my mentors and my guardians, as much as they could be, and I have a myriad of other extended family that keep me at arm’s length, mainly because I was never really part of them.  I have friends on the reservation who are supportive and then there are those who want to undo everything I am fighting for – to have adoptees/fosters acknowledged by the tribe –  because they believe we taint the community.

And then there’s me.   How do I create relationships with people who may not want those relationships to exist?  How do I get over the ‘survivor’s guilt’ of being given access to a life that was not available to my siblings?  How do I tell my family my search has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with making me whole?   How do I tell the people who say I am lucky to have found my family that luck had nothing to do with it; that it was, and is, a mixture of hard work, tenaciousness and heartbreak?  And how do I convince the tribal community that adoptees are the outcomes of assimilation – that as American Indians we are all in this survival thing together, that we are not tainted, that so many of us are in search of the belonging we were denied?

How could I possibly prepare someone to navigate this tangle of roots?  I can’t.  Each family is different, each family comes together, or not, based on its values and cohesiveness.  That journey is an individual one that can be graceful or challenging.  But this coming together – can we call this a reunion, when we, as a family, were never really a union?  If we’d been unified we wouldn’t be where we are.

But it is a road of meeting – meeting each other where we are in life and going from there.  That’s as good as it gets.

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