I believe there is an arc to reunion, perhaps different for each mother and child, but with predictable stages. It's easy to generalize, and I don't pretend that my experience is universal; I do, however, believe it has a trajectory other reunited birth mothers will recognize. (I know some in adoption-land object to the term "birth mother," but to me it's a necessary short hand for what I am. I could as easily be called a "natural mother" or a "first mother," but I prefer "birth" for the emphasis it places on the act of giving birth itself. It is a reminder of the primal experience. In a better world only one word would be needed: Mother.)
It has become fashionable to film adoptee-birth mother reunions, usually at an airport or in front of someone's house, often with other family members hovering about as if to encourage a pair of cocks sizing each other up. There is a sense of expectancy. Will the meeting go well? Will there be tears? Will the earth move? I dislike intensely these filmed meetings that seem to me prurient intrusions into what should be a private, not to say sacred, moment.
Adoption "experts" and social workers, ever vigilant to preserve their professional role in the process of reunion, much as obstetricians have traditionally "owned" childbirth, advise having an intermediary, and some states (those few that permit "legal" reunions) even mandate it. My own take on this is that the mother and her child should meet each other for the first time without the encumbrance of bystanders, no matter how well-intentioned or supportive.
Reunion is a highly emotional experience, preceded by anxious anticipation, perhaps even fear, and some mothers and adoptees feel the need for moral support, someone to hold their hand as they leap off this high cliff. Many pregnant women likewise want support, and they should have it. But the moment of birth itself is something no mother can share with anyone but her child. In the delivery room the rest of the world falls away. How many fathers have been dismayed to be shooed away by a laboring wife, when just moments before those same fathers were ordered to bring ice chips or rub a back?
When I descended the escalator at Logan Airport in Boston to meet my son for the first time in over 44 years, I was nervous as a cat and focused like a laser on one thing and one thing only: my son. When I saw him for the first time, beheld all 6'4" of him, his eyes like mine, his mouth, nose, and hair like mine, I had no room for anything or anyone else. I understand why David brought his fiance with him. The first thing I saw coming down that escalator was their two clasped hands. I understand David's need for a hand to hold at that unpredictable, unfathomable moment, and I instantly recognized that he was not mine alone. He was not a tiny baby, and I was not his entire world. I would always have to share him, though I would always yearn for the union that was far in the past.
We hugged as naturally as two streams flowing together. Everything about him seemed familiar--the way he felt, the way he smelled, the way he looked at me. For those first few minutes we transcended the moment and joined as mother and son. He held my hand as we walked through the airport to the parking deck, and all the fluttering feathers in my stomach settled like breath into a sigh. I had wanted to go alone to meet my son and turned down offers by others to accompany me. I was nervous, but I was not afraid. Knowing David as I do now, I realize that he might well have been afraid, and I don't begrudge him his bringing reinforcements, but I was so hoping for time alone with him.
The weekend went well. We spent it mostly out on the deck of Judie's house, talking, laughing, crying at times. It was apparent from the beginning that David was emotionally fragile, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, emotionally sensitive. For a manly former hockey player who preferred jeans and boots, he was gentle and as vulnerable as a kitten, and Judie watched him like a mother cat.
A month later I returned to Boston with my husband and Tanner and Saskia, David's half brother and sister, to attend David and Judie's wedding. I admit I was surprised that David wanted us there and was fully prepared to stay away, assuming he would want his adoptive family to be present. I couldn't imagine anything more awkward than two sets of parents, strangers to each other but with so much shared baggage, negotiating the perilous terrain of a wedding in such an unusual context. But David insisted that we were his family, and he wanted me to be there on this happiest of days.
Massachusetts is supposed to be pleasant in the summer, but it was a blistering August day, and the Revolutionary War era church wasn't air conditioned. David stood at the front, waiting for his bride, and the sweat poured off him. When he saw Judie standing at the back of the church, silhouetted against the open door that faced onto the Lexington common, he gasped a little and his tears spilled over. He was awash. Judie walked alone down the aisle, her eyes never leaving David's, and once she reached his side she surreptitiously passed him a Kleenex.
Those were the first tears of the day but they were by no means the last. I am not one of those who cries at weddings. Grinning like the Cheshire cat is more my style, and I was so happy and especially touched when I was presented with a corsage as the mother of the groom. The reception luncheon was delightful; the fellowship hall buzzed with the murmurs of contented guests and the popping of champagne corks. When things began to wind down, and all the toasts had been delivered, David and Judie stood to thank their guests for making their day so special. Everything went off without a hitch, but there was a surprise coming.
Judie said a few words, then David began to speak.
"Some of you here today know that I was adopted, but what you may not know is that my birth mother found me, and she's here today." He introduced me, Tanner, and his "beautiful sister Saskia," and made a joke about my husband that brought a chuckle.
David proceeded to tell the story of our reunion, the Facebook exchange, the first phone call, all of it. I had that wrong end of the telescope feeling again as the room seemed to rush away, leaving David the only person in clear focus, which is amazing because now I was awash in tears. When he finished speaking, I rose from my chair and crossed the room to meet him. We hugged, and both of us were sobbing with the wonder and joy of it all. I could feel a roomful of eyes upon us, and I didn't care, but I said at last, "We'd better stop. We're making a spectacle of ourselves."
And that was how the first year of reunion went. At first it seemed so simple. I had my son, and my son had his mother. Two people who had dreamed about each other and longed for each other were finally together, and the way forward seemed smooth. If there were storm clouds gathering, I couldn't see them. All I knew was that I was deliriously in love with my son, the way a mother is with her newborn. David wasn't a tiny baby, but he was my baby, and my feelings of protectiveness were as fierce as those of a mother tiger. I could not stop thinking about him. It almost felt as if I were split in two, with my mind and heart in Massachusetts, while the rest of me was stuck in North Carolina.
It's painful and life-changing when a woman gives birth, when what had been one becomes two. Finding David took me back to that bifurcation, only the pain this time was emotional, not physical. It takes only a few weeks to recover from giving birth. My separation from David lasted forty-four years, and the recovery from that will take much, much longer.