An Adoptee’s Survival Guide to Searching for Birth Family
What I wish I’d known before searching for my birth mother.
I began the search for my birth mother in late 2016. By the very end of 2018, I found and connected with my birth mother and one of my three half-siblings. I’m writing this post to share my journey leading to the search process and what I wish I’d known and prepared for before, and during, the search and reunification process.
I’ve known that I was adopted ever since I can remember. In fact, I can’t remember a time not knowing that I was adopted. My parents always told me that I was adopted, that they loved me so much, and that the needlepoint clown hanging on my bedroom wall was made by my birth mother for me to keep.
I’d look at that needlepoint clown on my wall at night and wonder about my birth mother. I’d study the fibers of the yarn and imagine her touching them, cutting the pieces, and hooking them into this wall hanging that I now had so many years later.
I wondered how it must have felt to make something she’d likely never see again. Something she might not even remember making for me.
I’d always gotten compliments on my eyes; I wondered if I got my eyes from her.
I wondered if my good penmanship and knack for creative endeavors were genetic. I wondered… was my personality more nature or nurture?
I, as most adoptees do, had so much curiosity and wonder about my origins, my ancestry, and where or from whom I got my most remarkable traits.
Preparing & procrastinating the search
As much as I wondered and fantasized in those years, I never felt serious about starting the search process until long after I’d graduated from college. Even then, when I started to entertain the idea of searching, I felt apprehensive.
My fear of rejection was always thick in my thoughts… and rightfully so.
Like entertaining the idea of a survival trip, the idea of searching — and possibly failing/being rejected — felt overwhelming… did I have the right skills and coping mechanisms? Was I equipped with the tools I needed to make it through in one piece?
My favorite aunt, who died when I was eight years old, was also an adoptee. To my understanding, she’d searched and experienced the pain of having the door slammed in her face. Another family friend who was an adoptee experienced the same intense rejection when she found her birth mother. Story after story from adoptees that I met, or heard about, echoed pain, rejection, and trauma.
I don’t think I heard a single story about “successful” reunification until I was in my late 20’s. And even most of those even sounded too good to be true… sometimes, I still wonder if they were too good to be true.
Curiosity initiates the search
No matter what we’re searching for or going after, there’s a moment when we decide — when we say YES — to find what we’re looking for. We decide that we’re going to take the first step despite our fears and overwhelming objections.
What I’ve learned as an adoptee is that most of us have a biological curiosity to search for and find our origins and ancestry.
The curiosity of an adoptee holds its own timeline and momentum.
This curiosity in me finally set fire on my 27th birthday during a routine visit to my mom’s house that quickly became significant as she gave me my non-identifying information and a letter my birth mother had written just before I was born.
Seeing my birth mother’s exquisite penmanship and reading her carefully curated words unzipped a spirit of inquiry that was a mystery even to me.
While it still took time for me to initiate an active searching process, the search had begun inside of myself.
Preparedness is KEY: My Essential Survival Skills for Searching for and Finding My Birth Mother
If you’ve ever embarked on a survival trip or even a primitive camping trip you know that some preparedness is necessary. It’s not only helpful but crucial to understand what you need, why you need it, and how to use it all along the way.
As someone who has participated in nature connection programs and regularly attends earthskills gatherings in our area, I wish that I’d had the analogy of a “survival guide” when I set out on my search to find my birth mother.
More importantly, I wish I’d had a guide for tending myself when I actually FOUND my birth mother and rode the tumultuous wave that followed that initial connection.
We know that when we set out on a survival trip, we’re subject to Mother Nature’s rhythms and resources. With modern technology, we have a leg up knowing what to expect — even if only in broad strokes — of the weather, terrain, and resources to which we’ll have access to or encounter.
Setting out to search for a birth parent is like setting sail for a survival trip on uncharted waters.
We likely have a rough idea of the emotional climate we’re working with. We may know a little about the terrain on which we’re about to travel. We have an idea of how many resources — or how few — we have at our fingertips as we navigate the path to finding what we’re looking for.
We also know: there are circumstances out of our control. And part of the preparation and survival skills that we learn in nature is all about how to deal with those circumstances that we can’t control. How to source water, how to source plant-based food, how to set up a shelter, and how to hunt.
In nature, we learn how to be prepared for what we don’t hope to find. We learn what resources we may need if we encounter circumstances beyond our control.
We learn how to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
In an emotional wilderness, it’s harder to define the priorities for survival. It’s hard to even define what the “worst” might be when we’re so focused on our hope for the best.
I wish I’d had an emotional and mental Survival Guide for Searching for Birth Family not only when I set out to search but when I found and connected with members of my birth family.
I wish I’d been more equipped to navigate the uncharted waters I found myself in as I searched for something that felt so nebulous, tender, and undefined.
For so long, I felt like I was floating in the sea with no life jacket and no life boat to swim to should I become exhausted on the journey. I often felt like I was flailing in open waters and I don’t think it needs to feel that way.
If I could create anything for other adoptees, it would be a map of the sea and its waves of emotion, expectation, and belonging in the search process. One day…
Until then, here’s one crumb of the cake of what I wish I’d been aware of and done more personal work around before beginning my search for my birth mother. I think to have a hold on these things would’ve been the start of a good survival guide for my own journey and I hope that they help you if you’re considering embarking on your own search for your birth mother or birth family:
1 — Managing Great Expectations.
Above anything else, I wish I’d done more deep and personal work around my expectations on my search.
One of the most pervasive pieces of advice and encouragement that I heard when beginning and embarking on my search was to have “no expectations”. Don’t expect reunification. Don’t expect a warm response. Don’t expect connection. “Don’t expect… anything.”
Truly, aligned with this advice… I thought I had no expectations.
I deeply believed that my expectations were solely about me expressing gratitude and giving love to my birth mother. I thought I was 100% prepared for rejection, refusal, or any other response. I thought that I was equipped for whatever response may come my way.
It wasn’t until after I connected with my birth mother and then experienced a tumultuous ride of communication, followed by ghosting, that I realized I was searching for something I didn’t even know I was looking for: belonging.
As beautiful of a life as I’d lived, as capable as my parents were, and as “okay” as I felt about being an adoptee all my life… I was still searching for a sense of belonging outside of myself. My curiosity about my origins and ancestry wasn’t just about satisfying a knack for knowledge… it was about discovering a sense of belonging that I didn’t know I’d even been missing in my life.
My expectations were bigger than my intention.
I didn’t understand that my hopes for connection and gratitude were also hinged upon a deep need for belonging within myself.
After my communication with my birth mother rapidly fell off after months of phone calls and emails, I learned through a process of self-discovery and inner work that I’d hoped for and expected that my connection with my birth mother would give me a sense of belonging. Connecting with my birth mother didn’t give me a true or deep sense of belonging at all. It only left me more confused, more disconnected, and in more hunger to satisfy what I’d really hoped to find.
Sure, it gave me an initial hit of validation — seeing my eyes in hers, feeling so much empathy and connection with her story, and hearing her speak in what sounded so much like my own voice. But…
Validation isn’t belonging.
And that’s when the really hard (and, in a twisted way, FUN) work began of finding belonging within myself. A journey I’m still, and will always be, walking on… the journey of remembering that I belong to myself, first, and no one else. No one else can validate or satisfy a sense of belonging for me. That’s up to me. And it’s hard work. I’m so grateful to know this now — even though it’s hard — but I wish that I’d done the work of uncovering this before searching so that perhaps I could have searched from a place of deeper empowerment and confidence.
I wish that others hadn’t told me to have “no expectations” but to, instead, fully ALLOW my expectations, hopes, and dreams for reunification. To embrace them. To own them fully. And to seek working with an adoptee-competent therapist or counselor to work through these stories and programming as I began this journey to search for my birth mother.
2 — Knowing my answer to the question: “What does this mean about me?”
There are so many reasons that we choose the journeys or adventures that we do. Maybe we think the locale is cool, we know people where we’re going, or maybe we just feel connected to that place in the landscape.
There are reasons why we decide to travel to known or unknown places. Usually, those places have some sense of meaning about ourselves. Or what we THINK those places could or should mean about ourselves.
We travel to the mountains… and that means something about us.
We’re “beach people” and… that means something about us.
We love Disney and… that means something about us.
In the beginning stages of my search journey, finding/connecting with my birth mother was a destination. I didn’t understand it at the time but getting to that destination meant something about me in my personal narrative and the stores I’d written about myself.
Inside, I was asking these questions:
“What will it mean about me if I am reunited with my birth mother?”
“What will it mean about me if I’m accepted by my birth mother?”
“What will it mean about me if my birth mother rejects me — either immediately or after some time?”
Outside, I was cool, calm, and collected. I took on the role of being a “good adoptee”. I was grateful. I was detached. I was certain that finding or connecting with my birth family wouldn’t change a thing about me.
I was absolutely convinced that my search had nothing to do with my sense of worth.
And, I was wrong. I DID have stories made up about what it meant for me to be accepted by my birth family. I thought being accepted by my birth mother would mean something good about me. I thought being rejected by her would mean I wasn’t worthy.
I experienced both — acceptance and rejection — within the span of two months. It was, at first, exhilarating and then… humiliating. I felt so much shame, embarrassment, and guilt for embarking on my search in the first place.
The question I continued to ask myself: “Who am I?”
Who am I to have shown up in her life? Who am I to have expected connection? Who am I to have hoped for a friendship?
“Who am I to…” eventually changed to “Who am I NOT to?”
3 — Source Support
I could make this one section into a hundred with all the resources, professionals, and peer groups I wish I’d known about but they all come together with just this one thing: SUPPORT.
I first attempted to live through my reunification and subsequent ghosting/rejection on my own. It was lonely, isolating, and suffocating. I often felt myself longing for others who understood when I had direct access to entire communities of adoptees at my literal fingertips.
Having no local adoptee support group, I turned to Facebook groups for adoptees — within my state and also nationwide. I utilized the support in those groups at first and, for whatever reason, stopped communicating.
Once my birth mother ghosted/rejected me, it was several months before I reached out in those groups again and my only regret is not reaching out in those groups sooner. I felt SO alone and isolated in my experience. I stopped talking about it altogether and even if/when I did, I was only willing to talk about the experience on a surface level which just brought me more pain.
I wish I’d known sooner that it was safe to continue to be vulnerable and share in those groups even when — especially when — I’d connected with my birth family.
Today, I cherish those groups. They’re the closest thing I have to a community around the experience of being an adoptee and the pain and grief of finding (and then losing) connection with a significant biological relationship.
Beyond adoptee peer support, I wish I’d sooner sourced professional and adoptee-competent support. I’ve always loved counseling and therapy. Yet, when it came to this event in my life — finding and connecting with my birth mother — I didn’t feel that counseling or therapy was what I needed at the time. Nothing could have been further from the truth. This is one of the most significant, most complex, and traumatic experiences that I’ve had on this plane.
4 — Nervous System Support
This is really for a future post but is worth mentioning here as nervous system support IS survival support. When I finally connected some of my physical symptoms — gut issues and beyond — to what I’d been experiencing post-reunification-and-rejection-slash-ghosting, I started paying more attention to my nervous system. I began learning about adaptogens, the gut-brain connection, and so much more.
If I could do it all over again, I would have paid so much more attention to my gut and my physical wellbeing long before beginning to search. Drinking more water, incorporating adaptogens into my daily routines, making meditation a priority, journaling consistently, and moving my body every single day with a focus on expressing the inner world.
There’s SO MUCH I would put in an adoptee survival kit now that I’m on “the other side” and know better than I did before. But, above all, I would:
- Examine my expectations. Truly get to the depth of what I was expecting, wanting, or even hoping from my search.
- Uncover the answer to “What will this mean about me?” Examine my stories, programming, and any sense of self that I seek outside of my inner worth.
- Source support. From fellow adoptees and, even more, from adoptee-competent professionals to help me heal.
- Nourish my nervous system from the beginning. Incorporate adaptogens, make movement a priority, hydrate, and so much more.
How I Found My Birth Mother Without Ancestry or 23andMe
How to search without DNA services — or — what to do when DNA doesn’t work for you.
If you’re an adoptee searching for a community focused on healing, belonging, and self-discovery… join us at Adoptee Rising: