On Tuesday, May 25th, millions of viewers tuned in to watch the latest episode of the hit Fox show, Glee. Perhaps of most interest to those of us in the adoption world was the reunion of Rachel with her birth mother, Shelby. While such mainstream portrayals can successfully illustrate the expectations, emotional intensity and anxiety that accompany a search and reunion, Glee dismissed the importance of working to forge a relationship after the reunion.
Rachel and Shelby find out that they share many traits, but they also discover all of the things they do not share. Having been absent from Rachel’s life for 16 years, Shelby realizes that she will never have the sort of anecdotes and memories that Rachel shares with her adoptive fathers. While Rachel looks to Shelby to be the instant mom she’s always wanted, the two eventually realize that such bonds are forged over time and do not automatically exist through genetics. The Glee writers can be applauded for bringing to light such an important aspect, but the applause quickly dies as Rachel and Shelby almost instantly decide to maintain a relationship from a distance and the characters part ways with a shared song.
In real life, search and reunions are far more complex than in the magical world of television. Spence-Chapin’s post-adoption team advises that forming a relationship with a birth relative is never instant but is a process full of ups and downs. “Reunion relationships are amongst the most complicated, with no road maps or etiquette to guide the process,” says Spence-Chapin post-adoption expert, Ronny Diamond. Following initial contact, the birth family member and child can go through a “honeymoon” stage. Afterwards, either the adoptee or the birth parent often pulls back. In the episode of Glee, this is the stage at which Rachel and Shelby parted. Future episodes may show whether they continue to work out their differences and issues. If they do, the relationship can become more settled because expectations will have been discussed and agreement reached in many areas.
Of course, reunion experiences will not be the same for all adoptees and birth parents. Many factors can have an impact, such as their ages, value differences, lifestyles, economic status, educational levels, religion, etc. Birth parents who placed in the years before “open adoption” became a common practice do not have shared history with the adoptee. However, they do have genetic and emotional ties and, with some work, a relationship may be formed. Such relationships “can be incredibly rewarding or painfully disappointing, so I always recommend clarifying one’s expectations prior to reuniting,” advises Ronny Diamond.