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The Second Rejection

Marcy Wineman Axness

Your phone call takes too long to be returned. Your letter goes unanswered for an unnerving number of weeks. You concoct exaggerated scenes inside your overtime mind, clamoring to make sense of it all, to somehow feel sense of it all.

Ah, reunion.

Now that we as a movement have gotten past the reunion-as-panacea stage, we are beginning to address the very complex issues imbedded in the process, the relationship, the roller-coaster experience that attends reunion. And the big old elephant sitting squarely in the middle of this room, the one almost everyone sees-- or rather feels, trampling their already-bruised toes--but hates to mention for fear of making it real, is named Rejection. But whether we name it or not, it's very real.

For many adoptees, it's experienced as The Second Rejection. My friend Amy's birthmother, upon being found, said that she needed time to adjust. She told Amy to call her in six months, and upon doing so Amy found that she had moved to Germany. Amy has channeled her renewed feelings of abandonment into her own healing, thereby transforming what might have been an immobilizing turn of events, but she still knows frustratingly little about what's at the heart of her birthmother's rejection.

Dr. Randolph Severson explains that behind many kinds of reunion rejection lies a sort of grieving for the might-have-been. And people respond to that grief in different ways.

"I think there is a stage that some people go through where they feel rejected, really, by life. That all these things that could have been, or, along a different kind of life trajectory, would have occurred, simply aren't going to be--too much of life has already been lived. And people withdraw. The anxiety is just too great, the disappointment is too great."

This kind of withdrawal can happen on the part of the adoptee as well. "What a lot of adoptees seem to go through is a stage where they realize that the birthmother or birthparents are really not going to be able to answer to their wish when their fundamental wish is 'I wish none of this had ever happened to me.' "

Dr. Severson says that an underlying desire of many adoptees--subconscious, irrational, and understandable--is that through reunion they will somehow become un- adopted, become like everyone else.

"The second rejection sort of occurs when folks realize that this just simply can't happen. And sometimes it creates a little bit of a distance that the birthparent then complains about, too. It's like an almost impersonal rejection that occurs as a result of finding that the reunion simply can't erase, eliminate or undo everything that's gone before. The wounds still exist."

It is the different way we address these wounds that is at the heart of my own experience with the second rejection. As long as I was still in the deep sleep of denial over how adoption etched me, my birthmother felt safe to be very forthcoming in our relationship. The fact that I've come to address these issues, these wounds of mine, holds a certain terror for her, I think, since she has always minimized her adoption experience, as in "I had a great pregnancy, I knew I was carrying you for Bee and Bob, and I've never believed in ownership of children."

In her blithe attitude about this profound experience--one we intimately shared--I experience a certain basic rejection, a dismissal of the part of me who doesn't regard it blithely in the least, the part of me who feels fundamentally shaped by it.

My birthmother's response is a variation on a theme that Dr. Severson says often occurs in the reunion experience as birthparents encounter the fullness of their children's emotions and responses. "They can be overwhelmed about the intense, deep sorts of needs and yearning that adoptees often have. And they can just withdraw, it's just too frightening. I think most second rejections that occur literally, occur out of fear, mostly, and not knowing how to respond." (It can also happen vice versa, with the adoptee overwhelmed by the needs of the birthparent.)

Sometimes the birthparent--most often the birthmother--doesn't feel free to respond to her newly-returned "child" in the way her instincts would guide, hamstrung as she is by allegiances to her existing family, especially her husband, notes Dr. Severson.

"When the full weight of what this means bears in on a spouse, and for awhile the birthparent becomes almost a stranger, that spouse can put a whole, whole lot of pressure on the birthparent."

This can lead to painful choices that pit a birthmother's instincts and heart's desires against the harsher demands she may feel pressing in on her. In this way, the birthmother- or birthfather--experiences another kind of second rejection, of the sort that occurred when she had to reject an entire realm of response within herself--and indeed felt it rejected by those close to her--in order to relinquish her child for adoption. This can stir up old anger, another elephant in the reunion room, who sits in many laps.

Whenever I attend our local support group, I can count on hearing at least one birthmother complaining about her adult child's confusing, ambivalent, "push-pull" behavior, which she will often perceive as rejection. I usually offer some insight into primal anger, for notwithstanding the old debate regarding Did-We-Or-Did-We-Not- Abandon-Them, I believe that regardless of how we--including adoptees--frame it within our adult, intellectual perspective, there is rooted in the adoptees' experience a profound sense of rejection registered on the most primal level, at our most tender marrow. Dr. Severson cautions against regarding the anger as simply a "stage", which implies some sort of term limit.

"It co-exists with all these other feelings, and it doesn't go away. It exists because it's reality-based. It's human. And then when it comes boiling out it frightens everybody, especially if they've not read anything or talked to anybody, are not in therapy or a support group, and it's kind of like 'Where's this anger coming from? It shouldn't be there because after all, we're having this nice, happy reunion.'"

Marcy Wineman Axness, an adoptee, lives in California with her husband and two children. She writes and lectures nationwide on adoption and pre- and perinatal issues, and is completing a novel, THE AWAKENING OF PEARL McEVOY. She welcomes correspondence at her e-mail address, axness@earthlink.net

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