The plane descended towards Logan Airport and the two Bloody Mary’s wore off. My heart pounded and my pulse quickened. Regretting making this trip alone, I imagined standing up and shouting to my fellow Delta passengers, “So listen, when I get to baggage claim, I’m meeting my biological father for the first time. I searched for him for 26 years and here I am, alone. Can someone get a video of all of this and text it to me? Who’s in?:
My story rivals The Odyssey and the world should know! Sure, I wanted that moment immortalized, and to share it with friends and family and millions of strangers on the internet. But I also longed for one of those videos because I wanted the fairy tale ending they promise.
But what if a slew of strangers holding i-phones in our faces at this vulnerable moment horrified him? What if it changed his mind about a relationship with me?
The plane landed, and I took ten million deep breaths to soothe my anxiety. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but as I exited the plane, I was alive and present. It’s happening, you did it; you made your dream come true. I knew this trip would remain indelible in my mind and soul. It was okay if the only two people sharing that stage were a 73-year-old man and the daughter he didn’t know he had.
It’s been three years since that warm September day in Boston and the memory remains vivid. My heart still races when I recall seeing his white hair in the distance, him standing exactly where he told me he would. The recollection fills me with joy and love and hope. And that’s why people love adoption reunion videos, they’re filled with joy and love and hope.
Reunion videos are pornography for the soul. But like all porn, they don’t tell the real story. Adoption is no fairy tale, and reunion is not a happily ever after.
This month, Netflix released two shows with adoption storylines. The documentary Wonder Boy, and the reality series My Unorthodox Life.
Wonder Boy follows fashion designer Olivier Rousteing as he searches for his birth mother. It is stunning, raw, and realistic. It captures the complex emotions and obstacles adoptees face when searching. In the end, Rousteing decides not to contact his birth mother; he is too afraid of being rejected by her again.
In My Unorthodox Life, we witness Robert Brotherton tell his adoptive mother that he has found his “birth person” and wants to meet her. He explains he wants health history and to know where he comes from. His mother is not supportive. She tells him all the reasons searching and reunion would hurt her. He receives the same reaction from his brother. The episode ends with Robert deciding not to contact his “birth person” because it would be too hurtful to his adoptive family.
Many adoptees can relate to both stories.
But My Unorthodox Life takes a different turn. The season ends with Robert, accompanied by his adoptive brother, meeting his birth mother. It is devastating and heartbreaking, and reunion porn of the highest order.
Robert sits at a restaurant table and watches his birth mother enter the restaurant. A made-for-TV moment. After an awkward hug, they sit across from each other. Robert asks her questions from a prepared written list; she sobs throughout the meeting.
She tells him doctors forced her to be unconscious during labor and prevented her from seeing him. She says it was “for the best” because she would have wanted to keep him had she held him. From the look on his face, Robert had not considered his birthmother wanted or loved him.
Since the day he was born, she longed to know that he was okay. Her pain and grief are on full display yet go unacknowledged. It must have stunned him.
Most of us were told our birth mothers didn’t want us so they gave us away to someone who did. That is often not true.
Despite Robert’s expressions of gratitude to her for giving him away so he could have a better life, her pained nods of agreement, and a manipulative soundtrack, the scene is trauma wrapped in a veneer of fantasy. It ends with her not wanting to release from their hug.
Reunion is not the end of their story. It is the start of a complicated new one none of us will see.
In My Unorthodox Life, sympathetic music plays while Robert’s adoptive mother tells him not to search. The scene propagates the narrative that adoptees should be indebted to adoptive parents, that those who search are ungrateful or disloyal.
Knowing who and where you come from is a human right. Every adoptee who wants to search, regardless of why, deserves unconditional support from the parents who raised them. Period.
In his paper “Promoting Well Being Among Adoptees,” psychologist William Love explores the breadth of research into adoptees who search and reunite.
According to Love, about 50% of adoptees search for their birth parents, and about half of those want to meet them.
Love explains that adoptees struggle with identity formation and self-worth if they are missing family history, genetics, and medical history. He adds that the more adoptees know of their origin story, the more they benefit.
Love’s research shows most adoptees experience loss, abandonment and rejection, shame and guilt. Adoptees are more likely to attempt suicide and have depression and anxiety than their non-adopted peers. We are twice as likely to have contact with the mental health system as non-adopted people.
That’s no fairy tale. And reunion doesn’t get us back what we lost.
For me, like many adoptees, the reunion is a rollercoaster of grief, longing, guilt, and joy. It is both a highwire balancing act and a jubilant dance.
Adoptees in reunion must incorporate our biological families into our lives (or not) and manage how it changes our relationship with our adoptive families. Even so, most adoptees in reunion say it has changed their lives for the better.
In Love’s research, 86% of adoptees found the reunion to be positive. 85% said finding their birthparents improved their self-concept, 71% experienced higher self-esteem, 74% said their emotional outlook improved. And 62% said after the reunion, they had greater empathy for their birth and adoptive parents.
For many of us, finding our birthparents opened the door to a happier, more fulfilling life.
But the reunion is a marriage. It requires maturity, insight, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, honesty, forgiveness, and commitment. From everyone. Fear and insecurity must take a back seat to trust, shame must clear the way for love. The past must resolve for the present to flourish.
The hard work of reunion begins after the cameras are put away, the Instagram posts forgotten, and the endorphin rush fades. So next time an adoption reunion video fills you with joy and love and hope, consider all that came before it, and all that may follow.
And remember, we are real people, not characters in a fable written for your consumption.
Mindy Stern is a screenwriter and personal essayist in Los Angeles. Her original film Sneakerella debuts on Disney+ in 2021. She loves her family, dogs, pizza, and baseball.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.