When Your Long, Lost Biological Family Contacts You
In the past five years, I have been contacted by my biological father and my three biological half brothers. Before this contact, I knew little about these people who shared my DNA and had no idea of their whereabouts. In the case of my father, the experience was overwhelmingly positive and turned into a wonderful friendship. We communicated for the last 18 months before his death, so it was the last chance in this lifetime to know each other. We each got some closure, and my father went as far as to write our relationship had given him “a chance at redemption.” I was honored: one has few opportunities in life to give such a thing to another human being.
With the brothers, things didn’t go so well. It ended with a long message from one of them that was downright malicious. This experience has gotten me to thinking about the pitfalls and promise of reconnecting with biological family. Most articles written on this subject are from the point of view of people who are trying to contact a biological parent or sibling. This article will look at the issue from the other perspective: the point of view of the person who is contacted.
I hope to write for the benefit of people on both sides of the equation:
- to help those who want to contact a sibling, parent or child understand what the experience is like for the contactee
- to help contacted people sort through this complex situation
Why are they contacting you?
To put this simply, a relative who contacts you wants something. What they want may be perfectly reasonable: medical information, a piece of their life history that is missing, and that only you can supply. Or they may want something more intangible: the validation they have not achieved in any other way, attention, unconditional love. Perhaps they don’t know what they want. Perhaps they are driven by anger and hurt. When first contacted, you don’t know what motives the person has, or if he is even aware of his motives. You don't know how stable this person is.
My friend and her birth sister
A few years ago a friend of mine was contacted by a birth sibling, in the most dramatic of ways. My friend got a call from a television show, saying that a relative she didn’t know wanted to meet her, but the condition was that the meeting had to be taped for television. My friend was game, and she went on the show to learn some really astounding facts about her origins: she was the result of her mother’s extra marital affair, and to hide the evidence from a husband on his way home from an overseas deployment, her mother gave her up for adoption. But the mother already had a daughter, and this little girl never forgot the baby sister who was given away and then never talked about. As an adult, my friend had a touching reunion with this older sister in front of a television audience. All of that went well. The sister was a very nice person. But after a few months, my friend said, “I’m going to have to limit contact. She’s very needy. I can’t give her what she wants right now.” My friend’s husband had left her, and she was adjusting to single parenthood of two elementary age children. The older sister wasn't able to be a support during this trying time; instead she was seeking validation for herself. It was too much for my friend to carry at that time.
What is this person like?
At initial contact, the only thing you know about the person is that they were stirred up enough to track you down. Since you didn’t track them down, this means there is some unevenness in what the relationship may mean to the two of you. Depending on how much time they spent looking for you, they may bring a long history to the first contact. They have had time to process: you have not. They wanted to find you badly enough to do it: you did not.
My high school classmate and her birth father
Around the time my father contacted me, a high school classmate I had reconnected with via FaceBook found out she was adopted. She decided to find her biological parents, and came out of a meeting with her birth mom gushing, “She’s an amazing person!” I remember thinking, ‘Slow down. Things are never that simple.’ The reasons people give up biological children are many and complex, and so are the emotions of all parties. This classmate, perhaps emboldened by a positive response from the birth mother, went on to contact her birth father. And here she got a very different reception. He refused contact: he would not so much as provide a family medical history. At the least this was annoying to her, and I think it was even painful. But I found myself seeing things from the birth father’s perspective. The adoption took place at a time when such things were understood to be confidential. He did not expect to have to face his daughter, or her questions, or her possible recriminations. Perhaps after the youthful mishap of an out of wedlock baby he pulled himself together and built a good life, and this phone call was a painful reminder of something he wanted to forget. Perhaps his present family didn’t know about the relinquished child, and he couldn’t imagine telling them. Or maybe he never did ‘get over it,’ perhaps he had a few divorces and estranged children in his past, and this was a painful reminder of how it all began. Whatever the reason he turned his daughter away, I find myself in silent sympathy with his predicament. It is one I found myself in twice, and I know that no matter how you respond, regret crouches at the door.
My biological father and mother
Reconnecting with my biological father was a great experience for me. I would go as far as to say it changed my life. I didn’t have any illusions about him: I knew he was troubled in the extreme; that he had done wrong and received his share of wrong too. Before any contact I knew some pretty bad things about him. “He’s an amazing person!” would not come gushing out of my mouth. But I found a kindred spirit in my father, in perhaps the most unlikely of places. His life was a series of jobs, women and children he couldn’t hold onto, and he was broke and alone and sleeping on his brother’s couch when he first dialed my number. My life had all the stability his didn’t, but somehow we found each other and connected beyond all such things. I accepted him for who he was; he accepted me too.
I had experience with troubled parents. My mother was an alcoholic mental patient who has been in and out of psych wards her entire life. She also loved me, and I loved her. Somewhere along the line I had already come to terms with managing a relationship with a messed up parent. When my father came along, we forged a connection in spite of all that he had done and not done in the 38 years of my life. Somehow, all that seemed beside the point. But I’m making it sound like I threw caution to the winds. I did nothing of the kind.
The precautions of connecting with my father
My father called my house, but he talked to my husband, not to me. He wanted to talk to me, but I was in no hurry. I took over a week to decide if I would respond at all, then more time to decide I didn’t want phone contact. I was willing to exchange emails, and a separate account would be set up for just that purpose. I would open a door, but the room he was allowed into would be as separate from the rest of my life as I could keep it. I told my children nothing, and read and sent emails when they were in bed or occupied with something else. I decided from the beginning that whatever happened with this venture, their lives would be shielded.
My father, as it turned out, was very respectful of the boundaries I set. I expect this was a large part of why it all worked out.
Enter the brothers
So why did things go bad with the brother? I don’t know what happened on his side. He asked me to do him a favor, I wasn’t comfortable and said no, and that resulted in several pages of rage from him. Probably I should have just deleted it once I realized where he was going, but I read the whole thing. There was more to it than he couldn't handle a 'no.' He said I had been a disappointment to him. What expectations did he have which were disappointed? I have no idea. I had sent him multiple messages which he hadn’t answered, so messages weren’t what he wanted. I don’t know what he wanted.
From my experience, and that of friends and aquaintences, here are some problems that can happen when biological family contacts you:
1) They have expectations you won't find out about until you have fallen short.
2) Their feelings are strong, or they would not have overcome the obstacles to finding you in the first place, but who knows if they can handle these feelings appropriately.
3) They have a sense of entitlement that they don't even recognize as entitlement. To put it more baldly, they think you owe them. My high school classmate mentioned above wrote on Facebook that if only her birth father had been willing to know her family, they could have gotten free copies of the textbooks he wrote. She moved from wanting him to be in contact with her, to being in contact with her husband and kids, to giving them free merchandise. From her perspective I think these jumps were easy, probably unconscious. This is a reason to tread very carefully when connecting with unknown biological family. They may have different ideas about boundaries than you do
One reason I wanted to publish this hub is that most of the information out there is from the point of view of the person who searches for birth family. Sympathy certainly seems to be on the side of this person. I haven't heard anything about people who are going along in their lives and receive attention from a birth relative, and they are less than thrilled with this attention. Sometimes their ambivalence has reasons, but this is another story seldom told.
Situations can be more complex than the person contacting you knows. In the case of my brothers - well, they may not have been my brothers, at least not from a DNA standpoint. My father is listed on their birth certificates, but he was only one of many partners of their mother. To my knowledge, my father was married to yet a different woman (not my mother) through all of this, throwing yet another kink into an already tangled web. The oldest brother remembered that his mother was often gone for days at a time, but he believed that she was holding down three jobs, and didn't have time to come home in between. His mother died when he was little, and I wasn't going to tell him the facts about a woman he remembered fondly. All his anger was directed towards my father, the man he believed to be his biological father, who he had last seen when he was 5 years old.
People who contact you generally think they have the facts. And they form strong judgements on what they know. Small wonder interacting with them can be a minefield.
Some suggestions when family contacts you
Take your time: As the saying goes, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A slow beginning is the best foundation.
Keep expectations reasonable: It always works out for the best.
Share contact information slowly: My brother only had my Facebook account, not email, phone or anything else. At this point I’m very glad. After the message he sent, I’m still a little nervous when I see something in my Facebook inbox, and I’m glad he doesn’t have access to anything else.
Remember you are under no obligation: People who contact you may have an opinion about how you ought to respond. They may or may not tell you what they want. They may be needy, or angry, or in denial. On the other hand, they may be willing to respect your boundaries, and something amazing may be about to happen. You won’t know until you wade into these waters and take the chance. But I want to tell you that the choice is yours.