Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Adoption and Recovery: Solving the mystery of reunion
Evelyn Burns Robinson

The introduction to this book sets the context for it: this is a qualitative study, arising out of the author's interactions with a variety of natural parents, persons adopted and others in her homeland and on her travels. She defines her terms and situates what she says. Following this is a statement by her son about what adoption meant to him and how adoption and reunion have affected his life. He describes his surprise and disappointment that his mother had tried to contact him two years before their reunion, and that his adoptive parents had warned her never to contact him again. There's a message in this for all adoptive parents.

The book proper is divided into three sections:
  1. Personal Recovery
  2. Interpersonal Recovery
  3. Questions
Each section is further divided into three parallel subsections.

Personal Recovery
In the first chapter, Robinson addresses the question of what it means to those involved when we separate a child from his or her family through adoption. She touches on the lifelong grief and trauma for many mothers. She explains that counselling mothers into adoption before the child is born can result in anticipatory grief before that birth. She explains disenfranchised grief, which is covered in more detail in her earlier book, Adoption and Loss.

Robinson begins the second chapter with the statement that "In one sense, every adoption is a tragedy, as it means that a child has been separated from his or her parents and families." This chapter goes on to explore how disenfranchised grief affects mothers and families. For example, she describes how mothers may repeat patterns learned after the loss of their child at other losses in their lives. This hit home for me, as I felt the same numbness at my mother's death that I felt after the loss of my son. I did repeat exactly the pattern I had learned. Robinson also notes that some mothers and persons adopted may choose to avoid close relationships after their adoption loss to avoid that pain again. Her description of Worden's stages of mourning is helpful in seeing the course of mourning in the loss of our children, especially for those of us who only begin to mourn openly at reunion. These stages are

  • Numbness (where many mothers are held in denial until reunion)
  • Yearning (where we become angry and wish the adoption had never happened)
  • Disorganization and despair (where it is difficult to function)
  • Reorganized behaviour (where we begin to regain equilibrium)
I found that I could map the years of my reunion into this pattern quite easily. It was helpful to me to see that there WAS a pattern to my feelings and behaviour over time.

In Chapter 3, Robinson discusses personal recovery work for adults who were adopted and their parents. She discusses feeling entitled to grieve, and general methods that can assist in grieving and moving on from grief.

Interpersonal Recovery
The first chapter of this section discusses adoption reunion. Robinson makes the point that the reunion itself does not create the grief or the sometimes overwhelming feelings experienced by those involved. We are often contacted by strangers and deal with this as a routine event hardly worthy of note. For example, when telephoned by a carpet cleaning firm, there is no difficulty in accepting or rejecting the offer of service. No emotions are aroused by this simple interaction. Yet, when contacted by 'the stranger' who is our child or parent, enormously strong emotions are generated. It seems unlikely, Robinson says, that the simple invitation to contact is responsible for spontaneously generating such emotions. More likely, these are emotions which have lain dormant and are brought to life by the contact. Most likely, the grief felt at reunion is grief which has been denied and displaced until reunion occurs.

Robinson makes the point that many people have no clear understanding of why they are seeking reunion until after they experience it. Furthermore, she believes that such seeking does not require an explanation. Asking people to justify or explain why they want to reunite with family members gives a subtle message that this is suspect behaviour. Rather, reunion represents the closing of the circle of separation which began at adoption. In exploring the dynamics of reunion, Robinson makes the point that the primary parties to reunion must be the mother and the adult adopted. Other family members may wish to be involved, and hopefully will be in time. Adoptive family members, however, are bystanders and supporters, and it is rarely helpful for them to be actively involved at beginning stages of reunion.

Robinson also discusses why some parties refuse reunion, based on their perceived inability to deal with the pain of the separation. Sometimes, mothers or adults adopted may feel or be told that to seek reunion would be to interfere with the other's current life. However, that 'interference' is really the result of the original interference with the natural family--separating them at the time of adoption. Without that original interference, there would be no need for re-connection to close the circle of separation later.

In the second chapter of this section, Robinson discusses anticipatory grief, normal grief and complicated grief reactions. There are four types of complicated grief reactions, all of which can play out at reunion:

  1. Chronic grief, which is excessive in duration
  2. Delayed grief, in which the grief appears at a later loss and seems then to be excessive
  3. Exaggerated grief, which overwhelms a person
  4. Masked grief, in which people experience symptoms and behaviours that are difficult, but which they do not see as related to the original loss

Robinson also explains Worden's four tasks of mourning and how they apply to reunion:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss
  2. Work through the pain of their grief
  3. Adjust to the family environment from which the adopted child has been removed
  4. Move on with life
She quotes Worden as saying that 'mourning ends when the mourner no longer has a need to reactivate the representation of the [lost child] with exaggerated intensity in the course of daily living.' (Worden, 1991) Thus, "in reunion, the task is to relocate the events of one's life and go forward with a sense of wholeness, without constantly regretting what might have been." (Robinson, 2004, p. 67)

In the third chapter of this section, Robinson makes the analogy between the maternal alienation caused by abusive partners and the strategies used to separate mothers from their children for adoption. For example, the constant verbal and emotional denigration of mothers by abusive fathers is compared to the strategies for convincing mothers that they cannot suitably take care of their children, even when they have (these days) manifestly been competent at raising a previous child or children. Similarly, separation of mother and child allows fathers and adopters to create a view of the mother as incompetent or dangerous to her children without the mother being able to contradict this view through word or action. Robinson discusses how these types of strategies affect adults adopted and their mothers at the time of reunion.

In an analogy to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) so commonly placed on websites now, this section offers common questions asked by parents, adults adopted and others, together with Robinson's responses. Initially, I had thought that this section would be somewhat banal and not of high interest. However upon reading it, I found quite the contrary. Robinson brings great compassion to her responses and has a gentle and positive way to phrase sometimes difficult information that I found useful and helpful. She affirms throughout her responses that the legal creation of family connections through adoption, like those created by marriage, does not erase the familial bonds created by gestation and birth. She notes that there can be a richness in families by accepting and building upon both kinds of family connections.

In her conclusion, Robinson notes that since adoption is a legal creation by governments, it is also the government's obligation to minimize and rectify the damage caused by separating parents from their children. She notes each individual's responsibility for personal recovery and how each person can move from this to interpersonal recovery.

Robinson's book is a landmark in setting the dynamics of adoption reunion within the framework of grief. In doing this, much that was inexplicable is made clear. I found this to be personally true. I have been almost 10 years in reunion with my son at the point of reading this book, and as I look back over this journey, I see that its stages are marked with the signposts that Robinson has laid out. In my interactions with those affected by adoption separation, I have found many of the patterns Robinson describes. I can only think how much it would have helped me at several points to have had this information to help explain what my son and I were experiencing.

This book will be most helpful for adults adopted, their parents and counsellors working to assist them. I can envision that professionals involved in adoption would want to understand the effects they create, and that therefore this book might assist them to know the damage that they do. I would have difficulty personally understanding how they could continue their work if they read this book, however. I believe they and prospective adoptive parents would have to find ways to deny or discredit Robinson's work in order to continue what they do. Either that, or they would simply have no conscience.

This book is a must read for any mother contemplating the loss of her child to adoption.

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace

ISBN: 0-646-43370-9

You may contact Evelyn Robinson through:
Clova Publications, PO Box 328, Christies Beach, South Australia 5165

or via

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