Three Reasons I Can't Hate Find My Family

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When I first heard of ABC's new reality show, Find My Family, my reaction was one of general annoyance. It's not the first time that a show has popped up on television with the intent of reuniting birth parents and their relinquished children under the watchful eye of video cameras. I have ignored them or loathed them in the past. I had little patience for them as I feel that sensationalizing the delicate and emotionally difficult process of reunion can be disastrous in the end.

Having watched three episodes, I'm now sitting on a fence of weepy indecision. Part of me still believes that we're inadvertently setting these families up for potential failure. I don't say that to be cynical or overly negative. The adoption industry has a long history of doing that to families: promising them a world of rainbows and butterflies, and then leaving them without the resources to achieve the storybook ending.

At the end of each episode there's a catch up with one of the families to see how they're doing. But they haven't yet passed the honeymoon phase of reunion. Everyone is still in awe, still reveling in the amazing act of actually locating one another. There's been no time to realize that time and differences in nurture will raise questions between one another. There's been no time for that first disagreement, the first cooling off phase and the first make up, all of which are so important for setting the tone of the rest of the relationship. We're just letting them wing it as we did when the birth mother sign the Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) and wasn't offered any counseling, before or after, her decision to do so. Sadly, counseling isn't even always offered to birth mothers in today's era of open adoptions. As I said, it's a long history of bringing up a wealth of emotion and leaving these families to flub and flouder their way through the confusing journey.

Those concerns aside, I was still overwhelmed with emotion watching the first three episodes of this show. (Another episode airs tonight on ABC at
9:00.) In fact, I was able to find three really positive things about it.

1. I really hate the sensationalism of people's emotions... but at the same time, I'm glad that they're on national television.

It's true that not every reunion is fraught with tears and hugs and moving background music while standing under a cheesily named "Family Tree" atop a huge hill. Reunions are unique for each family and each family member. We do get to see some of that uniqueness, however, in six different reunion scenes in those first three episodes. While tears usually pop out, we were able to see one that involved a lot of laughter and one that involved a moment for the adoptee to just sit, quietly, as she processed what was happening, admitting that she needed some space. We also get to see a wide range of reasoning as to why people search and the different stories that exist in the adoption world. In the third episode, the adoptee searching for her biological mother had a lot of anger. She wanted to know why she had been abandoned, which is what her legal paperwork said (a common term used at the time). When the birth mother was informed that her daughter had never been given the letter she had written for her, she broke down. It was the one thing she had been clinging to for nearly 40 years: that her daughter knew she had been loved and wanted. These are the things society doesn't know happen: that birth parents are lied to, that adoptees aren't given all the information and, in the end, real people get hurt.

In the second episode, the adoptive mother and father sat with their daughter and discussed how much they loved her and supported her. This was a unique case of the adoptee only wanting to reunite with her biological brother (and sister) and some might then argue that, sure, it was easy for these parents to offer their support. Later in the same episode, however, we got to see another mom offer her unconditional support as her daughter sought to reunite with her biological mom. I think these two separate views of parental support are important for all to see, those in society and those adoptive parents who may have to deal with this issue in the future. It doesn't have to be a negative experience. The fact that it was on national television gave me hope, however little.

One blogger brought up the point that these are are all best-case scenarios, that these birth parents are all "good people." One might then argue that these are all best-case scenarios with the adoptive families as well. We have yet to see a child that was left in foster care for years, being passed from family to family. We have yet to see an adoptee whose parents divorced, died, dealt with bankruptcy, suffered from addiction or abused the child in question. These are also realities yet those arguing aren't asking for the adoptive parents to be portrayed in such a light, just the birth families. Interesting, isn't it? Yes, these adoptions are all best case scenarios on all sides thus far. However happy-go-lucky all of the families in the chosen scenarios might be, their emotions are still real. That is important to remember.

2. Discussing the difficulty adoptees face when trying to locate birth family members is a good thing.

I am genuinely pleased when birth families (be it mothers, fathers or biological siblings) are reunited in any way, shape or form. The rest of me cheered when the adoptee in the second episode said, "The laws are definitely against me." To know that the topic of how the laws are against adoptees, however brief, on national television is such a victory in my mind.

For the rest of the world, those untouched by adoption, to see how difficult it is for adoptees and birth family members to scale the heights of sealed records in order to find something that so many have been dreaming of for so long is a minor miracle. There are articles, regularly, about adoptees who hired personal investigators. There are blogs, of course, that dictate the long and arduous process of reuniting. But to see it for themselves on their home television screen (or, like me, on their computer screen) that it is sometimes just a matter of chance in finding the right name in a haystack of names is important for the work that adoptees are trying to do regarding their fight for rights.

The fact that adoptees have to have sites like AdopteeRights.org and fight so very hard to access what the rest of society takes for granted is something that needs to receive more attention. Most people don't know or understand the battle that adoptees have to fight when they are going through the search process. As the site AdopteeRights.org states, the reason it's an issue is simple.

While many adoptees search for their biological relatives to discover the answers to questions regarding medical history and family heritage, all adoptees should be able to exercise their right to obtain the original government documents of their own birth and adoption whether they choose to search or not. At stake are the civil and human rights of millions of American and Canadian citizens. To continue to abrogate these rights is to perpetuate the stigmatization of illegitimacy and adoption, and the relegation of an entire class of citizens to second-class status.

If we could get more people to understand that there is an issue and that it needs changing, I don't care what sensational media attempt they use to go about it. I can only hope that some eyes are opened.

3. A big, old counterpoint to Juno. I stole that line from Dawn at This Woman's Work who also wrote about the show on her blog.

My second reaction, as I watched everyone cry is that this sure shows the brutal truth of adoption, eh? It’s the counterpoint to Juno. Little does Juno know that in twenty years she could be standing underneath that stupid family tree (they make the families hike up to a tree on a hill to reunite) shaking in her boots and wondering if her child will forgive her.

It's not just Juno and you know that if you've watched any television in the past decade or so. Adoption story lines have infiltrated everything from soap operas to comedies to primetime dramas. The popular show Glee (FOX) right now is a prime example which shows a young teen planning on giving her baby to a teacher's wife, usurping the biological father's rights and really offering no look into the emotional turmoil that accompanies a real decision to place (as of yet). I say all of this as a huge fan of the show (Glee) but also as a birth mother who knows that the decision to place involves more than just a tear rolling down a cheek or a sideways glance when someone talks about raising the baby. The first episode of Find My Family shows another birth mother and father discussing the placement of their daughter. Her heartfelt tears, the memories of handing her child over and the words, "I was so unsure if that was the right decision that we made," show the turmoil of placement and the subsequent grief better than I have ever seen before on a medium that reaches a national audience.

Find My Family may sensationalize some of the emotions involved but it also offers up some legitimate insight into what the decision to relinquish a child entails. We are hearing their stories of choosing between food for the child already in their home and parenting. We are watching their tears as we learn that their child wasn't given the letter that was written, that explained it all. We are hearing the guilt in their voices, seeing it in their eyes. Sensationalized? I buy it. Humanized? Yes. Shown to have gone through something much more than just a passing thought? Most definitely. For that, I applaud the writers and those involved.

One blogger was upset by the language of the show, referring to biological family members as mother, father, brother and sister without clarification. The very first episode tackled that topic briefly at the beginning. I wanted to run in and hug the host of the show, Tim Green, who is also an adoptee.

"When I was a kid, I was adopted. The parents who raised me will always be my mom and dad. Always. But growing up, a part of me also wondered about my birth parents. Meeting them, finding my parents, changed my life."

To be honest, I had cringed when certain terms were used in the episodes as well. Not because they bothered me but because I knew that they would be off-putting to certain individuals. The fact that the show addressed the issue gives me hope that perhaps they're trying, very hard, to include all members of an adoption in this show in such a way so that society sees them all as important parts of a whole in the adoption triad. I would also like to point out, of course, that as they really clarified it once, it doesn't need to be clarified over and over. Anyone who has tried to blog about the topic of adoption knows how repetitive and also somehow demeaning it can be to keep having to clarify which parent and which family is which (birth or adoptive). Removing of the titles for all, adoptive and birth, seems to be mutually respectful to me. Think about it that way if the titles are so bothersome.

I will admit that I never watched Who's Your Daddy (FOX, 2006) and could only stomach half an episode of The Locator (WE), shows that followed the same premise of this particular show. I don't necessarily know if I can call myself a fan of Find My Family. It's hard to say. If they're going to discuss more about the laws and really dig into showing the difficulty that adoptees face when enduring a search, I can say that I support it.

These six stories and those yet to come don't speak for all adoptees, all birth parents or all adoptive families. They represent their own members, their own journeys and their own emotions. Not all adoptees search. Not all birth parents are wonderful people. Not all adoptive parents are supportive. These six families also, perhaps, represent a cross-section of those most desperate to find their biological families or relinquished children. It takes a special sort of person to agree to reunite on television. (It probably also involves a smooth-talking producer with further promises of rainbows and butterflies, but I digress.) I wonder if people watching realize those facts.

I write all this as a birth mother who knows where her daughter is, what she's doing and just about everything else a birth parent could wish to know about the child they relinquished for adoption. I am grateful, especially after watching the heartfelt stories of all involved in these shows, that my daughter was born when she was: during the open adoption era. She celebrated her sixth birthday yesterday, sharing a birthday with the adoptee from the very first episode of the show. (A freakishly, heart-wrenching coincidence, as a friend put it while I was writing this piece.)

I opened my inbox this morning to find a beautiful picture of my daughter enjoying her special day in Disney World with her family. While I have my moments of sadness and grief, I also have my frequent moments of joy like this one; a beautiful smile in my inbox, a phone call, the assurances that she is healthy, loved and knows and interacts with our family. Those are the reasons why I cannot fully hate this particular show. I have so much more than these birth family members ever had and I can only wish them the best on their future journey through reunion. Perhaps if they hadn't mentioned the laws, weren't showing true emotions or were really portraying the process of reuniting in a negative light, I would feel differently. For now, for what they've shown, I can only hope that some eyes in the viewing audience are opened, some hearts are softened to the legal fights of adoptees and some families are brought together both on the show and, perhaps, because of the show.

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Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land.

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