Dr Gary Clapton: Reunions after adoption can be complex

Laura's story is one of many that Birthlink has ­gathered in a recent ­survey of reunions between adopted people and birth families who have come to us over the last 30 years.

Dr Gary Clapton is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and a supporter of Birthlink.

Laura was adopted as a baby and brought up in a loving home in Fife during the 1970s. Laura is now a ­primary school teacher, married with children of her own. Her ­journey began 20 years ago when I met her at Birthlink’s offices in Edinburgh. We quickly located her adoption papers. These were her birth certificate, containing both her parents’ details, her case papers, with interviews with her birth mother, and her court records.

From these papers we were able to trace both of Laura’s birth parents. Sadly, her mother did not want to meet, and all we could do was let her know where Laura could be found if she changed her mind. However, her father, then a young student, had left a letter that led to us finding him 10,000 miles away in Australia. Information about birth fathers is not always so easily available. When I approached Clark on Laura’s behalf, he was shocked and surprised. It took some weeks of calls and letters to help Clark prepare for the first contact.

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Laura kept me up to speed ­during the 20 years that followed. She formed a firm bond with Clark’s ­parents who lived in England, her birth grandparents. The business of getting to know her father was more complicated. The distance didn’t help but there were other ups and downs.

Laura told me: “We saw each other about every two years, and emailed ­every couple of months. We shared poignant ­experiences together, for example the death of my (birth) grandfather when I felt I was at last able to be a daughter to my father and support him and my grandmother.”

There was, however, a disagreement during which Clark’s third wife kept up ­contact until ­differences were resolved. Birthlink has found that even in the most settled and ­enduring of reunions, differences of opinion emerge but get settled, sometimes with the help of ­partners and relatives but also ­sometimes ­without them – wives and husbands and ­subsequent children can feel jealous.

Christenings, weddings, funerals, Christmasses and holiday choices can be difficult in any family. In ­adoption, such occasions can be ­particularly stressful. How to explain the relationship and make sure that everyone has their place?

All relationships usually need work at some point. The development of a relationship after reunion comes with its own complexities. Co-ordinating visits at a ­distance of 10,000 miles meant that Laura and Clark could not see each other as often as they might have wished. In 2013, Clark found out he had a terminal cancer. About one of Laura’s last ­holidays with him, she writes: “We talked about lots of things important to us both. We discovered more similarities and enjoyed our shared sense of humour and our shared interests.

“When we had first met, my father had inspired me to take up running and, like him, I fell in love with it. On that second last day together it ­happened that there was a 5K race in town and though my father was not well enough to take part, he was bursting with pride watching me complete it in the 30C heat.

“The photo taken at the finish line is one of my most treasured. When we said goodbye at the airport the next day, it was one of the hardest moments of my life, as I just knew we would not see each other again. We were in constant contact for the 12 weeks following that and he had plans for us to see each other again, however he died quite suddenly.”

Laura’s story is one of the 200 reunions that we have ­surveyed in our efforts to find out what happens after reunion in adoption. We were keen to know about the long-term outcomes. Had things ­settled down to something approximating ordinary family life between two relative strangers separated by adoption? Or had relationships failed to launch? Needless to say we found both and all points between.

Some names and details of ­Laura’s story have been altered.

10 Years After, Adoption Reunions: What Happened Next? is published by Birthlink.

Dr Gary Clapton is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and a supporter of Birthlink.