Mother’s Day can be a day filled with longing for so many. We long for the dead, healthier times, the ones we have broken relationships with, or children we don’t know or who no longer call, some of us long to become mothers, and all of us long to be seen, known and loved. That’s the human condition.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to perform a ceremony in the misty woods of Union, Washington, to reunite a young man with his birth mother and her family. The experience was one of catharsis, healing and new beginnings. I hope that by sharing their story and how I created their ceremony, that others yearning to repair this primal bond, will find inspiration and hope.
When I was in college, my friend Tisha discovered she was pregnant her junior year. Downstairs in the girls’ dormitory bathroom at our Christian college, Tisha remembers the pregnancy test indicator show “positive”. She went home at Christmas break, taking the next semester off to have and then give up the baby boy, JJ. Although she looked the same when she returned to school the next fall, she was forever changed by the experience — she had transformed into a mother.
For the next five years, she sent JJ cards and packages on his birthday and bought Christmas ornaments for him. Her parents and closest friends would even send Tisha acknowledgements on Mother’s Day. JJ was never a secret, how could he be? He had transformed Tisha into a mother and introduced her to a depth and capacity to love that she had, up until then, only been on the receiving end of.
Life went on, Tisha eventually got married and had two more sons. And as the years passed, Tisha’s husband Rob, was always confident that one day they would know JJ — that they would somehow make up for lost time and create and shape a reunited future in a larger tribe. In the meantime, in those years of separation, Tisha was determined to become the best she could for that day when JJ would show up.
20 years after she took the pregnancy test in the dormitory bathroom, Tisha received a Facebook friend request from her first-born son, a handsome young man who looked just like her brother. She immediately, without hesitation, clicked to accept. The following day, they had their first Skype date.
Tisha shares, “I will never forget the sound of that Skype video dialing up and the face I had wondered about for 20 years — it was suddenly there in front of me. It was surreal and it was surprisingly so natural and easy.”
JJ remembers seeing his mother for the first time on his laptop screen, he says, “this was not the woman he had braced and conditioned himself to meet. He felt at peace and trusted everything about her immediately.”
A month later, Tisha flew into Bozeman for their reunion in person. The last time she had held him, JJ was only seven pounds, now a grown man, he had come to the airport to pick her up. As Tisha walked across the terminal straight for her son, she said, “I have 20 years of love to catch you up on.”
Twice during that first weekend they spent together, conversation between them came completely to a halt mid-sentence. It was because of their eyes. JJ and Tisha have matching eyes. And out of all the compliments they each receive from others, it’s their expressive beautiful blue eyes that solicit the most attention.
Tisha remembers, “all those moments when conversation stopped were because we literally saw ourselves in each other. We finally were able to see what others see when they look in our eyes.” At one point, at a park, Tisha even pushed JJ on a swing. At that moment she says she realized that “there was still so much time for them.”
Over the next few months, Tisha brought JJ into her family, introducing him to extended family and friends all over the country. She had new family pictures taken, framed and displayed them proudly in the living room.
As I listened to her share about their reunion, all the ways she was bringing him into her family — how their connection was primal and inexplicable — I was reminded of something I had learned in AP biology class when I was still in high school (many many years ago), about the unique characteristics of heart cells, and why they beat in time.
This science lesson coupled with JJ’s bravery to seek out a relationship with his birth mother, not knowing if it would be welcomed or not, and Tisha’s determination to seize this second chance to be a mother to JJ, ultimately lead the family to gather in the woods of Alderbrook Resort and for me, their celebrant friend, to create an adoption reunion ceremony that would formally induct JJ into the family tribe of his birth mother.
These are the major parts of that ceremony, and I offer them here as a guideline for anyone else seeking to reestablish a relationship or come home to a family tribe.
- Science Lesson- remember when I said that their story reminded me of AP Bio? Listen to how I introduce myocytes to the family at the start of the ceremony and how I connect this science lesson to their story of connection, family, tribe, purpose and most of all second chances.
2) Retelling of the Birth Story- I interviewed many people to gather details, memories and perspectives of the events leading up to JJ’s birth. His grandparents, mother and her best friend all contributed and shared their memories and impressions of prenatal appointments, first heartbeats, what labor and delivery was like, their first two days together in the hospital, their painful goodbye, and how they each coped with the separation. I wanted JJ to have as much information about his origin as possible while also making it clear to him, that he was always an important part of this family even though he wasn’t raised in it.
3) Family Tartan Receiving Blanket- The Leslie Clan has a motto — ‘Grip Fast’. It means that you show up for each other, that you’re brave and courageous, determined and strong, that you have strength of character and grit…it means that you are a substantial force. It means, being prepared to face anything that may come your way with an attitude that says ‘bring it!’
I was particularly moved at how much JJ exemplified these family characteristics naturally, when he very courageously and with an open heart, reached out to his birth mother. Luckily Clan Leslie also has their own official tartan plaid, which we used for this family induction ceremony. Tisha took the tartan that had been draped around her shoulders and passed it around the entire circle, ending with Grandpa Bob who then placed the symbol of their family over the shoulders of JJ, his firstborn grandson. This tartan plaid is a physical representation of the family legacy, identity and inheritance that now belongs to JJ.
3) A Birth Mother’s Vows- It was important for Tisha to make public promises to her son, especially since so much of their past had been private. Here are the promises and vows that she made to her first born son:
“As we look toward the future together, I want to thank you for finding me and forgiving me and for giving me the privilege to be a mother to you again. Whether you were aware of if or not, I want you to know that you have always been an important part of me, and this family, and you’ve always been loved…and you will continue to be loved. Always.
In the days ahead, I promise that I will continue to build and invest in a relationship with you, pledge to always act in your best interest, and I will work diligently on my own heart — not letting my negative thoughts, judgments or disappointment of missed opportunities, rob me, or us, of all the amazing things that still can be — a life of love and family that I hope for all of us.
I will continue to work on myself so that I can be a bright light on your path, a source of strength and be someone you can look up to. I will be present both emotionally and physically, I want you to feel secure in knowing that you have my complete trust and unconditional love, that you belong here. With me. With us.
I will support and protect your freedom while giving you room to grow. I will be on your team, will always support and encourage you as you chase your dreams. I will delight in your becoming, trusting what I know of you — that you are kind, open, brave and loving — you have everything you need inside of you already. I am proud of you.
I can’t promise that life will be easy. But I can promise that you have my loyalty, gratitude, affection and my unconditional love for a lifetime. I will grip fast to this sacred connection between us today, tomorrow and forever.”
4) Sacred Connections — The final part of the ceremony was devoted to affirming every member of the tribe’s connection with JJ as well as with each other — to reinforce the value that everyone, no matter their age, has the potential and the responsibility to initiate a new impulse if and when, the beat of this tribe momentarily becomes lost.
Every member got a bundle of colorful yarn and took time exchanging their cords with every member of the tribe, starting with JJ. This ritual action was done to demonstrate the unbreakable bonds they all share as a family and how they were all interconnected. The final result was a beautiful, brightly colored, messy and complicated web that reminded everyone present of their linchpin roles within the evolving family.
Creating and then performing this ceremony was an amazing experience for me. I’ve seen many examples of adoption ceremonies and entrustment ceremonies (both are focused on the beginning process of adoption and joining a new family), but couldn’t find anything to aid and ease the way for adult children desiring a relationship with a birth family and parent. I spent weeks interviewing other people whose lives were touched by adoption, spent hours upon hours reading adoption boards and chat rooms. What I discovered is that it’s natural to see one’s own story in a way that discounts you from feeling like you have a legitimate experience of loss, maybe because the details of your own story don’t fit neatly into a clean cut uncomplicated boxes. This is true for this family as well.
As a celebrant, I am always looking for the hero of a story, and with this family ceremony, there were many heroes who emerged. There were the grandparents who prayed for their grandson everyday from the moment they learned of his conception, who visited him when he was a toddler, and loved their daughter unconditionally through the hardest thing she’s ever gone through. There were hero best friends who accompanied Tisha to Planned Parenthood for blood tests to confirm the pregnancy and who were by her side through labor and birth, who sent her Mother’s Day cards and supported her through all the years of separation and not knowing. There is a hero husband who always encouraged Tisha that one day their family would be whole. There’s the hero birth mother, who chose life and gave up raising her son so that he could have more than she could give. Then there are adoptive parents in general, these heroes crack their lives wide open and love in ways that many of us can not begin to comprehend. For Tisha, the adoptive parents she interviewed while pregnant “gave her hope that she could still be a respectable person with a bright future”, they inspired her to hope for more for her son. There’s the hero father, adoptive mother and all the brothers and sisters who love and raised JJ for 20 years. And then of course, there’s the hero, JJ, who went looking for his mother not knowing what he would find.
I’m sharing the creation process of this new ceremony in hopes that others who find themselves in a similar situation, separated and not knowing a birth parent, can have a blue print to follow and help with a reunion.
After the ceremony, both JJ and Tisha reported that they definitely felt a shift in energy, even though they had been together over the past year, there was something about calling together their family with this intention, to align themselves for the future, that made everyone feel secure in their relationships.
I also understand that my friend Tisha is an extraordinary example, and not everyone has the know how and fearlessness to stand so firmly and securely in her story and not become paralyzed with shame or regret for not raising her son. Her bravery in being willing to experience fully, these raw emotions and acknowledge her vulnerability, allowed her to grip fast to this second chance and be a shining example for her whole family.
Watch the ceremony here:
The Dalai Lama recently tweeted, and I agree wholeheartedly: “The future can be different if we choose to make it so. There is no time for complacency, hope lies in what action we take.”
Alisa Tongg, Celebrant www.alisatonggcelebrant.com
Bradley Lanphear, Photographer http://bradleylanphear.com/
Alderbrook Resort https://www.alderbrookresort.com/
PF Films http://pfweddings.com/
Originally published at medium.com