Big Conversations

My son is three-and-a-half years old and lately he’s been obsessed with his anatomy and how it works. We’ve had many conversations like, “I have a butt. I go pee.” I always matter of factly reply, “Yes, you do. Everybody does.” He’s also very curious about where babies come from. The other day, I listened while he role played with Cookie Monster who birthed a small bunny rabbit. There was an ambulance ride to the hospital and even crying. It was everything you’d expect giving birth to be like from the active imagination of a toddler.

I’ve always been open with him about his adoption. I normalize it by having conversations often. He knows that he was a baby in his birth mother’s tummy before he joined my family. Because he’s still very young, I’m not certain he’s able to fully understand who she is or how she’s part of his family. However, one day, he asked, “Birth mother take care of me?” This question was completely unexpected. I waited a few seconds and thought carefully about my reply. I answered, “Yes, for a short time and then she made an adoption plan for you to live with omma and then with mommy and daddy. Each of us took turns taking care of you.” Then I reassured him that we all love him.

I know this conversation is the first of many that I will have with him about his birth mother. He’s young now, but his questions will become much more complex and his desire to know more with greater detail will increase as he gets older. As a Korean adoptee who has a Korean adopted son, I understand that one of the losses of adoption is the unknown answers to the multitude of questions. How will he feel when I’m unable to give him details about why he was given up for adoption? Or that I have generic information about who is his birth mother-eye color, height, weight-and I can only repeat back the spotty fill in the blank answers from his adoption file. How will this be enough?

Sometimes there are moments when I catch myself thinking about his birth mother. I wonder if she has the same happy giggle as him. Maybe he gets his strong determination from her. Does she think about what her life would’ve been like if the circumstances were different and she raised him as her son? Maybe there will be a time in his adoption journey when he will have the opportunity to meet his birth mother and get answers to his questions. Perhaps he won’t want to meet her or there is even the possibility that she doesn’t want to reunite with him. Whatever he chooses to do, my hope is that he trusts me enough to come to me with any questions about his adoption-big or small. I will listen. He will know that my love for him is unconditional.

Photo Album

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I remember the day when I first met my son at the adoption agency in Seoul, South Korea. I woke up that morning feeling a range of emotions from complete anticipation, to sheer happiness, to utter anxiety. I waited nearly a year to meet my son and now I was just hours away. I didn’t know what to expect. As I sat in the coffee shop waiting for my visit, so many anxious thoughts spiraled through my head. How will I feel the moment he is placed in my arms? What if he cries when I try to hold him? What do I even say to him?  I have a small white photo album filled with pictures from that first visit. It includes many beautiful family photos of us laughing and playing together. One of my favorite pictures is where my son’s foster mother looks at him adoringly; the love completely radiates from her face.

The first few months after my son joined my family, we had a routine where each morning we looked at the pictures in the Korean photo album to help ease his transition. Most days he was eager and content to look at the photos. He liked to talk about the pictures and point to the trucks he used to play with. However, on this particular day the pictures triggered feelings of confusion and sadness. He started to cry and became completely inconsolable. My son ran to the front door, pointed to my car, and cried out, “Omma.” I wasn’t prepared for this. I panicked. How do I explain to a grieving two year old that he can’t get in the car and be with his foster mother? I stumbled through my words, fought back my tears, and eventually managed to explain that it’s okay to be sad. I reassured him that even though his foster mother was in Korea, she still loves him.

My son has vivid memories of his life in Korea and when he shares them out loud the gravity of his loss is both heartbreaking and beautiful. One morning while I helped him get dressed he picked up his Korean striped monkey shirt from his foster mother, smelled it, and insisted on wearing it. Or another time when he opened the refrigerator door, pointed to the small red bottle of gochujang and confidently said, “Omma” with a happy wide grin on his face. Recently he found a container of baby wipes in his dresser drawer. “Go to Korea when I bigger. Give to omma’s baby?” he excitedly asked. I remember a few weeks after my son joined my family, he liked to sit on the armchair of the couch and quietly stare out the front porch window and watch the cars and buses drive by. I used to think he enjoyed this because he is wildly obsessed with vehicles but now a part of me wonders if he was patiently waiting for his foster mother to return.

Adoption is complicated. I understand that as an adoptive parent with every gain I experience, there is an unspeakable loss for my son. Even though I gained a beautiful family, my son didn’t choose to be adopted. The truth is that in order for me to become a mother he had to first lose his birth mother, his foster mother, his birth language, and be uprooted from everything that was familiar. Sometimes I feel like my son’s and my relationship has added layers of intensity than other mother/son relationships. Because of our shared experience as adoptees, I am acutely aware that my son may struggle with being an adoptee in much the same ways I did by questioning his identity or trying to find a sense of belonging. I have moments when I fast forward my life to when he is a teenager. I imagine we have an argument and he tells me that I’m not his real mother. I know this is coming from a place of anger because being separated from his birth family was out of his control. The pain he feels is real. Or perhaps one day he decides to return to Korea and realizes that because he doesn’t speak the language or know the culture he isn’t Korean enough. However, while he’s in America, he doesn’t feel or look American enough either. I understand that as an adoptee my son will have to learn how to navigate the space of being both Korean and an adoptee. My hope is that one day my son feels like he is accepted; he is in a place where he truly belongs.

It’s been a year and a half since my son joined my family and there are still emotionally challenging days when he misses his foster family and is sad. I can’t predict what triggers his grief, but I’m learning how to better comfort him. Like when he says, “Mommy, walk around.” I know this means that he needs to be comforted. I pick him up, swaddle his feet and legs in his blanket and we walk around until he feels relaxed. Then I ask if he’d like to look at his Korean photo album. Although we’ve paged through it countless times, I can tell that each time he talks about the pictures it helps him create meaning from his loss. As we sit together with his head resting on my shoulder, I wonder if there’s a way I can ease his pain. Somehow take it all away. And it’s in these still moments that I choose to surrender to the grief; I know it will always be. As I continue down this path of motherhood, I understand there are so many uncertainties. However, the one certainty I do have is hope. My hope is that my son knows he isn’t alone on his adoption journey. I am here for him now just like I was the days that lead up to when he was first placed in my arms.