I Wish For You A Beautiful Life

flower

There is a social stigma in Korea that if you are unwed and pregnant it brings shame and embarrassment to the birth mother, her child, and her immediate and extended families. Koreans follow a traditional Confucian family bond with a strong male centered lineage. When a child has no legal father, both the birth mother and child face social discrimination throughout their lives. Single mothers risk losing family ties, financial security, and even future job prospects. Due to this social pressure, it’s no wonder that unwed mothers feel like they have no other choice than abortion or adoption.

Ae Ran Won is a home that supports unwed mothers in Seoul, South Korea. This is a place where birth mothers can live while they decide on a birth plan. The majority of   mothers who arrive at Ae Ran Won choose adoption for their babies and each are asked to write a letter to her child. Most of these letters are filled with intimate feelings of guilt and loss, but also contain beautiful messages of hope and love.

This one letter in particular especially resonated with me because I understand that my son’s birth mother did an incredible selfless act when she chose adoption. Because of her decision, she and I are connected with the burden of love we carry for our beautiful sweet boy.

Letter excerpt from I Wish For You a Beautiful Life

To my adorable baby,

When you were first born, your mother was extremely happy. Your eyes were wide open, like two clear lakes. I remember vividly how when I hugged you, you yawned in my arms. My loving child, I wonder what you are doing right now. I am sorry that I can not be next to you. It has been almost a month since you were born. I hope you will understand why I had to give you up. My heart aches that I can not live with you, but wherever you are and whatever you do, I hope you will live your life to the best of your ability. I also hope you will develop your strengths and use your abilities, so that people will be proud of you. Live courageously. I will also try to live my life the best way that I can so that I may be a role model to you, if only in spirit. If we do meet again in the future, I hope we will not be disappointed by each other. Even though I had you in my arms for only a short while, I thought of many things. Would you be hurt because of my irresponsibility? Would you be able to find good adoptive parents? Would you truly be a well-adjusted person? Many questions and thoughts have burdened my heart about this situation. I took these thoughts and considerations into my heart as I chose your name. Your name means big and bright. My hope is that you will live up to your name, and shine brightly over a vast area. We are not apart. Know that your spirit is within my spirit and that even if we are not in the same place, our spirits are together. As we live our different lives and things get too tough, let us each look up at the stars and talk to each other. I will always pray for you. Let us live our lives to the best of our abilities.

Good-bye, my loving child.

Han 한

File_000.jpeg

“Why did my real mother give me away? Who is my birth mother? Why did you adopt me?” I know that I can’t necessarily predict the day when my son will ask, but I know it will come. Do I wait until he first asks the questions or do I tell him from the beginning that he’s adopted? Is there a right or wrong time to begin this ongoing conversation?

As an adoptee, adoption is a relatively easy and straightforward topic for me to discuss. I’d like to think that I can be open and honest with my son about his adoption. Why would I wait for him to ask me why he was adopted? I don’t want him to feel ashamed because he’s adopted or think that his life before me was a secret. My hope for him is that he feels proud of who he is and how he joined our family.

I understand there is a possibility that no matter how transparent I am with my son about his adoption story, he may still grieve for the life he could’ve had instead and resent me for adopting him. In spite of all the wonderful excitement and immense joy that surrounds his adoption, there are those small quiet moments where my thoughts drift to the Korean word Han. Han has no English equivalent. It is a concept that means a sorrow caused by heavy suffering or a dull lingering ache in the soul. I know that suffering is a certainty in life. However, I’d like to believe that my son won’t experience any pain during his lifetime because he was adopted, but the truth is; he probably will. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful quote about the paradox of suffering. He says, “To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.”

 

 

Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption by Lee Herrick

file_000-2

1.

This one happens in the morning

as a nearby crow wakes me,

calling God, God, look at this:

I am on the steps of a church,

wrapped in Monday’s Korea Times

telling of the drought in Pusan.

You can live by the water

and still die of thirst, and I,

there on the cold brick steps,

am dying. But dying

means the presence of breath.

This one happens on Hangul Day,

Independence Day in Seoul,

where girls in purple satin

hanboks parade through

downtown streets. In this dream

I make eye contact with

every single one of them.

Another boy, a few years

older than I, rides

a tricycle in the streets

trailing the girls.

He sees me. He winks,

as if he knows how

everything will end.

2.

This one happens in the evening

just as daylight surrenders to the moon,

and the flute of dusk arrives.

It is cool.

I am wrapped in a sky blue blanket,

so whoever finds me thinks kindly

of whoever left me.

The one one finds me is a nun.

She opens the door, looking

beyond me

into the tired night,

then looks down.

She gasps softly.

She says, ahneyong, you sweet

beautiful child. She bends

down like an angel

and takes me

into her arms.

3.

This one happens in the cruelest moment

of the day, as heat curls flowers

into dirt. A man, drunk

with despair, screams at the sun.

His sorrow is a collage of

moths and ants, crawling

from his face to his chest.

I watch from the steps.

It is the year of the dog

and I am a part of it:

unable to speak

but an expert at listening:

to the old man from Laos who sits

on the steps two buildings down:

he is telling another man

how Hmong children become human

on the third day of life,

after the soul calling ceremony

and the burning of animal flesh.

He smokes from a pipe

and closes his eyes as he inhales.

I can hear all of his.

I can hear a woman rustling inside the church.

She is a dancer, so she speaks with her hands.

I hear her rise, sweetly

from her knees to her feet.

This means she believes

in dreams. I hear her

slide her hand, sweetly

along her hair. This means

she believes in the sun.

I hear her move towards me

and place her open palm on the door.

This means she welcomes me.

This means she believes

in the miracle of possibility.

Golden Rule #1: Love Thy Neighbour as Yourself

file_000-1

Do you consider yourself a religious person? How significant is religion in your life? Religion has always been a fundamental part of my life. I grew up in a Christian home and identify as a Christian. As a young girl, I was deeply involved with my church. I regularly attended Sunday School, eagerly participated in AWANA, and eventually found like minded friends through my youth group. Church was my community. It was where I first learned the popular Golden Rules: Love thy neighbour as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. These formative lessons helped me navigate my small protected world.

Bible Camp was also a place where I learned about God. I can remember  fondly singing a song with the lyrics, “There’s only one way to heaven and it’s Jesus.” I sang that song with such conviction. But now as an adult, I question how having faith in God secures me a place in heaven. It seems to defy reason. And what if I believe in a different deity like Buddha or Allah then am I automatically doomed? Why is Jesus the only way?

I understand that my son will first begin to construct his worldview from the beliefs and truths that I teach him at home. Even though I was raised a Christian, maybe Christianity isn’t something he will prescribe to. How would I feel if he decided to practice Buddhism or even Islam? Would I be fearful or feel disappointed that he doesn’t believe in my God?

Maybe it’s equally important that my son learns how to be empathetic towards others who are different from him or that he is able to be objective when others challenge his perspectives, or even critically question the status quo, rather than what religion he practices. I’d like to think that he can make his own decision similar to who he will choose to befriend at school or which college he wants to attend. Perhaps in this moment, it really is as simple as loving my neighbor as myself.

Salvation by Lee Herrick

Processed with MOLDIV

The blues is what mothers do not tell their loved sons,

in church or otherwise, how their bodies forgave

them when their spirits gave in, how you salvage love

by praying for something acoustic, something clean

and simple like the ideal room, one with a shelf

with your three favorite books and a photo

from your childhood, the one of you with the

big grin before your knew about the blues.

I wonder what songs my birth mother sang in

the five months she fed me before she left me

on the steps of a church in South Korea.

I wonder if they sounded like Sarah Chang’s

quivering bow, that deep chant of a mother

saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?

Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means

finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when

you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo

Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate

or shine, like tears, little drops of liquefied God,

glistening down your brown face. I wonder

what songs my birth mother sings and if she sings

them for me, what stories her body might tell.

I have come to believe that the blues is the body’s

salvation, a chorus of scars to remind you

that you are here, not where you feared you would be,

but here, flawed, angelic, and full of light.

I believe the blues is the spirit’s wreckage,

examined and damaged but whole again, more full

and prepared then it’s ever been, quiet and still,

just as it was always meant to be.

The Realities of Race and Adoption

file_000-1

How do you talk about race with your child? How early do children start to recognize that not everyone has the same skin color? Is race one of those topics you should discuss openly and honestly with your child like how to safely cross the street, or why you shouldn’t talk to strangers, or the dreaded “Birds and the Bees talk”?

I’d like to think that as a person of color I have some extraordinary insight about how to talk about race, but the truth is, I don’t. Talking about race is simply uncomfortable. Is it because if you’re white it conjures up a great deal of emotions like uneasiness, defensiveness, and possibly even anger? And if you are the person of color, undoubtedly, there are feelings of shame, hurt, and at times isolation.

I understand and accept the fact that by adopting my son and bringing him to live in America, he will be judged by his skin color. There will be school playground incidents where kids will make fun of him because of his physical differences-his eyes, his nose. More than likely I will have to explain to him the hurtful name calling and navigate the tricky questions he will ask about not being white. Others will try to pigeonhole him because he is conspicuous and he will feel vulnerable living in a mostly white world.

Maybe the platitude, “Love is all you need” doesn’t apply in this situation. I can’t love away my son’s pain and grief, but what I can do is help prepare him for the messy complicated reality. As his parent, I do need to be honest about the hurt he will experience when kids ridicule him for the first time because of his eyes and skin color. I do need to be candid and tell him that his race does matter. But mostly, I need to be empathetic about how he feels because when that inevitable day arrives where he realizes for the first time that he’s not white, then my only choice is to quietly listen.

Thank You 고맙습니다

file_000-2

As I get closer to “Family Day,” I can’t stop replaying the dreadful scene of my son sobbing with confusion and grief when his foster mother puts him in my arms, says good bye, and I walk away from her. There is no way to prepare for this day. I’m trying to manage my expectations by accepting the fact that this will be an extremely traumatic experience for my son and an incredibly sad day for his foster family.

My son’s foster mother is an incredibly strong woman who for now fourteen months, out of a selfless act of love, chose to foster my son. She knows that as a foster mother, she may never have the opportunity to hold him or even see him again. I have a beautiful picture of my son with his foster mother where she is adoringly looking at him with intense pride and playful wonderment. I cry every time I look at this picture but I know that my grief is nothing compared to hers. While I’m busily enjoying my new mom life where now I am the one who gets to comfort him, celebrate his small triumphs, and watch him grow; she is on the other side of the world quietly grieving for a son whom she cared for and loved deeply. How can this be the only way?

Every six weeks I mail a care package to my son where I am able to include a half page note to his foster mother. Each letter gets increasingly more difficult to write as I get closer to “Family Day.” Are there even strong enough words to describe the incredible gratitude that I feel for her? Maybe all I need to say is simply, “Thank you.”

Hide-and-Seek

file_000

“Be prepared for travel to Korea within the next four to eight months.” When I first read the email, I felt queasy, anxious, and utterly excited because at that very moment, time felt like it was happening at warp speed. Once my panic settled and reality set in, I thought, “This is definitely happening and I’m not even close to being ready.”

In order to prepare parents for travel, my adoption agency gave me a 47 page handbook. The purpose of the packet is to provide suggestions on how to best prepare myself for meeting my son. One section provides expectations for the first meeting. It clearly states, “It’s hard not to cry at the first meeting, but try to do as little as possible to create loud noises and anxiety in the room for the child.” After waiting nearly five years to finally become a mother, rest assured, there will be tears. How will I feel on the day when I’m actually able to bring him home? This is the same day when his foster mother, who has loved and cared for him, says good bye and hands him over to me, a complete stranger. This should seemingly be a joyful day filled with happiness, yet my son will be experiencing an incredibly traumatic experience filled with confusion and loss.

As I begin to prepare for travel, the logistical preparations of what to pack, where to stay, and what to bring on a 14 hour flight are necessary, but feel entirely insignificant. Now my thoughts turn to bigger questions like, “How will my son respond to me the first time I hold him?” “Will his foster mother want to meet him again one day?” “How will I be able to comfort him when he is grieving for her?” I’m beginning to understand that it’s naive to think I can be fully prepared to parent. Maybe parenting is like the game Hide-and-Seek. My son is “It” and he turns and calls out, “Ready or not, mom here I come.” I have no other choice than to begin and hope that sooner than later I am able to find my way to home base.

Pandora’s Box

file_000-1

What does it feel like to be pregnant for nine months and make a birth plan to give your baby up for adoption? I can’t even begin to comprehend the unimaginable grief and loss that my birth mother endured. What is it like to know that you have a child but will never be able to experience a life together? When people learn that I was adopted from Korea, I often get asked the standard question, “Have you ever searched for your birth mother?” On the surface this appears like a seemingly simple question, but for me, the answer is extremely complicated.

Adoption doesn’t singularly define who I am. It’s one layer of my identity. Right now, at least for me, being adopted is more about knowing my identity than finding my Korean family. Certainly, there were times growing up and even lately when I wonder, “Do I have any siblings?” “Do I look like my birth mother?” Why did she give me up for adoption?” These questions will continually remain dormant in the back of my mind. I’m adopted. I will always wonder.

Now as I prepare to become a parent, many of these questions have resurfaced. A few months ago, I contacted my adoption agency. I thought, “I’m already traveling to Korea so I should at least try to begin the search for my birth mother.” However, I know it’s not that easy. Often times searches can take countless years to find a relative, much less a birth mother. And then, what if the improbable chance happens that I do find her? How do I start a relationship with a person who is a complete stranger? What are the expectations of someone who gave me life, but didn’t parent me? Maybe I’m not ready to open Pandora’s Box and release my unresolved hopes, sadness, and fears.

In the meantime, perhaps it’s enough to travel to Korea, experience the culture, and understand what it means to be Korean. And if one day my son declares the seemingly simple statement, “I’m ready to search for my birth mother.” I have a shared understanding because some days I have experienced that feeling too. The next time someone asks, “Have you ever searched for your birth mother?” I can simply and unapologetically reply, “No, not yet.”

Stubborn Gladness

nokomis

During the time when I was struggling with my infertility, I also had to come to terms with the fact that even if we adopted, this would be my only child. I remember feeling unleashed with anxious nagging thoughts like, “Doesn’t he need a sibling to play with?” “Will he feel lonely?” “What will happen when I die and he has to face the burden of caring for me alone?” I know that these thoughts are based entirely on my own fears and assumptions of what I expected my family would look like. Even though, I can’t seem to shake my periodic pangs of regret.

I think family planning can be a life changing decision. I envy the parents who have the luxury to decide how many children will be in their family. In my case, life’s circumstances chose for me. Maybe I’m still struggling with the loss that I will have only one child. Isn’t that enough? Why don’t I feel more grateful? Shouldn’t I feel overwhelmed with joy that at least I get to be a parent?

One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, introduced me to the concept of holding on to the “stubborn gladness.” The idea was born from her favorite poem A Brief for the Defense written by Jack Gilbert. In one part of the poem he beautifully writes:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight.

Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our

gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I love how this poem compels me to find a quiet space in the center of my disappointment and loss and to take hold of the wonder and the joy-the “stubborn gladness.”