Because I’m adopted, I’ve had a number of uncomfortable conversations filled with unwanted questions about being adopted. Now my son is starting to experience these same conversations. Like the other day when a complete stranger approached us in the grocery store and proclaimed, “He’s so cute. Where did you get him?” How am I expected to respond? Do I reply he came from my stomach or from Korea?
“Your son is so lucky to have found you,” is a phrase often used by others to describe how my son should feel because he joined my family. The assumption is that I saved him from his sad awful plight and gave him a better life. Or am I the lucky one because he’s my son? The reality is that luck has nothing to do with my son’s journey and how he joined my family. Adoption is much more complicated than that. There is grief and loss experienced by my son, his birth mother, and myself. Should I take these remarks as well intended compliments? Some may say that I’m being too sensitive but if you are an adoptee, adoption is very personal and likely to be filled with many strong emotions.
Even now as an adult adoptee, I still haven’t quite figured out the appropriate ways to respond when these awkward conversations happen. Do I walk away, ignore the person, share information, or educate? I know that I should take on the educator role, but some days I simply don’t have the space to care about what a stranger assumes about adoption. I want to walk away, but then I don’t because I am reminded that my son is internalizing these comments and paying close attention to how I respond.
I understand that because my son is adopted, people will ask him to share personal details about his adoption. Maybe the only thing I can do is empower him to feel proud about being adopted and know his story so that when he is faced with the uncomfortable question, “Where did you come from?” He can confidently reply, “I’m adopted. I was born in Korea. How about you?”
There were many emotionally challenging days during my two trips to Korea. However, one of my most profound experiences was the day I visited the Baby Care Room where my son stayed before being placed into foster care.
On this particular day there were 25 babies to one caregiver in a small room the size my living room. At any given moment there were multiple babies who cried. Some cried because their bottles had fallen and needed to be propped back up on their blankets in order to be fed. Most babies cried simply because they needed skin to skin contact in order to be lulled back to sleep. I was told that I could stay and hold the babies for only a half hour. I stayed for over an hour. When it was time to leave, I walked back into the crowded sidewalk and stood there and cried while my husband wrapped me in his arms. Grief came over me in heart wrenching guttural sobs. I cried for my son. I cried for myself. I cried for the tiny week old babies who I had just held in my arms.
Sometimes when I lay next to my son and watch him fall asleep, I think about his time in the baby care room. I wonder who was there to comfort him when he cried. Did anyone hold him in their arms and look into his eyes when he was fed? When he stirred who was there to lull him back to sleep? I understand there isn’t anything I can do about missing those first weeks of my son’s life. Nevertheless, the grief is still strong. Now I am the one who gets to comfort my son, but only because he had to first lose his birth mother and then his foster mother. And it’s in these still quiet moments when I am acutely aware of our loss.
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.
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.”