Saturday, May 20, 2006

How Working With Birth Mothers Colored My Ideas About Adoption

Besides learning tae kwon do Korea, I was there for a reason. As a Fulbright scholar I was hoping to do some research for my novel, namely, to try to find and interview Korean women who'd given up children for international adoption. In case you don't want to read this long essay, let me summarize it here: before actually meeting these birth mothers, I only thought in terms of

family + adopted Korean child = happy family

as opposed to the more realistic and symmetrical equation of

family + adopted Korean child = happy family + (Korean birthmother - child)


A little background on our family's relation to adoption.

I'm from Minnesota, which has the largest number of Korean adoptees (KADs) in the nation, so naturally, I can count some people who are KADs or who are adoptive parents among my friends and close acquaintances; our neighbors adopted four children from Korea. My mother, who is a social worker, also founded a social service center for Koreans, and while her original intent was to help Korean immigrants, she ended up expanding the services to include the KAD community as well.

Lastly, we have a KAD in the family, the most direct connection, but obviously I am most mindful of his/her privacy.

That said, until 1997-98, when I received a Fulbright Fellowship for a project to interview Korean birth mothers for my novel, Somebody's Daughter, I had not, admittedly, given a lot of thought to the "other" side of adoption. Of course, in an abstract way, I realized adoption also involves loss, but I hadn't before heard the stark stories, told right to my face, right to my heart.
In Seoul, I worked in an unwed mother's home, where a majority of the women would be placing their babies for international adoption, a much smaller number would choose domestic adoption, and just a few would end up taking their babies with them. I did errands around the place, helped with the kimchi making, and when an opportunity to teach an English class came up, I gladly volunteered. Mostly, I found, my students were already thinking of what might happen, say twenty years down the line, if their children adopted in America might contact them, and so they wanted to learn basic English, things to say on the telephone.

My tenure there was for the better part of a year, and I got to know these women quite well. Many of them respectfully referred to me as "teacher," but some of the bolder ones called me, "big sister," and would stay after to chat about things — the latest soap opera on TV, popular music, movies. Many of the women there were clearly traumatized by what was happening to them, so no matter how friendly we became, I was careful not to discuss the actual situation, the decision about adoption that was to come.

Sort of as a reward, I suppose, the director of the home was instrumental in finding a number of women who had placed children for adoption to America twenty years earlier; these women, the director felt, were not only willing to speak with me, but they had had enough time pass and had processed the event and could now give me an honest appraisal of their experiences.

We had individual, secret sessions, and the birth mothers were quite amazing at how they didn't hold back any details and also encouraged me to ask them any question I wanted. Besides the fact that they wanted to help me, and their friend, the director, I came to see that the loss of their children — for many of them, a secret they'd held all those years — was an experience, perhaps the experience, that shaped them most profoundly. One woman even insisted I read her diary, from the day she both gave birth and gave up her son. I felt awkward about it, but she made a copy of it on the office's copy machine and pushed the pages into my hand.

When I expressed to her, and the others, my gratitude for opening their hearts in such a brave way (it should be noted that many of these women went on to marry, and their families had no idea about their previous pregnancies, so their meeting with me was not done without risk) they all, in their own way said they hoped that by helping give me an accurate — warts and all — picture of themselves as birth mothers, that perhaps I could write a story that might explain to their children the circumstances in which they found themselves, and how that led to the adoption.

The women felt strongly about refuting common notions that they "threw away" their children (indeed, in common speech, this is how "placing for adoption" is phrased) or that it was a frivolous decision. The women I interviewed all felt such a strong love for their absent children, even after all these years, and the way they described their pain at the separation was so vivid, it was as if no time had passed. Perhaps most poignantly, they all said they hoped their children in America might read the book and know how much they had been - and still were - loved.

When my fellowship ended and I came to the home to say goodbye to my students, one woman came up to me and said, "Big sister, please, please, please take my baby." I was so shocked, I didn't know what to say. To this day, it haunts me. I keep wondering if I should have done it.
I returned to America, translated my notes and hours of taped interviews, eventually finished my novel and had it published. In this time, the seed had been planted about adopting from Korea, specifically from that home where I had spent so many happy hours. After becoming so close to my students and to the women I interviewed, it seemed a natural impulse to add to our family by connecting ourselves to someone like them.

I should add that during my time in Korea, I also interviewed a large number of Korean adoptees, many of whom had returned to Korea specifically to search for their birthparents (Sarah, the character in my book, also goes on a search). Some adoptees were unhappy about their adoption experience and didn't get along with their adoptive parents. Some were just confused. Even the adoptees who seemed to have stable, loving relationships with their adoptive parents still had this almost ineffable air of sadness and loss about them.

Again, as I stated in the beginning of this piece, I used to view adoption solely from the point of view of the happy addition to the family. Now, it's more apparent that this happy addition comes at a loss for someone else. It's impossible to put a good/bad value on it — is it better for a child to be adopted than not adopted? Does international adoption self-perpetuate more international adoptions, when effort might be better spent looking into ways to encourage domestic adoption, or, perhaps even single parenthood? I don't have the answers for that, I don't think anyone does. Adoptees can't live two lives to figure out if it would have been better to stay in Korea, or be adopted.

It's very appropriate in this blog that I stand at the cusp of fertility and adoption. My experience with these women who so entrusted me with their stories indeed changed me. Now, I can no longer look at the adoption experience without also seeing the starkness of the loss. What seemed a simple decision before, now seems fraught with so many complex emotions. Possibly, deep down, I may wish that I can just have another biological child and forego having to make this decision.

Life takes you to places you'd never expect. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

It is so important to show the other side of adoption. I am sure many people consider the fact that an adopted child would want to seek out his/her origins, but the reality of that is an intense experience, that can no doubt be consuming for the adopted individual. I have a good friend who was adopted - domestically. His mother was young and simply could not take care of him. He knows this, and loves his adoptive parents deeply. He doesn't want to find his birth-mother and disrupt her life and is content to love the family he has.
I cannot imagine how I would feel. It is definitely a very complex situation, filled with emotions, that no party should enter lightly.

Marie - I have really been enjoying your blog. Nice work!

GreenFertility said...

Yes, the birth parent search can be a loaded issue...there is a good movie that's been shown on pbs, Searching for the Heart of Adoption (?) by Sheila Ganz--she's a birth mother who interviewed all these adoptees. Very powerful, complex stuff.

Good luck on whatever you choose to do--or what chooses you!


Cookie said...

Hi Marie,

Just popping in! Had to tell ecokim, that most birth moms I know do not consider "being found" to be a disruption, but a blessing.

As a found birth mom myself, I consider being found a wondrous gift. My son loves his adoptive parents deeply too, but wanted/needed to know me too.

GreenFertility said...

Thanks for stopping by, "Cookie" :) and adding some really valuable insights! I agree, I think we all want to know where we come from...


Anonymous said...

As a birth mother in the process of reunion who is about to meet her son I am in a very emotional state. I am constantly suprised at how little society - even the most apparently well informed - understand the realities of the adoption experience. I have been to two counsellors who, although excellent in their field, had absolutely no idea of what the adoption experience meant to me. Birth mothers are indeed written out of history. In order for the process to work it is necessary to negate the birth mother's pain. Would you be able to keep a child you had adopted if you ever fully faced up to what their natural mother might be experiencing? I say this with the utmost love and understanding for adoptive parents - they have their own pain. I have never forgotten my son, I loved him very deeply and stayed with him for seven weeks. In fact, the bond I have with him has grown over the years. The e xperienced of giving him up shaped my entire life.

GreenFertility said...

Thanks for sharing this, Ann. It's throguh eople like you that we can all see that the mothering instinct is really the same, culturally, emtoionally, here or Korea of China...


Anonymous said...

You had me, until I got to the line about every last adopted child having an "ineffable loss of sadness." Come on! While I really respect your research and your attention to an often overlooked side of adoption, that line just reeks of your own editorializing.
It never works to apply a blanket reaction or mode of behavior to any group. Dare I say, not every holocost survivor gives off an air of sadness. I know adoptees who do and others -- grown children -- who have never thought twice of finding their birth parents.
I also know birth mothers who gave their kids up for adoption without enduring lifelong grief (my friends just adopted from a 27 year old lawyer and her boyfriend who accidentally got pregnant and decided that even though they could well manage the child, they didn't want it just then).
I do think it's very important to explore all these issues, but one of the things I found most troubling while recently completing my own adoption paperwork, was having some social worker tell me that my child "would" feel this way and respond that way. There's no saying what any individual child will think or feel, and I think these blanket assumptions are damaging.

GreenFertility said...

Thanks for your comment, Andrea. I may be editorializing, but I am editorializing sincerely about my impressions in my relationships with people I know who are adopted.

Anonymous said...

First of all I would like to say that I really like your blog.
I am a Korean adoptee from Europe who currently is living in Korea with my husband and children and working on my ph.d. I would like to write a ph.d. about Korean birthmothers (family)who have met their children who they gave up for adoption. Besides being interested in their 'general' experience, I am especially interested in their side of the 'reunion' story...., what were/are their hopes, expectations before and after the reunion.

I would love to read your there any way I can order it..?


GreenFertility said...

Thanks Mircojo--

I did spend quite a long time intereviewing the birth mothers; I did attend some reunions as well.

I *think* they carry the book at Kyobo bookstore in Seoul (if you, they could probably order it for you). There's always amazon, I suppose...


Anonymous said...

Hi- Very nice and needed work. I am a birth mother who was forced to surrender in the 70's. Having been in reunion for 11 years now, I can tell you that even though my child was raised well and in a very loving home, he did suffer the loss of his biological connection. The loss was so profound way that the adoptive parents were actually relieved when I found him at age 18.
Another poster stated that she knew an attorney who didnt want her child and gave it up recently. I believe the birth mother loved her child, enough to give up a year of her life and dedicate it to a new and beautiful life. She shouldnt be condemned for making such a difficult decision.

GreenFertility said...

Thank you for adding to the discussion!