In Your Time of Need

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I have a photo album filled with pictures of my son from the day we first met him in Korea. The pictures include his foster mother and us playing and holding him. To be expected, we are all smiling and filled with incredible joy on this happy day. Lately, however, when my son looks at these same photos, it triggers both confusion and sadness.

This week was a particularly hard grieving week for my son.  He usually enjoys looking at his photo album, but on this particular day when he looked at the picture of himself playing with his yellow toy bus, he was completely inconsolable. He ran to the door, pointed to my car, and cried umma (mommy). Even though I read all the books related to adoption and grieving and have first hand experience as an adoptee, I still wasn’t prepared for this. I was taken completely off guard. How do you explain to a grieving two year old that he can’t get in the car and see his umma? Or explain how his life in Korea had to end so he could begin his new life with me. I stumbled through my words fighting back my tears and eventually managed to explain that it’s okay to be sad. I reassured him that one day he will fly in an airplane to visit his foster mother and play with his bus. Now every time he sees or hears an airplane he looks at me with a huge grin and says umma.

During the first few months after my son joined my family, he loved to sit by the window in the porch and watch the cars and buses drive by. I used to think this was because he is obsessed with vehicles, but now I wonder if he sat there hoping and waiting for his umma to return. Some days he has memories of Korea like when he insists on wearing his favorite shirt that smells like his foster mother or when he opens the refrigerator door, points to the jar of gochujang and says umma with a wide happy smile. My heart breaks into pieces every time he says her name and the only words of comfort I can say is that she loves and cares for him.

I understand that as time goes on my son’s grief will change and our conversations will become more complicated to navigate. I know that no matter how much I comfort him in his time of need, I can’t take away his grief. It will always be.  

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Moments

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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 room the size of 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 watch my son 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 her 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 with my son. 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.

My Forever Family

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When I was in Korea, I had this fantasy where upon taking custody of my son we don’t return to America. Instead, we stay and live in Korea. In this perfect world my son gets to visit his foster mother anytime he likes and is able to retain his language and culture. I become fluent in Korean, travel to Jeju Island, and together we eat copious amounts of kimchi and mandu. I know this fantasy is partly created from experiencing reverse culture shock, but mostly because I want to protect him from the inevitable grief and losses he will experience because of his adoption.

It’s been only two short months since I’ve become a parent, but what I’ve quickly learned is that parenting is hard, really hard work. I also know that parenting can reveal my best and worst self.  My worst self was truly evident the second week upon arriving home. My son was experiencing intense separation anxiety where he was completely inconsolable if I walked into the next room without him. There were days when the constant whining felt like a permanent soundtrack  and all I wanted to do was shut the door and cry. On these particular days I realized my only choice was to survive, wake up, and do it all over again.

Now after being home for nearly seven weeks, parenting has become a little kinder. I’m learning how to better predict the rhythms and patterns of my son. He appears to be bonding well and has begun to form a healthy attachment towards me. Unlike before, he can now look at his foster mother’s picture without crying umma (mommy) and running to the door. He trusts me more each day by letting me leave the room without him. He is starting to understand that when I leave-I will always return. This is permanent. He is my forever family.

You Are Here

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My husband and I started our adoption journey in August 2015. At the time, l didn’t completely understand that it would take almost two years to become a mother. I also had no real knowledge of how emotional the adoption process can be. As the long days of waiting turned into months, there were countless times when my patience was repeatedly tested and moments where I felt incredible disappointment and profound sadness. And then there were those exceptional days where I was filled with overwhelming hope and joy at the small thought of knowing that my son would one day join my family. Now as I pack for my final trip to reunite with my son and anticipate the next phase of this journey; I am certain that motherhood will begin again a new kind of joy-carry a different set of hopes.

The children’s book Wish by Matthew Cordell so beautifully and honestly captures how I’ve felt these past two years during this incredible journey.

At first, there is us. There is only us. But even then, even before we can know to know it, we wish you were here. We make plans for us. We learn. We build. We journey. But more and more and more, we think of you. Until one day we are ready. Ready for change, ready for surprise. Ready for you. We wish you were here. So we make plans for you. We learn. We build. We journey. And then we wait. We listen. So quiet, so patient, so still. And we wait…but you never come. And everything stops. This is not what we planned. We wish you were here. Time passes. We carry on. We live. We hope. We do not make plans. And one day, from out of the blue, there is a sound. We listen, we hold on, we stay still…as that sound becomes a rumble, becomes a rhythm, becomes a roar. And with every feeling that was ever felt, everything happens. That everything is you. That everything is us. You are here. You are here. You are here.

**Thank you to everyone who has wished, waited, and celebrated with me. I am deeply grateful.

 

I Wish For You A Beautiful Life

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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

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“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

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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

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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

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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

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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.