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Adoption: It’s about love — and loss

It is a cold morning, the coldest yet this season, and I throw on my long, warm coat. It’s a coat to snuggle down into: thick black plush, with lavish faux fur lapels and cuffs.

“Mama Bear!” said my 8-year-old, delighted at the appearance of the coat for the first time this fall. “Your Mama Bear coat! You look beautiful!”

“Thanks,” I say, shepherding both girls out the door. “Come on, my cubs, or we’ll be late.”

On the way to the car, my 6 1/2-year-old, a literal thinker, reminds me that I am a tiger, not a bear (Tiger is a family nickname). The two girls discuss among themselves that I am a white Siberian tiger, and whether each of them is an orange tiger or a white one. I hear one of them say, “Well, we’re adopted, so we don’t have to be white tigers like Mommy. We can be orange or white.”

My husband, Jonathan, and I like to joke that we couldn’t have made girls this good. Nine years ago, we began the process of adopting a child from China. The Chinese government matched us with Lin Shu Min. The daughter we named Katherine Mary ShuMin joined our family in October 2001, at the age of 11 months. In 2005 we adopted a 3-year-old girl from China. Hong Jiao Ping became Caroline Eugenie JiaoPing.

It seemed the perfect solution
Adopting from China seemed the perfect solution to our desire for a family. I longed for daughters, and 95 percent of the babies in Chinese orphanages were girls. While I never wanted my daughters to feel grateful for being “rescued” by us, I did feel that a family is a better place for a child than an orphanage. I still feel that way. But as I leaned my forehead against the cold glass of the plane’s window and watched China disappear, I cried a little for the giggling baby who was leaving her homeland for a new life across the world. She needs a family, and we love her. Why am I crying? I thought.

Once home, I was intoxicated by the rush of finally being a mommy and the entrancing little girl who was now my daughter. I was the forever mother. It was a while before I continued the thoughts I’d had on the plane.

More and more, I began to think about what my girls left behind when they became our daughters. My daughters’ birth mothers have never been far from my thoughts. I look at my girls often and wonder if Katherine’s birth mother is athletic and outgoing, as she is. I wonder if Carly gets her dimples and thick, gorgeous hair from hers. We talk openly and often about birth parents and about adoption in general in our home.

While I have never struggled with loving my daughters — they are the center of my life — I have begun, in the past few years, to struggle with the concept of adoption. My views were informed by reading message boards and email lists, articles and books written by adult adoptees — in particular, those from Korea, because of the large number of adult Korean adoptees.

At first, dismissal of much that was said
In the beginning I dismissed much of what they had to say. Some of the voices sounded strident and angry to me. They told stories that were hard to hear, so I preferred not to believe that my child might someday share their feelings. I patted myself on the back as I read their words. We would never raise our children in an area where they were the only children of color. We would never mythologize their birth parents. We had learned from mistakes made by an earlier generation of adoptive parents. We would immerse our daughters in their native language and provide Asian role models. We would never say, “Don’t think about that. You’re American now.” We would do it right. We, we, we. It was all about how we could do it better than parents of adult adoptees had.

And maybe in some ways we could learn from them what not to do. We maybe could do it better. But we could never be the parents who bore our children. We could never undo the biggest hurt of all. The primal one.

“Did my birth mother love me?”

I am careful as I choose my words. “Most birth parents love their children,” I say. “But we don’t know for sure because we don’t know who your birth mother is. But when I look at you I think any parents would be proud.”

I am also careful with my words when we talk about adoption. “The day you joined our family was the happiest day of our lives,” I say. “It was the best thing that ever happened to Mommy and Daddy. But it might not be that way for you. Adoption is about loss.”

“I know, Mommy.” She is silent and I know she is thinking, wondering about the woman who gave her up when she was 2 days old. And then looks up at me with eyes so different from my own. “But I love you, too.”

Michele St. Martin is the editor of the Minnesota Women’s Press. This article appears with another featured piece on adoption in the current issue.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Ed Harp on 12/19/2008 - 12:11 am.

    It is a little bit of comfort to read there is another adoptive parent out there going through the sort of things I have.

    I have come to believe that I am not nor can ever be a “normal” parent. That is not the role I took on. My responsibilities are different, and struggling to understand what it means is an important part of doing the best I can for my Korean sons.

    I too thought it was the perfect way for us to form a family. I also thought I was prepared to deal with the issues involved.

    As much thought as goes into all this, I like to think it is simply a sign that I really do love my sons. That I would do anything for them.

  2. Submitted by Suzanne Elms-Barclay on 12/20/2008 - 10:03 am.

    As a parent of 2 Korean sons, now 21 and 24, I had believed that if we did “everything right,” it would somehow insulate them (and us)from the type of losses that one hears too often from adult adoptees. Our sons were under 4 months old when we welcomed them “home.” We decorated the house in Korean items, they attended Korean culture day camps when they were young and weeklong overnight Korean Sae Jong Camp up until they were seniors in high school. We went to Korea twice with Korean Ties. We sought out more information from their files, met their foster mothers, visited their birth places and have searched for(and have tentatively “found”)their Korean birthmothers. We celebrated their “arrival days” every year, including my visiting their elementary school classrooms demonstrating Korean culture with slide shows and Korean cooking. We established long term relationships with other families of Korean adoptees as well as establishing friendships and mentorships with students visiting from Korea. We often cook Korean food and go to Korean restaurants. We retained their Korean last names as their middle names.

    What ultimately we have learned from all our attempts to help/heal/fix our sons (by our overachiever learning about, anticipating and exceeding the “shortcomings” of OTHER adoptive parents as heard from adult adoptees when they were discussing the “culture voids” that THEIR adoptive parents created) is to be HUMBLED by the difficulty of this whole international closed adoption process on all the participants. Effort and input has not equalled a outcome that we expected.

    And while our sons’ stories are not fraught with total disfunction at the ages of 21 and 24, and while there are plenty of “homegrown” young men at those same ages who seem to stumble and fall far further than our sons, this adoption process is more difficult than we or they could have ever anticipated. And perhaps our naiveté is to blame—that we expected sons that would be independent and “on target” by their ages rather than sons that stumble and falter and come back and leave, again and again.

    This might be explained away by my theory: I feel that “The Push and Pull” of adolescence is harder for all of our (adopted) sons and their (adoptive) mothers as these young men are actually separating from 2 mothers, even though they may be totally unaware of it. That the issues of peer pressure are exponentially exacerbated by their differences to those who are their friends — their eyes, their adoptiveness, their “foreign-ness” are always there making them feel somehow different(really or just “perceived” as such by the adoptees)from the majority of their peers who are white or black or hispanic. Not Asians—Asians raised in Asian families are NOT their peers for a number of reasons.

    The bottom line that I am trying to keep in mind is this “We did our best. And for whatever reason, the outcome has not been as expected.” We can neither “fix” the losses our children feel nor the mysterious effects of heredity. We can not explain problems away citing, with authority, the results of poor prenatal care or the long term effects of The Primal Wound. This has been long and complex journey for all of us. There are no easy answers. The best that can be done is to not think that we can figure this adoption situation out and “fix it” Rather we can do our very best and love our children and our very flawed selves.

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