Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Fine Line

by zoe

I just finished reading Cheri Register’s book Beyond Good Intentions, and I really can’t say enough positive things about it. She gets right to the center of some of the issues that can become problematic in transracial adoptive families. I also think she eloquently speaks to the fears that are secretly at the core of many adoptive parents’ souls and then helps us understand how those things that lie below the surface can manifest into some pretty grievous errors in transracial parenting judgment (okay, maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s how the book spoke to me, based on my own experiences and some things I’ve seen too much of on message boards).

I could go chapter by chapter and identify with various missteps that she presents; I’m guilty or partially-guilty of most, even after only a year and half ‘on the job’; but the last chapter in particular (titled, “Appropriating Our Children’s Heritage”), really hit me hard.

I remember the first time I saw a picture of a family with two white (adoptive) parents and a Korean child – all dressed in hanbok. I’m not gonna lie – it shocked me. I think I was blushing, though I was the only one in the room alone starting at that image on my computer screen. I just couldn’t help but think there was something not quite right with that (okay, but who am I to judge...I'm just saying that picture started my thoughts on this topic a couple of years ago). Months and months went by and I would see other such pictures here and there, and though I knew participating in such a photo shoot wasn’t for me and my family, I also realized that this family's choice was just the tip of the iceberg, so-to-speak, as far as what is available to adoptive parents where experiencing or educating ourselves about our children's birth culture is concerned - and I started really struggling to understand exactly where the line should be drawn. Time went on, and I read
this (on a phenomenal blog by a very talented writer) – and clued in a little more (I’m doing this in baby steps, I told you!).

I think part of the reason why the final chapter of Beyond Good Intentions was so convicting and entirely appropriate and true for me is that I’ve long had thoughts about how much better the world would be if people weren’t separated by race (note, I didn’t say, “if everyone was like me” or “if the world was colorblind” – but if race and culture alone truly didn’t put distance or distrust between people). And I guess I wonder if my interest in adoption wasn’t partially because of some Pollyanna-ish (and actually perhaps racist, I’ve now discovered) idea that I could somehow bridge the whole damn gap by adopting transracially. I know my son didn't sign up to take on that burden, and boy do I *deeply* regret ever thinking that my future child's life or my family's participation in adoption could somehow be an advertisement for peace-and-harmony-for-all.

Wanting to experience the world – though for most of my growing-up years not being in a position to travel - wanting people of different races (particularly white people, though) to ‘get along’ and to be accepting of those things that make the world's cultures unique and special, and for all of us to just be free to enjoy the incredible things that each different culture has to offer (okay, basically just wanting racism to 'go away'), is something I’ve identified within myself that is not right/correct but is probably a side-effect of my upbringing. With adoption superimposed over that whole mess of thoughts, of course I may be at risk for always needing to ‘check’ myself and the ways in which I educate myself about, and experience a bit of, my son’s Korean culture from an outsider’s vantage point.

I could right now make a list of things that have been swarming in my head while I wonder whether or not my doing them or participating in them would be over-stepping any boundaries (…should I learn more of the Korean language…is it okay for me to call my son by his Korean name…should I keep the couple of pieces of Korean artwork in the closet…should I have planned a regular first birthday party instead of a Dol...should I continue any of the developing friendships I have with Korean people/Korean American people or is that inherently 'taking advantage' ….) but the bottom line is that I must use my love and respect for my son and what is rightfully his, as my guides.

Obviously I can’t sum up this book’s last chapter, or even my own rambling thoughts on it, for that matter. Suffice it to say the book in it's entirety should be required reading in order to complete a homestudy; these are high on the list of things that should be discussed before people make a decision for adoption.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Okay...birthdays are just hard.

by zoe

We’ve had fun celebrating our son’s second birthday with him this year. He has enjoyed several small parties – the highlight of each for him was being the center of attention as we all sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and then, of course, blowing out his candles - which he wanted to do repeatedly at each party. He loves to tell everyone about the excitement that has been going on in his life.

As always (so far on this adoption ‘journey’), I feel so torn. Maybe, as an adoptive mother, his birthdays should always be bittersweet to me because I know it is more than just his is an anniversary of the worst kind…of loss.

I'll just say it: It feels wrong for me to celebrate his birthday with him. Yes, I know that as his adoptive family, we would be the ones to give him a party and gifts and a birthday cake and birthday kisses, and to envelop him in enough prayers and good wishes to last a lifetime. But to really celebrate his birthday, as a mother, is something that feels strange to me at this point. A birthday celebration ‘belongs’ to the mother – the one who gave birth - almost as much as it belongs to the birthday celebrant. It is her celebration, too; her memory of the day when she beamed with joy and pride and fully realized the love she had held in a secret place for nine long months. It is her day to celebrate her accomplishment in bringing her precious child into the world. As her child’s birthday rolls around each year, she recounts her story of waiting and waiting for the big day, her labor and the moment of the birth, what she said when she first laid eyes on him, how she named him with a special name she had been saving just for him, what the weather was like that day, what the doctor said about how handsome the baby was, and how mommy thought he was so perfect and how she couldn’t remember life before him…

And together they share and celebrate this event, this bond … for all of their lives. I mean, they are supposed to. My participation, my initiation of a birthday celebration, feels very different, indeed. If last year I was focused on not bungling the Dol terribly, this year I just felt more like a 'guest' - a guest with poor party etiquette who insists on taking up a place in the spotlight that belongs to someone else - rather than a guest who truly shares the day and the memories. It's not a pouting-whining-I-wish-I-had-given-birth-to-him sadness; it's just me grappling with figuring out and understanding my place in his life, and what my role should be.


We have chosen to observe a simple, yet tangible remembrance of our son’s Korean mother on the birthday they share together – a day which really includes only the two of them. Even this feels like an intrusion, but again, the alternative - no visible remembrance - seems worse. My hope would be that she never fade away in our memories and that he never becomes so selfishly ‘mine’ that I rarely acknowledge that he is truly his Korean mother’s son, too. I worry that - though our son may dream and wonder about the mother who could tell him his birth story and how perfect he was and how she couldn’t remember life before him - he might be afraid to express his own emptiness or sadness; afraid to speak of her or to acknowledge that she and he together make up his birthday.

She is the missing half of the birthday celebrations.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


by zoe

My son’s second birthday is coming up and for the second year in a row, I’m anxious and sad and wondering just how this day should be celebrated (on a couple of different levels which I’ll try to describe in the next entry or two).

His first birthday was pretty much overwhelming and completely bittersweet. I’ve heard of many adoptive parents of Korean children going all-out for Dol parties (Americanized, of course – by people with no/little connection to Korean culture) and I worried over what to do about this occasion as, for months, I had been preoccupied with thoughts of all the things my son had left behind.

The night before we were to take custody of our son in Korea was probably the saddest of my life – barring none. I’m not expecting anyone’s sympathy or even understanding – just relaying my experience since that is the only perspective I truly know. We had climbed a mountain near Seoul that evening and had arrived at an overlook just at dusk. I stood there looking out over the bustling city and completely lost it. I tried to take some pictures of the nightscape – but in my mind, no pictures would have ever been necessary. I’ll never forget that crushing feeling; the understanding that our son was leaving behind everything he had ever known in order to be with us – the sights, the sounds, the smells, his people and their history, culture and traditions, his language, the belonging – everything. And not one of those things would I ever be able to provide for him. I thought of a precious baby having been separated from his mother, and now spending his last night with his foster mother, who surely loved him and whom he had grown to love. I was already thinking about the darn first birthday party back then, too…that same night. The thought that he would miss out on what he would have had (a real dol janche) was, I realized, but a drop in the sea compared to everything before my eyes that he would be leaving behind in less than 48 hours.

When it came time for the actual birthday celebration roughly 5 months after he had arrived in the US, I felt like my option of trying to have some semblance of a traditional Korean first birthday party was like catch-22…of course my party would be a failure in many ways, maybe even a complete joke (wrong food, wrong props, misuse/misunderstanding of tradition…the whole ball o’ wax) – but what was the alternative – to pretend I didn’t care about his life, his soul, his beginnings? To perhaps dishonor his Korean heritage and more importantly his mother who actually gave birth to him, by trying to wipe out anything and everything that was a reminder of his roots? Or perhaps to have a regular old party and make sure to tell everyone how ‘American’ he was – make him wave an American flag in each hand as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake? Both of these options seemed awful; the second probably even a bit more than the first. So we did the only thing we felt/knew we should do - we tried to remember/honor as many Korean traditions at his party as we could without making it into a circus.

That night I fell into bed exhausted, quite frankly, and could do nothing but hold my son close to me and cry, knowing that he had lost so much more than one ‘real’ birthday party. He snuggled into my arms and stared into my eyes and patted my cheek with his little hand. Those things that made up his little world on his birth day, were gone. One year later, he was living a completely different life, and I couldn't help but feel that for the rest of his life (or his time with me, anyway) he would be stuck with second-best - of everything…

Monday, September 04, 2006

From Here

My whoppin’ four years of parenting experience have given me a few chances to examine what I thought I knew about myself and (almost) everything I thought I believed.

I’m the mom of two absolutely precious, intelligent, loving, kind, active, gorgeous (etc., etc., etc.) children. Our daughter was the first grandchild in either of our families and they were all enthralled, as expected. Suddenly everything was about the baby...feeding her and changing diapers and wiping spit-up and dressing her in cute little girly clothes….then developmental milestones and a first birthday and, well, my days seemed to be filled with every good thing.

When we started thinking about another child, we decided to adopt…internationally. In the interest of getting a bit of my history right out in the open, I’ll say that we jumped into adoption mostly as a response to the (oversimplified) notion that there were children in other parts of the world who needed homes. We knew that we could and would love a child not born to us, with the same type of indescribable, unconditional love that we felt for our daughter - and we started to wonder about the sense in having another biological child when there were children already living, who needed families. We forged ahead mostly on that premise alone, and our process of adopting a Korean child was soon underway. Now – I know what some people may be thinking, and guess what? I likely agree with you – I guess that’s why I’m here. I didn’t adopt to keep up with the trends (I pretty much suck at that anyway), or because I wanted to mother a poor orphan who would thank me upon awakening each morning, for saving him. But somehow some important truths were left in their hiding places along the way, and though I wish it weren't the case, the bottom line remains: We made a decision to adopt on a premise that we did not investigate as we should have, using a process that we didn’t fully understand, in a world where hardly anything is as it seems on the surface. I will never again view life the way I did before I became an adoptive mother.

Though I love both of my children beyond scope or bounds or any description of reasonable length, there isn’t one single day that passes without the knowledge that one of my children experienced tremendous losses before he met me (for reasons not totally known or understood by me), and then again in order to be with me.

~ * ~

So what is an adoptive parent to do when the realization hits that one has neatly arranged to become the parent of a child who, given nothing more than a different time or slightly different circumstance, would have lived an entirely different life and been no worse off…in fact, may very well have been better off?

We live behind facades in attempt to protect ourselves against ever having to acknowledge any unpleasant aspect of adoption. There are certain realities that exist whether we choose to see them or not, and we have the opportunity (the responsibility, actually) to listen, to gain perspective, and to hopefully begin to shift the focus away from our own desires and hopes and dreams and fears of the unknown.