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A Story of Two Mothers: One Adoptive Family’s Journey Back to Korea

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One Adoptive Family’s Journey Back to Korea

My fifteen-year-old son and his younger brother were placed for adoption by their birth parents eleven years ago in Seoul, Korea. He and I traveled from our home in Denver, Colorado to Korea this summer and met his Korean birthmother, her new husband and her sister-in-law for the first time at Eastern Social Welfare Society in Seoul. Shortly after that first meeting, my son said softly to me, “Mom, my life will never be the same.” I nodded my head as I listened to him because I, too, knew that somehow life had shifted for all of us.

When my husband and I adopted our sons eleven years ago, they were four and five years old. In 1989, Korean adoptions were still very closed, meaning that it was assumed by everyone that birthparents and adoptive parents would not meet or have any ongoing contact with each other. We had already adopted our daughter from Korea in a closed adoption, and at the time it seemed acceptable and even desirable that the birthparents of our children would remain strangers to our adoptive family.

Over the years, as our three children have grown into young teenagers, we have learned from them that adopted children’s birthparents hold a powerful and important place in their hearts. All children struggle with the normal developmental issues of identity and our children’s development has been impeded simply because they didn’t know anything about their birth parents in Korea. “Who do I look like?” my daughter has asked us. “Why couldn’t they parent us?” my sons have wondered. With every unanswerable question about their past, my husband and I felt the helplessness that adoptive parents experience in closed adoptions. We couldn’t help them with missing pieces of their past because we didn’t have enough information either!

We discovered many of those missing pieces of information on our homeland tour to Korea this summer. Our tour was organized through Dillon International, an adoption agency in Tulsa, Oklahoma that has been placing children from Korea for many years. We traveled with twelve other adoptive families on a two-week tour of Korea. Our meeting with my sons’ birthmother took place on June 11, 1999. My heart was pounding as Ms. Lim, the Korean social worker from Eastern Social Welfare Society, led my son and me into a small meeting room at their agency. Seated on a low couch was my sons’ birthmother, her new husband and her sister-in-law. I knew immediately which woman was my sons’ birthmother because her handsome face looked so similar to the face of my son. I had spent eleven years wondering what she was like and suddenly we were together, hugging and crying as if we were long-lost family!

Our first meeting lasted about an hour and we spent most of that time sharing the photo albums we had brought to give to my sons’ birthmother. She had not known that her sons had been placed together with the same adoptive family, and for the past eleven years has grieved that the boys must have been separated from each other. It meant a lot to me when I realized how relieved she was that they are both being parented by us! Of course, she wondered why I had brought only one son with me and it was difficult to explain to her that this trip was meant as a special time for our oldest son and that we would bring his brother to Korea next year. My sons’ birthmother had so many questions for him and it was frustrating for all of us because she can’t speak English and my son and I can’t speak Korean.

At the end of our meeting, birthmother and her husband invited my son and I to have dinner with them at their home while we were in Korea. Two days later we took the subway from Seoul to visit them without interpreter, Duk Kyung Um. Duk Kyung is a social worker for Dillon International and she worked for Eastern Social Welfare Society before she moved to the United States. We were greeted at the subway station by Mr. Kim, the husband of my sons’ birthmother, and we took a taxi to their apartment. As we walked toward the apartment we were met by my sons’ birth grandmother and birthmother, who was carrying her baby daughter. The baby seemed to know that she is connected to my son because she immediately crawled into his lap to babble and play. My sons’ birthmother and grandmother had prepared a wonderful traditional Korean dinner for us including several dishes that were very special to my son when he was young and living with his birth parents. As we ate together, birthmother couldn’t take her eyes away from her son. It seemed as though she was trying to reconcile the memory of the little boy she remembered with the reality of the strong young man he had become. He sat between his birthmother and his aunt as they encouraged him to eat, eat, eat! He took bite after bite of everything birthmother had cooked for him and he basked in the love and attention they gave him. Now it was my turn to be the “other” mother and to sit outside of their relationship.

Before we came to Korea, I had wondered how I would really feel when it came time to share him with his birthmother. It was one thing to talk about the rightness of open adoption and quite another thing to be in an open adoption. What I felt as I sat across the table from them was relief for my son and compassion for his birthmother. At last, he could look into the face that reflected his own face back to him and know for certain that she was alive and safe. His birthmother could know for sure that he was being cared for by loving parents and that he and his brother were safe as well. Her mother told us through our interpreter that she had thought about her grandsons every day since they had been placed with Eastern Social Welfare Society. She whispered that she had never told her daughter about those thoughts because she didn’t want to add to birthmother’s anguish about the adoption decision. Grandmother took my hand and declared that now that she had met us, “she could die with no regrets.” My sons’ birthmother, her baby daughter and birth grandmother came to the airport in Seoul to see my son before we left Korea. As I watch the videotape of that day, I am touched by the courage it must have taken for these women to face saying goodbye to him again! Their love for him was obvious; their message to him as he left was that he should respect and obey his parents.

My son does not have all the answers to his adoption questions. There may not be a simple answer to the question that most adopted children ask: “Why didn’t she parent me?” But children cope better with big questions such as this when they have the information they need. Since he met his birth family, he seems to trust my husband and me more. Maybe open adoption frees adopted children from having to remain loyal to only one mother. My sons and my daughter each have two mothers: the mother that birthed them and the mother that is raising them. Now that my son knows both of his mothers, he can love each of us in his own way and he can allow himself to be loved by both of us.

I felt that my life was complete after meeting my birth mom again after eleven years. It was also important to meet my grandmother because she was wonderful and yet very different than my adoptive grandparents. It was a very good experience for me to go to Korea and tour my homeland. I was able to see much of what I had missed out on during the past eleven years, which made me wish I could have grown up with my birthfamily. I don’t know yet what this will mean to me in terms of being adopted. What I do know is that it has made my life better because I know my birthmother, which allows me to better understand who I am and also helps my adoptive mother to better understand me.

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