adoption’s other stolen motherhood

On Father’s Day weekend, my husband and son took a trip out to see some family, planning on staying overnight so they could attend a Sunday baseball game. I went out to the car to say goodbye to Liam and as I pulled away from his sticky preschool boy hug, he said

Mommy, please come!

For many mothers, this is a standard, heartwarming child’s plea: “Mommy,” our children urge, “don’t go!”

Another example: At Liam’s end of school year party, he refused to participate in his class’s end of year show. Once he sees Mommy, he breaks down completely. He’s always the group’s only child unable to join in when Mommy’s around, needing me instead of his friends. This is a habit formed since he was two years old.

For adoptees-turned-mothers, these events are harsh skips in our daily soundtrack, forcing us not into the quiet reverie of motherhood but into that complicated place called abandonment. What, I wonder, have I done to reveal my life’s secret anxiety?

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I consider all of this in context of not just my own personal history, but the history of the many adoptees who become parents. Is our heightened sense of loss, our prescient understanding that at some point our children will grow into adults who may or may not reflect our parental failings, so tightly wound into our interactions that we pass it on to our children?

I can’t speak for others, but to me, it’s a fascinatingly painful fear. My son’s innocent pleadings for a Mommy he never realizes could leave both confound me and, somewhat embarrasingly, generate a deep sense of envy toward my own son. Because of my simple decision to not give up on him, I’ve constructed for him a foundation unshakeable–unless, of course, I walk away.

Seeing its utter simplicity, seeing just how easy it could have been for my life to not be marred by adoption’s persistent complications, repulses me. I know for a birth mother, adoption isn’t easy.

Still, when I consider this notion of presence equaling simplicity, my memories rewind themselves like a tape playing backwards. School plays and insults and Christmases and harsh words and smiles become garbled together in frenzied reversal. As I begin with my birth–the only thing my son and I have in common is that we were born–I start my life over, trying to replace my son’s experience with my own. Eventually I give up, unable to write a story that never existed.

At that point, I wonder: Is being a “a good mother” one who merely sticks around? Does that mean I get a pass to be as mediocre or terrible as possible, simply because I know that no matter what, a child almost always wants nothing but his birth parents–regardless of skill?

Obviously, parenting takes far more effort than just described. As an adoptee, however, the innocence of motherhood–the innocence allowing moms to make mistakes and forgive ourselves–was taken from us when we ourselves were taken away.

Like other parents, we know how carefully children watch their parents. But unlike the unadopted, we have a full appreciation of the long-reaching impact our presence has on a child. Adoption ends the childhood innocence of believing our parents will never stop wanting us. It destroys the myth of family as safe haven. Adoptees, unfortunately, know how untrue that can be, how carefully we tread the line between good and bad parents. Despite it not being an easy choice to walk away (I wouldn’t–ever), I don’t think we can ever fully believe that, since it happened to us.

Because of adoption, the joy of motherhood–one I’m owed–has been destroyed.

As Liam grows older, articulating his desire for Mommy’s closeness is becoming stronger and more frequent. With his developing sense of self and familial bond–that of which I still struggle to experience–he unintentionally and continuously highlights a permanent space between us. I actively work on closing it while remaining aware of our life’s distinct path, a path chosen not by either of us but by those who swore to love us forever.

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when i lost my mother, i found myself

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When I was just about to turn 26, the ovarian cancer savaging my mother’s tired internal organs finally completed its violent mission. My mother died on Thursday, July 15, 2010, after a three-year fight she knew she’d lose.

It was a humid summer day and my room was a mess.  My brother–or was it my aunt?–knocked on my door that morning, to tell me my mom was gone. Several hours later, I was told there was something left for me on her nightstand. It was a card, addressed to me, while her body still lay in her bed and the hand that penned the message still and limp.

It took me several moments to open the card, but when I did, the message was clear. Full of love and persistent motherly concern. In a shaky hand, she gently urged me to

Find out why you’re so angry all the time.

Before she died, my mother would hug me gently, a body wrapping me in the medicinal scent of chemotherapy drugs and holistic remedies. She’d whisper

I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.

It’s been many years since I received that card, a memento framed and hanging in my hallway outside of my son’s bedroom. It’s displayed in its angel-fronted glory, in a custom frame underneath my son’s first foot and handprints and a portrait of my mother as a preschooler.

Back then, I took her message as a sign that yes, I was angry and her efforts to help had failed. I still attributed my anger to overall jealousy and discontent with the world–I hadn’t yet discovered my rage related to a lifelong history of abuse, racism, and adoption.

The most difficult thing in re-reading her inscription–so lovingly writ!–is acknowledging that she, as well as my father, was a source of that anger. That her choices in adopting me, her inability to progress and open her mind to color, and her inadvertant support of my father’s racist-abusive behavior caused my problems. That my mother, to whom I experienced an unhealthy over-attachment as compensation for adoption-related attachment issues, wasn’t the innocent, well-meaning idol I knew.

A disheartening reality, one most people who lose their parents young must face: Confronting the possibility that your parents weren’t perfect, but unknowingly failed you in many ways.

It’s a complicated love. I love my mother and wish she were still here, playing with her grandson and existing not as a playground ghost  but my friend and mom. But realizing her errors and her misconception that my anger was due to anything but her actions cements the wound adoption wove into our relationship.

She died believing she did right, which I suppose is the best way to go. But with her absence, I’ve slowly unfurled her imperfections, not out of disrespect to her but in an effort to free myself from a life chained to grief.

Her memory influences my adoption reflections. I’ve written of our racial differences in Through Her Mirror: What my white mother’s view on makeup taught me as a Korean adoptee and her fundamental misunderstanding of adoption and race in A journey through space, a journey divided. I shared her racial ignorance in Shut Up and Smile. None of this was done maliciously. It’s all part of our story together. The journey she took me on is ultimately one we’d never conclude together, and while honoring her through unflattering memories might not seem loving, it’s a testament to the complex nature of transracial adoption and a mother-daughter relationship.

Perhaps this article’s title is misleading. I have yet to “find myself.” Actually, I dislike generic terminology. Maybe a better way frame this, for myself and other adoptees suffering through loss without their mothers, is

When I Lost My Mother, I Found Freedom

“we family”: a message on adoption trauma, from my son

monica-gozalo-138999-unsplashPeople who don’t believe in adoption trauma didn’t see my three-and-a-half year old’s son reaction when I angrily told him

I’m leaving.

I’m ashamed, I am. It was an unusually difficult day, with him home from school sick with the sort of illness that spontaneously resolves an hour after drop-off. I’d hopefully began my day, intending to write and do the other invisible things mothers do while children are busy growing.

By evening and before my writing workshop, I’d had it with L’s* “failure to listen.” He, along with the dog, ran sprints around my first floor, screaming and barking in a way that made it difficult to determine which noise was coming from what temporary monstrosity. My husband was almost home and I was putting on my coat so I could escape.

L lunged down the narrow hallway, screaming a preschooler’s typical gibberish. I screamroared

Mommy’s leaving you because you never listen.

L stopped.

The dog stopped.

The air in the house, previously made of shaking atoms and vibrating sound waves, became a paralytic poison.

L’s face held none of the smiling glee from the seconds before I swiped at his confidence. He looked at me with a primal vulnerability. He considered my threat and said

You can’t leave. We family.

And in that moment I realized exactly what I said and what adoption trauma did to me. It transformed mothering into an option, a threat, a weapon. A powerful tool to wield at misbehaving children because I believed myself unwanted. A five-second declaration laid bare my fractured attitude toward family.

I share this shameful moment as proof of a child’s awareness of a mother’s presence. And that a threat to leave—not just to leave to run errands but to leave, forever—is understood in a child’s abstract way. My voice, a tool used for sharing my own adoption trauma, issued forth the same threat adoptees received from their relinquishments.

I hope readers struggling to accept the reality of adoption trauma read my words and finally believe. Believe babies and children are equipped with survival instincts so heightened that those intuitions remain at the forefront of their innocent defense; and, believe, for once, this trauma manifests itself throughout an adoptee’s lifetime.

I am not proud of my behavior. I am working conscientiously to correct my words and understand my actions. I have since apologized to my sweet son, but I want my example to ring forth as a warning:

Adoption trauma exists. Overcoming trauma takes years of dedicated work. Adults possess a power over children that deserves mindful awareness. Please remember: Children are listening.

*Name abbreviated to protect the (literal) innocent. And to prevent him from, years from now, yelling “MOOOMMM!” when he finds my writings.

adopting motherhood

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Adoptees talk about birth moms and adoptive moms and make up clever names like “first moms.” Some of the angry ones call them worst moms.

But we don’t talk about what happens when adoptees become moms. What do we call them?

Our children call us Mommy or Momma or Mom, but I just call myself Lost.

I relate the following as my example of an adoptee’s complex relationship with motherhood, an already challenging position. I encourage adoptees to share their stories so others realize how our inauspicious beginnings follow us to parenthood.


My mother died when I was twenty-five. She endured three anxious years of surgeries and blood tests while I watched the only mother I’d ever known slowly leave me.

Wait–that’s not right. I knew another mother, but only for two-and-a-half months. And then we parted ways. When I sought her out, I discovered she died less than ten years post-me.

So I’m again mom-less, raising a son with only memories for guidance. Like any mother, I’m doing the best I can. But there’s a difference:

I envy my son.

I envy my son because at three years old he knows something I don’t–the privilege of having a consistent caregiver, one who never questioned his existence. He carelessly plays his days away, taking for granted a woman who spirits pretzels and juice and raisins to his side, knowing no different.

Apologies, but the piece I adapted this section for HAS BEEN SELECTED FOR PUBLICATION! I will link to this story once it goes live, but the overall message here will stay 🙂

For adoptees, parenting is a declaration: We survived.  We carry traumas from our abandonments, yet we’re using them to make us stronger parents.  Simply being present means we’ve done more for ourselves and our children than was ever done for us.

Adoptees are rewriting adoption’s definition.  The literature rarely looks at adoptees as parents, making our insights invaluable to the practice. Let’s start sharing now and give  them something to talk about.


Be a part of the future! If you’re interested in sharing your adoptee-turned-parent story, feel free to contact me.  I’ll use our stories to weave together a long-form article on adoptee parents. Thanks!

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