This is a transcript of a speech I gave February 12th at the Behavioral Institute for Children and Adolescents in Minnesota.
The first five years of my life were spent in a poor farming village in South Korea, where going to the bathroom meant straddling two boards stretched over a hole dug in the ground. There were rags on the windows of my home instead of glass, and I remember crawling across the floor in the middle of the night to check my father’s mouth for food when I was four years old.
When I walked into my American parents’ house for the first time in 1971, I thought I had landed in some kind of opulent dream world. It was beyond anything I had seen or could have imagined at the time. I was plopped into a town of Caucasian faces and a world of people who didn’t speak my language. I was called Chink and Jap, was kicked, bit, spit on, and slashed with a scissors because of the shape of my eyes and the color of my skin.
I was also sexually abused. Foreign adoptees are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they often can’t communicate.
So, race, poverty, and sexual abuse have impacted me greatly. But those are issues for a different speech. Tonight I want to concentrate on the issues specifically involved with adoption.
First, I will talk to you about how adoption affects the mind of the adoptee, and then I want to give you a glimpse into what it’s like to be reunited with biological relatives after almost four decades.
Second, I will talk about what it’s like to give a child up for adoption, and then I will talk about what it’s like to be reunited with that child after 24 years.
It goes without saying that you should qualify what I say tonight. I do not speak for all adoptees, nor do I speak for all women who have given children up for adoption. My story, however, is consistent with the experiences of many.
My husband Brad is a psychotherapist, and he has helped me to plan and organize this lecture.
Let me start by describing what it’s like to be taken away from your parents at a young age.
When a child is given away like I was, confusion and fear are the primary reactions. By necessity, the parents are in crisis, so they are often too overwhelmed to help the child begin transition. A child who is given up for adoption wonders why he or she has been given up, and they fear what will become of them.
The confusion and fear don’t fade away. It would be more accurate to say that the confusion and fear solidify into layers of denial.
After I was given up for adoption, I concluded that the memories about my Korean family were wrong. My Korean adoption papers had been falsified to facilitate my adoption. They said that my Korean father abandoned the family, so I turned my memories of him into memories of a grandfather. The papers also said my mother was dead, so I transformed my oldest sister into a stepmother. They said I had no sisters, so I turned my two other sisters into stepsisters.
Well after it was obvious that I had been taken away from my family, I created constructs in my mind that allowed me to cling to the belief that my Korean family hadn’t wanted to give me up. (It turned out to be true, but that’s beside the point.)
I spent months in the orphanage in Seoul, and almost the whole time I was there I either wished for, prayed for, or expected my father to come and bring me back home. Even after I had flown to the other side of the planet and couldn’t speak Korean anymore, I laid in bed many nights praying for my father to come and tell me it was all a big mistake and that he’d come to take me home.
That, of course, was denial. As most people who are in denial do, I partnered my denial with dysfunction.
When denial solidifies, it becomes a way of life. I was in denial about my American family, about how dysfunctional my friends were, and how abusive and dysfunctional my love relationships were.
It took decades for me to realize how the denial had crept into my worldview. There was a part of me – deep down – that was always afraid my denial would be ripped away, even what little was left of it as an adult. I came to realize that the denial served a purpose. It shielded me from what I feared was the truth; namely, that I was not loved.
I was very hesitant to meet my Korean family because of that fear. I unconsciously suspected that they had never wanted me, and confirmation of that fact would have wiped me out. Additionally, I was afraid that I would disappoint them, which would confirm to me and all the world that they were right to abandon me
Adoptees are often frozen by the fear that they were, indeed, unloved. You can pin your fantasies onto a mystery, but reality may force you to realize something more painful. If you go back to your family and they confirm that you were not wanted, then your worst fears are realized.
To this day, I still find it hard to trust anyone. If you don’t let anyone close, then they can’t abandon you. When someone does get close, fear-of-abandonment says, “I will get rid of you before you get rid of me.” This is a common thread for many of the adoptees I’ve talked to. Some of them are aware of their abandonment issues. Others appear to be living their pain unconsciously.
It took decades for me to realize that I deserved a place in the world and that I am worthy of love. It took so much work to understand that I had done nothing to justify the mountain of shame that I carried. I didn’t fully understand this until I traveled back to claim my past.
I am grateful that I faced my fear and went back to Korea after 37 years. I went back hoping for the best but very much prepared for the worst. I almost didn’t go. Lucky for me I had the unwavering support of my husband and children. They were my cheerleaders, my emotional pillars, and my loving safety net that allowed me to take the risk.
Brad and Kelly Fern
I am one of the lucky ones. I was loved. I was wanted. And the people who love me back in Korea are wonderful. Not everyone has the reunion experience that I did.
Now let me speak what it’s like to give a child up for adoption and then reunite after 24 years.
Giving up a child is far, far more devastating than being adopted. Like I said earlier, when I was given up for adoption I was confused. When you give up a child, there is no confusion. You know exactly what’s going on. There is no denial to help you survive the trauma.
I experienced the day I gave up my daughter as excruciating. It’s a memory that I’ve pushed away. All of the difficult things that have happened in my life multiplied exponentially do not equal the pain I felt giving up my child. The only thing I can imagine that would be more painful is the death of a child.
I was tormented by so many questions after I gave her up. Was she experiencing pain because of anything I had done or didn’t do? Was she loved by her new parents? Was she abused like I was? Did she worry that I didn’t love her, like I worried that I had not been loved? Did she come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with her because her mother gave her up for adoption?
Giving my daughter away was a failure in so many ways. I had failed to live up to the title of mother. I wasn’t there for in the night when she was afraid, nor was I there for her first day on the school bus. I wasn’t there to assure her that her mother never – not even for a minute – didn’t love her dearly.
So, I carried the burden of worrying about the unknowns, and I felt shame for what I knew for sure.
Today, however, I have her back in my life. Once again, I’m luckier than most. I get to visit her, cook with her, shop with her, and watch her sing in the many stage performances she appears in.
I want to read some lines from emails. The first group of lines is from emails written by me to my mother. The second is from my daughter’s emails to me. Notice how similar they are.
First, from me to my Korean mother:
I am extremely happy to hear from you and to know that the family is all doing well… I have often dreamt of finding you all again, but never really thought it was going to happen… I will write more later, because I am overwhelmed with emotion and I need some time to think about things… Please know that I am extremely happy to have finally reconnected with you after 37 years, but I also have a lot of confusion about how I should proceed.
Second, from my daughter:
It’s absolutely surreal to hear from you and see your picture on my Facebook… I would like to meet with you as well, though I think it would be best to take it slow and perhaps get to know each other a little through email and on the phone first… I think it may be too overwhelming for me to immediately jump into meeting with you, but please know that I am so happy to hear from you… To be quite honest, I never thought you would try to find me…
So both my daughter and I were happy that we had been found…kind of. And both of us wanted to meet our mothers…sort of.
I worried that I would disappoint my Korean family. Was I pretty enough? Was I successful enough? And so on. And in a very similar way, my daughter worried that she would disappoint me. Of course, I was very pleased. She’s fantastic. And thank heaven, she ended up with wonderful parents.
I’d like to conclude by telling you about one of my adoptee friends, I will call her Sarah. Sarah was going to Korea to meet her biological family after several decades. Sarah had read my book and called to ask if I’d hold her hand, so to speak, as she prepared for her journey back to Korea. Her story, like mine, had a twist. She was going with her husband to pick up her new adopted son, AND she was meeting her biological family on the same trip! Just one of these events would be stressful enough and she was doing both together!
Sarah and I talked at length several times over the phone. I advised her, as I always do, to hope for the best but to prepare for the worst. I also advised her to tell her husband that she would need him to be there for her.
All went well for Sarah. Her family was very gracious, and she now has a beautiful little baby boy.
Although the details of her story were different than mine, I was please that I was able to help her because we both shared a common bond. Since then, I have helped and advised several adoptees on matters of adoption, including reunions with their biological families.
As I have tried to stress to you tonight, all adoptees are not cut from the same cloth. There are so many facets to the experience of being an adoptee. I would, however, like to leave you with this list of issues that I believe many adoptees have in common.
They are: Fear of and anger about abandonment. Difficulty trusting. Fear of reclaiming the past in order to heal. Disassociation and denial about the impact of being given up for adoption. And finally, a general feeling anger or sadness that the world is an inherently unfair place.
Those who have given children up for adoption often share these dynamics: A staggering wound of the heart that one fears will never heal. Feelings of failure for not living up to the responsibility of parenting. Fear that the child will be abused or neglected, and an intense desire that someday the child understand “why.”
I hope what I’ve said to you tonight will help you to better understand the adoptees in your lives. Thank you.