Parenting as an Adoptee

Writing on this topic has weighed on my mind for a bit and putting all my swimming thoughts and emotions into words has felt out of reach. Becoming a mother is what drove me further on my journey so it should be expected that this process would affect my approach and experiences with parenting. Parenting is challenging and difficult enough without adding the complication of being an adoptee. It’s also not without a beauty and healing I didn’t dream possible.

The other day our family was eating together and our conversation turned toward the topic of great grandparents. Our Dragon and Monkey wondered why they had met so few of their great grandparents. In actuality, they’ve met more than some children their age. Our children have the privilege and complication of having six sets of great grandparents since I am an adoptee with two sets of parents, my birth (or first parents) and my adoptive parents.

Back in 2019, my husband, the kids, and I took a long overdue trip to see my 아빠 (appa, birth father’s) family. As I’ve mentioned, my relationship with my 아빠 (appa’s) family is complicated and has been inconsistent. I was able to make two separate trips in 2019 to see them but prior to that, it had been some nearly 20 years since I last saw many of them. Our shared history and pain has in some ways kept us connected while in many others has been the mountain that’s kept us apart. While I cannot truly understand the depth of their sorrow and loss, knowing my own can give me a glimpse into theirs. Losing a parent, child, sibling, anyone to suicide is a pain I wish on no one.

Despite that pain and our time apart, our trip to see my family was a sort of healing. My children were able to finally meet family in whom they could see parts of themselves. They could hold the hands of those who carefully cared for me. They could see in their minds now the faces of the stories I tell. They could hear the sounds of the language that once rolled off the tongue of their mother.

My Dragon was more curious about my 엄마 (eomma, birth mother’s) parents. Moments like these, for me, can be like twisting a knife that’s always lodged in my heart. Having to explain painful parts of my story in a way that’s age-appropriate, empathetic and kind to others involved, and protective of myself requires an intentionality that can be exhausting.

I’ll pause here to provide some context to my story and to the bit of Korean culture I know. When I visited my 엄마 (eomma) two and a half years ago, I had the help of an interpreter (who has since become a friend) to help us communicate. A friend of mine put me in touch with her and having someone who wasn’t from an agency helped create a more intimate setting for us to all be able to talk. My 엄마 (eomma) then told her story, one that is inextricably linked to my own. After she and my 아빠 (appa) divorced when I was still just a toddler, she moved back to Korea. As a newly divorced single mother with no money, her family allowed her to move back home but under the condition that she not bring me with her. In Korean culture then, and in many ways now, a single mother is unacceptable, a stain on the family. She would likely not have good prospects for a better life, getting remarried, or anything else if she was anchored down by a daughter to care for. So with little resources and support available, she made the choice to leave me behind to try again at life.

I’m glad I was an adult when I heard this story. I’m glad I went to school and spent my life honing my capacity for empathy. I’m glad I was able to cognitively understand the impossible decision she faced. I’m glad I didn’t only see my own pain and abandonment in her experience. It was only with those aspects that I could understand that my loss and pain isn’t diminished by acknowledging hers.

It is because of this decision that, if I ever met my 엄마 (eomma’s) parents I don’t remember them at all. I explained these reasons to my Dragon and Monkey to provide context to why they had not yet met their other living great grandparent (along with them not having visited Korea yet). Enter that beautiful moment full of healing. My Dragon’s eyes immediately overflowed with raindrop tears. There was a sorrow in her eyes that’s rarely seen in children her age. Her pain was about my pain, my loss, my abandonment. She understood so clearly the impact this had on me in a way that few prior had. Her giant heart saw my hurt and broke.

I say this is healing because having spent the better part of my life taking the illusions and narratives handed to me at face value meant minimizing that hurt, pain, and loss. It meant cheerfully telling strangers, friends, and family that, yes, it was sad but look what I gained! How lucky am I? My Dragon’s reflection and validation gave me space and permission to fully absorb the weight that one decision had in my life. Words cannot fully paint the relief of being so seen.

While this is a healing part for me, it also means that our children will always know a sense of loss. I think an additional responsibility on me, as an adoptee, is to ensure that the adverse experiences of my childhood that impacted how I see and fill space in the world is not perpetuated in our children. It means actively processing and working through my trauma responses to stop that cycle of social context and generational trauma. You know, the easy stuff!

As I previously mentioned, becoming a parent really pushed me through the fog. I can, and sometimes still do, sit in judgment of myself for why it took me this long, why I wasted so much time…but mostly I try to give myself grace and radical self-acceptance to realize that this journey is not an easy one.

When my husband and I decided we wanted to start a family, we had many, endless discussions around our approach to parenting as well as how we would bring in and keep alive our cultures.

For obvious reasons, the latter endeavor came much more easily to him than for me. Having grown up with his father who immigrated from Mexico and his mother who studied Spanish and spent years living there, he was exposed to and raised around his heritage. Both of his parents spoke Spanish in the home with him until he was about six and he attended an immersion school for some time. Even beyond that, his father maintained connection to his roots through social clubs wherever they lived. I have always envied the ease with which my husband can access aspects of his culture, in ways that has always required such effort for me.

Despite these understandable hurdles, we have strived to fill our house with the sounds, smells, beauties, and tastes of our respective heritages. Oddly, the pandemic has made this somewhat easier since we are home all the time. What this has meant for me is learning about the things I’m trying to teach our children in the process.

As I was older and lived in Korea during a period where my memories are somewhat intact, I do have my own hazy experiences connected to my culture…the smells of Seoul, the vague taste of foods that are just out of my reach to conjure fully, the curl of my tongue to form sounds unnatural when speaking English, the way my body sometimes seems to move of its own volition to uphold some deep-seated nod to respect. Unfortunately, these are not things easily explained and taught to children. Children learn and grow through experience. Through trying. Through failing. There’s a frustration at times when I have to sit down to unearth from the internet information that I feel is buried deep within me.

So that’s how it was with 추석 (Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving) this past year. I leaned into my 선생님 (seonsaengnim, teacher), my friend in Korea, as well as any and all websites I could find. The vulnerability I feel in sharing swells into my throat as I write this. It is strange, to say the least, to read about practices and traditions of a culture that is my own rather than it being second nature. I’m cautious in sharing this for fear of having done some part of the day and tradition wrong (I know I did) and then it’s as though this thing, this wispy part of me passed right through my fingers.

I feel the bubbling frustration, sadness, and loss when holidays like this come. I see the opportunities missed by my adoptive parents to integrate my culture into our lives as celebrating part of who I am. I have memories of telling them about some practices I remembered, like bowing to my 할머니 (halmeoni, grandmother) and 할아버지 (harabeoji, grandfather) during the New Year in my 한복 (hanbok, traditional/formal Korean attire). Never did my sharing give me the opportunity to celebrate those things in my home. Again, I recognize the limited resources and education my parents received in these areas so I don’t hold them wholly responsible. It’s just a loss I can feel to my core and the emotional exhaustion I feel in having to work so hard to bring to life the part of me that was lost or lay dormant for so long.

I don’t have grand words of wisdom on parenting as an adoptee other than, like so many other things with adoption, it is complicated. I despise that word sometimes, I truly do.

I do then think of the alternative. As a child growing up missing out on so many important parts of my identity and the impact of that in my adulthood drives me to do better, do more for my children. Sure, they may reject is as I think many of us who are seen as different do, but I have hope that learning it from a young age will make it more accessible and easier for them.

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