Trauma and Reflection

Prior to 2013, I was considered, by some, to be an adoption activist as I wrote and presented about historic trauma, and the role of legislation in determining legitimacy as a family, a person, a representative of an ethnic group. Adoptions were bad, staying within family/community was good. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. My husband experienced cancer; I went to live on the rez for a month to write my memoir and in the process get to know my tribal family, become more familiar with my community, a destabilizing experience; our son and daughter in law, who were living with us, gave birth to a beautiful baby, my grandson, who would tragically pass away 2 weeks after his 1st birthday from unexplained liver failure. I was diagnosed around the time his death with 2 separate cancers. While undergoing treatment I lost my mom, who lived a mere 7 minutes away. This was the woman who adopted me, the woman whose pain shone through her eyes although she smiled with pride, at my activism. And then things went downhill from there. I’m still reeling. I still feel guilty for the pain I caused that was brought about by this outside ‘thing’, this action that was forced on us and accepted, to a certain degree, by us.

Yes, I paid a social price for being raised white; yes I wished my birth family hadn’t been kept hidden from view; yes, I had no idea who I was and resent the social Durkheim-ian ‘facts’ that were being forced on me about who I was and how I should behave. I want birthfamilies who are functional, so they don’t lose their kids; I want relationships to be meaningful for all involved; I want wars and genocide to stop so kids aren’t the bargaining chips. But seen through my experiences of the past 3 and half years, those things are beyond me, beyond my voice, beyond my actions. When the dust has settled, what are left are the questions. My mom just wanted a child after six miscarriages. Is that so awful? My birthmom’s disappearance for weeks or months at a time, leaving her 8 other kids with other people while no one knew where she was (a thing I know, she told me), is this really the best person to raise a child with no help, no guideance? My birthfamily is fragmented, emotionally, mentally and socially. Would I be able to be the voice in the violent winds if I remained there?

My bottom line is I am who I am, through my history, through my experience. I am human, I do the best I can; I raise my children to be respectful and kind and generous and productive. I live in communities were I find social circles where I fit in, and veer away from social circles where my role is to educate – unless I actively take that role on myself, which I do at times.

By advocating either/or, birth OR blood, real OR constructed, I believe I’ve painted myself into a corner, and am searching wildly for some middle ground.

I apologize for the length of statement. So here is my question: Has anyone experienced an event, or series of events, a trauma, that shook them to their very foundation about their beliefs about who they are and why they are and what they’re doing? Have you changed? Your ideas? Your beliefs? And if so, in what ways? I’m trying to find some solid ground here and I’m wondering if others are too.

7 thoughts on “Trauma and Reflection

  1. >Has anyone experienced an event, or series of events, a trauma, that shook them to their very foundation about their beliefs about who they are and why they are and what they’re doing? Have you changed? Your ideas? Your beliefs?<

    In answer to your questions:

    Instead of a mutually exclusive Either/Or situation, how about setting one as being prioritized over the other Except when “X” or “Y” or “Z”? We can do that. We do not need to follow an other's thoughts or beliefs on the matter [we do not even need to follow one another].

  2. My mother passed away Sept 1. I knew her for 4 years, 8 months 19 days. That was wrong. I deserved to know her, even if she would not have been the best person to raise me.

    There has to be a way to care for children that doesn’t sever all legal family ties.

    She was mean to me, and seemed to hate me, but I still wish I knew her. And i never will.

  3. It’s so difficult. I don’t mind hearing about adoptees’ “rethinking” ideas because this is a normal progression. We’re not robots, programmed to think one way. We’re faced with a paradox. There’s a “hoped-for” might-have-been that can’t be, and often there is a current reality that calls into question what we might have hoped for. But like Brent I don’t think it’s an “either/or”. As I inch toward reunion God willing, getting to know distant cousin matches through email and visits to what I think is my mountain village, I often have the sense that this is all “too little/too late”. We aren’t building a family; we are attempting to rebuild something that was purposefully broken. But at the same time, I feel it is crucial to face it, and face up to it. I’m down to two likely scenarios: One, my mother was housed in a convent for 9 months, with an out-of-wedlock child. Two, her child was kidnapped from a hospital in a politically motivated revenge. Does it make sense that I find myself “preferring” one scenario over the other? Is there any rationale to my revulsion in certain neighborhoods overseen by the political party that might likely be responsible for the latter? My adoptive mother asked me recently whether I “regretted” my adoption. Of course I can’t blame her, or them, like you are saying. But the positing of the question this way is unfair, I think.

    I would like dearly to keep everyone’s dignity intact, and to ascribe charitable beneficence to everyone’s actions, and to think that what’s waiting on the other side of this is somehow, some way, going to be cathartic, or healing, or redemptive—especially when I sense deep down it’s not; and especially now that I sense I am destined somehow to return to the States. But no matter what happens, or how this affects me or my families, I can still say that I believe that it is a really horrid destructive practice, adoption. It is palliative to symptoms of an ill patient, which is the society that produced it. I can have empathy for all involved without losing sight of the greater derivations that led up to my adoption. But I also see on the horizon “Stage II”, or the pushback against our activism. Here in Lebanon, for one example, this involves Syrian refugee mothers being told their children died during childbirth. In the States, from what I’m learning from adoption activists there, this will involve a much stronger faith-based push into women’s privacy, with Baby Boxes and the like. The future is not a pretty one, if we start giving adoption its status quo as “family practice” back. Your convictions are perfectly valid, as are the doubts, as is the battle fatigue. Those who support you won’t take advantage of this, of course. But the juggernaut of adoption practice won’t be letting up anytime soon.

  4. Dear sdharness,

    I, too, was considered an activist. I’m not given much purchase these days as my views no longer fit comfortably into the binary paradigm of discussion. I wish the conversation was more nuanced.

    Back in 2010 BBC radio’s Ellen Otzen arranged a meeting with me and Mr. Youn Taek Tahk, the former president of Social Welfare Society of Korea (which began as a government program) from 1965-1986, for her radio documentary, Korea’s Lost Children. He was 89 at the time. That meeting forever changed my filter on adoption.

    Prior to that meeting, I had been ON A MISSION to uncover what the hell went wrong with international adoption and WHY. I was incensed that it was still going on in Korea and was seeking to find compassion in my heart for the mothers past and support for the mothers present who had/were losing their children due to extraordinary pressures. I had read up on the history of adoption and was not convinced by arguments of benevolence and charity. To the detriment of my language study I was more focused on sussing out how the culture operated and how it could allow the staggering amount of over 200,000 children to board airplanes and be shipped abroad for half a decade. I was baffled and dismayed.

    I came to the meeting armed with uncomfortable probing questions for Mr. Tahk, but out of respect for elders (as is the custom) I had to sit through his preamble first. I was prepared for excuses and deflections but, instead, got an atypical disarming dose of honesty. He spoke about his motive for becoming a social worker, which was to help starving families in rural areas: all the country’s capital had to be directed towards urban industrialization to save the economy, whose workforce needs fractured families and left the rural poor without any assistance. He said he spoke against international adoption but that politics and economics dictated acceptance. Politically, he made a lot of enemies by being critical of the practice and felt he had to stop or risk being able to help at all. Economically, the country was on its knees and aid was scarce. To illustrate, he told us that there was a direct correlation between the price of coal and the number of children abandoned. Freeze, starve, or send your children to lands paved with gold like the adoption agencies promised, seemed to be the only options offered at the time of my abandonment. He felt there was nothing he could do. Sending some away reduced the economic pressure on those remaining. He said he could not sleep at night because of it.

    I had not been prepared for his candor. His original motives had been noble. He had great remorse. And, like soooo many Koreans I had met, he felt powerless.

    Does this mean he was totally off the hook? Of course not. But his humanity shone through, which really complicated my feelings.

    The word complicated stuck in my brain. The adoption community seemed to seek simplification and the more I learned, the more complicated it got. Not just the geopolitical, or misguided benevolence, or the privileged vs. the exploitable – no – it was complicated on a deeply personal human level.

    I recalled the hundreds of children’s names I had seen abandoned from my one county the year I was abandoned and thought – the price of coal must have been really high that year. I thought about my mom(?) leaving me alone in a market on the street in the month of March, the height of Korea’s brutal winters. I thought about adoption saving children and not families. I thought about Bertha’s own account of Harry haranguing reticent mothers to give up their children. I thought about how my mother must have felt. I thought about how those hundreds of children’s families all knew the adoption agencies were there, waiting, to scoop up the abandoned children. I thought about being earmarked for Holt before the day had even passed. Nine months later I was on a plane, arriving in time to see Christmas trees. The streets really were almost paved with gold. I thought about the joy on my adoptive mother’s face. I cringe at how she worshipped the mechanism that brought me to her. She had no idea…

    The word complicated stuck in my brain. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the half-breed military-sired adoptee. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the war orphan. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the adoptee born out-of-wedlock. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the family restructuring abandonment. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the kidnapped adoptee. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the respite care adoptee illegally sent for adoption. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the adoptee from a dysfunctional home. My reconstruction-era abandonment is not the same perspective as the adoptee who was a true orphan. Those who were showered with love can not relate to those who were abused. Those who were raised in multi-cultural urban settings can not fathom the isolation of rural segregation. My pre-culture camp upbringing is not the same as the cultural introduction/attempts at identification/cosplay/parental cultural appropriation of today. What was once an isolated event is now commonplace. Those who don’t care to search can’t relate to those in search. Those in search can’t relate to the difficulties of those who have found. ALL of these scenarios exist. All these different experiences are not debatable. And yet, adoptees fight each other with no acknowledgement of these differences.

    With that recognition, I found it much harder to be on any one side. There were a whole lot of people, often misguided people, thinking they were doing the best thing -in the name of doing good for us children, often for the sake of themselves. There were also some really not-nice people who really didn’t care what happened to the children. And there was a system – a pipeline – to facilitate. And a geo-political will to make international adoption a market. But as I thought of Mr. Tahk, I came to feel that there are few saints or sinners; that people in general are way more complex than that. Surely, this binary argument of activism we were stuck in wasn’t going to solve anything. For example, I had shared unwed mother’s stories with Korean national co-workers and they were torn apart – just really shredded – with empathy. I asked them, what would you do if it was your daughter that became an unwed mother? They told me they would send the child away for adoption – that’s how culturally institutionalized it is in Korea – that a person’s heart comes secondary to what they feel is in the best interest of the mother’s and the family’s place in society. And as we all know, bureaucracy is much easier to erect than disassemble; especially when it makes people with some power feel like they’ve done a good thing. And culture? That takes a long long time and a whole lot of positive motion to change. Complicated.

    After we were finished talking, Mr. Tahk looked at me with kind eyes and said in English, “I hope you get what you want. But don’t expect it to be any time soon.”

    He was speaking the truth.

    My birth country is a harsh society to live in. I’m glad I didn’t grow up there. I also wish I had not known the disruption of international adoption. Yet, I am glad I am where I am now and I accept the past as history – but not my present and not my future. And because of that, I am happy. I am hoping this is part of all adoptee’s process as they age like me. And, like my hair, I am hoping that the conversation between adoptees can have more tolerance of the gray and what we all share.

    As for Korea, may the internet broaden your definition of compassion and community. May the content of your character matter more than the social norms that have ceased serving you.

  5. I can live best with “it’s complicated.” I think that untangling individual experiences from the larger social construct of adoption is hard — and some days, too hard for me — and sometimes, we have to deal with just ourselves and our stories and situations rather than the entire culture. Which is okay.

    I do think that if we could acknowledge the complication, the trauma and loss, and the lack of an easy binary “either/or” would make conversations about adoption less contentious. Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

  6. Thank you all for your insightful comments. I posed this question because I believe it is too easy to fall into the dichotomous arguments of good or bad. There are too many factors to weigh, to take into account. But it may be easier for us to undertake this journey of self-discovery once we know the boundaries, the margins, once we understand what it feels like to exist in these places and how comfortable that fit is, or is not. Once this has been established, exploring the inner world, may be less scary.

    I do find myself wondering if my mellowing has to do with age, has to do with larger, more traumatic life experiences, or if it’s like a seven step process to get through this, kind of like getting through grief. And like grief, just because we find a place of acceptance doesn’t mean that the questions, the issues, have been fully resolved. I imagine this process of self-discovery and self-acceptance takes our full years. I hope whatever we reveal in the process can help shape the future for children who require persons other than their immediate parents to raise them, whatever form that takes.

    So as we move forward, I wish all the best to transracial adoptees who are navigating and negotiating, recognizing and reclaiming, our identities. It’s not an easy thing to do; but it is required.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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