Adoptive Dad Supports Unwed Korean Moms
A true story, not an uncommon one, from Korea:
Kyung Ae (an assumed name), an unmarried factory worker from Pusan, met Su Cheo, when he was on military leave. Both were 24. Their relationship was brief. When Kyung Ae realized she was pregnant, she didn’t know how to contact Su Cheo. Kyung Ae didn’t tell her family of her pregnancy, and worked until she was seven months pregnant. With her family unaware, no available government aid, her savings depleted, and no other means of support, Kyung Ae made the difficult decision to give up her child. It’s unclear when she decided, but I am sure the circumstances of the delivery and birth played a part as well: Eun Sil Han was born at 34 weeks, a breech delivery, was cyanotic, with neonatal respiratory distress syndrome. She spent her first month in the hospital, on IV antibiotics, before going to live with a foster family.
In a social worker’s words: The mother “… had no ability of child upbringing as an unmarried girl both financially and socially and released this child to our Pusan Branch for the child’s better future through adoption.”
That child came to us at age 3 ½ months and became our daughter. My wife and I already had two children, and were unable to conceive a third. We decided to adopt from Korea, since we understood that children, especially girls, who were born to unmarried mothers there faced a difficult life. And Korea and the US had the world’s best developed system of intercountry adoption, or ICA. I had the sense of rescuing a child from an uncertain, probably dismal future, and giving her a better life in the US.
And life for Esther, now 20, a rising college junior and psychology major, has been very good. It’s especially exciting to watch her grow into young adulthood, and start to “launch” herself.
While raising Esther, and my two other children, Katherine, now 27, and Benjamin, 24, I was working as an ophthalmologist specializing in glaucoma, a disease which causes blind areas in the field of vision and, uncontrolled, leads to blindness. My work was hugely satisfying, yet after being in practice for many years, I felt a need to take my life in a different direction. In the midst of a life on overdrive, I was also aware of a sense of being upset about something that I did not understand—and realized that I had this feeling for a long time.
In 2005, I became involved in international adoption in a different way. I learned that many local families could not adopt due to steep and rising costs. I was especially moved by their desire to adopt special needs children, as well as siblings of children already adopted. Being truly grateful to Family and Children’s Agency in Connecticut (FCA) and Social Welfare Society in Seoul (SWS), for bringing us our child, I wanted to be able to help other families do what we had done. How could I not? These kids all needed loving families!
I began meeting with other adoptive parents in my area, and together we started The Adoption Foundation at FCA. It was truly gratifying to sit on a committee that reviewed applications from families, and make grants that would allow these families to adopt. During my time with the Foundation, we aided about fifteen families.
As I had not yet been to Korea, and wanted to do everything I could to promote our work, I asked to join the staff from FCA on their trip to Korea in October 2006, at my expense.
The trip changed me. What I found out turned me completely around.
Even before the “official” part of my trip, I went mountain hiking (Korea is 70% mountains, and I love to hike). Well, this day was a hiking day for hundreds of middle grade school kids as well, and as we passed one another, saying “hello” and high-fiving, I thought, My daughter would not have been in this group of well-dressed, happy kids, had she stayed in Korea. As I say, you never know what you’ll find out on the trail.
A couple of days later, in Seoul, I was not prepared for my reaction to holding infants (some as young as four days) in a nursery. I didn’t understand how I would feel meeting special needs children, visiting sick children in the hospital, and seeing a three month-old boy and his foster mom. These children were all orphans, relinquished by their unmarried mothers. But what really got to me was meeting a dozen young women in an SWS facility in Daegu. The women were approximately 18-24 years old, all were unmarried, all were pregnant, and every single one of these mothers had already agreed to give up her child. At that moment, I realized that, 20 years ago, Esther’s mother was one of these women, and Esther was one of these orphans.
I had been a strong supporter of international adoption. Yet these encounters affected me profoundly. I realized I had been blind to the circumstances of unwed Korean mothers, their children and families, and the possible negative effects of adoption, especially international adoption, on birthmother and child. Seventy percent of unmarried Korean mothers give up their children. The US figure is two percent. Why the disparity in Korea? Is this truly necessary? More importantly, isn’t it the right of any loving, capable mother to bring up her child, if she chooses, not just in Korea, but anywhere in the world? These dozen women, and Young Ja before them, whom I had every reason to believe were as loving any other mother, had painfully relinquished their children. Effectively, they had no choice.
I returned to Connecticut and, with my thinking sharply changed, asked: How can I, an adoptive parent, help so that the best interests of unmarried Korean mothers and the children born to them are met? If a woman chooses to keep and raise her child, how can I help increase the likelihood that she will be able to do this? Should mothers need to place their children for adoption, how may I further help them? If Esther had been born last week, what would have been the right thing to do for her and her mother?
Some 2000 children are adopted from Korea each year, and another 2000 are adopted domestically. ICA, from Korea, started over 50 years ago as a valid response to the needs of war orphans and children fathered by American servicemen. ICA continues for completely different reasons. Even though some overseas adoption may always be necessary, why isn’t Korea, now the world’s 13th largest economy, helping its own? Why isn’t it doing everything it can to help unmarried women keep and raise their children? These brave women deserve all the help they can get!
Shortly after I returned home, I found myself reading, wide-eyed, a blog written by Marie Myung Ok Lee, who teaches creative writing at Brown University. Marie, author of Somebody’s Daughter, studied unmarried Korean birthmothers in 1997, on a Fulbright Fellowship. The blog’s entry, from May 2006, was entitled How Working With Unmarried Korean Birth Mothers Colored My Ideas About Adoption. In it Marie described her experience with moms at Ae Ran Won Unmarried Mothers Home in Seoul. She wrote two “equations:”
1. The usual adoption “equation” is Family + Adopted Korean Child = Happy Family
2. The truly honest “equation” is Family + Adopted Korean Child = Happy Family +
(Korean Birthmother – Her Child)
My jaw dropped. I had encountered my own blind spot in Korea, and here was someone articulating what I had just begun to see. I knew then the reason for my unsettled feeling all these years. I had not recognized or validated the woman who gave birth to my child, nor the relationship between them. I began to understand why I, like others, had found it difficult to be aware of the reality of unwed mothers—anywhere. It’s hard to wrap your mind around adoption and the mom at the same time.
Stunned, I abandoned the pro-international adoption foundation I helped to start. Instead, I began to shine my flashlight on unwed Korean birthmothers and their children. My hope was that I could do something to help Koreans to positively address the issue. And I was about to repeat something I had started years ago when entering medical practice: Identifying blind spots and dealing with them.
If an unwed Korean woman keeps and raises her child, both usually endure social stigma, hostility, alienation from her family, and lack of government support. She is told that since she created her problem, she must solve it, alone. If a woman gives up her child to adoption (usually the case), she is faced with the guilt and shame that will stay with her for the rest of her life. I love my daughter, and as grateful as I am that Esther came into my life, it pains me to see any woman give up her child because government and people are not willing to support her, just as Young Ja was forced to give up Eun Sil. Though I have met Koreans who feel guilty about not taking care of their own, most try to ignore the issue. They are largely guided by Confucian thinking which stresses blood lineage, and the stigma against unmarried mothers and their children. Current public policy supports this stigma. When babies are adopted overseas, Koreans don’t have to deal with an unpleasant situation, the government doesn’t need to provide for these children (and their mothers), so the matter goes largely unaddressed.
I believe the following need to be addressed, so more moms keep and raise their kids:
Unmarried pregnant women need counseling and resources that will help them make the best decisions for themselves and their babies. Women wishing to keep and raise their babies need: Education, job training, babysitting, housing assistance, medical and education assistance, childrearing resources.
- Women need to be able to make these decisions in a safe environment, free from pressure to relinquish their children. Adoption agency incentives to relinquish, such as free medical care, should be abolished.
- Women, regardless of marital status or whether they have children, must be treated equally in the workplace.
- The validity of unmarried Korean women raising their children needs to be emphasized, throughout Korean society and government. Women’s advocacy groups are already raising visibility of the issue. Others can help, too, and need to step forward and do so.
- A mother raising her child is generally best for the child, mother and society, although ICA may be in the best interests of families wishing to adopt, and the agencies themselves. This must be emphasized, and support be provided. More mothers keeping and raising their children equals fewer adoptions.
- In cases where adoption is desired, ensure that the needs and wishes of the birthmother and child are paramount, and provide a means to encourage domestic adoptions, rather than ICA. Currently, the Korean government promotes domestic adoption by requiring a five-month holding period for infants, provides financial incentives for prospective parents, and pressures agencies to limit ICA—usually after a round of criticism of Korea as sending large numbers of children overseas. In all of these, the symptoms of the problem are addressed, rather than the underlying cause.
- Prevention of unwanted pregnancy: Korea needs to seriously address sex education—and society’s bias against it—of boys as well as girls. There is always a man involved. Many unwed mothers will have a second pregnancy. Intervention/education after the first pregnancy is essential.
- Scholarly research is needed on the demographics of these mothers and children, as well as society’s attitude toward them. This is a necessary prerequisite to advocating any social change —to government, opinion makers and the public.
Though my daughter was born in Korea, and I care deeply about unwed mothers and their children, obviously I am not Korean. This is clearly a matter for Korean society and government to pursue. Mothers everywhere love their children, just as Young Ja loved Eun Sil—and I hope still does. The personal, social and economic price--compared to these mothers giving up their children--is relatively small. It is in the best interest of a developed society, such as Korea, that cares about its children, to support them in whatever way possible, and give them the prospect of a bright future. It is important for me to help make this issue more visible, educate, explain, suggest, promote discussion, even debate, and serve as a resource, in the hope that it is positively and effectively addressed—in Korea and the US. Korea has a wonderful opportunity to embrace these birthmothers and their children. They are Korean too, and part of Korea’s future.