Words She Never Said

There must have been something in the water on Facebook this weekend, because when I logged into my account, I was greeted with a newsfeed full of photos of adoptees who were searching for their birth parents. The faces were young and old, black and white, and they all bore similar expressions of hope—hope that someone somewhere would see their photos and read the information on the posters they held that might lead them to their birth families.

As I looked at the photos, I realized that I found myself unable to relate to any of the adoptees who were searching for answers. All of the adoptees had clues and tidbits of information they could use to help locate their birth parents. If I were to create a poster, it would be empty. The only clues I have to the mystery of who my birth parents were are my face and the blood running through my veins.

So many birth parents out there are well-intentioned and selflessly relinquish their rights to their children because they aren’t ready to be parents or they can’t provide their children with the necessities and opportunities they need and deserve. Some have the opportunity to choose their children’s adoptive families and some enter into open adoptions. Other birth parents have their rights involuntary terminated as a result of abuse, neglect, and/or poverty. Sadly, there are also birth parents who never had any intention of relinquishing their rights and had their children taken from them as a result of corruption, kidnapping, and other horrible injustices. Lastly, there are birth parents like mine, who chose to abandon their children for reasons unknown.

As an adoptee who was abandoned and left without any identifying information, the questions that will never be answered cause me the most pain and heartache. The words left unsaid are the things I long to know most about who I was and where I came from.

I have no memories of my birth mother’s face. I don’t know if she ever held me or told me that she loved me. Did she sing me lullabies and rock me to sleep? Did she comfort me when I cried? When she looked into my eyes, was she reminded of my birth father or, perhaps, her own mother? She didn’t leave me with information about my name or the date and time I was born. She didn’t tell me if I was born at home or in a hospital. She didn’t tell me if I was a good baby or if I was colicky. She didn’t give me a photo of me as a baby—a milestone captured on paper that so many people are so blessed to have. She didn’t tell me why it took her a whole year to decide that she couldn’t keep me.

The words my birth mother never said—never left me with—have formed a void in my life that has left me feeling empty and incomplete. I would give anything to know the health and lifespans of my ancestors. While I was searching for medical answers of my own a few years ago, I would have given anything to have known if anyone in my birth family had lupus. I would give anything to be able to pass tidbits of family history onto my sons, rather than staring at the blank pages of their maternal family medical histories.

My birth mother never told me if my laugh sounded like hers. She never told me if I inherited my stubbornness from my birth father or my love of music from my birth grandmother. She never told me if I have siblings. I will never know who in my birth family shares my love for writing and photography. I will never know if my birth mother thinks about me or wonders about the person I have become. I will never know if she wanted me to find her. I will never know if I was wanted or loved. I will never know why she felt she couldn’t keep me or why she chose to abandon me.

The things she never said—the things she took with her when she left me behind—are keys to a mystery that will never be solved. The action of leaving me—of abandoning me—will forever be a source of pain and loss in my life. But, the words that I imagine were in her heart and on her lips when she left me are the words that give me hope. I hold onto the things she never said with the belief that those words were filled with love and sadness, pain and promise, and hope for the dreams she had for me.

The words that I hold closest to my heart are the words she never said.

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I Am Not Broken. I Am An Adoptee.

Note: This post may be difficult for birth parents to read.

I have had a number of interactions with adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and other adoptees in the past 6 years, but especially since starting this blog earlier this year. A majority of these interactions have been very positive and I have often found myself walking away with a renewed faith in adoption and the wonderful things it has to offer. The interactions that have left me with mixed emotions have involved those who don’t seem to fully understand the need for adoptees to grieve their losses, and expect us to “get over it” or to just be grateful that we have families.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my family and I feel so incredibly blessed to have them in my life. But, when I think about my life prior to my adoption, a range of emotions consume me. I feel pain, anger, hatred, and most of all, sadness. I was left in a subway station—abandoned and seemingly thrown away like somebody’s trash. Had I been left with a name or a birthdate, things may have been different. I believe that having the knowledge of something—that I was somebody to someone—would have made my abandonment a little less painful. But, my birth parents chose to leave me with nothing. I was a child without a name…without a birthdate…I was nobody.

Well-meaning people often try to tell me how much my birth parents loved me. I understand and appreciate the sentiments behind their words—I really do. But, rather than making me feel better about my situation, I have found that it actually makes me feel worse. Ever since I can remember, I have imagined every possible scenario of my life prior to my adoption. I have imagined myself with loving birth parents with no other choice than to abandon me and hope for the best. I have imagined myself with abusive birth parents who threw me away because they never wanted me in the first place. I have imagined my birth parents dying and their family abandoning me because they couldn’t care for me. Regardless of the scenario, they all end with my being abandoned.

I have a right to feel abandoned, because I WAS abandoned. I have a right to feel pain because the people who brought me into this world chose not to parent me. I have a right to feel anger and hatred for the people who were supposed to love me and always be there for me and ultimately decided to abandon me. I have a right to feel sadness. I have a right to grieve the loss of a life and a family that will never be mine.

It’s difficult for me to hear that my birth parents loved me. I don’t know that to be true, so how could anyone else possibly know? It is one thing for a birth parent to choose adoption for their child and go through a child welfare organization to do so, but I have to admit that I have always felt some resentment towards my birth parents for abandoning me in a random location—not knowing who would find me or where I would end up. For me, it’s easier to believe that my birth parents didn’t want me, because it allows me a sense of closure. I have no desire to know someone who didn’t want me. Believing that my birth parents loved me is just too painful for me to bear. It’s too painful to imagine someone out there loving me—someone out there whom I will never know. I know I look like someone, and I know my laugh sounds like someone else’s laugh. I know someone out there has a piece of my heart that I will never get back. I will live my life with questions that will remain unanswered, and I will forever mourn the loss of a complete stranger who made the decision not to know me all those years ago.

Sharing my story has been extremely cathartic for me. I have also been empowered by the realization that my voice matters and is actually helping others. But, I also realize that well-meaning people often have the urge to fix things and make things better. I get it. I tend to be a “fixer”, as well. Through my volunteer work of providing crisis counseling and advocacy to victims and survivors of sexual violence, I have discovered the art of listening. I have learned that the moments in which nobody says a word can be just as powerful and therapeutic as those moments in which words of understanding, support, empowerment, and validation are shared.

I feel it is important for people to know that I am an adoptee, but I am not broken. Adoptees don’t need fixing—they need understanding. Trying to explain away an adoptee’s pain may help you feel better about the situation, but it minimizes the very experiences that have shaped our lives. We need to unapologetically be allowed to feel our pain, our sadness, our anger, and our grief. Many of us don’t need or want pity. We need the support of people who will allow us to sit with our pain without trying to mask it or minimize it or make it go away. The ability to acknowledge and confront our pain is essential to the healing process. We need to be able to feel our pain and heal in our own time. Please don’t ask us to “get over it”, because it’s not that simple and the healing process doesn’t work that way. Rather, please consider offering us your listening ear, your support, your validation, and your understanding. In doing so, you will make more of a difference than you will ever know.

My Birth Mother, My Stranger

You were adopted because your birth mother didn’t want you.

I will never forget the day I heard those words. I was in middle school when my social studies teacher decided that he would do a lesson on adoption. Sitting in a room filled with my peers, I remember him starting the lesson by looking straight at me and saying, “You were adopted because your birth mother didn’t want you.” I remember hearing some of my classmates gasp and the room going silent. I remember everyone looking straight at me…nobody really knowing what to do or say. It was probably one of the most humiliating and heartbreaking moments of my life. I don’t remember much else about that day, but I will never forget those words.

When I think about those words, they hurt just as much today as they did over 17 years ago. It was something I had often felt when I was younger, but hearing someone else speak those words to me was absolutely devastating. The difficult part for me was not knowing the truth. I couldn’t tell him that he was wrong, because I didn’t know. And, deep down, I feared that he was right.

My whole life, I have wrestled with the feelings I have towards my birth mother. There are days when I miss her, which feels strange to me, since I don’t feel like I know her at all. Other days, I feel an overwhelming sense of anger and hatred for her. She fed me and held me and cared for me for an entire year (maybe longer). I was hers and I’d like to think that she loved me for a year before deciding that she could no longer parent me. More than anything, being a mom of two, a part of me can’t help but to feel empathy for her, as I cannot imagine what that decision must have been like to make.

During my senior year of high school, I ended up getting pregnant. I was just months away from graduation, and I couldn’t believe that it could ever happen to me. I was overwhelmed, scared, and I didn’t know what to do. I was really sick and I couldn’t keep anything down. I was losing weight like crazy, and I was missing a lot of school. After going over the options with my doctor and my parents—and taking into account how sick I was—I made the extremely difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy. It was a decision that wasn’t made lightly, as it went against my religious and moral beliefs, but it was the right one for me at the time.

When I think about that experience, I find myself feeling sympathetic to what my birth mother must have gone through. I wasn’t strong enough to make the decision she made. She brought me into this world—something I wasn’t able to do for my child. While I don’t regret the decision I made, I know what it’s like to wonder about what might have been. When I think about my birth mother, I wonder if she thinks about me…if she misses me. I wonder if she ever finds herself searching for my face in the crowd.

I know I’ll never meet my birth mother—and I don’t know that I would ever want to—but there are some things I want her to know. I want her to know that I’m okay and I’m living the life I’d like to think she wanted for me. I have an amazing family whom I love so much. They love me and support me and have given me a really good life. I have a wonderful husband and two handsome little guys who are too awesome for words. I am blessed and life is good.

My birth mother missed out on my life and the person I have become, but I am thankful for the decision she made to bring me into this world. Thinking about her will always be somewhat painful and my feelings towards her will continue to fluctuate. She brought me into this world, but I don’t consider her the person who gave me life—my adoptive parents did that. She won’t ever be the person I call “Mom”, but she will always be my birth mother. She will always be a stranger to me, but she will forever be a part of me.

An Adoptee’s Perspective: 10 Things Adoptive Parents Should Know

1. Adoption is not possible without loss. Losing one’s birth parents is the most traumatic form of loss a child can experience. That loss will always be a part of me. It will shape who I am and will have an effect on my relationships—especially my relationship with you.

2. Love isn’t enough in adoption, but it certainly makes a difference. Tell me every day that I am loved—especially on the days when I am not particularly lovable.

3. Show me—through your words and your actions—that you are willing to weather any storm with me. I have a difficult time trusting people, due to the losses I have experienced in my life. Show me that I can trust you. Keep your word. I need to know that you are a safe person in my life, and that you will be there when I need you and when I don’t need you.

4. I will always worry that you will abandon me, no matter how often you tell me or show me otherwise. The mindset that “people who love me will leave me” has been instilled in me and will forever be a part of me. I may push you away to protect myself from the pain of loss. No matter what I say or do to push you away, I need you to fight like crazy to show me that you aren’t going anywhere and will never give up on me.

5. Even though society says it is PC to be color-blind, I need you to know that race matters. My race will always be a part of me, and society will always see me by the color of my skin (no matter how hard they try to convince me otherwise). I need you to help me learn about my race and culture of origin, because it’s important to me. Members of my race and culture of origin may reject me because I’m not “black enough” or “Asian enough”, but if you help arm me with pride in who I am and the tools to cope, it will be okay. I don’t look like you, but you are my parent and I need you to tell me—through your words and your actions—that it’s okay to be different. I have experienced many losses in my life. Please don’t allow the losses of my race and culture of origin to be among them.

6. I need you to be my advocate. There will be people in our family, our school, our church, our community, our medical clinic, etc. who don’t understand adoption and my special needs. I need you to help educate them about adoption and special needs, and I need to know that you have my back. Ask me questions in front of them to show them that my voice matters.

7. At some point during our adoption journey, I may ask about or want to search for my birth family. You may tell me that being blood related doesn’t matter, but not having that kind of connection to someone has left a void in my life. You will always be my family and you will always be my parent. If I ask about or search for my birth family, it doesn’t mean I love you any less. I need you to know that living my life without knowledge of my birth family has been like working on a puzzle with missing pieces. Knowing about my birth family may help me feel more complete.

8. Please don’t expect me to be grateful for having been adopted. I endured a tremendous loss before becoming a part of your family. I don’t want to live with the message that “you saved me and I should be grateful” hanging over my head. Adoption is about forming forever families—it shouldn’t be about “saving” children.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I may need help in coping with the losses I have experienced and other issues related to adoption. It’s okay and completely normal. If the adoption journey becomes overwhelming for you, it’s important for you to seek help, as well. Join support groups and meet other families who have adopted. This may require you to go out of your comfort zone, but it will be worth it. Make the time and effort to search for and be in the company of parents and children/youth who understand adoption and understand the issues. These opportunities will help normalize and validate what we are going through.

10. Adoption is different for everyone. Please don’t compare me to other adoptees. Rather, listen to their experiences and develop ways in which you can better support me and my needs. Please respect me as an individual and honor my adoption journey as my own. I need you to always keep an open mind and an open heart with regard to adoption. Our adoption journey will never end, and no matter how bumpy the road may be and regardless of where it may lead, the fact that we traveled this road together, will make all the difference.

*****

If you are interested in sharing this blog post and would like an electronic version, please contact me at ckcasale2romo@gmail.com. Thank you so much for reading!!

An Adoptee’s Perspective on Relationships

Relationships are difficult for anyone, but they can be especially challenging for adoptees. One of the most important relationships in a person’s life is that which we have with our parents. It shapes our views on love and attachment, and it helps lay the groundwork for relationships we have with others in the future. Adoption is not possible without the loss of an adoptee’s birth parents. That loss can occur due to a variety of reasons, but it is the most traumatic loss that a child can experience. For me, the loss of my birth parents taught me from a very early age that people who love me will leave me. It also taught me that a parent’s love isn’t necessarily unconditional. That loss of my birth parents made me feel like I wasn’t lovable because my birth parents—the two people in my life who were always supposed to love me—didn’t love me enough to keep me.

I believe all adoptees subconsciously feel like a part of them doesn’t belong in their adoptive family. We like to believe that blood doesn’t equal family, but when you don’t have that type of connection to someone, you can’t help but to feel like something is missing in your life, no matter how wonderful your adoptive family may be. As an adoptee, you live your life constantly searching for a place to belong. That feeling of acceptance—be it from your teachers, your peers, or your significant others—is essential, as it makes you feel like you are okay and you are worthy of being liked or loved.

As a child, I often would become overly attached to teachers. I was the child who was devastated on the last day of kindergarten because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my kindergarten teacher. I was probably the epitome of a teacher’s pet throughout my elementary school years. I would work hard to get good grades and would even bring my teachers gifts (drawings, etc.) because I craved the attention and acceptance from them. I never fit in that well with my peers, but looking back, I can honestly say that I believe most of my teachers liked and respected me, and those were the relationships that really mattered to me at the time.

That “perfectionist child” mentality of constantly wanting to please others and working hard in school so my parents would be proud of me lasted until I reached my junior year of high school. That was the year I started dating my first boyfriend. I always felt awkward and unattractive, so for someone to see me as beautiful was a wonderful feeling. I had a great relationship with my adoptive family, but this relationship was different. I think I really blossomed as a person while in that relationship because I no longer felt invisible and I felt like I truly mattered to someone outside of my family.

When that relationship ended, it was probably one of the most devastating periods of my life, because I went from feeling like I was somebody to feeling like I was nobody. I became really depressed and pushed everyone away—even my family. I hate to admit it, but I truly became a person who was really rotten and unlovable. Nothing in my life mattered anymore—I didn’t matter anymore. During that period of time, I dragged my family through hell and back and did a lot of things I was not proud of. Looking back, because I had stopped caring about everything, I think I was subconsciously testing my parents to see if they would still love me if I wasn’t that daughter who used to make them proud.

With a lot of love and support from my parents, I was eventually able to pull through that dark period in my life. And, I can truly say that NOTHING I can do will ever make my parents love me any less. It took me a long time to realize that, but my relationship with them is even better now, due in part to the struggles we faced together.

When I gave birth to my oldest son, it was a life-changing experience. It was so amazing being able to hold him in my arms and finally look into the face of someone who looked just like me. At that moment, I remember silently making a promise to myself and to that little guy that I would be everything for him that my birth mom couldn’t be for me. I have made many mistakes throughout the past nine-and-a-half years and am constantly learning how to be a better mom for my sons. They are everything to me, and I cannot imagine my life without them.

In writing this entry, I want to let adoptive/foster/kinship parents know that the best thing you can do for your child is to be there for him or her. Adoption issues will more than likely manifest themselves during the teenaged-years. Remember that while most teenagers go through a phase of not being particularly pleasant to be around—some of their behaviors and issues may stem from being adopted. Start talking with your kids about the good, the bad, and the ugly (age-appropriate, of course) when they are young. Tell your child every day that they are loved—especially on the days when they are not particularly loveable. Do what you can to show them that you are willing to weather any storm with them. And, try not to take their words and actions to heart. Take extra good care of yourself during this period of time, because it most likely will not be easy, and it may take a while for you to see that light at the end of the tunnel. My parents stuck with me through it all and they never let me forget how much they loved me. I am the person I am today due in large part to my parents’ love and their absolute refusal to give up on me no matter how hard I pushed them away.

Do You Want to Go Back?

Do you want to go back?

It’s a question I have been asked numerous times throughout my life. No matter how many times I have heard it, I have to admit that I am always a little taken aback when people ask me that question. In a way, it’s a reminder that, while I am an American citizen, I won’t ever fully belong here. And, because I was born there, I am also a Korean citizen, but I will never belong there, either. I realize people mean well when they ask, but for me, it’s a really difficult question to answer.

When I was found abandoned in a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, I was crying and had bruises around my eyes. The back of my head was abnormally flat, presumably from not having been held enough. I was left without any identifying information, so I was given a birthdate of July 20, 1982, and I was given the name, Soon Duk Kim, which means kindness and virtue. I spent about a year in a foster home in Korea prior to my adoption. I have a photo of my foster mother holding me. I don’t think I will ever forget the gentle face—wrinkled, yet kind and serene—staring back at me from that photograph. It’s the closest thing to a baby photo I will ever have.

When I think about the way in which I was found, and when I feel the back of my head, I have a very difficult time believing that I came from a place of love. I look at my sons, both of whom have perfectly shaped heads, and I think about how I couldn’t hold them enough when they were babies. It saddens me to think about my first year of life. I know a majority of birth parents give their children an opportunity for a better life out of love. However, when I think about my birth parents, I have a hard time believing that they ever loved me. Many adoptees try to imagine what their birth parents must have looked like. Whenever I try to picture what my birth parents looked like, I don’t see faces. In fact, I have never seen anything but shadowy outlines of figures standing over me, but I have never been able to visualize a face.

For many years growing up, I actually feared going back to Korea to visit. My fear was that, if I went back to visit, I would not be allowed to leave the country. I know now that my fears were completely unrealistic, but those fears were very much a part of me for a very long time.

I used to wonder all the time. I used to imagine having another family in Korea. I used to imagine what it would be like to someday meet them and for them to tell me that they were searching for me and they loved me. Now, more than anything, I fear going back and looking at the crowds of people who look just like me and wondering. I don’t want to think that I might have a sibling or a relative living in Korea. I stopped wondering a long time ago because, now, I don’t want to know.

I have found comfort in the belief that there is nothing in Korea for me. I am well aware of the fact that because I don’t have knowledge of my birth name or my birth date, it would be nearly impossible for me to ever find any information about my birth family. I don’t read many stories about adoptees making their homeland journeys. It’s painful to read about the adoptees who found their birth families, and it’s heart-wrenching to read about those who were never able to find any information.

By leaving me without identifying information, I believe my birth parents were sending me a message that they don’t ever want to be found, and I’m okay with that. For me, it’s easier not knowing than feeling the pain of rejection again. It’s a pain that I don’t think I would ever be able to bear.

When my sons are older, I’m sure my family and I will make the homeland journey together. The purpose of the journey won’t be about trying to find my birth family, though. It will be an opportunity for my family to learn about the Korean culture together. For me, that will be a much more valuable experience than trying to find pieces of a puzzle that I was never meant to complete.

Loss

When I think about the first two years of my life, I envision a deep, dark abyss—a sea of nothingness. There will always be a void in my life…one which no amount of love will ever be able to fill. That void—that feeling that something is missing—is part of being an adoptee.

There are seven core issues in adoption: Loss, Rejection, Guilt/Shame, Grief, Identity, Intimacy & Relationships, Control/Gains (Silverstein & Roszia, 1982). Each member of the adoption triad (adoptee, birth parent & adoptive parent) experiences these seven core issues differently. My being abandoned by my birth parents was the ultimate form of loss in my life. At the age when most children are experiencing the overwhelming sense of love parents have for their children, I was abandoned and left in a subway station. While I don’t remember anything from my life in Korea, I can only imagine how traumatic that experience must have been. Being pulled from the only life I had ever known and thrust into a world full of strangers, taught me from a very early age that people can’t be trusted, and that people who love me will leave me.

My adoptive family is amazing. Growing up, no conversation ended without an “I love you.” There wasn’t a night where I went to bed without hearing those three words. We hugged often, and my siblings and I never wanted for anything. As with most adoptees, my brain has always been wired a little differently, due to the losses I experienced early in life. No matter how often my parents told me they loved me, the fear and the feelings of doubt were always there. My birth parents loved me, but they let me go. What if I do something wrong? Will my adoptive parents let me go, too?

For me, the fear of abandonment developed into a perfectionist child mentality. I worked hard to be a good daughter. I worked hard to do well in school. I worked hard to be everything I thought my adoptive parents wanted me to be because I had convinced myself that if I was good enough—if I tried hard enough—then they wouldn’t abandon me, too. Nothing my adoptive parents did caused me to feel this way, but the mindset instilled in me at a very young age that people who love you will leave you, became an integral part of my childhood and teen years.

As a mother, my feelings of loss now involve my children and the things I will never be able to pass on to them. I mourn the loss of not being able to pass my Korean culture onto them and cope with the knowledge that I will need to depend on strangers to help teach my children about who they are. I feel guilty about the blank pages in their medical records where their maternal family medical history should be. I know these things are beyond my control, but the fact that they will always be missing those pieces of the puzzle because of me, can be somewhat overwhelming.

The losses I experienced will always be a part of me, and they’ll, unfortunately, have an impact on my children, as well. No amount of love or reassurance will be able to fill the void of those losses, but the love and support I received, and continue to receive, from my adoptive parents mean the world to me, and helped shape the person I am today. I will be forever thankful for every hug, for every “I love you”, and for every time they showed me they weren’t going anywhere.