' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: South Korea: Culture is not an excuse to abuse a MOTHER'S rights

Thursday, October 8, 2009

South Korea: Culture is not an excuse to abuse a MOTHER'S rights

There's lots of news that relates to adoption and sealed records in today's papers: First up, we have the story about how First Lady Michelle Obama's roots reveal a legacy that trace back to slavery and a white forebear, indicating the inherent curiosity--hell, I'm going to call it a basic need--to know from whence we came.
If the curiosity were not natural and normal, genealogists would be out of work, the Ellis Island website would not exist, adopted people would not be hankering for their original birth certificates. Everyone, at some level, desires to know who we are, how come we exist today, what our stories were before we were born. Only someone who has put on blinders to stifle this need denies such basic questions of identity.

I have one acquaintance who has done this--after going so far to hire a searcher but pulled back before he completed the search--and adoption, surrrender, et cetera is something we simply do not talk about. We did once, after she learned who I was--someone who had given up a child. I like her, we have many shared interests, but we can never be truly close. We will remain friends as a foursome--two couples, and we two women will not stray beyond those bounds. Not because she's missing a piece of her identity, but because she choose to shut down this part of her, and because I believe she does not want to be too close to me either. So be it.

Second, there is long story in the New York Times (9/8/09) about single women in South Korea who keep their babies (Group Resists Korean Stigma for Mothers on Their Own) have bonded together to give each other the support society denies them. The Korean society descrbied sounds very much like the one I had my daughter in back in 1966:
Societal pressure drives thousands of unmarried women to choose between abortion, which is illegal but rampant, and adoption, which is considered socially shameful but is encouraged by the government. The few women who decide to raise a child alone risk a life of poverty and disgrace.
Okay, abortion was hard to come by in this country in 1966 unless you had a connection or were wealthy. I was neither connected nor wealthy. But how does the South Korean government treat these women today who keep their babies, how does it show an actual preference for adoption?
The government pays a monthly allowance of $85 per child tho those who adopt children. It offers half that for single mothers of dependent children.
The single mothers also have trouble finding jobs, and one woman said that she was turned down eight times, and each time that a company learned she was an unmarried mother, they accused her of dishonesty. The story in the Times did not shy away from the brutality of giving up a child. As one woman who chose to keep her baby said:

My brother said: "How can you be so selfish? You can't do this to our parents," said Ms. Choi Hyong-sook, 37, a hairdresser in Seoul. "But when the adoption agency took my baby away, I felt as if I had thrown him into the trash. It felt as if the earth had stopped turning. I persuaded them to let me reclaim my baby after five days."
Yet some women persist, and they have found a champion in seemingly the most unlikely of persons: Richard Boas, an ophthalmologist from Connecticut who adopted a Korean girl in 1988. He said he was helping other Americans adopt foreign children when he visited a social service agency in South Korea in 2006 and began rethinking his "rescue and savior mentality." He encountered a roomful of pregnant single women, all around 20 years old. "I looked around and asked myself why these mothers were all giving up their kids," he said. His aha! moment led him to start the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, which lobbies for better welfare services from the state. A Korean-born adoptee who grew up in Minnesota had this to say:
What we see in South Korea today is discrimination against natural mothers and favoring of adoption at the government level," said Jane Jeong Trenka, 37, who now leads Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, one of two groups organized by Korean adoptees who have returned to their homeland to advocate for the rights of adoptees and unwed mothers. "Culture is not an excuse to abuse human rights."
Well, after reading that statement I wanted to cheer. Can we get these two on talk shows to reach out to the celebrity crowd (Madonna, Katherine Heigl, Angelina, to name a few) who seem to think they can save the world by adopting from poor countries? (See 73Adoptee for her thoughts on the Heigl adoption.) and all the people who follow their example.

The story from South Korea reminded me of sharing a bus to the airport in Pittsburgh after the kinship and identity conference two years ago with a Korean adoptee, a PhD candidate here in the United States. She was clearly conflicted about having been torn away from her culture halfway around the world, for the poetry she read the night before at the conference was not celebrating her happiness and bliss about being raised in a foreign land. Quite the opposite. That sunny Sunday morning she was irritated, she said, because the program for creative works such as poetry, prose and film was scheduled late in the evening and held in one of the more distant buildings, pretty much guaranteeing that it would be poorly attended. In fact, the only people who were present were a handful of adoptees, their friends and partners, and ALL the birth mothers (uh, that would be three of us by then, as one had already left) at the entire conference, as the overwhelming participation was of adoptive-mother-academics. They were most interested (or in many cases, only interested) in the kinship their adopted children formed with their new, imposed culture, that of the academic adopter. Everyone was at least marginally polite, but I did feel like a stranger in a strange land there. The academics did not seek me out. I was more of a...um, pariah. But I digress.

What will it take to educate the world that coercing women--through culture pressure, through financial incentives, through some Christian group out to "save the children"--that giving up their children leads not to the warm and fuzzy outcome trumpeted today? Certainly not conferences like that. Certainly not the programs on television such as Adoption Diaries where teary prospective adoptive parents "thank" the young woman who bore a child for her great "gift" as she hands over her baby.

Gift, my eye. Giving a gift should not lead to a lifetime of sorrow and regret of the giver. And unless we are some kind of new senseless automatons, without emotions, that is the outcome.

I cannot rewrite my personal history; I can never have my daughter back, and now, she is dead. But I can rail against the spreading of the lie that giving up a child is a good deed because it makes someone else happy. For two of the parties involved, adoption is always painful.


  1. Hard to make an impact at academic conferences when they are dominated by APs. But I have hope that a more critical look at adoption is brewing.

    There is a conference in Montreal in April (Northeastern Modern Languages Conference) that is taking a look at the "adoption memoir" genre. I read on another forum that an adoptee who is quite critical of the economoic and social privilege that is inherent in adoption has been selected as one of the panelists. I get the impression that his take on these memoirs is that they typcially serve to silence adoptees and critics of adoption. That should make for an interesting panel discussion, eh?

  2. One of Katherine Heigl's major motivations for adoption was the important of her adopted sister Meg in her life. She also wanted to give a child a home, her love and a chance. For the record Korea is not a poor country - it is extremely well developed. So your comment is in poor taste on two fronts.

  3. I saw the Michelle Obama genealogy thing in the paper and it really bugged me. Here again it's reiterated that genealogy is not only fun but important, that family history matters--unless you're adopted and asking those same questions, in which case you're vilified. I am sick of that double standard.

    I am glad to see more news coverage like the S. Korea story which shows viewpoints of adoption besides the warm happy fuzzy (and often celebrity) version.

  4. As I responded to your comment on my blog, Melanie, talking about adoption with an adoptee does not confer the understanding of what it is to be adopted.

    I would rather have seen Heigl supporting this group of Korean moms trying to raise their kids. That would have made quite a statement. But she chose to perpetuate the American celebrity adoption ideal of being the great Western "rescuers". I find that in poorer taste.

  5. "I get the impression that his take on these memoirs is that they typcially serve to silence adoptees and critics of adoption."

    If these panels are an attempt to silence adult adoptees... how does that make any sense if they are "featured" in the panels?

    I'm not understanding this, or perhaps I'm reading it wrong?

  6. Melanie, I do not know you and I do not know your situation. I can tell you this. From my experience of over 15 years of preparing to search, searching and reunion, the one thing that I know for sure is that siblings, adopted or not, have a different relationship with each other.

    I find it totally sad that you believe that anyone who adopts is wonderful and they are wanting to give their love and home and a chance. I have found this to be the most untrue statement of all times.

    NO ONE can give the child the love, have the connection with and the trust of the biological parents. NO ONE.

    I love a lot of kids. I have had many in my home over the years. But, in truth, and this is the hardest thing I have ever admitted, I did not love them "like they were mine" even though to this day I would give them anything, be there for them no matter what.

    The reality is, I am my daughter's mother. I am connected in a very different way to her than anyone else in my world, including my biological family. And, in spite of our issues, she is connected to me and knows this well enough that she never allows our fights or disagreements to reach the point where she has crossed the line from me being hurt or pissed off, into me becoming entirely silent.

    So, when you make these statements I have three questions. First, do you have a child? Second, have you ever had a child die or be taken from you in a way that is unnatural? Third, are you an adoptee or adoptive parent?

    All of these questions, and your responses show the difference in the way adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents think.

    Another point is simple. Why give a child a home from a poor country - Korea is not poor - or a foreign country and walk past the homeless kids on the streets in our country? The kids that were taken from abusive homes, that have problems and probably will give you a run for your money when it comes to being able to love anyone.

    To me, Melanie, you have stated something that is so unreal it is sad.

  7. Hmmm. Melanie seems to think that everyone who has a Chinese relative...ought to go out and get another! Let's see, my sister was important to me, so I better go adopt someone from that culture myself...Dear Melanie by that token everyone who has ever been in a family where someone was adopted ought to adopt--but who is going to supply all these babies? Oh, I see, the international child trafficking consortium.

  8. Mei Ling, the memoirs that Drennan is critical of seem to be those written by APs - not adoptees or mothers. That is my interpreation of his writings. Also, historically these conferences and panels have exluded or severely limited the voices / participation of adoptees and mothers. In the past they have been dominated by APs who speak mostly from their own point of view when it comes to how adoption has impacted their lives.

    The inclusion of adoptees and mothers is necessary, but also new and still somewhat limited. That is why I am hopeful that the inclusion of a broader range of voices at these events will help to expand the discussion and offer more perspectives on adoption.

  9. Melanie: If Korea no longer has a poor economic structure - according to Korean adoptees working for reform it is THRIVING - then why are babies still being exported?

  10. "Maybe," you have a good point. But the involvement of natural mothers and adoptees in these conferences and groups is not at all new, however. It ha been happening since the 1960s. But our voices were marginalized back then and will continue to be.

    Just like in "triad" support groups that assume that 3 of the 4 parties in the adoption transaction somehow have a common agenda, conferences involving all 3 somehow always exclude or marginalize those 2 parties in the transaction who have been silenced from the start, whose lack of power to remain together was the start of their (mostly involuntary) participation in adoption. Adoptive parents have a choice: adopt or not adopt. For natural mothers, it is often "adoption because there are no other viable options." Or as Rickie Solinger stated, “... adoption is rarely about mothers’ choices; it is, instead, about the abject choicelessness of some resourceless women.” And of course, adoptees had no say at all.

    One can see the same power dynamic in conferences that welcome "the triad," assuming that natural mothers (usually called 'birthparents' on the agenda) and adoptees can/will have an equal voice. Instead, in subtle ways, they are marginalized. They are "tokens." Same with "triad" support groups, where natural mothers are told to shut up about their anger because it upsets adoptive parents who might be there. Example: In one in-person support group I know, natural mothers are told they have to use the word 'birthmother' instead of 'natural mother' in meetings because it was "respectful of other triad members." "Anger" at adoption or loss of a child is forbidden to be expressed as it "upsets adoptive parents." Sigh.

    I think that there has to be a realization that there is no "triad," that the 4 parties in the adoption transaction have unequal social power. Two parties (broker and the people who adopted) gained. Two parties (mother and child) lost.

    It is no coincidence that the academics whose agenda and values overwhelmed that conference were adoptive parents. Adopting is very popular in the more educated and monied classes in our society. It is even promoted as being "feminist" in some academic circles.

    There is no equality in adoption. Adoptees and natural mothers do and will continue to be marginalized, and given the massive federally-funded pro-adoption agenda and attitude in society, most of we say that criticizes adoption will continued to be dismissed. The two disenfranchised parties in adoption need their own conferences and support groups and voice, where marginalization cannot occur.

  11. Cedar, thanks for your intelligent commentary. It made me think of a couple of things: One, when I spoke at an American Adoption Congress conference, and did not think I was particularly hard on adoptiveparents (I've decided to use it as one word when I feel like it, just like people like to use birthmother) the first people to jump up and say their tender feelings were offended and that they were not "like that" were adoptive parents, one after another. I had simply pointed out that time and time again our open-records legislation was thwarted by legislators who happened to be adoptivefathers. I said, well, of course, if you were "like that," I assume you would not be here.

    I later heard that in the separate groups that broke up after my speech, what I said was the talk of the day among the adoptive parents. I was amazed because I thought at AAC one could be a natural mother and speak up, but apparantly...not.

    Secondly, although I admit I offered my proposal for a workshop late last year for the AAC conference in Cleveland, and I had been encouraged to think that it would be accepted, it was not. So I was a keynote speaker one year (a couple of years earlier, in Atlanta) and turned down for giving a workshop two, or was it three, years later. Go figure.

    In between, I found a CUB conference, of course, completely welcoming. Karen Vedder told me at the AAC conference that I would find the CUB retreat quite different. She was so right.

    While is is undoubtedly important to be at the academic conferences simply to confront the (largely) adotpivemothers giving papers on "kinning," and other such ilk, one must go knowing you will be marginalized. and because the mothers who write for the public (like me) are not academics, you will also be seen as less than them.

    If any natural mothers is planning to attend any conference that supposedly includes the holy triad, be sure to pack a thick skin. You'll need it.

  12. Hi Lorraine. I just wrote and posted a blog post, inspired to a large degree by yours :).

    “Abandonment”: The Disconnect in Adoption



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