' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The Vietnam legacy of 'fatherless' children

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Vietnam legacy of 'fatherless' children

Today I found a close kinship with the fathers of the children conceived in the years we were in Vietnam, as I read a long take-out about the search and reunion of those children with their American fathers in the New York Times. "It's like the mother who give up their kid for adoption," said George Pettitt of Wales Center, N. Y. "You just never stop thinking about it."

Whoa! This guy gets it, I thought. The piece--on the front page no less--tells us that Mr. Pettitt, 63, had a relationship with a woman when he was 19 and in Vietnam.Though he had not "meant" for her to get pregnant, she did. He returned home to New York, got a job as a truck driver, and raised a family. But when he retired in 2000, he "found himself haunted by memories of the child he left behind--a boy, he believes." Mr. Pettitt paid a man to find the boy in Vietnam but the trail went cold. A woman in Virginia called to say she thought her husband might be his son, but a DNA test proved negative.

"'I was hoping this was it," he says. 'I just feel so guilty about all this.'"

While at the previous blog a commenter said that we are "jealous" for not having raised our own children, it's so not simple jealousy that drives us to search for our children, or spend the rest of our lives, in one way or another, pining for them. Mr. Pettitt is certainly "jealous" of no one. The overwhelming trauma that we felt at the time of relinquishment, the deep shame that came with not only having it publicly be known we had sex outside of marriage, but also gave away the child--these are the emotions that we carry around with us. I'd say the fathers involved who left children they knew about behind felt not quite the same depth of feeling--they did not get that blast of oxytocin that left us incredibly bereft and crazed--but many of them have the same feelings toward their children that we recognize so well. Though fathers have always fought for their children, in the past several years, we have seen an uptick in fathers who want to be fathers. Dusten Brown is only one; the fathers of the Amerasian children they left behind in Vietnam are others.

One estimate is that tens of thousands of such children were left behind. As a reminder of the ugly and lengthy war that devastated the country, these children endured harsh discrimination and often abject poverty. They hope meeting their fathers will provide at least emotional relief. "I wanted to feel more whole," said one them, Cuong Luu. "I just wanted to see him with my own two eyes."

Another said: "I need to know where I come from, said Trinh Tran, 46, a real estate agent in Houston, who has searched for her father in vain. "I always feel that without him, I don't exist." 

Congress enacted legislation giving Amerasians special immigration status in 1987, and more than 21,000, and some 55,000 relatives, moved to the United States. Others came under different immigration status. But without any help on locating their fathers, only a very small percentage have been able to--perhaps fewer than five percent. So Amerasian children search, "typically working with with little more than badly translated names, half-forgotten memories and faded photographs." Any of this sound familiar?

Some of the stories have the kind of endings mothers- and adoptees-in-search long for: happy reunions. A Danish man, Brian Hjort, who fell into being a searcher after a successful first try, notes that often the Amerasian children have unreal expectations about finding their fathers, hoping doing so will heal deep emotional wounds. But the veterans they meet are often infirm and may be struggling financially, or not want to acknowledge their children. Again, just like in adoption reunions.

Others, like Mr. Pettitt, are fathers who search. In 2011 James Copeland read about the miserable conditions of the Amerasians in Vietnam, and contacted Mr. Hjort, who was able to track down his former girlfriend's brother. He came away with a photograph of the woman. Mr. Copeland instantly recognized his old girlfriend, whose daughter was living in America. He dialed her number and soon after he met his daughter in Reading, Pa., where she runs a nail salon at the Walmart. Tiffany Nguyen and her three children spent Thanksgiving with Mr. Copeland in Mississippi. She told him how she studied the men who came into Walmart, wondering if any of them could be her father. Mr. Copeland says: "There were a lot of years to cover. I can sleep a lot better now." 

But that happy reunion brought unexpected consequences and some heartache. When his wife learned of his daughter--his only child--she was furious and demanded he not visit her; after 37 years, they are now separated and considering divorce. I couldn't help but think how different it might have been had her told her about the possibility of a child of his in Vietnam at the time they become a couple; I personally am grateful that since I was so "out" about who I was having published Birthmark, I never had that "reveal" conversation with my husband of 32 years, come Friday. For many of the spouses of "secret" children, it is perhaps not the child herself that is the shock: it's the knowing that someone close to you kept this secret from you all those years. It is certainly an issue with late-discovery adoptees--why not with spouses of birth mothers and fathers? Still telling later is better than never.

Mr. Copeland is secure that he did the right thing for himself and his daughter, and now helps Mr. Hjort contact veterans they believe are fathers of Amerasians. In his southern drawl, he tells them his story and urges them to confront the possibility that like him, they may have Vietnamese children.

Sometimes they hang up. He continues to leave messages, with children, with spouses, on answering machines. "They need to know, he said," acknowledging that some people want to move on and forget it. "I don't know how they can do that." What I liked about his approach is that as a father to one such child, he has fewer compunctions than a child himself might have about contacting other men in the same position.

I don't know how they can do that. Halfway through writing this blog, I had an errand to run and I thought about the women--the many mothers of sons and daughters from closed adoption era--who will not meet their children. I don't know how they can do that.

Do I understand them? Not completely. I know they exist and I know that everybody is different. Yet I wanted to know where my daughter was going and to whom before I gave her up, argued with the social worker about the insane and cruel law I was now hearing about before I signed her away, and from the first day after that I wanted to know where she was. I would have been thrilled to have gotten a phone call telling me at any point during the 15 years of hell between relinquishment and reunion.
But to my amazement at first, I do know of mothers who reject meeting their children; I have met many
of their children. I read the blogs of adoptees who have been rejected and it tears my heart out; I wonder if their mothers and fathers can even imagine what it feels like to be rejected, not once, but twice. I use the word "rejected" here though we first mothers did not "reject" our children--most of us wanted to keep them close--but could not, did not. Yet to the adoptee, not being raised by your own family reads as "rejection," no matter what happens next. My daughter understood as well as anyone, I think, how I came to give her up, and why; but did she suffer from low self-esteem? Yes. Was our relationship a continual stop-and-start, with me sometimes thinking I'd never hear from her again. Yes. Was that normal? No. Even in the best of situations, adoption is abnormal.

I know confidential searchers who thoughtfully ponder what might be the right thing to say when they are connecting with a birth parent, so the parent will not reject a reunion. In my own life, one of my male friends who I hadn't seen in a while called up one day to tell me that he had just discovered that he indeed was the father of a college student--at the same school he had gone to!--that he never knew about, and while they had met, his wife was putting the kabosh on telling their two kids or his father, the adoptee's biological grandfather because "it would be too much of a shock." Bollocks, I said to that, believing she was now concerned that her son was not the oldest grandson. I also knew there was a fair bit of money that would be dispersed among heirs when granddad died, and I believed that was her main concern. The guy has never called back, and I don't know what happened. Frankly, I was so upset with what he told me I didn't want to hear from him again, and I probably made that clear.

I'm just musing here today, thinking how the drive to know where you came from, where you are going, feels like a universal; it's why shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are on television and Troy Dunn's reunions--no matter what I think of Troy Dunn now that he is urging Dusten Brown to give up his daughter to the adoptive parents--always make me cry. But everyday constraints, long-held secrets from spouses and children, and a fear of what comes next can interrupt that natural flow and emotional pull, and leave the people on the other side wandering in the haze. Is it interminably sad? Yes. Life is like that sometimes. Unless we stay down in the depths, we have to make the best of what is and move on. I gave up my daughter and while I never forgot her, I did go on living and life has been more than a vale of tears. She committed suicide in 2007. Yet I go on. On Friday, my husband and I will celebrate our marriage of 32 years. And I will never quite get over hearing a psychiatrist tell his girlfriend (and my roommate at the time): You don't want to end up like Lorraine. 

Who would? Yet life is like that sometimes.--lorraine
Vietnam Legacy: Finding G.I. Fathers, and Children Left Behind

Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War
"...the story of five Vietnamese Amerasians born during the Vietnam War to American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers. Unfortunately, they were not among the few thousand Amerasian children who came to the United States before the war’s end and grew up as Americans, speaking English and attending American schools. Instead, this group of Amerasians faced much more formidable obstacles, both in Vietnam and in their new home.--Amazon

Children of the Enemy: Oral Histories of Vietnamese Amerasians and Their Mothers  Ostracized from Vietnamese society, many Amerasian children, fathered by U.S. troops, have emigrated to the United States; however, only about 2 percent have been reunited with their fathers. Revealing and often poignant, these 38 oral histories here give voice to the struggle that Amerasians and their families have faced.



  1. What if we were jealous that someone else raised our child? It's like judging us for grieving the surrendered child, as so many do. (Both judge and grieve.)

    OK, I GET THAT SOCIETY SEES US AS UNNATURAL SINCE WE "GAVE AWAY" OUR CHILDREN. I get it. Okay? You naysayers out there do not have to keep alluding to this. It's slapped in our faces every. single. day. It's like trying to tell a fat person they're fat. Also does not help. (As a fat person, I hear this one a lot too.)

    BUT. Just because YOU think we are unnatural, oh you first-mother-shamers out there, doesn't mean you are RIGHT.

    I forget who said this and I am paraphrasing, but it can't possibly be a sign of mental health to react to an unhealthy situation in a healthy way.

    Having to go through life without one or more of our children when we're pretty sure they're alive and still need us is not a natural situation. What did you expect us to do--throw a party?

    Oh sure, a lot of us DO try to get on with our lives. It is not like we can afford to just... stop. But you wouldn't dare tell someone who lost their child to death to "just get over it". You don't get to say that to us either. Not without us calling you out. Gosh, I looooove the Internet. Levels the playing field. :)

  2. Reading this post makes me want a fulfilling reunion in all of these stories, one that makes up at least a little bit for the lifelong regret and loss. I am glad you got your reunion, Lorraine, although the way it ended was tragic. I also am glad your daughter had biological children, your grandchildren, whom you can see go on in her image. And finally, Congratulations on 32 years of steadfast companionship and support in your life journey! I am sure your husband is glad you "ended up" the way you did.

  3. I've often wondered how much fathers of children lost to adoption think of them. I know of a few fathers who have searched. I'm thinking for many, though, it's a macho thing to act as if they don't care, just as many did when they learned their girl friend was pregnant. "It's not my kid; she's not going to trick me, yada, yada, yada."

  4. Jane, I have a high school classmate who supported himself, between college and grad school, in Europe as a street-corner busker, and as... a paid sperm donor. We met again and had a brief romance in our mid-twenties. At that time, living lean (as grad students do), he thought that his foray into sperm-selling was... funny. I didn't think so, but I held my tongue. I had sold blood at my poorest, but there was no such thing as an "egg donor" in the mid-eighties. And I don't think I could have done it.

    Fast-forward to the Facebook era. My former friend married well into his forties, and poses proudly with two young children. Does he ever wonder about the children he sired in Europe? Does his current wife know?

  5. I know two fathers who have never contacted their children. I say "contacted" because one knows where to find his son. At the time of the birth he promised the girl's father that he would disappear and never ever reconnect, and he has stuck to this. The child followed in the profession of my acquaintance's father (law). I have often wanted to say something to him,--like keeping this promise today is absurd--but feel it is not my place. He has no other children. He is also a great guy.

    2nd situation: High school sweethearts have son, given up for adoption; mother contacts father a decade ago, as she wants to search for son; father wants no part of it--his wife agrees. They also have a son. End of story, as far as I know. The first son would be in his 40s, the second is in his 20s.

  6. MrsTarquinBiscuitbarrel:

    The children wonder about him. Did you see the movie about the guy with 600 kids? (Fiction) I missed it, sadly.

    1. No, but somewhere in Casa Biscuitbarrel's vast archive of unshelved books is the true story of Dr. Cecil Jacobson, a no-longer-practicing Virginia fertility specialist who decided to dispense with the muss and fuss of seeking donors. He impregnated dozens of patients with his own sperm! An icky story, to be sure.

  7. I've just added this to the post because that part of the story has been gnawing at me, about Copeland's wife getting so pissed off she left, when she discovered he had a daughter:

    I couldn't help but think how different it might have been had her told her about the possibility of a child of his in Vietnam at the time they become a couple; I personally am grateful that since I was so "out" about who I was having published Birthmark, I never had that "reveal" conversation with my husband of 32 years, come Friday. For many of the spouses of "secret" children, it is perhaps not the child herself that is the shock: it's the knowing that someone close to you kept this secret from you all those years. It is certainly an issue with late--discovery adoptees--why not with spouses of birth mothers and fathers? Still telling later is better than never.

  8. I guess because of Dusten Brown, Jeremy Simmons and Baby Hope's father, I have been thinking a lot about original fathers. For every one of us given up for adoption, there is a natural father. Yet, I don't see blogs like First Father Forum or lots of comments from original fathers. Are they all in hiding? Do they just not care? Do many of them not even know that their child exists? How has this experience affected them over the years? I think this is an interesting issue to explore.

  9. With regard to your last post about the wife not knowing....he may have told her that it was a possibility. I know my father told his wife. But when that real live flesh and blood person shows up, it's a whole new ballgame.

    My therapist says that an occurrence like this can shine a bright light onto all the flaws currently in the marriage...I would say that this is true in both my dad's marriage and in mine. The difference is that my husband is motivated to accept the situation, understand it as best he can and embrace my dad. We have not seen that kind of motivation from my father's wife. Almost two years later she is still blaming me for ruining her life. In my opinion she suffers from borderline personality disorder....so there's that....

    It would be interesting to hear from Mr. Copeland's wife on the matter...

    Lee H

  10. You are right, Anon, he may have told her about the possibility. An year, a real flesh-and-blood person showing up is different from a unreal possibility. But it is sad that she took the position that she did--if you meet your daughter, I'm leaving!

    She refused to speak to the reporter who did the story.

    It is good that your husband has accepted the real life change in your situation. My husband had to also; when we met he heard about my daughter as soon as he asked what my memoir (published a year earlier) was about; and almost as soon as we returned from a honeymoon did she become "real." We married in September; by December I was visiting her and that following summer she spent 8 or 9 weeks with us. Big change.

  11. I once did a search to see if Dr. Cecil Jacobson had any contact with all those children he fathered by underhandedly impregnating his patients with his own sperm. Couldn't find much by way of updates to the story.

    An acquaintance of mine's sister is currently pregnant by a sperm donor she selected from a database. She purposely picked a donor who wants contact with his children. He has asked that those who become pregnant by his sperm not make contact with him until the children turn 18. The woman I am aware of does, however, plan to maintain contact with several families whose children are fathered by the same donor, throughout her child's growth (beginning with his/her birth) so that the child has relationships with biological siblings. Families are getting so complex these days - I am glad these children will at least have a chance at a relationship with their biological father and siblings.

    Robin I have seen several websites and blogs by birth fathers, mostly addressing birth fathers' rights.

  12. My surrendered daughter Rebecca wrote to her bio father. He responded by saying his wife told him to ignore her but he thought he owed her one letter but not to contact him again (A real stand-up guy!) Ten years later, she contacted him again and he told her was divorced so he was willing to meet her, which he did once. Then not much contact.

    I know another wife--a fine woman--but she had a very hard time accepting her husband's relationship with his just reunited daughter.

    My husband was very accepting of my daughter and her family. All the reunited mothers I've met through adoption support groups told me their husbands were accepting. Of course those who fear their husbands will reject them aren't likely to be in reunion.

    We expect men to go ballistic when they learn of their wife's past (think Tess of the D'Urbervilles) while women are supposed to accept that their husband sewed his wild oats.

    The opposite seems to be true.

  13. In my case, my father and his wife are also in a dynamic where the wife verbally and physically abuses my father. They are in a dysfunctionally co-dependent relationship and have been for a long time.

    I am just the gasoline that causes the flare up. My dad still comes to visit me in spite of his wife's protests. She has verbally abused me and manipulated my dad on the visits she has made with him.

    He is making the decision at this point to stay with her and take the abuse. Only he can decide if he wants to continue that. I feel for him and at times are concerned for his safety. My job is to stay out of their marital strife and let him make adult decisions. I also choose not to engage his wife when she sends me nasty emails and calls. I am lucky...I don't have to live with her. I know they why of why he stays with her, but sometimes I wish he had the strength to leave her, not for my sake, but for his own.

    Lee H.

  14. Shortly after I was able to obtain my OBC, I searched for and found my b-parents.

    My mother is in the closet, so she has chosen not to have a relationship with me. But, my father has exceeded all my expectations.

    As their stories do not gel, I will never know with any certainty what actually happened back then. But, I do know that my father is a stand-up guy for me now.



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