Adoption: First Three Weeks

After our eventful trip home, that first day was pure joy. The boys seemed to want to explore everything. And they did.

The first two weeks opened our eyes to what they had lived through. We weren’t prepared for one.

Food for next meal

One of the first things we discovered is the meals: they ate a lot! In fact, usually they would get up from the table to go to the bathroom, then return to the table to eat more. It wasn’t until a couple days later that we found the hidden aspect of meals.

After a couple days as we were cleaning in their room, we discovered little food stashes, slightly hidden around the edges of the beds or frames or cabinets. 

They were storing extra food in case there was not enough to go around. A habit they had picked up in the orphanage. We had no clue beforehand. But it did make sense. It took the boys 2-3 weeks before they felt they didn’t need to do that any more.

Unexpected Nights

We knew that the boys might cry some, getting used to us, our home, the food, etc. And they did. 

But by the third night that all changed. We were shaken out of our bed soon after they went to sleep. Our older son, Ille, was screaming, not a quiet fear by a deep, long horrible scream—it shocked us how loud and how intense it was. We had no clue how to deal with this.

It scared us as much as it seemed to terrorize him. We immediately went to the room, and he wasn’t really awake. We tried to hold him, yet the screaming continued. After an hour or so he would settle down. But the next night the same thing.

We lived in a complex of military officer families, and they had thrown us a wonderful adoption party that included the four complexes around us and friends from the Navy Chapel. It was great to be welcomed into the community, especially for the boys. We met one couple, he was an Air Force officer and his wife was from Korea. 

Finally one night I asked her to come to our apartment (about 10 PM) when he was screaming. She began speaking to him in Korean, and it seemed to settle him a bit. We never really knew what bothered him.* But that drastically helped him. He still screamed for a few nights, but nothing as loud or long as before.

Fun activity

My wife has been baking goods for our entire married life (and before that while living with her parents). Very soon, she was letting the boys help her. They would stand on the dining room chairs around the kitchen table and help her bake. They loved it and wanted to help her as much as possible. They continued for about a year until after we had moved for the Navy. But this was really enjoyable. Flour on the face and clothes—normal. Smiles wide—normal.

School

My wife began introducing the boys to words/objects using English and pointing to them. They learned quickly and a lot. But they were missing out on interacting with other children. By the end of the third week we realized that it would be better for them to be in the school on campus. 

It was an ideal situation because there were many international officers on campus with their families. That meant that the school was used to having children who did not speak English, and they were well equipped to teach them. The speed and growth in language surprised even us. 

For a few months the boys continued to speak Korean at home, especially when they didn’t want us to know what was going on. So we soon told them they had to speak English around us. It took 4-5 months before that was fully part of their life. It did help them assimilate the language, and it helped solidify their bond with us.

A chaotic, delightful, challenging first three weeks. Our lives went from 0 to 100 mph in the blink of an eye. Fond memories, growing bonds between us.

* I have recently learned from the older son, Ille, what was behind his screaming. I won’t go into details, but family life before their lives in the orphanage was much worse than we were told, even the orphanage workers did not know. No wonder he screamed—I would have too!

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Adoption Day 1 and 2

Our Travel Home

As we left LAX, the travel was heavy. We finally stopped for supper in Thousand Oaks about 8-9 PM. We decided that since the boys had never eaten American food, and the restaurant didn’t have oriental food, we would order a burger for each of them and a glass of milk— I ordered the same.

For the next hour it was like there were two little mirrors sitting opposite me. I would pick up the burger, then they would. I would take a small bite, then they would. I would pick up the glass of milk and then they would. I would set the milk down, then they would. Every move I made they imitated me. ❤️

As we sat there, we could look over the interstate, and the boys were confused (they didn’t tell us until months later). But they couldn’t figure out why there were red lights all in a row and then white lights in a row. They didn’t realize that the interstate had two lanes going in opposite directions.

Our Hotel Stay

So we stop in Santa Barbara for the night at about 11:30 PM. The boys were getting tired—and so were mom and dad. Check in went smoothly, but we couldn’t understand why they looked so frightened. We didn’t know until a few months later when they could speak English, that they had been told that if they misbehaved, we would immediately send them back to Korea. 

So at the hotel, guess who is running the front desk? A Korean woman. She began speaking to them in Korean, asking them “what they were doing with us? They didn’t belong to us.” The boys were scared that we were returning them to Korea, and this was the exchange site!

My wife and I slept fitfully, and I am not sure the boys slept at all!! 😨😨

Our Lunch Stop

We ate breakfast and began traveling by 8 AM. At noon we stopped at a restaurant halfway between LA and SF. We go into the restaurant, and guess who are waitress is? A Korean woman, again! She was more bold than the one the night before. She totally ignored my wife and me.

She began speaking directly to the boys in harsh tone: “Why are you with them? They are not your parents!” The older boy, Ille, was sitting to my left. As soon as the woman began her “interrogation” he pushed closer to me and grabbed my leg just above my knee and squeezed in fear— it hurt my leg—it was that intense of a squeeze. But that was what he needed, a safe reassuring presence with him.

I finally interrupted her and told her we wanted menus so we could order!

Yeah, this was the joyful reunion that we as a family were looking forward to!??!

Home at Last!

About 4 hours later we pulled into the Navy housing unit. We went up stairs to our 3 bedroom apartment. The boys followed us in and saw how we were moving, like we knew this place. Within 5 minutes they began running to every room, excitedly chattering about everything they saw. They couldn’t wait to see the next room, and off they would scurry!

It was as if they knew—this was home. Even now writing about this 40 years later I am still choking up with tears about these memories. Yes, they were home. We were all home! A new life for them, a new life for us.

❤️❤️❤️❤️

More adventures to follow….

Adoption: A Beginning 1978

Adoption has been part of our lives for more than 40 years. We first considered in 1976, while I was stationed in San Diego. We knew little about adoption, except our pastor and his wife had adopted two girls from Korea. They were in their late teens by that time. 

We had considered adopting an infant, but we were told that the wait in the U.S. for infants would be 5-7 years, with no guarantees. So we considered international adoption, contacting Holt Adoption Agency in Eugene, OR. We began preliminary home study, but by that summer we moved to another naval station. A lot of uncertainty whether we should or could move forward. After much discussion with the local California Child Care agent, we decided to try the international adoption route (Korea as 1st choice).

Final Process Begins

That was in September 1977. Holt asked whether we would consider siblings. After much prayer, we said yes. In late April 1978 we received photos of two brothers: Ille (8 years old, weight 38 lbs.) and Joon (6 years old, weight 33 lbs.). Would we be willing to adopt? The answer was Yes!

The next four months were times of nervous energy, worry, questions, etc. We lived 280 miles from LAX where the boys would fly into. But we could not leave until we got the call that the boys had boarded the plane in Korea. Faster than we expected, anticipated, Holt called us on  Sep 12 to be at LAX the morning of Sep. 13, 1978.

Not so fast

We left early, arriving at LAX at 10 AM. The plane was due in at noon. A representative from Holt was to meet us to prepare us for each step. No Holt rep ever showed up. The plane was delayed 3-4 hours. But because we had not officially adopted the boys, the airlines would not tell us whether they were even on the plane, nor when they would be expected. And with no rep from Holt, we were left wondering, concerned, fearful that we had missed the boys.

So, my wife stayed at the international terminal, and I began running back and forth to the baggage claim. I did that for 3 ½ hours. On one of my runs from the international terminal, a guy was going in the opposite direction, holding an adorable Korean girl. He stopped and called me by name! Who in LAX would know my name??

I asked him that question, and he said I had the two most adorable little boys. How did you know it was me? The boys each had a photo of both of us, and the man recognized me from the photo. So I asked where they were. He said at baggage claim, but we should hurry (???) because the escorts were so late they had to get another flight and would be leaving soon.

We meet the boys

So we both made the dash (well, not that fast!). We saw the escorts and two little boys in the jam packed baggage claim area. The woman handed us a little carry-pack for each boy, told us their names, and added that one was taking medicine. That was it, they turned and boarded their plane. 

By this time it was nearly 7 PM. Hmmm, two boys who speak no English, and we speak no Korean and now we are on our own. So I took the boys to the restroom, ya know, just in case. Good thing I did! Then we brought them to our car and strapped them into the backseat. And headed for home.

It was 7:30 PM

But that is not how the day ended….

Reflecting on Adoption

This topic has been near to my heart for a long time. So I thought I would share some thoughts that I have had the past week. Sometimes adoptions can be difficult, much different than ours. The are many factors of the birth mother to consider, the adoptive child(ren).

Thirty six years ago today (Sep. 13, 1978) my wife and I adopted two brothers from Korea, ages 8 and 6. I have written a little about that adventure. But today I am thinking about those involved: their mother (and sister), us as adoptive parents, and the boys as the ones adopted.

Adopting: Giving to a family

One thing that came to mind after a week of reflecting is that often we hear the phrase “giving up” or “giving away” a child. After being on two of the three sides of this issue, I realize that “giving away” can be pejorative, to everyone but especially the birth mother. By using that phrase perhaps we have imposed on the birth mother something that is not there, or making her feel guilty as if she had failed.

This was troubling to me, since it seems that we (or at least I) are judging the mother by a different standard. So, on my walk yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the mother is giving the child, yes. However, not “giving away” but giving the child to a family. It makes a world of difference in perspective—for everyone.

About six years ago the birth mother of our boys wrote to them. She wanted to know how they were doing. And she wanted to ask for forgiveness for what she had done. Yet, at the same time she realized that she didn’t have any options.

The wrestling was even greater for her because she gave the two sons to a family (us), but she had kept her daughter. What a difficult decision that must have been! Truly agonizing. In the long run, she realized she had to do it for the sake everyone. The most vulnerable was her daughter. Their mother and our older son got to talk on the phone in 2008 (she was visiting her brother in LA). How important that was for both of them, saying things to each other that needed to be said (through the translating of her brother).

Their mother realized that she didn’t give away her children, but gave them to a family. For anyone facing (or already faced with) this decision, keep in mind that you are not giving the child “away,” but giving to a family. What more could a mother do for her child? It is a sacrifice to give the child to another family. Family members of the mother are also affected, as I am learning even now.

But the child will always remain in the mother’s heart. For that the hurt gives way to a sense of peace, and even joy. But let’s give mothers who give their child to a family a great big hug. They need it, and all the love that goes with it. We need it.

Adopting: Receiving the child

When we received notice that the boys would be ours, we were thrilled. But then we had to wait. In fact, we waited four months. We lived in Monterey, CA, and we would pick up the boys at LAX. However, we couldn’t leave home until we knew whether the plane they were on actually left Seoul, Korea.

On Sep. 12 we got the call that we could leave for LA; the flight was due in at Noon on the 13th.

Nervous, excited, uncertain, all the questions that every parent goes through. Yep, we did the same. We had been through the longest wait already (30 months in the process, 4 months since notification of approval) — or so we thought. The international adoption agency was supposed to have someone meet us at the airport to help us prepare and then make the transition. No one ever showed up.

The flight didn’t get into LAX until 3:15 PM. But because we weren’t officially “parents” yet, the airlines wouldn’t even tell us whether they were on the flight. And we couldn’t get access to them, or see them. So my wife stayed at the International Terminal. And I ran back and forth to the baggage claim area—not a short distance! I must have made that trip 15 times.

About 6:30 PM on one of my runs, a man was going in the opposite direction, carrying a Korean infant. He dropped his bag and said, “You’re Mr. Shields, aren’t you?” Not exactly what you would expect at LAX! After I acknowledged who I was, he said, “You have the two cutest little boys!” I said, “Really? Where are they?” He told me they were at baggage claim.

So, I made a mad dash to get my wife from the International Terminal. And we “walked quickly” to the baggage claim area. We got there and saw many people, and especially quite a few Korean children, from infants to young teens. Finally we saw a woman who was with two little boys (the 8 year old weighed 38 pounds; the 6 year old weighed 33 pounds—I could easily pick up both boys in my arms).

She greeted us and said, “We have five minutes until our connecting plane leaves. “This one is Kim Ill Hoe, this is his small [6x6x4 inches] bag. He has to take this medicine, twice a day. This is Kim Joon Hoe, here is his bag.”

And then she was gone. There we were at LAX, unable to speak Korean, and they unable to speak English. We were really on our own. No one to guide us, no one to help us, no one to communicate with these boys. The delivery was a long time coming, but then in an instant we were parents, receiving the gifts that their mother gave to us on September 13, 1998.

Now 36 years later, we realize what a sacrifice their mother made, and the strength of their mother’s love even to this day. As receiving parents, we gladly accepted her gifts to us.

Adopting: The child(ren) given

I have to write this indirectly because I am the adoptive father, not an adopted child. But I thought at the time, and even more now, about the changes they faced. Living in an orphanage with about 50 other children. Then in a matter of minutes made ready for the tip to Seoul, Korea. Then flying 24 hours, going to place that they only heard about, with a picture of us in their pockets on the plane, the only hope they had. Changes in living conditions, the food changes, the language barrier. Wow!

I took the boys to the bathroom. How long since they had a chance to go? Better to be safe. We drove to Thousand Oaks for supper. We ate at a restaurant that overlooked the interstate. Years later they both told us they couldn’t figure out what was going on with the lights outside. They were white lights on this side of the road and red lights. We explained that cars were coming toward us or going away from us.

For supper, I ordered the same for myself as the boys: hamburger and glass of milk. (Later we found out that both were allergic to milk. But how were we to know this in our first hour with the boys?) I took a bite of hamburger, they lifted the burger the same way. Then I put the burger down, and drank a little milk. They put their hamburger down and picked up the glass to drink. So it went throughout the entire meal; it was like having two little mirrors opposite me.

Finally we got to San Bernadino to stay over night. Little did we know at the time but the people in the orphanage told the boys that if they misbehaved, they would be sent back to the orphanage! Well, of all motels in Southern California, this one had a desk manager who was—guess what? Korean. The boys thought that we were taking them back to Korea!!

The next day on our drive back to Monterey, we stopped for lunch. Of all restaurants in the coastal region, we happened to stop at one and the waitress was—guess what? Korean. She came over and immediately demanded (in Korean) why the boys were with us. They didn’t belong to us. Ill Hoe grabbed my upper thigh and was squeezing in terror, thinking he was going to be taken away from us.

We made it home later in the afternoon. The boys must have sensed we were home. They immediately began running from room to room, excitedly checking out everything. What a delight! Our boys were ours and they were home!

Over the years we have talked some about their lives in Korea. I think that their the lives so dramatically changed for both, that essentially their memories are mostly of life with us. Except for glimpses that we got from our older son.

The older son had many more memories of Korean (we have been told that the difference in age is critical in terms of memory capabilities). So, as he began acting out (he couldn’t initially speak English) ideas, we gathered that there was his mother and another “woman.” But we couldn’t figure out if there was his mother and grandmother, or mother and aunt or sister.

Within 2-3 months his English was improving so much that we finally discovered that they had a sister (but she was not in the orphanage). We immediately contacted the adoption agency in Korean—if there was a sister, we would adopt her as well. But they couldn’t give us any information. In the letter the boys received in 2008, there was an 8×11 photo of their mother, sister, and her child. That child and our third grandchild could have been identical twins. We were stunned!

Further reflections

Obviously our boys don’t look like us. After all, I’m Irish, German and my wife is German, Norwegian, Danish! We have never referred to them as “our adoptive sons.” Rather, they are “our sons.” It is an honor for us, for them, and for their mother.

But some people over the years have made comments about adopting, some very kind, some not so kind, and some degrading to everyone. Sometimes I would be angry, sometimes really sad. But it was never a case of regret (even in the darkest days).

Adoption for us was an option because we couldn’t procreate. God opened doors for us to have these sons. Their mother in Korea sacrificed and agonized greatly over the decision. But in the end all worked well. The mother was able to raise her daughter, her sons became our sons, and we were all blessed.

Love for a child is love, whether the love of the birth mother or the love of the adoptive parents. And that love never fails. Although the reference in 1 Corinthians is to Body of Christ, it is applicable to adoption:

Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not envy,
is not boastful, is not conceited,
does not act improperly,
is not selfish,a is not provoked,
and does not keep a record of wrongs.
Love finds no joy in unrighteousness
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)