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)

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