Note: November is National Adoption Month, so instead of sharing thoughts about someone else’s story, I’ve decided share my own.
Emma is the second of my three daughters, our adopted Korean child sandwiched between two biological sisters. She came into our family on June 1, 1993 – that day which families with adoptees often refer to as “Gotcha” day. After our first daughter was born to us, we thought, perhaps a bit arrogantly, that having our next child would be as simple as agreeing on an ideal age difference between children, and then subtracting nine months. God had other ideas, and for reasons we could not understand at the time, our second child didn’t come in the traditional way.
A job change and a move to a new city temporarily distracted us from the stresses of fertility tests and unsuccessful treatments. Once settled, we resumed our thinking and praying about what now seemed like the only option for growing our family – adoption. Looking back on our decision to adopt a child, it seemed like such a practical, logical exercise. Did we want to have birth family members involved in the life of our adopted child? Not really, so that desire pointed us toward international adoption. Which country had children available? In our case, Korea emerged as the best choice, not because we longed to adopt a child from that country, but simply because circumstances at the time made that choice expedient.
So into our lives Emma came, placed in our arms at 11:30 PM by an adoption agency escort at the airport in Tulsa. She arrived in our lives at the tender age of 7 months, owning only the outfit she was wearing and a packet of papers – filled with adoption agency paperwork, a Korean passport and a small Korean flag. Surrounded by friends, we cried tears of joy and whisked Emma off to her new home. It was a dream come true – we were a family with two children.
As years went by, we faithfully attended the Heritage camps hosted each summer by Dillon International, the adoption agency that helped bring Emma into our family. These camps are a special time for adoptees, allowing them to connect with other adoptees and the culture from which they came. At every camp, we heard stories from families who had taken their adopted Korean children “home” so they could experience not just the culture, but gain some closure and define their identity. The families who took these homeland tours were clearly changed by the experience. We realized that when Emma was old enough to appreciate the experience, we needed to take her to Korea.
When Emma was five, an unexpected although pleasant surprise occurred. Lisa, my wife, became pregnant after almost a decade of believing that conceiving another child was not a possibility for us. The ultrasound revealed that a new baby sister was on the way. Elise was born on July 27, 1998, and steps were taken immediately to ensure that she would be the last child we would have. Her arrival did not change our desire to take Emma to visit her homeland, but simply added another family member to the itinerary. We simply needed to wait until Elise was old enough to appreciate the trip.
We made a decision the summer of 2003, while attending Heritage camp, that the next summer was the time to make our trip. We saved for months and made our plans to spend two weeks in Korea as part of a homeland tour. I assumed that this trip would be an exotic vacation – none of us had been to Korea before, and it seemed like an exciting, distant land in our imaginations. Because of Emma’s age – 10 years at the time of our trip – she would not be permitted to search for or contact her birth mother. So there was no sense of anxiety or excitement at the prospect of encountering Emma’s birth mother. It was just going to be two weeks of touring Korea and seeing a few icons of the first seven months of Emma’s life, like the adoption agency in Seoul where she was cared for, and the clinic where she was born. She certainly hoped to someday meet her birth mother, but we all understood that it would not happen during this trip.
We left in late June 2004, and our visit exceeded all our expectations. As tourists, the food, people and sights were excellent. An appreciation, even admiration developed quickly for this wonderful land and its friendly, industrious people. What made the trip special, however, were the encounters that put a human face on circumstances just like the ones that had brought Emma into our lives 10 years prior.
During the middle of our visit, our tour group was scheduled to visit Esther’s Home, a facility maintained by the Eastern Child Welfare Society that served as a orphanage, school for the mentally disabled and a home for unwed, expectant mothers. Our arrival at the facility in a remote location outside of Seoul was unremarkable. It was a dreary day, overcast and threatening to rain. Our group had been on the tour bus for about an hour when we arrived, so we were eager to get off and do something other than sit on the bus. The site visit began with a briefing that detailed the work being done and what we were about to see. Moderately interested, I was eager to “get on with it” so that we could eat lunch and proceed to activities that were more recreational in nature. Sure, I reasoned to myself, it is fine to see all these facilities, but I was pretty sure that our visit to this place was not going to rank near the top of memories from the trip.
My emotions took a turn when I saw a room full of orphans, most of which we were told had little chance of being adopted. They were children without legal standing, because no parent – typically the birth mother – had completed the legal process to place these children for adoption. They would grow up in this environment with each other and the social workers, who seemed very devoted to their care, but without a family. One little girl in particular stood out – she was a white-skinned, blue-eyed child of about three. We learned that her parents were Ukrainian immigrants. The father had abandoned the mother and child, apparently returning to the Ukraine, and the mother, unable to support her daughter, had delivered her to this facility. It was unknown if her mother or father would ever return, and if they did not, she would live as a child of the system. I could not criticize the system, because it seemed amply provisioned, clean and well staffed. The situation was as good as circumstances would allow, but in my heart I realized it was far from ideal for these children. And I wondered – would this have been Emma’s fate had we or another family not come along?
After battling some emotion for the first time on the trip, we were escorted into a large room for lunch – a welcome break. During lunch, we met 10 women, each of them pregnant, unwed and residents of Esther’s Home while they waited for their babies to come. Through an interpreter, we shared stories. These women ranged in age from 18 to 29. Of the 10, eight revealed that no friends or family members knew about their condition – being pregnant out of wedlock in Korea carries a huge social stigma. All but one indicated that they planned to place their child for adoption, and expressed the hope to someday meet the babies they planned to place. One, however, expressed skepticism about the idea of placing her child for adoption, but acknowledged that she was going to give the option further consideration.
Each of the families on our tour took turns introducing ourselves – where we were from, why we adopted a Korean child, and what we did back at home in America. As the head of our family, I was elected spokesman, and gave our responses to the group, which were then translated. When these introductions were over, these young mothers-to-be were given a chance to ask questions. The lady who was the adoption skeptic motioned for the microphone and started rattling off a question. Her eye contact, body language and my intuition gave me every indication that her question was being lobbed in our direction, and I was right. Her question was simple but penetrating: do you love your adopted child as much as your biological children? It was easy to understand why we got this question, because we were the only family who had both kinds of children with them on the tour.
I consider myself capable of thinking fast on my feet, and delivering fairly polished, off-the-cuff responses. I recognized that this question required more than a simple “yes” response, even if it was the truth. This lady was a hard case, I told myself. She needed to be sold. I felt obligated to deliver the most persuasive oration I could that would compel her to conclude that placing her child for adoption was the right thing to do. I was handed the microphone, and I paused for a moment to begin composing a response. The room was a quiet as a tomb. I covered the microphone with my hand, and leaned over to my oldest daughter Erica, who was seated next to me. This, I suggested, would be a good time for her to share how she felt, having both an adopted and biological sister. She nodded and I began to respond.
I opened my mouth not really knowing where I was going to go with my response. I began with a very clinical statement: every child is unique, I said, loved equally but for different reasons. At that moment, for the first time on our trip, the emotional dam burst. I am still at a loss to explain why, but I choked up and tears began to flow, triggering a chain reaction of crying throughout the room. I composed myself as best I could and managed to utter one last thought – each child is a gift, and in our family, one of those gifts just came from a different place. I was drained, crying and unable to speak coherently. I passed the microphone off to Erica, who I hoped was holding up much better than I. She bravely took the microphone and managed to stutter a syllable or two, but she too was overcome with emotion and unable to speak.
The real hero of the moment was Emma. She calmly asked for the microphone. My usual fatherly instincts, which in a more guarded moment would have demanded that she pre-screen her comments to me, were gone. I passed the microphone to her, and she simply and without emotion said: “I love my mom and dad very much, but I would like to meet my birth mother someday.” After this remark was translated, our guide wisely announced that it was time to eat lunch.
The 10 ladies filtered throughout the room to join the tour families for lunch. The one who asked the question sat at our table and shared the meal with us. Although language was a barrier, we communicated through smiles and laughter, experiencing a mutual sense of satisfaction resulting from people, once strangers, who shared some honest, painful communication about something they had in common.
We will probably never know what decision this woman made about placing her baby. There is some consolation in believing that our exchange influenced her, and affirmed the other women who had already planned to place their babies. An incident that occurred as we were leaving confirmed that we had reason to hope that. As we left, the 10 expectant mothers with uncertain futures lined up by the door to bid us farewell. There was genuine warmth as we filed past and exchanged hugs with each one of them. As we gathered outside the door to walk to the bus to leave, Emma ran up to us, excited about something that happened as she was saying goodbye. One of the ladies, not the one who asked us the question but another, took a ring off of her finger and placed it on Emma’s. I can’t help but think it was her way of thanking Emma for giving her hope about her baby’s future.