Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Part V: His story

                                                  Pouting YH with a bucket, age 14 months

Several times over the last few weeks I have had people congratulate me on my decision to be a full-time parent for YH during his transition to our family. I love hearing the words of support, as I feel on shaky ground in this new role.

The words of encouragement are sometimes followed by a question posed in lowered voice, "What happened to his real mother?"

I understand the subtext: What happened? What tragedy took place? Why does this beautiful boy need to leave his birth family/home country/foster family? Was she a teenager? Was she homeless? Did she die?

People want to understand. They want an answer that will make them shake their heads in sadness yet at the same time be reassured that good people are entering this boy's life to change his fate. It is human nature to want to know the particulars of another person's life story. We are hard-wired to sniff out the lineage of those who cross our paths. We look for similarities and connections, anything that makes it easier to find the humanity in one another.

 My answer to that question is a simple "She was unable to parent him."

I will not go into the details of how he came to be surrendered. I will not disclose the details of his first parents' lives and histories.

Firstly the story as I know it  is one that has been told to a social worker, translated into another language and re-recorded in an official document. I have no idea how accurate this story is--by his first mother's standards. I find it hard to believe that the decision to not parent your child can be easily written in a few sentences. How could such complicated, painful thoughts be boiled down to a cohesive narrative? Additionally, the story as represented in his referral papers captures a moment in time in his first mother's life. I have no way of knowing what her life looks like right now, almost two years later, or what it will look like ten years from now. It is not fair to her to represent her reality as stagnant--in all likelihood much about her circumstances has changed and will continue to change.

Secondly, this is YH's story. It is one of the few things he will carry with him from his home country. One of the few things that we can protect for him, and keep private until he is capable of making the decision of when and with who he wishes to share it. My son has had his baby pictures and medical history posted on a website for prospective parents to review. He will lose his first language, his favorite smells and sounds, and a physical connection to the family that raised him through infancy.
He will join our family with very little to call his own; the least we can do is ensure that his history remains his. 

Thirdly, I know that the people asking the question are expecting a neatly packaged response that will answer all their questions and reaffirm their understanding of the dominant cultural narrative surrounding adoption issues. This narrative often strips the adoptee of person-hood status, in part by reducing their history to an anecdote. In this way the adoptee becomes known *by* the story of their surrender--it becomes the defining characteristic of an adoptee, often before he can even speak for himself. The experiences and family connections of an adoptee are his/hers alone to share and I will not be complicit in furthering any notion to the contrary.

And so YH's story will remain with Sean and I. We will make a life-book for him that includes all the answers we have. It will be his and his alone to look through and explore at his own pace. We will endeavor to answer his questions about his history to the best of our abilities, without defaulting to the responses that are most comfortable, or the responses that fill-in answers we don't have.


  1. Oh Nora, so glad you have empathy for the people who ask (as I believe I may even have been one of them, or at least someone who was curious or wanted to be reassured this child had gone through heckatoozie and would now be in a safe and loving home) eons ago. I also feel it feels kind of ... pretentious? to use words like "educate" the asker, or what have you.

    I absolutely love your emphatic reply and will be using it myself. Usually people don't ask me, actually.

  2. You know what Jean? I find myself encroaching on this territory *all* the time. That's how much of a hypocrite I am! Especially with other families with children from Korea--I *want* to know, to see if there are similarities. In fact, I asked my friend Jen and her husband a totally inappropriate question about their son's first family just two weeks ago. So yeah, it is hard. I also struggle with the "educator" aspect of it all too--aren't there enough adoptive parent voices providing "right answers" for the triad? It feels false to me. People just started asking me recently--like within the last month.

  3. See, you are a better person than me, as I would make up wild, random stories and tell everyone a different version. His mother fell into a stream of lava. She was forced by the government to become a dog trainer. She has purple skin disease.

  4. Oh blafono--you make me laugh! *Love* it!

  5. Revisiting this, after having a mini-revelation on this topic while washing my hair (as everyone knows, where all the good ideas come from, because it takes me awhile to do that). Because I know it's tacky to want to know, but I REALLY want to know. And I came up with this, partially: Americans talk openly about reproductive and parenting issues because, often times, previous generations considered it a taboo topic. So now we happily discuss in offices, at dinner parties and taxicabs our cycles, our birth control methods, our miscarriages, abortion as a peronal and political choice, our "birth plans" and music/pain med choices, our post-birth nutrition schedules, etc. And it's great that we can do that. And it makes us naturally curious about everyone else's experiences. Compare and contrast. We love that shit. Americans are a little spoiled, too - and we are judgy (me included). I try so hard to not project my spoiled little white girl views on other people, but it's so hard when it comes to babies. But you're right - we don't "deserve" to know his deal. It's his deal. I will wait until he writes a book about how his deal sucked, but then he got adopted by people with an unnatural affinity for skating and all was right, and that's how he became president of Austin, TX (which seceded due to coolness factor).

    That is all.

  6. Nora,
    Just wanted you to know that I just printed this to give to a colleague who, along with her husband, is on her way over for dinner because they are thinking of adopting and have a bunch of questions for us. I was gathering some books, etc., for her. This will be the MOST IMPORTANT reading material I give her.

  7. You amaze me. You are wonderful. YH is incredibly fortunate to have you. :)