Two Korean Mothers Tell Their Stories

They were young women like a million other young women that you might meet in any Korean city or town. The pain of the past seemed close to the surface of the younger woman’s face, while the face of the other showed resignation and dwindling hope. But both appeared determined – to get through the hour that lay ahead of them, to tell the truth of the experience that had led both of them, unmarried and unsupported, to surrender their children to adoption years before.

Today, the vast majority of Korean adoptions (over 99% based on statistics from the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare) take place for one reason only – the unmarried status of their mothers. The stories of these women are therefore typical of those experienced by most of the mothers of the thousands of Korean children that have been adopted to the US and other countries in recent years.

The two young women came into a KAAN conference meeting room filled with young adopted adults, adoptive parents, and adoption workers. As they spoke, I heard stories that had been told many times before, by thousands of women from every part of the world. Stories of rejection, fear, and loss, but also love transcending time and space, and hope.

The Elder Mother

The elder mother was herself adopted. Her childhood was an unhappy one; her father was an alcoholic, her mother left the family several times, and she was separated from her sister. As her family’s circumstances worsened, she was forced to quit school. And feeling unloved, she found it hard to love others, too.

Her baby’s father rejected the child, and instead asked her to abort the baby. His family offered no support either, and also asked her to terminate her pregnancy. Initially, she blamed her mother for the circumstances that led to her pregnancy, and later herself. But ultimately she realized that she was waiting for her child’s father to take responsibility for his child. She admitted that at least one motivation for continuing her pregnancy was to seek revenge on him.

With no source of income, no support, and only rejection from her child’s father and his family, she followed the only route left to her – a first mother’s home. She was counseled in the different kinds of adoption she might choose for her child.

She spoke of the time she spent with her son, how important that time was, and how painful it was, only 13 hours after giving birth, to part with him. She has his picture, and still remembers his eyes, his forehead. And she hates herself for having surrendered him.

His first birthday was especially hard and was spent remembering him and their time together. She wants him to know he was loved. She hopes for his good health. She has tried to keep in touch, to no avail. The Korean agency that placed her child has told her she must wait until his is 18 years old. She was also told that “no new is good news,” that if she heard nothing about him it would mean he was fine.

She had another relationship after her child was born, but it ended when she shared the news of her child. Later, she met the man who is now her husband. And although he was initially embarrassed to learn of her child, he truly loves her and they have now been married ten years. They have four children, one who looks like her first son. Whenever she changes her children, bathes them, sees them laughing, reads to them, punishes them – no matter what she does, her thoughts turn to her son lost to adoption. And she can say now that she is happy.

Since her son’s birth, she has completed high school. She would like to go to university, but she has been reunited with her sister and is responsible for her support.

She wants to meet her son and his adoptive parents. Her husband is willing to be his Korean father. Each summer she meets adoptive families who come to Korea with homeland tours, and she can’t understand why her son hasn’t come, too. She also wonders if he misses her, thinks of her, if he wants to know her. And she would like to know: What are his hobbies? Does he go to church? Does he have a girlfriend?

And every year on her son’s birthday, her husbands sends her a letter of support.

The Younger Mother

The younger mother’s childhood was unhappy. Beatings were common, often for no more than the fact that she was a girl.

The father of her baby was a friend of her brother who loved her. His parents, however, did not approve of their relationship. He was a university student, where she came from a different class. And after she became pregnant, the rejection was complete.

Although happy to be pregnant, she was worried for her baby’s future. Her baby’s father reacted differently, however, and asked her to abort the child. She could not carry out his wishes. Ultimately, his family sent him abroad to study, leaving her entirely alone. In fear, she attempted suicide.

She spoke of the shame of single motherhood in Korea. Although she wanted to keep her baby, as her pregnancy began to show her options became fewer and fewer. She asked a friend to pretend to be her husband, telling others that they lived separately because of his work. But as she began to run out of money, her only source of income became what she could do at home – sewing and the like.

Her mother found out about the pregnancy when she was nearing full term. She was very sad and worried for her daughter, but felt she would be unable to help her daughter take care of the child. She also voiced her fears for the baby, who would grow up without a father.

Ultimately, the young mother had no choice but a first mother’s home. There, she spent a lot of time thinking about the baby’s future. After her birth, she thought of running away with her, but couldn’t, and decided to place her daughter in adoption.
She feels that others blame and judge her for her decision.

She decided that a life abroad with a wealthy family would be the best plan for her daughter, because she saw only poverty for her in Korea. She ultimately chose intercountry adoption because she thought there would be more openness. She sends gifts and postcards on her birthday, and has some contact with her adoptive family today.

She is now married and has two more sons. Her marriage, however, is unhappy. She said her husband didn’t speak badly about her past, but in her words was a confused person. He had an affair, ultimately turning her out of her home penniless with two sick children.

Some time after placing her daughter in adoption, she learned that her adoptive family divorced and that her daughter was now with her adoptive mother. She felt terrible, having thought that adoption would give her daughter a better family.

Some time later she received a letter from her daughter telling her that she was coming to Korea. They met, and finally had the chance to spend time together. Her daughter is healthy and beautiful. But it was hard to explain her to others, including her young sons. She has a wonderful memory of sleeping with her daughter holding hands.

She has had the opportunity to talk together with her daughter and her adoptive mother, and believes that in her circumstances, adoption was a good decision. She will visit the USA and see them again in August of this year.

She received job training through the first mother’s home, and works very hard to keep her family together.

She wants everyone to know that she had no choice.


suz said…
omg. this made me cry.

why do we do this to our women and children? why do women do this to other women? why dont we support them? why is it more important to save face and be married than it is to keep a child with their mother?
Thank you Thank you Thank you for writing this and sharing it. I am a single mother that had enough support and resources and the Grace of God to be able to keep my baby and raise him. These stories just break my heart and make me so angry and so aware of my blessings.

If the Korean gov. is letting/encouraging singles to adopt, does that mean it will not be so forbidden for single women to keep their babies in the future? Is there hope that this kind of forced adoption won't happen so much, if they are recognizing it's OK to be a single parent????
Margie said…
"If the Korean gov. is letting/encouraging singles to adopt, does that mean it will not be so forbidden for single women to keep their babies in the future?"

Yes, indeed. It's a first step, long way to go, but really really important, IMO.

I really felt like I was in the middle of a paradigm shift at the KAAN conference, and the announcement about the changes in Korea bears that out.

And in my opinion, I think the adoptees that went back, lobbied, worked their butts off deserve a lot of the credit.
Mama Nabi said…
Such painful stories... and it hurts so much more when I realize that there're thousands and thousands more mothers with similar stories. I feel like my life is coming to a circle - these were the stories I so cared about as a teen, hence my time volunteering at an orphanage, and it seems, now that I am planning to go back to Korea for a few years in a couple of years, I've returned to that feeling of somehow being involved... Before, I cried for the babies separated from their mothers, and fathers... nowadays, as a mother, I cry for the mothers and the babies. Thank you so much for keeping me informed.
weigook saram said…
Such sad stories. I think it's hard for us to understand all of the cultural reasons why this happens in Korea because we just don't have the same frame of reference. It's not just about money, although that's part of it, but also the idea that adult children are supposed to obey their parents. So if both sets of parents aren't 100% behind the pregnancy, it's hard for the woman to keep her child. Of course the government needs to do more to help single mothers keep their babies, but it's more complicated than just giving them money. Still, that would be a good start.
KimKim said…
So sad, and it happens in America too, too many adoptions and not enough support for young mothers.

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