Single Moms' Day in Korea: For Mothers, For Women

The tiny middle-aged woman takes the microphone and begins her story. She doesn’t build up to the terror and despair that characterized her life, she went right to them. Abducted and raped as a teen, she was held by a man against her will. Rather than unleashing their anger on the abductor, her family took out their shame and anger on her. She ultimately escaped back to her family, pregnant and nearing delivery. The birth of her child didn't heal the wounds of separation from her family or of their shame, and so she found herself homeless, sleeping wherever she could. With limited means and unable to rear her child in any sort of security, she had no choice but to seek the help of a local orphanage, first as a temporary shelter for her child, but then a permanent one when her child was two years old. 
An American adoptee reads a letter to her mother in English and flawless Korean. She speaks to the woman who gave her life, about who she has wondered so much and who, she hopes, has wondered about her. She tells her mothers how she came to search for her, even going on national television in Korea in the hopes that her mother would see and find her. She speaks of the shame she feels for telling her mother’s private story in such a setting, like that of a bad daughter. But in spite of this she tells her mother that this television show brought her to her mother’s sister, a woman with whom she has had a complicated relationship and who even prevented her from searching further. In spite of this, she searched further, ultimately finding her mother’s husband, the story of her mother’s life and her mother’s grave. With these she also found her truth, and now stands in solidarity with all Korean women who are raising their children in a society that does not support them.
 Another woman takes the microphone, this time sharing a single parenting story that exposes another way in which societies make it hard for women to be mothers. Married at 27 and divorced ten years later, this woman found that her entire marriage had been a web of deceit and lies. She was left with nothing except the pain of knowing her marriage had been a sham and in this woman’s name, and about a quarter of a million dollars of debt he created in her name. As she worked to get her life back on track, her ex-husband did his best to undermine her relationship with her children, spewing lies wherever and whenever he could about her role in their divorce. Through hard work and perseverance, she has not only paid off nearly all of the debt, but has also been able to demonstrate to her children that she was not the cause of the debt or the divorce.
Next, a young single mother speaks. Her eyes remain downcast throughout her presentation, showing the power of the shame that is heaped upon Korean women who dare to choose her life. She admits to the fact that she was careless as a young woman, not considering the possible outcomes of her choices. She discovered her pregnancy too late for an abortion, instead doing her best to keep working (in spite of being fired once her employer discovered her situation) and ultimately giving birth. Her first plan was to surrender her baby for adoption, but only after she was able to breast feed her. She was virtually penniless, and in spite of a change of mind found herself turning to adoption after all. She couldn't face the final separation, however, and made the decision to be a mother, whatever it took. Now, with her daughter nearing three, she is living in a stable environment and has the support of other single moms, as well as a single moms’ organization.
These are the voices of  the Single Moms' Day 2014 Human Library in Seoul. I was incredibly honored to have been invited to join the panel of women whose stories I shares briefly above. I had wanted to attend since the event began four years ago, and therefore jumped at the opportunity to attend this year. Once I committed, however, the gravity of my presence among so many women who have been been hurt by adoption from  Korea sobered my excitement. Still, I decided, adoptive parents need to engage on this important human rights struggle. And so I went.

By the time the microphone was handed to me, I was thoroughly humbled by the stories I had just heard. I was deeply aware of the fact that my family’s story existed because two women somewhere in Korea could tell one of the very same stories I had just heard. Instead of turning to the written testimony I had provided, I simply acknowledged that women like me had enabled much of the pain that my fellow panelists had experienced. Their stories aren't adoption or “birthmother” stories, they are women’s stories. This, more than anything else, is what I have taken away with me from Single Moms’ Day.

Two questions were directed at me, several times, during the panel discussion.

The first was asked by the panel moderator, a lovely woman who leads Seoul Hanbumo, a Seoul-based single parent support organization. She wanted to know if I felt conflicted in any way about participating in Single Moms’ Day. No, I said, none. I explained that, in addition to having the support of my husband and children, I believe that what Korean women are fighting for is a simple human right. We all should support them and join the cause.

The second was asked by a single mom in the audience, who asked if there had been a turning point that pulled me toward this movement. I told how my family’s experience with altered facts about one of our children's families had led me to writing, which in turn led me to American mothers who have lost children to adoption, many of whom are now my friends (and here I give a special shout out to Suz Bednarz and Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, whose patience as I took off the blinders has been a treasure, as they both are). I explained that these American women are fighting for the very same rights, albeit within a different culture and legal structure, and that their experiences made me realize that there is no “win” for mothers and families who surrender children to adoption out of poverty or lack of support. I acknowledged that adoptive parents enable the separations with our silence.

I am choosing not to be silent. But I am also keenly aware of the fact that speaking out is not enough. Each and every adoptive parent of a child from Korea must become an active supporter of women's rights there. The voices of the women I met in Seoul, and the countless others who have turned to adoption out of poverty or despair since the end of the Korean War, must drive the dialog around adoption from Korea now. We adoptive parents have controlled it long enough, and we have failed to tell the whole story.

I hope that more adoptive parents of Korean children make the effort to come to Korea to support the women who are working to change Korean society. I plan to attend again in the future, hopefully many times. Perhaps as more of us engage with women who are pushing back against the attitudes that push them toward adoption, rather than parenting, we can find ways of providing greater support. I know we can do more.

In the meantime, I encourage adoptive parents to show their support through donations to organizations like KUMFA that support mothers directly or KUMSN, which advocates for single Korean mothers and will be organizing next year's event, as well as those that provide indirect support, including TRACK and KoRoot.

To the many strong women I met at Single Moms’ Day, I say Fighting! 화이팅! You are an inspiration, to me and to women around the world.

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