For me the international adoption story of our son, Jae, started shortly before my wife and I were even married. As an engaged couple we were having dinner one evening with some newlywed friends. We were all talking about our dreams for the future, and, naturally, our hopes of children. At some point (and for whatever reason I don’t even remember) the topic of adoption came up. From the ignorance and arrogance of my youth about the matter, I clearly recall stating quite emphatically, “I don’t think I could ever adopt a child”. Only now do I appreciate the rich irony of my words on that night because adoption has become such an enormous gift for our family.
My wife and I were married for almost three years when we were blessed in 1996 with our daughter, Maria. When Maria was two we decided to try for #2 and assumed that deciding was getting because that had been our experience with her. I will spare the details (mainly because they are typical), but in spite of our best efforts we found ourselves waiting and hoping. When we reached our early 40’s, I became acutely concerned about the risks of pregnancy for my wife (principally cancers later in life, etc.) and the increased risks of an abnormal fetus development. My wife accepted this reluctance, and she began to suggest the possibility of adoption.
I struggled with the adoption idea mightily. Though my perspective had definitely tempered with age from my youthful proclamation, adoption in any form seemed like a messy endeavor. We knew of couples that waited for years in the process of adopting domestic children through private legal channels; some were manipulated by would-be birth mothers. Alternately, we were both intimidated by the public foster program and the specter of becoming involved in complex and possibly painful domestic situations. And, I, in particular, found the only other option, international adoption, overwhelming— seemingly so complicated, expensive, and emotionally uncertain on many levels. It all seemed insurmountable to me.
Yet, there was an empty chair that remained at our table and in our hearts. Oh, we did (and do) adore our daughter. But our desire hung in the air. We repressed and delayed; then, shortly after the New Year in 2004, my wife suggested that we go to an information session on international adoption at the public library— no obligation, one hour and we’re out. So we went. It was fairly much as I had expected since we had some exposure to the process through casual acquaintances that had done international adoptions. But it cracked open the window if ever so slightly for me. I suppose that I began to ponder that not only did we want a child, but there were children in the world that desperately needed us as well. My wife and I started talking about it with some frequency. We discussed different options and began to educate ourselves about the various programs and agencies. Still, I came back to a reluctance that I felt was deeply-seeded. It was just too much to digest. I told my wife I didn’t think I could do it, and we backed off. So, this void remained now seemingly forever.
Months passed, and we stayed consumed by life as usual. Discussion of adoption came up now and then, but we had been down that road it seemed. Then one evening my wife was reminiscing about how much she had loved the Korean students she had taught as a TA when she was in graduate school in Virginia. Coincidentally at that same time there was a family with a young adopted Korean son that we often saw at church; he was adorable and impossible not to admire. In the course of our conversation I made the statement (I am sure principally with the image of that little boy in my mind), “I wish Korean adoption was available to us; I think I could do that.” The reason that I framed it in those terms was that in our previous investigations we found that Korean adoption programs did not exist in our home state of South Carolina. And, likely because I believed Korea was not an option, the statement was an easy one to make in the moment. But, my wife took my words at face value. A couple of days later on a wistful lark she Googled: “Korean adoption” + “South Carolina”; she assumed it would come to nothing, but up popped a link to Carolina Adoption Services of Greensboro, North Carolina. Sure enough, this agency, in partnership with the Family and Children’s Agency of Connecticut, had only recently been able to offer a Korean adoption program to the residents of the Carolinas— the first of its kind in many years in the region. My wife read through the details. It was for real, and she called me. I was at once excited upon hearing the news, but I quickly felt on the hot seat and unsure if I really meant what I had said a few nights before. But, I wasn’t about to prick my wife’s obvious excitement, and I said, “let’s call them”.
It all lined up. CAS was a top-drawer agency, the partner agency, FCA, had successfully completed many Korean adoptions over the course of many years, and the Korean process was as air tight as it got in the international or domestic adoption world: available infants (4-6 months), loving foster care prior to adoption, highly reliable health screenings and record keeping, and a sterling oversight organization in Korea (the Republic of Korea Social Welfare Society). Now I was truly cornered, so to speak. The way was obviously clear. But, could I make the leap? Yet, for whatever reason and in spite of the years of accumulation against the idea, more of me wanted to do it than not. I suppressed any opposition, and we mailed off an application just before Thanksgiving, 2004. Our adoption process had begun.
The review and submittal elements of the process went smoothly. However, every week that passed seemed to be creating a longer shadow for me both internally and from external influences. On my own I had a hidden voice telling me that this was somehow a compromise. That feeling was reinforced when we would note that some people were seemingly more indifferent than excited when we told them of our plans. In fact, when revealing a specific example of this occurrence to a close family member, I was told outright by that person, “well it’s not like you told them you were pregnant.” Clearly, transracial adoption represented a sort of contradiction to certain elements of our southern culture which elevate the value of appearance and conformity. And, in fact, we were about to endeavor far beyond a mere breach of these unspoken boundaries. We would become what the social professionals term “conspicuous”— highly so, I guess, with an Asian child. But, for whatever reason, we were compelled toward Korea rather than the more Anglo Eastern European programs. And, surprisingly, the tepid acceptance of others created within me something more of a resolve rather than despair.
Yet, as I began to work beyond the superficial boundaries of appearance and convention, I wondered on a deeper level if it was right to impose (maybe overwhelm) our culture on an innocent Asian child with no voice in the matter. Would he feel a part of our society and family (he because the first child adopted from Korea is nearly always a boy)? Would he be unfairly labeled, profiled or teased? Would he ultimately feel isolated? Could he cope? I just could not see my way clear on this matter and expressed my mounting concerns to my wife. Her response, measured and wise as always, was: “he’ll take his cues from us, and he’ll be fine”. And, I knew from my parental experience, such as it was, that she was right. When a parent is confident and reassuring, a child nearly always becomes so. This counsel gave me consolation.
The winter of 2005 became the spring, and I worked to slay my emotional dragons. As I have related, I addressed the specific matters as I could identify them. But I still was left with a general foreboding. I wondered if backing out would bring relief. About this time I happened on an article in some of our adoption prep materials which was written by a single woman that adopted a daughter from China. The article was titled “The Daughter Who Nearly Wasn’t”; it detailed how she called her agency the night before she was to leave for China and told them she had changed her mind because of a last-minute panic attack. However, her grief about this decision was so great by the morning that she called back and was still able to go. Of course, the story ended happily, and she encouraged the reader in a similar position to be reassured that doubt was normal. That was so helpful.
Then, on May 2, 2005, the referral package arrived: pictures, a social profile, medical records, and foster parent observations. A tiny Korean baby boy. I struggled to connect in looking at his pictures; and the details of the information, though normal, were intimidating. My anxiety ramped, and we were given 48 hours to decide whether we wanted to accept the referral. We electronically submitted the packet information to the international adoptee medical experts at the University of Minnesota. Several hours later the director of the program called to tell us, “Accept it; that’s as good as it gets. Congratulations.” So we did. Now we were no more than a few weeks away, and I just wanted to suspend time so that I could deal with all of my competing emotions— delay, I guess.
His pictures went on our refrigerator. I looked at them several times a day and wondered how it was all going to work out; I never envisioned anything like this.
On July 4th the call came. Our request for an escort was accepted, the visa was finalized, and “our” son would be arriving in the Atlanta airport for us to meet in three days. Very little sleep occurred for me over the next three nights— mainly a lot of tossing and turning.
On “The Day”, we arrived at the Atlanta airport several hours ahead of time from our home in Greenville, SC to make absolutely certain that we were in place. Because of the special circumstances, we were allowed on the terminal by airport security. And so, we got to the gate for the final leg of our wait. This was surreal. What had we done? We were going to be leaving a public airport terminal with a child from a foreign culture to raise as our own. We were as white bread and conventional as you got….. Those few hours seemed interminable; I felt like I aged ten years.
Finally, a plane arrived. After several minutes a Korean grandmother-type emerged with a baby in a carrying sling. In a rush, we identified ourselves; this woman, Jae’s escort for the past 24 hours of travel, passed the little guy to my wife and eagerly attached the sling to her. He was so groggy he couldn’t hold his head up. We had a brief exchange with the woman through an interpreter on our cell phone. Then, with a now sleeping baby boy, we hurried off to help her find waiting family, and we headed for our car.
The next few moments will always be among the most memorable and cherished of my life. We arrived at the car eager to truly look at him. We un-tethered him from the sling and laid him down in the open hatch-back to examine and change him. He had come awake; and as we truly settled our gaze on his little face for the first time, he broke into the biggest, toothless grin I had ever seen in my life. My knees nearly buckled under me— a rapture of pure joy. My heart seemed to leap out of my chest and seal around that little boy JUST the same way and as instantaneously as it had the morning the doctor handed Maria to me in the delivery room. I fought back my tears. The years of longing and months of anxiety gave way to sheer elation and explosive emotional relief. Everything with the world was right. How could I have ever worried?
That was the platform from which our life with Jae was launched; it continues upward like a rocket and will not end. Any parent in their right mind will tell you that it is impossible to quantify the love for a child because it is boundless. And, I can honestly attest from having experienced both, there is no distinction between a biological connection and an adoptive one. It is one of the great miracles of life.
And so, I would convey to the reader who may be pondering an adoption and wondering what it would really be like and whether they are up to it: DON’T MISS IT!. Don’t listen to any of “them” (yourself or others); adoption is just as special, just as powerful, and just as complete as any pathway to becoming a parent. And, all of the perceived biological, social, cultural, or physical differences on the surface become points of interest and celebration. If it were possible to glimpse the love you know at the completion, you would go anywhere and do anything for that one you are given, red, yellow, black or white.