The first time I met my son’s mother, she was pushing, hard.
The epidural had worn off long ago and her mouth was a straight line, her eyes closed. The room hummed with the noises of medical equipment and people, the lights shining bright overhead. I was instructed to drop my suitcase, wash my hands, and go to the mother’s bedside. As I stood there gazing down at her small form, her expression five stages past concentration and rigid with the kind of fatigue only felt after hours of pain, her eyes briefly fluttered open and she saw me.
She smiled a tiny smile.
“Hi, hi,” I stammered, in what I hoped was a soothing tone. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m glad you made it,” she breathed. Her eyes closed again.
That vivid Technicolor moment in the hospital birthing room came after months of black-and-white paperwork and procedures. At the beginning of the adoption process, my husband, Corey, and I prepared ourselves for a long wait. Our agency caseworker assured us that matches with birth mothers nearly always happened exactly as they should—and that, whoever she was, our birth mother would be drawn to us for all the right reasons, as we would be drawn to her. At the time it sounded both fantastic and fantastical to me. Night after night, I lay in bed, blinking into the darkness, trying to imagine who would choose us. Who would choose us to parent her child.
We had decided to adopt a baby after a year and a half of fertility treatments that left us depleted emotionally and financially, and me sore both in body and soul. Before fully dipping into unconsciousness just before the final stage of IVF, I stared into Corey’s face and tried to inhale as much of his calm and positivity as I could. My husband has always been so good at making people laugh. When the nurse had told me to undress fully and put on the gown prior to the procedure, Corey pointed to me and said, in mock confusion, “Oh, you mean her ?”
After months of stabbing myself with hormones, watching dye get injected into my uterus (“This is better than HGTV!” I said to the humorless technician as we watched the monitor together), having my blood stolen by countless syringes, and letting various doctors get all up in my nethers, the failed IVF procedure felt like a cosmic tablecloth yanked out from under carefully laid heirloom china—capsizing glasses and dishes, a crashing mess.
Grief for something that has never been is a slow, dull ache. Corey has the gift of being able to exist largely in the moment, and I found myself feeling jealous of this in a way that made me feel hunched over and gray. We bobbed in the wake of the failed IVF attempt in our different ways, but in a corner of my mind, a little sign immediately began to flash: Adoption!
I am an adoptee, and adoption has always been there.
I’ve long embraced being adopted as part of my identity. My husband and I had discussed it as an option years ago, so I was surprised when I raised the idea again, a few months after the IVF failed—and Corey hesitated. He asked for some time to think about it.
The frayed bits of me were still weaving back together. “Okay,” I muttered. I was hurt by his reaction, and it showed.
While he thought, I fretted.
Maybe Corey thinks we should try IVF again . My ass hurt just thinking about it.
Maybe he’ll decide adoption isn’t for him. I couldn’t help but feel that would be a personal rejection of me, somehow.
Maybe we’ll just continue as a couple. As us . That wouldn’t be terrible. We loved our life together. We could continue to go out, late, whenever we wanted. We could continue to travel on a whim. We could continue to have spontaneous sex.
Only a few hours later Corey came and stood in front of me. “We’ve been on the IVF path for so long now,” he said. “I just needed to switch gears.”
He put his big hands on my arms, his whole being radiating warmth and calm and happiness. “Of course we can adopt,” he said, smiling at me, and my eyes welled. “Of course.”
We chose to adopt a baby via an open, domestic infant adoption. In many ways, closed adoption might seem much simpler to some adoptive parents—when you don’t have a lot of information about the birth family, it’s a bit like answering questions about an unproven scientific theory: There might be evidence, but for the most part all you can do is form hypotheses.
But rarely do people simply arrive in our lives without history. The unknowing, the blanks in history—for some adoptees, it can lead to a profound sense of not belonging. So we sought to educate ourselves about open adoption. We read about how much healthier the transparency can be. We learned that children who have a complete story often feel more confident and secure; that they can form relationships with all the different parents in their lives. That it’s far more likely a child with gaping holes for a past will struggle with feelings of uncertainty, loss, confusion.
We decided that our child would know who and where they came from. There are so many hurts and mysteries in life we will never be able to solve—if we could eliminate a big unknown for our future child, why wouldn’t we? They would never have to imagine what their birth mother looked like or how she felt about them. They could see her on a regular basis, communicate with her, know she loves them. And she would never have to go through life unsure about the fate of her child. Her child would never forget her, because they could make their own memories together.
After our son was born, we all slept in the hospital, separated by just a few doors in the maternity ward. When Melana, the mother, asked if the baby could sleep in her room while in the hospital, we quickly agreed—after all, we would have him for the rest of his life; surely a couple of nights was the least she should have. She had carried him for months, and it felt right that their bodies should be close.
We spent a lot of time with them, but we also stepped away often to allow her to be with him alone. It was a beautiful and fragile time. Rather than feel scared or threatened by Melana’s love for the baby, we rejoiced when we saw how natural she was when she held him. It was clear how much she loved him.
Corey and I scrambled to do anything we could think of for her, but she existed with a graceful pride and rarely accepted help. While it was clear that she expected nothing from us, we brought food from the outside world, magazines—offerings that were laughably small in comparison to the gift she was giving us.
Most of all, we spent time together. Hours passed slowly in the hospital, and we curled up on the small sofa in her room and talked. After months of imagining who our child’s mother would be, all we really knew about Melana came from the pages of medical history we'd read and the fragments of her life we pulled from her handwritten responses. Suddenly, here we were, sharing a room with the living, breathing person, and we leaned into her words, greedy to learn more. We absorbed stories of her childhood, her three siblings, being raised by her grandmother, and shared stories about ourselves and how we met.
As we got to know her, I realized that my definition of “our son” was shifting. The idea of him moving from her arms to mine, from her life to ours, had once seemed a straightforward transition. His Before would be carefully preserved, and his After would be what we lived every day. But with every detail, every discovery we made about who Melana was, it became clear that any attempts to divide his life like that were impossible.
Corey and I had spoken to Melana on the phone just days before she went into labor. At the time we had been moved by her patience, her sense of humor, her small gusts of laughter. Now, as she described events from her life, memories of her family and friends, I found myself overwhelmed with sadness. Everything that was good for us meant heartbreak for her. In her face, full of tenderness as she bent over her baby, I saw for the first time what it could mean for a woman to separate from her child. It was devastating.
And then came the moment, the day we were all slated to leave the hospital, when Melana hesitated. We were sitting on the sofa in her room, Corey holding the baby. Melana looked at us and said, “There’s something I need to tell you. I’m having second thoughts.”
Somewhere, possibly, is the woman who gave birth to me. I have never known anything about her. I was told I was left at a police station when I was two months old, but that is only a guess.
My adoptive parents spoke of my birth mother in general terms, always with love and compassion. She has become a sort of shape-shifter in my imagination. I can picture her as a college student hurrying to class; a young woman typing furiously in an office; someone taking an order at a restaurant, tucking her hair behind her ear.
What I can be most sure of is that she was probably single and terrified. Even now, over sixty years since Korea began sending children abroad for adoption, there persists an intense stigma against unmarried mothers. Women who choose to parent as single mothers are often ostracized by their families. They can suffer in the workplace. So while I have no solid information about my birth mother, decades of evidence points to why so many Korean babies have been adopted out of country.
I count myself as lucky. My white mom made Korean food for me when I was a kid. My white dad kept different images of Korea on rotation, taped to the playroom door. I had a little hanbok and proudly shared it and some bulgogi during school show-and-tell. For whatever reason, I grew up feeling like myself and like my parents, and at peace with it. I do not take this for granted. The multitude of unknowns could have easily led me down a different path.
The grief surrounding adoption is complicated. It wasn’t until my mom died that someone pointed out I had lost two mothers, and this staggered me. But still, the loss of my birth mother felt mostly theoretical. I again tried to imagine what it was like for her to give me up. Was she coerced? Did it happen without her knowledge? Was it engineered by a family member desperate to save face? Did she give it her best try, caring for me on her own, and then realize it was simply too much for her?
“I’m having second thoughts about giving him up,” Melana said.
Next to me, I felt Corey go very, very still. He stared at the baby in his arms for a few moments, then looked up at Melana.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I don’t know what to say to help you.”
I watched Melana’s mouth twist and felt everything inside of me drop away. There’s nothing I can say , I thought. I can’t argue. I’m completely. Without.
We were all supposed to leave the hospital in a matter of hours. If Melana wanted to make a different decision she was well within her rights to do so. It had been a low-level fear for us the entire time. But I don’t think we ever really believed she would change her mind.
A hospital social worker came in and asked for some private time with Melana. Even though the timing was a coincidence, her sudden presence felt almost staged. Had she been lurking outside the door? Had she been privy to Melana’s doubts all along?
In a daze, Corey and I got up, placed the baby carefully in his little plastic bed, and left the room. The door clicked shut behind us, and my legs would carry me no farther. I slid down the wall and started to sob. From the moment he was born, I had recognized our son. Before the hospital I’d had fears that bonding might take time; that I wouldn’t feel like his mother. But the instant I saw his head, his little chest, his tiny feet, I knew him. I knew Corey felt the same way.
Corey scooped me off the floor and we made it back to our own room. I continued to cry. Corey paced. “Okay,” we took turns saying. “Okay.”
My Before, as an adoptee, has always been abstract. It’s my reality, and perhaps it has made things simpler.
But I will always be able to tell our son, with absolute certainty: Your first mother loves you. Your first mother protected you while you were inside her. Your first mother fought to bring you into the world. She was brave and strong and stubborn. She cried when you were born. She held you and beamed love into your face. She bonded with you in those first two days and it was nearly impossible for her to go through with your adoption.
It was vitally important that Melana was honest and expressed her fears, her last-minute doubts. I’m glad she did, for one simple reason: In her moment of hesitation, I came to know the depth of my own desire to be a mother. I understood how much of me our son had already claimed, and how easily I gave it. And I realized that my first mother, my second mother, my son's first mother, myself—we share this same story. We are inextricably linked.
I’m still not sure what made Melana move forward with the adoption. I don’t know what made her decide that she had gotten too close; that she needed to take time away from our son to be able to let him go; that letting him go was the right decision. All I know is that later that day, we all left the hospital together, Corey holding our son, me walking beside them. Melana was pushed in a wheelchair with her best friend beside her.
We moved through the beige hospital corridors quietly, holding doors open for each other with careful courtesy. Melana and her friend chatted quietly, and when her friend gave me a small smile, I smiled back, the muscles in my cheeks straining.
When we walked outside, everyone blinked in the afternoon sun, and I closed my eyes for a moment, grateful for the heat wrapping around me. Melana lifted herself carefully out of the wheelchair and turned to face us.
“Drive safely,” she said, looking into our faces.
“Thank you,” we responded in unison.
I could feel how much more we wanted to say. But there was an unspoken need to make this parting seem mundane, somehow.
Melana’s friend helped her into a car while we latched our son into his carseat. I realized I was holding my breath as Corey put our car into reverse. As Melana drove away, we waved, like you do when you know you’ll see someone again.
Names have been changed.