The Strings That Bind Us
I sit at my desk, laptop open, staring at a blank screen. I am supposed to be writing a letter to my 9-year-old son’s birth mother in Korea. I have written to each of my sons’ birth mothers several times, each time painting their lives like watercolor pictures with broad strokes and vibrant colors. This time, though, I sit frozen, my fingers heavy, my thoughts like lead weighing them down. The adoptive parent in me could write the letter, but the adoptee in me is refusing.
Looking for distraction, I scroll through YouTube and come upon a video featuring a family taking custody of their adopted Korean son. I have experienced three Korean adoptions in my life, one as an adoptee and two as an adoptive parent, so I am intimately familiar with the story unfolding before me. I watch as images of an adoptee’s loss are set to a soundtrack of hope, adoptee pain obscured by parental gain, two sides of this firmly entrenched dichotomy fighting to tell the story, fighting in me.
In the early months after we adopted our oldest son at 3 years old, we would tie long pieces of yarn to our waists and walk around the house, mimicking the push and pull connection that parents and children are supposed to feel, trying to weave the tangled ends of severed attachment into a solid rope. The tangible yarn no longer needed, we still pull each other around on this stiff, braided line, the narrative of our experiences dancing in pieces before us, the rope tightening and slackening depending on how hard we pull towards our version of the truth, always at risk of breaking.
The next time I try to write, I am quickly distracted by a box labeled “donations” that has been sitting below my bookshelf for a few days. I walk over and trace my fingers along the books on the shelf when I reach the sky blue spine of a book I had forgotten I had. It is a memoir by Melissa Fay Greene, a parent of nine children, including five internationally adopted children, called "No Riding Your Bike in the House Without a Helmet." Funny, heartfelt, and honest, my husband and I read it before we adopted our first son, and it has sat on our bookshelf as a talisman-proof that it would be okay.
I flip through the book and realize the supernatural powers it once held are no longer there. The stories that once delighted me of her biological and adopted children, stories treated with an equanimity that I used to admire, fail to recognize the fundamental differences between adoptee and non-adoptee needs. The vivid descriptions of the personalities of her children feel too intimate now, a cage of words defining each child and pinning them in print for eternity. I realize that as adoptees, people who have already had so much agency stolen from them, we have just one currency to even the scales of power: defining our own narrative. I understand why adoptive parents want these stories, but adoptees need them.
I hold the book up to my non-adoptee husband. “Do you want to keep this?”
“I loved that book,” he says.
“I did too,” I reply as I toss the book into the donation box.
A week later, ready to give up on the letter entirely, my adoptive mom calls and I actually answer, the desperation to avoid writing at dangerous levels now. My mother’s calls and texts are usually met with perfunctory responses, the strings tying us together long gone, the continued contact an act of peacemaking for others in my family who are still tied to me. As my mom prattles on about a movie she recently watched, I remember a letter she wrote after I excluded her from my wedding. She addressed it to my birth mother, a woman neither of us know, and gave it to me. An act intended to induce guilt or to try to connect? I still do not know. The letter portrayed my birth mother as a martyr, and her as a hero, the two of them combining to create the perfect jewel of a daughter, all my grit, determination, and bravery erased. It reminded me a bit of the letters I had written to my sons’ birth mothers.
It is now cold outside and I’m wrapped in a blanket next to a space heater with a warm cup of tea determined to write this letter. I think about the two parts of myself, about my mother and me, and I know what to do. The adoptive parent in me stops pulling and walks to the adoptee, who tells me what to write.
“Dear Birth Mother, We hope you are well. We are all safe and healthy. We have attached some pictures from the last year that our son felt especially proud to share. We think of you often.”
The mostly blank page shines brightly back at me. I leave the space empty for my son to write his own story, his own way, whenever he is ready. We come closer together, the tension released between the parts of me, and between me and my son, now that the story rests with its rightful owner.