When I Look at My Son, I Cry for Me: Reflections on Parenthood from an Adult Adoptee

This year I had my first child. He was a healthy 7.5 pounds and had no complications. The first couple of months, my partner and I were your typical new parents: We were sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and trying to adapt to our new normal where this new little person seemed to have complete and utter control over our schedules.

Now, as he reaches four months, things have gotten a bit more comfortable. We have become a family unit and have developed a loose semblance of a schedule. And he is much more fun. He is not quite as terrifyingly tiny and fragile as he once was, and now interacts with me in more ways than just as his source of food. I have enjoyed so many firsts — his first smile, his first giggle, his first recognition that he had a hand (and that he could try to fit that hand in his mouth). I am falling deeply in love with him. And the more I fall in love, the more grief and mourning I experience.

I was adopted when I was six months old from South Korea. I have never been particularly interested in my Korean heritage, never felt like a piece of me was missing. Many adoptees do feel a sense of loss deeply, leading them to search and look for opportunities to reconnect with either their birth families or their birth culture. I never had this desire , and so assumed that my adoption wouldn’t be a big piece of this stage of my life either. And for the first couple months, while I was in survival mode, it wasn’t.

Because our son was born during the pandemic, discussing how to transition back to work was more difficult. It had already been decided that my partner’s parents would be providing the childcare, which was a huge relief. However, they still hadn’t held him or been with him indoors or for an extended period of time, since we were all taking precautions because of fear of exposing our baby or family to the Cronavirus.

We had many conversations around how to introduce our son to his grandparents. I found that while my partner and his parents were on the side of decreasing health risks, I was pushing to let them into “our bubble” sooner. The idea of thrusting my sweet little one with “strangers” — to have him suddenly need to adjust to different smells, different people, and a different house. How scary and disorienting that would be for him.

All parents want their child to have a smooth transition, and so I didn’t think much about how anxious I was becoming when having these conversations. I thought that perhaps part of my demand for this was a bit selfish- simply wanting to have other people in our home for the first time in nearly a year. And while both of these things were true, I came to realize that it went deeper than that. I began to think about my own journey, and the journey of other adoptees. I know that my son, at four months, knows my face. He lights up when he sees me after a day of work. I know that he knows my smell: when he was a baby and would cry, I found that smelling me would calm him. I know that he can get frightened, I’ve accidentally surprised him before and saw the big alligator tears stream down his cheeks. I know that he has this level of awareness and attachment. And yet, these are memories and experiences that adoption agencies have told adoptive parents over and over that children will forget. That if you adopt a child when they are an infant, they won’t remember the experience and it won’t have an impact.

But even if we don’t remember the details, isn’t part of that fear still there? I have a scar on my knee that I don’t remember getting. But just because I don’t remember it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t impact me. Just because I don’t remember it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt at the time. When you uproot a small infant from everything they know — the smells, the sounds, the people, the food — and send them across the world, don’t they experience loss, confusion, and fear? And isn’t it likely that this significantly shapes them, that even if they don’t remember their transition it will have a lasting impact, a scar forever imprinted somewhere in their memory?

As I think about his development, I am learning that by six months babies are beginning to understand some words, will cry if their caretaker is gone, and will begin to taste foods. I was adopted at this pivotal time. How disconcerting would it have been to start to understand the world around me, and then to have it quickly shaken and have everything change.

When I hear my son cry now, I sometimes need to step away and have his father comfort him. It’s not that I don’t like the noise, or that I’m stressed that I can’t soothe him. Rather, I hear that cry and have a guttural reaction. When I hear that cry, I grieve for me. I grieve for all of the infants and toddlers separated from their caregivers. The ones who are too young to understand, but who are ripped from everything that they know and placed in a totally foreign place. No one can explain it to them. No one can explain that they will never see their caretaker, a foster care parent or an orphanage worker, again. It’s not that the families that adopt them don’t love them- in fact they love them a lot. Rather, it’s that they can’t understand. I know that my son is safe, I know that he is loved and will grow up with the same people. I do not cry for him, I cry for me.

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Hannah Matthys

Hannah Matthys uses her multicultural background as foundation to make Equity Diversity and Inclusion concepts accessible. Learn more here: bebravediversity.com