Lost Fathers

First fathers are virtually absent from international adoptions. In Korean adoptions, it seems inevitable that original fathers appear to vanish. The diverse reasons for this are complex. First fathers (also) search and keen for their lost children. However, this is not the dominant narrative served up by adoption agencies. For example, in the process of adopting our son and later our daughter, I was never urged to write a “Dear Birth Father” letter.

Twelve years later, I wrote the letter anyway.

To the First Fathers,


I confess that I am not a spiritual man. Raised by scientists, I have been brainwashed with a doctrine of rationality. I really want to believe that we can communicate: that I could pull out my international adoption Ouija Board and share heartfelt messages. I would pose questions to you and also tell you everything I know about your child. In fact, I would burn a candle every night, and we could just catch up on the day’s events.

Then I would not need to imagine you and I could not forget about you. And our children would not try to forget about you either. Even when they did not feel like paying attention, there you are—like piano lessons, like breakfast, like love. You will not be neglected.

Even now, without paranormal help, when I go looking for you, I think I spot you. Isn’t that you, pulsing beneath our daughter’s breath, motoring each graceful and awkward gesture? And isn’t that you, raising our son’s arms, opening his eyes, guiding each kick and shout?

While I am no spiritualist, I do believe that, in a real way, we are raising these children together. You are here with us, inside our home and family. I know this, as well: if I continue to look for the two of you in the children, I will see them better, and they will feel better seen.

With each passing day, as their vision sharpens, the children see me better, too. They look at me and also see what is not there. They cannot see their features, their race, or their very natures. That is where you fathers live, not me.

I cannot claim credit for our son’s remarkable ears, the DramaFever hair, the slender intelligent fingers, or the uncanny palate and love of cooking. Similarly, I am not responsible for our daughter’s natural kindness, her powerful voice, the driving intelligence, or her fearlessness.

If I look for you, surely, I will see you. Is that you in our daughter, devouring books like salty chips and reading people like open books? Did you endow her innate empathy and passion for stories? That cannot be taught. How shall we promote and satisfy this child’s appetite for narrative? I hesitate to ask: is theater the only answer? Speaking as a recovering actor myself, I humbly beg that we consider other options.

In our son, is that you? Like him, do you know what you like so keenly and resolutely that whenever you start something, you are bound to finish it? Then you do it again, and again… and again? We have to provide opportunities for our child so that these obsessions are fruitful. I have an old friend who assembled countless monster models in his parents’ basement throughout a prolonged adolescence. Years later, his career was built on the tiny shoulders of those plastic Frankenstein’s, Dracula’s, and Creatures from the Black Lagoon: he became a prized modeler for the top animation studios. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “That which we are criticized for is our greatest strength.” Personally, as a child, I was labeled too sensitive. Yet that very quality is my best asset as a psychotherapist. How do we nurture such marvelous “faults” in our children?

You must see yourselves in them. How could you miss it? I need to cultivate the seeds of you both. Are we encouraging and anticipating the latent, stealth skills? Were you as surprised as I when the athletic poise and confidence emerged, as if overnight? Perhaps you both plotted and pushed me to push them? Maybe you got a hold of your own Ouija Boards?

Respectfully, I will not spin fantasies about the two of you. I do not know how much choice or even knowledge you had about our children’s adoptions; many wise adoptees assure me that you (and mother) had little to none. One unmistakable difference between us is that I freely chose adoption. No pressure, no crisis, fully cognizant. In this, we truly are different fathers—members of the same essential family but with radically distinctive relationships to these two children.

Above all, I honor you both. In fact, I must. Because if I disrespect the two of you, I disrespect our children. If I reject or ignore you, I communicate that a fundamental, cellular piece of them is ignorable. But I will not insult you by idealizing you either. In this way, we are alike: the three of us are all very real men, each of us with his unique assets, limitations, and struggles. Even in imagining you, if I can more fully embrace the range of you, I will better know and embrace the depth of our children. There is nothing mystical about that.

Speaking from my work as a psychotherapist, the healing engine is fueled by self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Better that we learn and accept our particular luminous strengths, but also our fragility, so we are building out of truth. My responsibility is to hold our children fully: all that is nurture, all that is nature.

And this: an especially troubling notion for many adoptive parents is that we are simply minding the children until they grow up and return to their rightful homes. Perhaps there is a profound and poignant truth in that. What if returning home means reclaiming what is most personal and elemental, like the endowments of their mothers and of you?

So, can I get a sign to better help our children find their way back to you? Where will I locate those markers and maps to keep you fathers in sight?

Or maybe orienteering to you is childishly simple, requiring neither magic nor metaphor: whenever I comb out the tangles of our daughter’s profuse hair that I did not conceive, whenever I embrace our son’s wiry torso, replete with elbows that I did not make, I suppose those are all the vivid signs that I need.

There you are, right there.

~ David Amarel