My first encounter with Rosita Gonzalez began with an act of kindness. We were both attending a Korean adoptee and adoptive family conference (KAAN). I shambled out of one of the early sessions, experiencing an uneasy moment of ugh-if-I-don’t-fit-in-here-where-DO-I-fit-in, when Rosita approached me. I was disarmed by her warmly apologetic greeting, and it took me a few beats to register: Rosita was commending me for an especially personal piece I had written, while also commiserating that, after she had cross-posted it, I received some Internet heat.
The handful of negative responses to my enraging (and eye-opening) tale of being mistaken for a predator while traveling to school with my daughter was my first dose of: “When will these self-centered adoptive parents shut up already??” Later, I was able to absorb the merit of the criticism. Given distance from some of the harsher packaging, I had to recognize these truths: the adoption discourse has been far too skewed for far too long by the agency and adoptive parent narrative. Also, the stories of adoptees are rightly and primarily the purview of adoptees, not their parents. If I am to write about adoption, I must adhere strictly to my truth and my story, maintaining a wide berth of my child’s experience. In this, unlike other areas of my life, I must be conservative.
Returning to Rosita and KAAN, with great warmth, she immediately called out my still-sore drubbing. As I told my partner, Martha, over the course of the conference, ensuing conversations with Rosita and her husband made a deeper impression on me than any panel or keynote address I attended. I experienced in both of them an unmistakable authenticity and directness. During a panel on racial identity (co-led by our own Kevin Haebeom Vollmers), Rosita’s understated husband bravely probed at the term “white privilege,” and it was as if a live grenade had been tossed into the center of our gathered seats. As a result, that discussion was significantly more immediate, urgent, and thoughtful because of it.
During fleeting yet impactful conversations between sessions, Rosita and I exchanged thoughts about writing, about family, about our children’s racial identities. Also, dipping online during the course of the conference, I discovered that Rosita, a Korean adoptee raised in Tennessee, is a deft writer. Until then, I had only been vaguely aware of her mothermade blog and participation with the Lost Daughters collective. Rosita’s elegant ability to self-reveal, in both writing and conversation, especially struck me. I awoke on the second day of that three-day conference to read a freshly minted and cogent blog post about how awkward and alienated Rosita was feeling at KAAN. You understand, the conference was still in session! That’s when I knew – whatever our differences – this was a kindred spirit.
Rosita, thank you for agreeing to publicly continue our conversation. Will you discuss your writing: What motivates and drives you? How much and in what ways do you think about what to reveal about yourself and your family? Also, in addition to anything else you would like to discuss, can you say how you field criticism or approbation for your essays – what you accept, deflect, or reject?
David, my writing is my therapy. I have been writing since I was ten years old. Through the years, writing has comforted me and taught me about the person I am. Sometimes, I am surprised by aspects of myself … the selfish and angry sides. Other times, I have learned lessons that my body knew, but my mind did not.
As an adoptee, I do not have access to my biological history. This has tormented me for my entire life. As a child, a young adult, and a professional, I hid my conflicts of self away in my journals, where they were poured out upon the pages. I felt safe that way. Not knowing other adoptees, I became friends with that secret side of myself.
When my children were born and began exploring their own selves, I realized that my history was theirs. I could no longer be selfish and keep it to myself. To save them the torture of the unknowing, I began my blog mothermade to reflect my history for my children. I was writing for their future selves. It was 2007; social media was young.
I wrote infrequently. The adoption agency that facilitated my adoption picked up my blog and asked to publish the first three entries. I was elated! This was my way of finally getting in touch with those other Korean faces from my childhood … the faces that would befriend me when I felt alone as an Asian in Appalachia.
As a new mother who had lost her adoptive mother before she could share her adventures in parenting, the blog also became my way of documenting the only mother I could remember. I wanted to make sure I would always remember her … every little detail. On each Mother’s Day and every birthday of hers that passed, I felt extreme loss. Reflecting on those times and reading my old posts, I see how that loss was hard to bear because of the impact of my first loss. I lost my birth mother early, at six months, but my adoptive mother filled a part of that space for a time, so to lose a second time … well, it was devastating.
In addition, my parenting is a product of both women. I strive to be a good mother, to be supportive and protective. I want to be what I had in my adoptive mother and what I wish I had in my birth mother. I breastfed my children, as I knew my own birth mother must have done. Each moment of my pregnancy would pull up feelings that I had suppressed for so long. The questions, the wondering, the longing for that first mothering picked at my psyche as I would feel an elbow or foot through my stretched skin. I mentioned it to my adoptive mother, and she would relay what she knew of pregnancy as she had experienced with my younger sister. But we both knew she could never recall my specific gestation and birth story.
So mothermade was born as an ambiguous way of honoring my adoptive mother, alluding to my birth mother, and documenting my days as a mother. I wrote it all in the halls of the Internet. The shift in my writing occurred when I met my first Korean adult adoptee in the fall of 2012. Our meeting was serendipitous and consequently an epiphany for me. My writing exploded with a flux of emotions. I was now documenting my coming out as an adoptee and all the hidden pain associated with just being me … the person without a biological family history.
As the adoption world opened, I became more conscious of adoption issues. My voice as a writer debuted on the Lost Daughters website in the fall of 2013. Here is where I am humbled by the varied stories and common threads. This is a group of women that gets me, without judgment. On my blog you can see the evolution of my writing.
Rosita, I find it powerful and also poignant that mothermade has its own unique “origin story.”
Granted I may be slow, but it required some re-reading and reflection before the nickel dropped regarding your acute need to share your experiences. I will not presume to say it is simple, but what especially smacks me in the head is this: There is nothing worse than not knowing your parent at all. Just sitting with that thought, as a non-adoptee (and adoptive parent) is shattering. For me, your writing takes on a new character. I expect that most adoptees, particularly from closed adoptions, grasp this essential meaning instantly. Your sense of mission is compelling: to show the children who you were; and in so doing, of course you reveal yourself to many others who benefit greatly.
Reflecting upon my own motivation to write, when Gazillion Voices presented this opportunity, I expected the column to be primarily a way to reach other adoptive parents. It hasn’t worked out that way. Unmistakably, the strongest connections I have felt are with adoptees; and somehow that feels right and enriching beyond measure.
For me, there are numerous tensions inherent to writing. One is to articulate my own truth while laboring to avoid narcissism and self-inflation. Another is to communicate always respectfully but never meekly. But perhaps most importantly: my selfish act of self-expression is also an unselfish bid to deeply immerse myself in the adoptee discourse. That plunge yields immeasurable dividends for my family.
David, my intentions now focus on, not only documenting history for my kids but also making history by changing the dialogue for the future kids of adoption. November may have been National Adoption Month, but the Lost Daughters and other adoptees, as a collective, were able to elevate the voices of adoptees for healing, for recording, and for sharing various adoptee narratives. Perhaps in a future November, we will celebrate National Adoptee Month, a time when child adoptees will not need to wait until adulthood to feel connected, validated, and supported.
There are still potholes in the adoptee dialogue. The voices that judge with the words, “ungrateful” and “lucky” still hit me sharply. My only defense is to present my narrative. I cannot tell anyone how to feel about adoption or birth families, but I can tell them how I feel about my life experiences and my hopes for my birth family. If I can meet a reader halfway by presenting some of my deepest injuries, perhaps the reader will begin to understand the aching I have … the aching other adoptees have.
Rosita, your openness prompts me to share this: I have learned that my own personal and professional need to bear witness to pain and loss derives from a pay-it-forward attempt at restitution. While I did indeed know my mother, I hardly knew her. She had erected a heavy wall composed of emotional bricks and razor wire. A holocaust survivor, she kept her torment and unspeakable history of violence, well, unspoken. Respectfully, I do not equate my experience with your actual irrefutable unknowing. I intend only to explore the depth of mission; for me, as a psychotherapist and a writer, that is to understand, accept, and perhaps unburden emotional pain.
The pain is real, as I feel sure it was for your mother. Often, I think we hide our pain from those we love. I hid my pain from my parents. I mean, how could I tell my mother that her hometown held people who saw me as dirty in my otherness? That would wound her as much as it had wounded me, and I know she also would have felt the pain of my hurt. I talk about the adoptee loyalty, and how we, as adoptees, bear the pain to protect our parents. Often though, that protection of pain comes out as anger. I regret that, but I think that is how we are as humans. I hope other adoptive parents will understand that oftentimes, if they can just put on our shoes, they may realize that our anger and hurt are really not directed at them but at the situation.
Interestingly, I realized from your Gazillion Voices post about the subway incident, that my own father had often protected me by preempting the discomfort I might feel from a stranger’s misinterpretation. Your experience brought back many times that my father would go out of his way to introduce me as his daughter, because obviously, I did not look related to him. Some might argue that he was protecting himself against the Asian fetish stereotype, but I argue he simply saw this daughter and wanted to protect her from comments that might wound a young soul. I love him for that. As a Puerto Rican, he knew prejudice all too well. He still experiences it today. His experience with prejudice pains me as much as my own, and that is how I know he understands.
But isn’t there a big difference between protecting our children and protecting our parents? Your connection with your dad is so lovely, and it would seem that his understanding of you is only deepened by his own experience of racism. I know it is naive, but I am always pained to hear about an adoptee’s need to protect her parents; while I understand on a psychological level, it still gets me in the gut.
As a therapist, I see how people will sometimes twist themselves into human pretzels in order to remain close to their families. I can understand why an adopted person might work even harder to stay connected – in order to preempt yet another loss. On this point, I have a lot of difficulty with an overemphasis on “attachment” and “bonding” in adoption; at times, such jargon can cloak the adopter’s need to feel needed. For me, as the adopter, and as the parent, it is on me to manage my own needs and insecurities, so that my children do not try to do it for me.
Love is a beautiful and powerful thing. I was once a proponent of “love is enough,” but on the shoulders of a young adoptee I agree with you that it is an unfair expectation for an adoptive parent to have. Love is as complicated as life.
And here, David, you have discovered the truth behind my writing today. My admission of my protective tendencies as a child is really a way of offering to adoptive parents my adoptee perspective. If today’s parents are aware and understand the complexity of my love for my parents and my inner fear of losing yet again, perhaps they can glean something from my narrative that might help them understand the complexities of love and the adoptee.
Love for an adoptee like myself just isn’t as simple as basic love; rather, it is wrapped up in grief, loss for my birth family, and ultimately my place within my adoptive family… the only family I have today.
Rosita, thank you so much for joining me in this dialogue.
~ David Amarel