By Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW
I was lost to my birthmother, my Umma, for over 21 years. In the losing of her, I lost my memory of her. Her face was even transposed with another family member in my mind’s eye; the one teary eyed snapshot of waving goodbye from a car window. She didn’t exist in my every day consciousness.
The consequence of losing is that even in the finding, it is never exactly as you left it. Time, life, travel, diet, culture, language has changed me from my three-year-old Korean self to someone she didn’t recognize when we first met. Meeting Umma has been an excavating exercise of my brain and still she does not pop out as a real person, just an essence.
I can’t suppose what she has gone through to make sense of me in her life now. She once said that she doesn’t know this person in front of her. In her mind, I am still her baby girl, she doesn’t know this adult woman. She doesn’t want to catch up either, dismissing any desire to see photographs of me when I was 5, 15, 20. The progressive way I think can’t understand why she doesn’t want to fill in the blanks. I poured over her photo albums looking at her 6, 15 and 24 year-old self, searching in the faces to see someone who looks like me. Meeting her at 24 and seeing her face at 24, I needed no DNA test to prove we were related, but again it was based on a two dimensional photograph.
Umma has told me that for months after I disappeared, she died; she was a shell of a human being. Paradoxically, I lived, I survived. I often wonder if in finding me she became alive again. For me, I found the dead fearful part inside that never got to grieve, cry out or wail. Having her back in my life I am reminded of what I lost. It is hard sometimes not to feel bitter or wistful about that.
Finding my way to my Umma as my mother has been taking me almost as long as the time we were separated, closing in on 21 years in reunion. Even after months of living together, I am not so sure I am any closer to making her real. There is no way to make up for those lost years, those formative years that creates the history that makes us family. Maybe the problem is the narcissistic perspective I keep examining our relationship. Thinking of her, I keep wondering: how am I her daughter? Beyond the outward trappings, I am left wondering do we think alike, do we sound alike; are we looking at the same thing? More specifically, are my instincts to want to please, to buckle down and get shit done like her? Is that how she survived all that time not knowing where her baby was, with whom and if she was safe?
Perhaps she is not meant to be the mother of my inner wishing. I am grown now and mother to others. As a mother, it’s my time to step aside and put my wants to rest. As we are both mothers, we are on more even footing and I find more compassion replacing the frustrating blanks.
Perhaps the way to find Umma is to find her here and now. We seem to like each other just fine even if we cannot co-exist in the usual mother-daughter kind of way. As a woman, she is kind, quiet, strong, stubborn and despite all the years of hard life looks incredibly youthful. I hope I have a little of that in me too.
Joy Lieberthal Rho, LCSW-R received her B.S. from Union College and her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. She has been working in the field of adoption for the last 14 years professionally and through various volunteer organizations. She was a Policy Analyst for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute where she co-authored the Report on the First Gathering of Adult Korean Adoptees in Washington, DC and has also been published by Child Welfare League of America in their Adoption and Ethics series. She also worked for Adoptive Families Magazine. Joy was a social worker in international placement for Spence-Chapin Services in NYC and ultimately worked in their post-adoption department for six years. During that time Joy has worked as a counselor for children and parents, presented at workshops related to issues around being adopted, facilitated Spence-Chapin’s Kids Groups, facilitated teen groups, and helped to create the highly successful youth Mentorship program. She has created curricula for agencies and professionals on a wide variety of topics – such as preparing for birthcountry visits, an overview of clinical issues in adoption – as they relate to helping families and children around adoption issues. Joy has spoken in local and national forums, in particular, at the Joint Council on International Children Services, Adoptive Parents Committee, Families with Children from China and the North American Council on Adoptable Children. She is currently in private practice and works primarily with kids and young adults who are adopted. She is also a counselor at The Juilliard School in Manhattan.
Joy is adopted from South Korea. She came to her family just shy of her sixth birthday. She grew up in New York. She was the president for six years of Also-Known-As, a NY based non-profit volunteer organization for internationally adopted people and families. She created their highly successful youth mentorship program and ran a variety of forums for adult adoptees. She was on the planning committee for the First Gathering of Korean Adoptees in 1999 as well as the Gathering in Korea in 2004. She lived in Korea for a year working in the orphanage where she once resided. During that time she learned how to speak Korean, learned that her birthmother had been searching for her for 21 years and learned that her identity as a Korean adopted person was a significant aspect of who she is. She has been in reunion with her birthmother since 1994.