Friday, September 09, 2005
The Other Mother
The women had begun to gather before we had even arrived. As we traveled to this remote village in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, I had hoped to find the foster family for the girl I was doing research for. The foster mother had slipped her phone number between the girl’s clothes on the day she was delivered to the adoptive family, and we had called her to get directions to her home. Now, as we approached her house, I could see scores of other women running across the fields towards us.
As adoptive parents, most of us think at one time or another on our children’s biological parents. But often lost in the adoption process is an awareness that our children sometimes have three mothers, not just two.
Many orphanages in China utilize foster programs to care for the children prior to adoption – either due to space constraints in the orphanage, or because the administration believes that a home environment is healthier for the emotional well-being of the child. Although most foster families apply to foster children to supplement their income, it is obvious to me that most deeply love the children they care for. Foster families earn between 400 and 500 yuan ($50 to $60) a month caring for each child. Orphanages fund their foster programs with assistance from the government (150 yuan per child) combined with money derived from adoption donations. Because fostering costs more money than caring for the child in the orphanage, some facilities try to limit the number of children placed in foster care, sometimes placing only the healthy children in foster care, or only the special needs children. A few, like the Yongfeng orphanage in Jiangxi, place almost all of their children in foster families, keeping only a small number of children in the orphanage facility to satisfy minimums established by the local Civil Affairs Office. Still others, like the Fengcheng orphanage in Jiangxi Province, are in the process of upgrading their facilities so that all of the children in their care can be cared for “in house”.
Most foster families are older married couples, with a husband working in a low-paying manual job and grown or almost grown children. Many live in the rural areas around the cities, but few live on farms. The average foster family home is a two-bedroom single-story house with a very small kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a larger living room that opens to the outside. A majority of foster families have the children in their care sleep with them in their bedrooms, either in simple cribs or in a family-bed arrangement.
Nearly all of the foster families that I have met long for the children that they cared for. Some express wishes that they could have afforded to adopt the children themselves. A small percentage foster only one or two children, the separation process being so emotionally painful that they refuse to care for more children. One foster family in Yulin, Shaanxi Province spoke of the two children they had watched as if they were their own, and kept their pictures on the wall of their living room. My own experience with my youngest daughter’s foster parents has served to convince me how deeply my daughter was loved by them. While completing the adoption process, we asked (as most adoptive families do) to meet the foster family that had cared for our daughter for almost three years. Due to repeated prohibitions from the CCAA, most orphanages are extremely reticent to allow this kind of contact, but we prevailed upon the orphanage director, and he arranged for the foster family to drive down to our hotel to say good-bye to our daughter, and to meet her new parents. As we all talked with each other, no one noticed the foster mother take our daughter’s hand and walk out of the hotel lobby, disappearing into the traffic and crowds. An anxious 19 hours later the mother was located with our daughter. This woman simply could not bear to let her “daughter” go.
It is clear from my interviews with weeping foster mothers that many go through a painful emotional heartbreak when they are told to bring the children back to the orphanage for adoption. As adoptive families, we long to get in contact with our children’s foster families. Even today, I still desire to remain in contact, albeit very controlled contact, with my daughter’s foster mother. She has, like most other foster mothers, valuable photos, anecdotes, and medical histories that are otherwise unavailable to us. I have tried unsuccessfully for three years to find the foster family for my daughter Meigon, whom I adopted at 19 months. I fantasize about discovering her foster family and retrieving infant photos, humorous anecdotes, and information on the various scars Meigon carries on her body (small, but interesting nevertheless). But each time I have approached the orphanage I have been denied access. (Since writing this essay I did locate Meigon's foster mother. That story can be read at http://research-china.blogspot.com/2005/10/ripples.html
As we approached the village of the foster family of my research child, we were swarmed by over thirty foster mothers, all gripping pictures of their “children”, begging me for information on how they were doing. Some wept as they described the children they had cared for. All wanted to be reassured that their foster daughters were happy and well cared for. As we concluded our interviews, retrieved our lists, and headed back, my thoughts continued to dwell on these women who cared for, and loved, our children, preparing them for the families that would soon come to take them home.