Friday, November 24, 2006

The Myth of the Mourning Birthmother

I watched her face as she sat across the table from me; it showed no discernable emotion, although her story was a tragedy in every sense of the word.

She described how two years ago she had come to drop off a four-year-old girl at the local orphanage. "I had married a man who already had a daughter," she related, "and so if we wanted to have our own children, I needed to get rid of my daughter." Her "daughter" was a girl she had ostensibly found on the street at a few days old and cared for, as a single mother, for four years. Pressured by her new husband, they had both brought the four-year-old to the orphanage and turned her in as a foundling.

A week later the couple had second thoughts on the wisdom of their actions and returned to the orphanage to retrieve the child. They were told it would cost them 5,000 yuan to do so. Incensed at the orphanage's apparent crassness, they refused and walked away, never to return. The four-year old was later adopted by an American family.

Many adoptive families presume that the abandoning of their child by her birth parents is accompanied by pangs of guilt and remorse. We envision the birthmother watching the abandoned child until discovery is made, tears streaming down her face. We imagine that they deal daily with the guilt of this abandonment, and anxiously wait for the day when they might miraculously receive word that the child is doing well and being loved by a family.

For the rural farmers of China that compose 70% of its population, children are viewed as a two-edged sword. At once creating a drain on precious family resources for food, medical and educational costs, they are also viewed as essential for aged care and family-name perpetuation. Additionally, there is the obvious benefit in providing farm labor.

But the thin line of existence that the majority of Chinese live on, especially in the countryside, has created a culture where love for a child, as we know it here in the West, is hard to come by. Children are seen as serving functions, not birthed for their own sake. It is hard to express the subtle difference, so perhaps an illustration might help.

When I interviewed the two birthmothers last year, both matter-of-factly recounted their stories. There was no tears of remorse, although both expressed some regret that they had abandoned their children. Both acknowledged that if confronted with the same situation again, they would abandon their child again. Neither birthmother was very emotional when recounting her story, but rather showed a sense of consignment. They did what had to be done in both of their situations.

Another example originates in my own family. My wife comes from a farm family of five girls, and each of those girls was at one time or another offered to another family to raise. It started when the oldest daughter was two years old. A local childless couple befriended my wife's parents and was affectionate to my in-laws only child. My wife's parents felt that this childless family could provide a better life than they could, so they offered their daughter to this couple to raise; their only request being that the couple retain their child's family name instead of renaming her. The childless couple refused, and after a few months of caring for this girl they returned the child to my wife's parents. A similar scenario would be repeated for each successive daughter, for different reasons but with the same outcome.

It is also interesting to note that a large percentage of families in China turn over raising of their child(ren) to the grand-parents, while the husband and wife work. For many of these families, the child is with her parents for only a small percentage of the time each year, most especially during New Year's.

Personally, I could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise, but then again I don't live in the same financial state that my in-laws did, or that most Chinese families are in. Perhaps if my daily struggle was to simply exist, I would see beyond my own emotional needs for love to the long-term life-opportunities of my child. I don't say the long-term happiness of my child, because I don't think for most Chinese "happiness" is the driving factor in their decisions. Rather education, quality of life, and simple existence seem to be important.

There was no emotional regret in any of these stories, simply an acceptance that life required these decisions. No apologies, no tears, no looking back.

I'm not saying that the Chinese don't love their children, but it is not often the emotionally-invested love that we in the West feel. It is a practical love. It is not a love shown by touch or words, but through deeds. If you love your child in China, you demonstrate it by acts. My wife has never heard the words "I love you" from her parents or siblings, and no one I have met in China has acknowledged saying it to their children or hearing it from their parents. Love is shown by the fixing of a favorite meal, the knitting of a sweater or pair of gloves, or by giving the child to another family to raise in order for the child to have a better life.

Of course each family is different. I have met many Chinese families that coddle their children in love as much as I coddle mine. But speaking generally, I believe that it is dangerous for adoptive parents to project their own emotions onto women in China. When a birthmother is faced with the "unfortunate" birth of a girl, she will do what is viewed to be in the best interest of that child -- the girl will be taken to a family with all boys, or a childless family, or left to be found and brought to the orphanage. It is an act that is understood, and done with little fanfare and emotion. "It had to be done," they might very well answer us if we could ask them why. I believe for most birth mothers, it is felt and recognized that it has to be done, and it is accomplished with little emotion and less regret than we living here in the West often imagine.

I have been the adoptive parent for my daughter Meigon for four years, the same length of time as the woman I interviewed in the opening to this essay. I ask myself if I would ever be willing to bring her to an orphanage in order that I might find favor in the eyes of a woman. I can truthfully say that I would sooner remain single all my life than lose my daughter. That the woman above was able to leave her adoptive daughter at an orphanage is incomprehensible to me. Truthfully, that any woman would leave her child on the street, at a hospital, or at the orphanage is difficult for me to comprehend. I can pretend to understand it, but in the final analysis I am simply forced to project my heritage, my culture, and my emotions onto her. So, while we may try to tell our children that their birth mothers loved them, that they regret having had to give them up, that they probably think about them everyday, in the end it is all our projection. It is what we would do if we were in their situation.

As adoptive parents we should be careful before we assert emotions to our children's birthparents that might be simply our own projections or assumptions. I believe it can be damaging to our children to communicate feelings we think their birthparents had, which possibly they didn't, or don't have. To tell our children, for example, that their birthparents miss them, love them, etc., is simply communicating what we might feel, but does not necessarily communicate the reality of the birthparents. In all probability, they have moved on, looking to the future, and not dwelling on the past.

Culturally that is what they are taught to do.