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.


Research-China.Org said...

I use the term "Myth" to mean "an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution" ( It concept of the mourning birthmother may be true, but in my experience it is unproved.

Anonymous said...

Brian, while I enjoyed your thoughts, I think you forget how reserved the Chinese are. While the mothers may not grieve the children they abandoned, it's also possible that they just aren't showing emotion to a complete stranger. Unless I'm misinformed, the Chinese, as a whole, keep thier emotions to themselves. I wouldn't assume that their lack of tears and remorse, or even their saving face by saying they would do it all again, means they aren't grieving. The other thing you should mention is that the Chinese have a mindset that we, as Americans, don't have: bad things happen and it's just life so you move on.

Research-China.Org said...


I agree with your statements. It is obviously impossible to quantify an emotion. Thus, I don't say we love our children more or less than the Chinese. I merely want to show that the Chinese express their love differently, and that we must be mindful of that. I also think that the Chinese are forward thinking -- they don't dwell on the past, and revisit their decisions. That is a large part of the reason that orphanage directors, for example, find it hard to understand adoptive parent's wanting to visit finding locations, etc. The Chinese feel that the future is what is important, not the past.

In the course of my research I have come into contact with many birth families. While I would assume that most, if not all, would be excited to get information on their abandoned child, in reality my experience is that few do. They simply have moved on and don't want to revisit their experience. Thus, I believe we do our children a disservice when we emphasize the emotional attachment their birthparents feel for them. I believe it probably is not as we assume.


Julie said...

I would be interested in knowing if, given a different atmosphere in China in the future, the birthparents would be willing someday to meet with their abandoned daughter when she is an adult?

I know that many adopted children have the desire to know who their birthparents are. Although, this could be as much as a double-edged sword as the Chinese having children in rural China, as it is today.

Research-China.Org said...


A good question. Perhaps some of our readers who have met their child's birthparents can share their experience.


Anonymous said...

Just as you clearly point out the projection of emotion or lack-there-of regarding abandoment....are you not implying the same projection by explaining your interpretation of the feelings of the birth mother? Your small sampling of interviewed mothers does not give a global picture. We truly do not know what birth mothers feel as we have not walked in their shoes. And if we have.....our feelings and experiences would be different and we would perceive them different. This is not something that can be categorized say that they are either overcome with grief or they are not. It is unfair to proclaim we can know any of what they felt or how or why they did what they did. This is not a topic to generalize and certainly not one to assume that you know.

Anonymous said...

Brian, this is a tough question but one I have to you know why these mothers carried their babies to full term and gave birth, rather than having abortions? If it's not because they felt love toward their child, then there has to be another reason. Is it because they're waiting to find out the baby's gender first?

I agree with everything you have written, and we've always answered our girls' questions with "We don't know, but here is what we DO were cared for in an orphanage, etc." and share what we know to be true in age-appropriate dialogue.

But I've never understood why, if the pregnant women and/or spouse and/or extended family members don't want the children, they continue the pregnancy. Are abortions expensive? Would then the secret be out?

I'm a staunch pro-lifer, so I'm not suggesting the mothers should have had abortions. I just can't figure out where that fits within the puzzle. I'm eternally thankful that our girls' birth mothers DID carry them to term, gave birth, and placed them dressed warmly (and one with a note) in locations where they couldn't be missed.

I know too many China-adoptive parents who have created elaborate lifebooks with assumed details about the birthparents, and I wonder how that misinformation will manifest itself when the child is older and possibly learns a different story. What bugs me the most is when parents tell their child "She loved you so much that she wanted to give you a better life" (by abandoning the child). Well, then what does it mean to the child when the parents tell her "I love you so much"--I would guess the child might think she would be abandoned again.

Thank you, as always, for your sharing your experiences and insight.

Research-China.Org said...

I think I have been clear that I am not trying to assert that these experiences represent every person. What I am trying to present is that as adoptive parents we often portray to our children that their birth paretns harbor feelings that we don't know exist. The differences in culture suggest we should be cautious before telling our children that they are missed, that their birthparents felt sorry they had to give up their birth-daguther, etc. We don't know that is true.

Most families that bring the child full-term and then abandon them probably hoped to have a boy. The commentor is correct that abortion is easily obtained. This is certainly not the case in every instance, but in the majority.


Julie said...

Why do birthmothers carry their children full-term only to abandon them?

My educated guess (and this is from what I've read from other sources)is that, although abortion is readily available, knowing the sex of the child is NOT as easily obtained. Is it not a crime to have an ultra sound and be told the sex of the child so that the parents can abort if they wish. I thought China had prohibited this previously, while within the last year, increasing the penalties if caught - and I'm sure for many of those who are expecting a child, they either cannot afford or do not have access to an ultra sound.

Anonymous said...
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Research-China.Org said...
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Anonymous said...

Being a Chinese myself, I must say that I agree with everything you have said. I recently saw an adoption ad video where it showed a teary birth mother writing a note to her daughter, telling her how much she loved her but she must abandon her. You are right in that the Americans tend to project this type of feelings by the birth mother. I would have no problem telling my adopted daughter in the future that she was abandoned and then spent some time in the orphanage. What happened to her was bad, but what has happened to her now is good. She is now in a loving home.

I find it interesting that you said a lot of children in China are being raised by grandparents and that the parents hardly ever see their children. This type of practice is also true of the Chinese American here in the States. I know way too many Chinese couples who choose to work and have the grandparents take care of the children. I hardly take my children to the park in the mornings anymore because I always get asked if I'm the mother of my children. On any given morning, there are about 10-15 sets of Chinese grandparents at our local park babysitting their grandkids. It's absolute incomprehensible to them that I'd stay home and watch my own kids. I'm in the minority.

Thank you again for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...


I agree with this article so much. Like you, I married into an Asian family and I noticed instantly that they do not show emotions like Americans do. My husband had not seen his parents in 5 years and when they saw him again, they acted as if no time had passed.

When someone in his family is getting married or having a baby, they just kind of mention it in passing, like it's no big deal! And you are so right on with living for the future and showing love through deeds, like buying gifts and such. It is a very different culture from what we grew up in.

Kelley said...

I agree that making the assumption that my children’s birth mothers felt one way or another is not fair to my children or their birth mother. I cannot say to my daughters that their birth mother or father or grandparent loved them so much that they left them to be raised by someone who could provide them with a better life. As the mother of a child who could very possibly have been involved in the Hunan “scandal”, I can’t make any assumptions about her beginning. I can provide each of my daughters with the information that was given to me and what we know about her orphanage and her time there. Anything else would be pure speculation and I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t even feel comfortable with some of the information provided by the orphanage, but that’s another topic.

Karla said...

What I find interesting, having just returned with my daughter from China, is the comments that other Chinese (in the North) made about the Southerners who abandoned their children. They stated that they were terrible to do so. I found this an emotional comment and one which then diversified the broader term "Chinese" which you are using. Any comments on rates of abandonment in different geographical areas? I was quite taken aback by the comment as I had assumed it was a pervasive practice in the country.

I agree we can know very very little. The facts of my daughter's life prior to my meeting her are few. What will be the art of my parenting will be how I present this to her through her life. Honestly and with much integrity and little embellishment.

thank you again

Anonymous said...

As both an adoptive parent and an adoptee, I appreciate your story. I feel that many well-meaning adoptive parents do project their ideals of the birthparents' emotions and wishes onto the child. I (know of families and) read so much on listserves and other places about parents putting SO much focus on the birthparents and the 'you have two mommies who love you...etc.' and painting a picture of a birthfamily to a young, impressionable child that will create his/her own fantasies about that person (remembering that these kids still also believe in the toothfairy and santa...) that these parents may unwittingly be creating problems for their children and themselves both now and down the road.
I believe that these parents genuinely feel they are doing the right thing, and it surely is difficult to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and know their feelings. By being adopted myself (and ALSO meeting and knowing my birthparents), and having my adoptive parents who were both loving AND stuck to the facts and what's important NOW. I like to focus on the here and now. WE are your family; We are the ones who love you, feed you, play with you and care for you...And HERE is what we know for sure...
Thank you for a well-written and informative article.

FauxClaud said...

As a Mourning Mother ( no prefix please!), I have to say that I find this thought process distrubing.

First off, the original woman that you use as an example was NOT the mother to the child she abandoned. She did not give birth to her, so using her as the example is terribly misleading. She was the adoptive mother, and as we see often in the states, adoption whether long awaited and faced with years of paper ready, or unoffically, DO get disrupted by the choices of the adoptive families who decide that they just can't handle the child or situation.

For the "interviews" with all others, I think it is very good to question the cultural comfort level on the display of feelings. I could also sit with someone and coldly explain my story with little or no emotion and perhaps, they too, muight think that it means that I have deep feelings and are resolved, but it would be so very untrue. Not to mention hat there is a whole mindset that one order to realy live with the horror and reality of being separated from ones child. Have you ever read the words of mothers of loss,where they speak of being numb, or dead hard to project emotion and true feeling when just the smallest crack in the damn that keeps us surviing and breathing each day will make the whole house of cards coe tumbling down. Sometimes we spend our whole lives fighting any of course when having to talk about the experince, we have our walls strenghtened.
Gosh, look at all the "happy" no regret moms who speak about how wonderful their children's adopions are. They all sound the same and parrot not only each other, but the mantra of goodness that they were taught by the agencies. They cannot even admit the surpreme loss to themsleves and if someone talked to them, they would sound thrilled to lose a child at first.
China is still new to this adoption game. If yu want to look at the real feeligs of a mother who has lost her child though similar circumstances to international adoptions, look to Korea, which is a roadmap to where other IAs will go. Thirty years down the road, the mother's there are just beginning to speak and, oddly, they sound much like their American counterparts.
You can blanket it with cultural values, logical reasoning, but in the end, a mother's heart is a mother's we bleed. I refuse to beleive that thusnads of miles make a mother's feelings for her child any different.

Which leads me to the future of all these China dolls: what happens when they are raised with American values in their American families and take their American expectations of searching and wanting to know back to China?

Research-China.Org said...


You make some good points, and they might very well be true. However, my experiences with searching for birth parents in China leads me to believe that the conditions you describe are probably not true in a majority of cases.

I have interviewed scores of finders of children, and these finders had direct knowledge of the birthfamilies. We tried to convince them to make contact with the birth families, and in nearly every case the birth family declined to gain information on their child. They simply didn't want to know anything more about it.

I used the example of the single mother because that is the situation most of my readers find themselves in -- adopting another person's biological child and "adopting" her as their own. I think that all of us would ask ourselves if we could, or would ever do such an act as this woman did.

But your assertion that these women might be hiding true emotion is a plausible one, and perhaps true in the cases I have participated in. I don't think so, but it is possible. You have to be there to watch the faces of the people involved, to seek nuances of emotion -- is she hiding emotion or just uninterested? It is often difficult to know, so one keeps talking, seeking to make the woman as comfortable as possible, and seek to make that judgment.

Again I want to emphasize that I don't discount that these women loved their children, simply that the culture and circumstances provide a context for abandonment that we simply can't understand. Additionally, once the abandonment has occurred, I believe that most never revisit the experience.


Anonymous said...

In addition to the inflammatory character of the article's title, there is much in this article that I found presumptuous, judgmental and self-serving.

You presume to know that the Chinese mothers you have spoken to feel little, if any, emotion about the abandonment of their children since culturally, according to you, they see this abandonment as simply rational and "what they had to do". I imagine that you base your assessment on the outward grief and emotion that they do, or rather do not, express. This is very flimsy evidence for this alleged lack of grief and regret. Maybe the Chinese highly value self-control and the masking of their emotions, particularly in front of strangers? That is certainly my impression. Even in our Western countries, people generally keep their feelings to themselves when speaking to strangers, particularly about such private and sensitive things as having to surrender a child that one cannot raise. Had you interviewed me 10 years after losing my daughter to adoption, you would have seen few outward signs of grief because I had to repress it to go on living. What would someone like you know about the inner anguish that we feel? Nothing. Yet, you presume to understand.

You assert that you "could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise". I too could not imagine giving up my child to another to raise, but that is precisely what I had to do because I had no other viable option. I suppose that you cannot imagine either what it would feel like to have no viable option to raise your own child. You go on to take as a specific example this woman who left her 4-year old "daughter" at the local orphanage because she wanted to marry and her future husband already had a daughter. More specifically, you stated that you would happily remain single for the rest of your life if the price for marrying was giving up your daughter. How lucky for you that you can afford to make this choice. I wonder if it has occurred to you that for this woman, getting married was perhaps a matter of survival, not choice. Were you confronted by the same set of variables, could you honestly say that you would not have come to the same conclusion?

I am sure that you must sleep much better at night believing, as you do, that Chinese birthmother grief is a myth and nothing but the result of us Westerners projecting our heritage, our culture and our emotions onto them. If you did not, you might have to feel bad about benefitting from the misfortune of another human being. We are not talking here about mothers who make a free and unconstrained decision that they do not wish to parent. We are talking about mothers who live in a country with a punitive "one child per family" policy, are often dependent on a husband for survival and, furthermore, are culturally conditioned to value boys over girls. To conclude, in such a context, that Chinese mothers feel little, if anything, about losing their daughters, particularly on the basis of appearances only, is nothing but self serving propaganda that adds insult to injury. Shame on you, Mr. Stuy!

Josee Larose
Founding director of the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers

Research-China.Org said...

Josee Larose:

I certainly value your insight into the grief experienced by birthparents, but as you point out the Chinese "are culturally conditioned to value boys over girls." How exactly is that conditioning manifested? By birthfamilies abandoning their daughters. No one is forcing these people to do so. For all the lip-service we pay to the pressures faced by birthfamilies, it ultimately is their decision to act. Whether the reasons are familial, financial or traditional, they are at the end of the day rationalizations. The vast majority of these women are giving birth to these girls in the hopes of obtaining a boy. They are then abandoning the child because of her sex.

So, while I respect your passion and experience, at the end of the day I seriously doubt that the majority of women experience the grief and loss that you describe, and which you no doubt felt. For as you stated, the culture in China is different.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad that Fauxcloud and Josee commented here.
Just because the expression of emotions differs from culture
to culture does not mean that the emotions are somehow
magically erased. When I adopted my first daughter from
China, I truly believed that girls were abandoned because
they were unwanted. I was very surprised when I traveled
to China and met mothers on the street who clearly loved
their children, be it girl or boy. I knew then that the reasons
given are far to simplistic and that the situation is more
complicated than just the one-child rule. I now believe
that it is a combination of poverty and a lack of women's
rights that take children away from their mothers. Pain is pain
whether it is expressed or not.
Most likely, the paternal side
of the family made this decision,
not the mother.
Now I don't suggest telling your children what you don't
know. On the contrary.
But to suggest that Chinese women by virtue of the culture
"moved on, looking to the future" seems cruel, insensitive, and may I add

Anonymous said...

I think that lori is right when she says that what you see on the outside is not always what is felt on the inside. My mother's family is Asian, and we call it stone face. My mother and her family have had some horrible experiences, but they rarely talk about them and never with much emotion.

However, I think there is much truth in what Brian says about the attitude that the past is the past and the future is what counts. My daughter's nanny is Chinese and she has asked me why we wonder where her finding place was, etc. But then we gave her our daughter's referral to translate, she began to get caught up in the details.

I also think that part of it is a function of wealth. When you are struggling to survive, you don't have much time to think about things like the meaning of life etc. That tends to be a concern of people with more disposable income and wealth on their hands.

Anonymous said...

Abandonment in China is complicated, as any adoptive parent who has visited their child’s abandonment site can attest. Brian’s post is a brave one and doesn’t seem to me so much to argue that birth parents of abandoned children don’t care but that many, although not all, view the birth of children through a set of cultural, societal, and economic filters that are entirely different from our own. Of course our view is privileged and perhaps this is the point. Abandonment rates in China are highest in rural areas in south central China that are in relative close proximity to urban areas that many western visitors see, but really worlds apart. There is a lot of cross-pollination between these areas so the difference isn’t modern v. backward as much as some opportunity v. very little. If you live outside a major city in Hunan for example your family income likely has tripled in modern times but, on average, you’re still only getting by on less than $400 USD for the year with a lot more things to pay for. Still, Brian’s assertion is a fair one that abandonment is generally a choice that aims for the chance at some perceived optimum. To address Fauxclaud’s reference to “all these China dolls” and what happens when they’re raised with American values and want to know what happened to them back in China: my hope is that they get to return with some accurate background about that specific place and time but mostly with an open mind. For me, if my girls are saddened or grieved by what happened, I’ll understand and help them through it. If they’re angered, the same holds.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this. While I agree with the comments posted on 12/4 by "Lori", I have often felt that many China a-parents tend to over-romanticize the emotions of our children's Chinese birthparents. I can't or won't begin to fully explain why -- but I have the impression that some of it may stem from unresolved feelings of loss from having gone down the infertility path. My real-life personal experiences with my own children and friends and acquaintances who are china a-parents are that the more well-adjusted, well-attached children are being parented by people who don't lament or obsess about the child(ren)'s past(s). The attitudes and parenting styles of the parents of these children is kind of like the Chinese mindset mentioned by Lori -- bad things happen and it's just life so you move on. Something less than desirable (by some perspectives) happened to these children. Their lives have gone on -- they have been handed a new, different, often better situation. And now we move on.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that this post made my stomach ache. I'm not saying that I don't agree with you. I'm not saying that you're wrong, in fact, you're probably acutely correct. But there is no way in hell that I could EVER talk to my daughter about this until she was in her 20s or later.....or honestly, never. not at all.

It would break my heart (and perhaps hers) to think of her tragic abandonment in such business-like terms. Now that she's ours, she is definitly being raised in a vastly different emotional/financial/traditional cultural experience. Saying "I love you" is folded into our daily lives. If she were ever to be removed from me, it would be the end of my very existence. There's no getting over something like that. That's the depth of feeling that I convey to her every day of her life.

I could not, would not ever tell her that her first parents felt so little for her. Is this a cultural bias? You betcha. Am I going to be over-protective when it comes to explaining female infanticide, indifference over girls, emotionless abandonment? O hell yes! I don't care if she grows up with a false sense of pride about her birth culture. When she's an adult, she can go and figure it out for herself and reach her own conclusions. And I will hopefully be right there to fold her in my loving arms if she ever comes to understand the conclusions that you are drawing.

There are many feelings and thoughts I have about Chinese culture. Oftentimes, I feel that it is so much richer and more beautiful than anything my young country can match. When it comes to issues like these, I have to say that our way is SO MUCH BETTER. I normally don't like to draw those cultural lines in the sand because as always, there are exceptions. But in this case, I cannot help it. I would never damage my daughter's feelings of self-esteem by revealing what may be a truth about her arrival at the orphanage. I honestly prefer the beautiful lie that I have woven in my head. It is exactly as Brian told it.

She holds her close a she gently bends to lay her in just the right spot, she wraps the child lovingly in a soft yellow blanket, she props the bottle in a fold of fabric, she quietly backs away silently weeping, she waits breathless, she sees the child being whisked away to safety, she lowers her gaze and turns, she collapses as she understands that the child is going to a "better life" than the one she can offer. She is understandably heart-broken but she knows she has to do this.

Am I projecting my own emotions here? Yep. I'm living in a fantasy world. My heart won't take it any other way. And since my daughter is being raised in this level of cultural emotion, how would she understand or bear to hear anything different?

Mamacita said...

Not all adoptive parents went down the path because of infertility.

Anonymous said...

Very good article. I find your tone very neutral, and you don't make any judgements, you're presenting your data and impressions. It's my first visit to your blog, I will be checking out the archives.

Cookie said...

Debunking a myth on the basis of interviews with 2 women makes NO sense to me. Plus, why on earth would you think that a woman who barely knows you would bare her soul to you? Cultural factors are a part of the picture as well.

Many adoptive parents just do not want to acknowledge that losing a child to adoption is painful and generally causes remorse.

Anonymous said...

It's really interesting to read comments about how Brian is projecting his feelings, while the commenter is projecting hers at the same time.

As one commenter pointed out, look to Korea. However, when looking realize that there are many voices. Some birthmothers have refused contact, others welcome it, while others have intitiated it. It is complex, murky, opaque, just like adoption.

As far as the "China dolls", (really, how insulting "faux"), it will be her decision if/how she returns to China. It is our decision to support her either way.


Research-China.Org said...


I certainly wouldn't base my assertions on two interviews. Rather, my assertions are based on hundreds of conversations, scores of interviews, and the reading of many, many newspaper articles. Obviously they can't all be detailed in this essay.

The point of the essay is simple: To cast an element of doubt in the minds of adoptive families that will given them pause before teaching their adoptive child that they have birth parents in China thinking about them every day, missing them terribly, and wishing they had not given their child up. This image is a myth. It may be true in certain situations, but not in the majority. Why is that important? Because I read the blogs and postings of many, many adoptive families who instill this image in their adoptive children. They create adoption "stories" that incorporate these birth mother elements. Personally, I think this is just creating more problems down the road. My daughters have asked about their birth mothers, and I have given them what I know. But I have never instigated a conversation about their birth parents, never projected thoughts or emotions into their birth parents minds or hearts. This is the stuff of imagination. If our children one day return to China and locate their birth families, many, if not most, will realize their image of the paretns will be wrong, and they will face rejection one more time.


Anonymous said...

I agree that at some point the "truth" will hurt. IA is dark and complicated at best and I hope that by learning and understanding the realities of the process, we as AP are better able to project a confident view of our childs situation. I agree with another message that we have to be well balanced and realistic about the relailitys or our children will not be.

One issue you have not touched on that I would like to see would be your take on the view of chinese immigrants here in the states and thier views on IA. We have a friend who was born in Tiwan who is about as indiffernt towards our daughter as you could be. I also see no acknowlegement of our daughter in the chinese community - I do not really expect it but i wonder if they are ashamed , jeliouse, angery ? of course there are exeptions - but I hope that we are able to temper our desire for our
daughters "acceptance" in the Asian community.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with Brian 100%. My mother gave a child up for adoption before I was born. The marital and financial situation made it much better for the child and my mom to make sure she was taken care of. For a little over 30 years my siblings and I had no Idea this missing daughter existed. I got a phone call from my brother a few years ago and he told me I was a new brother. I thought he was nuts, mom was to old to have kids. It turns out this missing sister tracked him down and wanted to meet us. We met her and found out what happened. My mother never did. She didn't want anything to do with her and still has never met or spoken to her. She said it was in the past and thats where it should stay. She did what she had to do at the time and wasn't going to worry any more about it. The rest of us met her once and have not seen her again. You see, this person is not a member of our family... yeah it was nice to meet her, but she grew up somewhere else, with someone else. We do not share the same life, the same love for each other, we have nothing in common. What makes up a family is that shared love for each other. The years of special memories, The great times and the hard times. You can take five people with no common thread and weave them into a family. At the same time you can also take five people with the same genetic code and disperse them to different corners of the world and reunite them 40 years later and no matter how much you wish it could be, they are still not a family. Some of you may think I'm wrong, But I've seen it and I've lived it.

Anonymous said...

My oldest Chinese-born daughter is almost 12, my youngest almost 9. They have been to China with me on four trips, visited several small towns and orphanages. They have had a small glimpse into what rural Chinese life is like, and they understand how very different the culture is from ours. We have been having birthfamily conversation since my oldest was a toddler, and while it can be very hard not to project, I try never to do so. I use phrases like "I can only guess . . . " "I wish I knew more, but this is all I know . . . " and so forth. I say "I don't know" more than I wish I had to, but I will not create a fantasy story for either of them - I'm sure, because they are children and adoptees, they will do enough of that inside their own imaginations.

Our family is the only family they know. We love each other deeply, in all our complexity, and we show it constantly. We try not gloss over problems. My best friend is an adult adoptee who is always willing to talk to my girls and they know it. My oldest's godmother is a birthmother whose relinquished daughter has recently passed her 21st birthday - and she waits, daily, for this girl to initiate contact. She's never had other children - she's lived a full life and is one of the dearest people you'd care to meet - but underlying it all is a foundation of grief and loss, the likes of which I can only try to imagine. Yet she, too, could sit and talk to a stranger about her loss and not show emotion - otherwise, she'd not have survived.

Chinese culture requires an entirely different perspective on feelings than does ours. The pursuit of happiness is not a right. The pragmatics required to survive determine that emotion is extra, a bonus - not something to be acknowledged in daily life. Everything Brian said is likely true, and yet those women may well have a chasm of grief running through their souls that they cannot acknowledge - to a stranger or to themselves, lest they no longer be able to survive.


Anonymous said...

To me, the description of a life-mother (aka birthmother) who shows no emotion in her description of the loss, sounds a lot like the grief and trauma responses that we have been told to expect from our adopted daughter. Shutting down in order to live with the incredible pain. Numbness and not wishing to revisit the past because of the intensity - NOT the absence - of the accompanying emotions.


Anonymous said...

I've got to believe that since the day a birthmother had found out she was pregnant, she was practicing showing no emotion. Wether she knew from the start that later she would abandon the child or waited to see the sex of the child, she has "protected" herself in this way. It would come as no surprise that while being interviewed she would continue this type of behavior. Just like abandoning a child is "what had to be done", so is showing no emotion about the's the only way to get through life, especially when you think that some of our adopted children are not the only abandon children from a family. I'm sure you know that there are a handful of children who have later found siblings, also given up for adoption.


Anonymous said...

We are adoptive parents of our daughter who just turned three and our dossier was sent to China on Dec. 1 for our second child from China.

When it comes to what the birthmother and/ or family feels about their situation, I don't think any of us can say, understand, or project.

It's not unlike when one burns their hand by touching a hot stove. One can describe what it feels like to another person but until it happens to you, how can you know what it feels like whether you cry out in pain or staunchly internalize.

No matter how much one can guess, none of us will ever know how the birth mothers and/ or families mourn their loss or deal with their situation when they have to abandon their child in hopes of them having a better life.

But I'm certain by the very fact that parties conspire to make their babies available to be found that these children are in fact cared for and dare I say loved. Truly it would be easier to not have a baby live than all that's involved with the risk of abandoning the child.

I think only a mother knows the loss that she carries or the hope that she lives on with when she makes her child available to be adopted.


carolinagirl79 said...

This is a touchy subject for us sentimental, financially comfortable Americans!

But it happens right here in the US. I should know. I myself was adopted. My birth mother was a college student. She emphatically told the doctor who arranged the adoption that she wanted nothing to do with me ever. I found her in 1992 and wrote her a letter and she replied and politely asked me to have nothing to do with her.

I feel we are doing our children a great disservice if we paint a rosy picture of a mother who is mourning deeply and eagerly awaiting a reunion. For I've seen the end of this road, and it was a hard concrete surface slammed against my head.

Anonymous said...

so much to say... first, WE ARE NOT ALL INFERTILE as was posted earlier. Some of us CHOSE adoption!
I feel better now. I certainly feel for my friends that went down the invitro, failed adoption, miscarriage route, but it can be tiring to have people look at you with those puppydog eyes when they see that we ar caucasian and our daughter is CHinese. We COULD HAVE HAD a child but felt like "Why bring another one in when there are so many waiting"

on to the more emotional issues...Since NONE of us can KNOW what is in a Chinese Birthmoms mind nor heart, we are all guessing. All be it some of us have more insight than others. You would have to be a woman, a birthmom, and have abandoned (left to be found) a child in CHina. Since this is obviously NOT the case, we all have to fill in the blanks a bit. One of the things we DO know, is that the birthmother could have killed her girl child. From what I hear, that is not too hard to have done by a midwife or someone else. so, I CAN say that my daughters birth mom loved her enough to GVE HER LIFE. Isn't there some risk involved in leaving her to be found? SO, isn't that some kind of love to take a chance? Did she not 'love' her when she was in the womb? True, she probably wanted a boy for societal reasons but she probably loved her none the less. (Brian didn't you write about how the birthmoms didn't really care if it was a boy or a girl, that it was the paternal grandparents who put the pressure on surrendering the girls infavor of boys?)
I do 'think' that the mother had some feeling of loss. How could she not? It may have been her only choice, it may have been forced upon her, it may even have been HER choice. That still does not mean that there wasn't any loss. Many women that I know that chose to make an adoption plan for their children still feel a sense of loss and in this country it is much more of a choice than in CHina. The women I know who have had abortions still feel a sense of loss even if the never ever talk about it or try to convince themselves that they did the right thing.
Having grown up around Asians and having many Asian friends, many of whom are first generation, I do not think that you can 'judge a book by it's cover' so to speak. How can we know what is going on below the surface?
THe loss may be manifested differently or pushed down, or not felt as deeply as it might be here, in this culture. But there is loss on the part of the birthmother none the less.
So, what do I tell my daghter? I AGREE not to make up a terribly elaborate story nor pretend to KNOW. I tell her what I BELIEVE to be true. I BELIEVE her birthmother loved her and was unable to raise her and I BELIEVE that her foster family and nannies took very good care of her. When questions arise in the future I can only say what I believe to be true. Hopefully one day I will be able to meet her birthfamily and have a better idea. Hopefully through DNA testing and a change in CHina's attitude down the road, we will all know with a bit more certainty.
Although I don't agree with many of your conclusions on this one Brian, I still love you and appreciate what you do!

Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much everything said in the previous post.

First and foremost we "chose" to adopt. It was a first choice way for my husband and I to create our family. Our choice was not the destination at the end of the road of fertility efforts that lead many into adoption. Our daughters will know this was how we knew we wanted to create a family.

The only thing that seems odd in the previous post is the "Western" term of Nannies. Whether girls from China were fostered or in an orphanage, from what we've learned there were usually (guessing) five or so children to every care-taker.

The Western term illustrates (to me) there is no way we can put ourselves in this distant culture and truly understand all that is involved with the emtions when it comes to providing a future for their children by abandoning them.

For certain the girls experienced some type of caring/ nuturing; well at least in our match groups as with minimal challenges they seemed to be open to affection and love from their new parents.

Thank you for letting me post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article...It certainly gives food for thought, as does the dialogue it provoked. I think this conversation is important because it is JUST the beginning of starting to get an idea of what it means to be from a different culture. And as you pointed out, in China, as in all cultures, not everyone thinks/feels the same way. Some Chinese people may be more sentimental and hooked on the past than most Westerners, and some Westerners may be more oriented toward the future and more pragmatic than most Chinese. The point is that we can begin to get a sense of what might be the norm in another time/place, but we just don't know what is true of any particular family which gives up a child.
Furthermore, I assume that even though there are a lot of girls given up for adoption, that the vast majority of families keep their girls even if they were hoping for a boy. So, we are not just looking at the way the Chinese think/feel, but specifically people who have chosen to give children up for adoption.
I also believe that what we feel is very determined by what we are taught/expected to feel. I eat a lot of meat but I would probably become a vegetarian if I had to go out and kill an animal. Someone who is raised on a cattle farm is much more likely to be much more matter of fact about killing a cow to feed the family...and probably would have an upbringing which keeps them from getting to attached to the animal to begin with. When I, a city kid, moved to the suburbs and started gardening I felt guilty about every plant I pulled up, until I realized that I needed to kill some of the plants to make room for others to thrive.

I think it is nearly impossible to fully understand how another person's culture and circumstances have shaped their emotions, and that you are completely right in pointing that out. And as painful as it is, I think you are really correct that we don't know what damage we might be doing by pretending to know and telling the story we'd like to believe as if it were true.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and observations in such an honest way!

Doug and Terrye said...

You say that you would not give up your 4 year old for a woman. Have you ever been a woman with little means for income and needed assistance from a male figure in your life? Your circumstances are too different for you to project your emotions onto a woman. I am a woman and I live in a comfortable house in the US, sitting in the "cat bird seat" I could easily pass judgement on her, but it would be a skewed assessment.

Anonymous said...

I read the entire blog on The Myth of the Mourning Birthmother with keen interest, as I’ve been recently theorizing on my daughter’s biological family. Because she was abandoned at an elementary school at 3-weeks of age with two brand new outfits and a note, most would assume this abandonment was reluctant. But I can’t help but wonder am I trying to write a myth or just prepare myself for my daughter’s questions down the road?

Maybe a bit of both: Brian’s article and the blog have made me slow down…there is ice on the road ahead and I need to proceed with caution, for my daughter’s sake.

My daughter is only two years old but I need to prepare myself as the questions are on the horizon and will I be ready? I hope my responses are honest. I don’t want to glorify or demonize.

So even in this exercise, I’m tempering my emotional response for the sake of my daughter’s reality. And the flipside of the same coin, in China, during their pregnancy, I think a lot of the birth mother’s prepare themselves for possible disappointment. At birth they may have already detached from this child as an emotional self-protection tactic; A sort of prepare-for-the-worst yet hope-for-the-best scenario.

I want to protect my daughter from unrealistic expectations yet keep her self-esteem healthy. Her birth mother wanted to protect her own familial circumstances (whatever they were). And to move on with life, wouldn’t the healthiest route be to stop dwelling on the bundle left at the gate?

However, the circumstances in China are probably much more varied than we think. I suspect my daughter may have an older sibling and was abandoned for that reason. Should I keep that thought to myself? If she has an older sibling, could that sibling be a girl? If she was a boy would she have been abandoned? Maybe we will never know… But maybe my daughter will go searching for answers such as these. I will do the best I can to temper her expectations (much like her birth mother might of done) but I hope to support her endeavors the best I can.


Anonymous said...

I ran across "The Myth of the Mourning Birthmother" on another site, and it reminded me of a friend's situation. His wife is from Taiwan. After she gave birth to three boys, she was told it would be dangerous for her to be pregnant again. Because she and my friend wanted a girl, her sister in Taiwan (they were living in the US by this time) gave her baby daughter to them to adopt. It was not for economic reasons, as the family is upper middle class. It occured about 30 years ago now, and she has apparently always been aware of the situation. Having three children myself I cannot fathom giving one of them up, but my friend has always implied that it was a normal thing in Chinese culture.

Anonymous said...

I think that all this talk about culture is misguided.

Pregnancy, birth... these are biological (not cultural) processes.

And biologically speaking, all humans--no matter our skin tone, eye shape, place of residence, or religion--are pretty much the same.

Do you know... there have been studies on facial expressions cross-culturally... and they all mean the same thing in every culture?

This points to the idea that fundamentally, at a bio/psychological level, we are all MUCH more alike than we are different.

And... as birth is a biological and psychological process... I think the safest assumption would be that Chinese birth mothers (first mothers) feel all the same things first moms from around the world do.

Giving birth changes you, at a very physical level. Your body primes you to nurture a child. And I am not just talking about milk coming in... but psychologically, at a brain-chemistry level... a woman's body is prepped, through pregnancy, to become nurturing and protecting of her offspring.

That cannot be a cultural phenomenon. If it were... and if the Chinese were so easily able to squelch the natural protective instinct of their children... how could they be here, today? They are the largest population on earth. Evolutionarily speaking, if they lacked the fierce protective emotions for their children (which is what you imply, by suggesting they can so easily "get over" the relinquishment of their children), how could that be possible?

No. You are wrong, Brian. I would you bet you my house, my job, my cars, my savings account. You are simply...wrong.

Research-China.Org said...


You propose a very ethnocentric idea when you state that ALL women feel the same things. Our emotions are largely a product of our culture. People that are taught to experience "spiritual energy" at a church service experience those emotions, when others not so programmmed look around and see lunacy. Romantic love is largely a product of our Western culture, and many cultures have their marital relationships based on more pragmatic reasons. I would no more state that all women feel romantic love than that all women feel the same emotions to their children. Again let me state that I am not propounding that Chinese women don't feel a bond to their children, or that they don't love their children. I am simply suggeting that it is often a very different emotional bond that we in the West are programmed to experience.


Anonymous said...

Let me try again (though not sure why I'm bothering):

Quote: "Our emotions are largely a product of our culture."

This is flat-out false. Did you even read my comment fully? Researchers have found that humans experience the same emotions, in every culture, around the world.

I find it amusing that you're accusing me of being ethnocentric, when in fact, I interpret your post as extremely ethnocentric. You're arguing that Chinese women DON'T feel the same emotions as all other mothers, just because you don't SEE them EXHIBITING those emotions. That is a very, very ethnocentric way to judge a person's emotions--looking at them through your Western eyes, and deciding that you know what they're feeling based on the fact that they don't express what you, as a Westerner, would expect them to.

Ironic, isn't it?

Research-China.Org said...


You assert in your original comment that the physical/biological responses of women to childbirth are the same the world over, a point that I don't dispute. Then you shift and assert that emotional responses such as guilt, love, and remorse are universal. They are not. Such emotional responses are learned from one's culture.

Remorse is a conditioned response to the breaking of some societal norm. Here is Utah, many people would feel remorse for having to shop on Sunday, a learned response to tehir religious upbringing. I would feel remorse at stealing from another person, but there are many who feel no such remorse. Emotional responses are learned Nichole, and thus not universal.

This is particularly applicable when it comes to birthmothers in China. Growing up in a culture that is forward looking, that by ncessity views children in a more utilitarian sense, and that is more communallly oriented results in a different response to abandoning a child than we are taught to have here in the West. I don't advocate that women in China don't have the natural instinct of child protection or love, simply that they are not conditioned to dwell on abandonment with feelings of remorse or mourning.


Anonymous said...

Brian presents this article to give us pause in how we create and talk about our child's birth story. We need to be careful in romanticizing this part of the story for our child and ourselves. It is very clear that time and place will affect how we rationalize decisions. Rewind (or just look around) western culture to a time and place where life asked to make tough decisions and we won't be so quick to pin these attitudes on any one culture.

One indulgent point here. For all the "we chose adoption" posters pointing out they didn't face fertility issues. Those of us that have and do face fertility issues recognize at a very personal level that we are building a family that has started with loss for our child, birth parents and adoptive parents (us). I hope that gives us an opportunity to be sensitive about very complicated issues that can't be easily resolved and that it is an identity dialogue that will continue to unfold for all three parties. We also chose adoption too so quit trying to parlay that point into some greater legitimacy.

Anonymous said...

As the mother of two wonderful daughters from China I read all of these comments and really enjoyed the commonalities and diverse comments and opinions. When it all is said and done, we adoptive parents play a pivotal role in how we address the entire abandonment issue when our children are old enough to ask. The reality is that I will most likely never know the dynamics that went in to the birthparents' decision to sever the parent/child bond.

When my oldest asked "Why didn't my other mommy want me?" I matter of factly replied that I didn't know. I told her what I did know:

1. She was placed where someone would find her immediately.
2. She was wearing warm clothes and was protected from the environment.

She looked at me and said, "OK" and went back to playing with her toys. Later that day I made sure to tell her how much I loved her and that we were all so lucky to have such wonderful people in our family. This honesty has served us well as a family and there is no right or wrong way to talk about the circumstances of my daughters' birth. As parents we must do what feels right for our family and move forward.

I am thankful and honored to have such wonderful little girls in my life and feel gratitude and respect for the women whose actions made my family possible.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Something you all might want to watch.
I think the most important thing that was said here is that the woman was an adopter, not a Mother of that child.

Anonymous said...

To the previous poster, I adopted my daughter, and I am her Mother, not an "adopter." The legal papers say so, and the feeling in my heart tells me so. Biology is not the only -- or necessarily in all cases the best-- way to make a family. Unfortunately, as we all know, there are profoundly dysfunctional biological families. I resent being considered as "less than" by people who think biology is what makes a parent.

In response to your post, Brian, and to other comments about it-
I do believe that many birthmothers who have relinquished children have unresolved grief and guilt, regardless of the culture. I can also understand why women relinquish babies for reasons completely personal and possibly incomprehensible to others. I can understand this because of my experience with an abortion I had when I was a teenager.

I was taught that having a baby before graduating college amounted to ruining any chance you had in life. Essentially, you would be worthless as a human being. It was a VERY LOUD message. I was educated and raised in a right-to-choose home and neighborhood, and girls didn't have babies that they couldn't take care of--they had abortions. Adoption never even crossed my mind.I felt that I had no choice, I felt very pressured by the messages in my head, and I made the decision in desperation.
For many years, I felt nothing, then tremendous, pervasive sorrow and guilt. This is why I believe that at least some, if not many, of the birthmothers of our children adopted from China would feel loss, sadness, and guilt, if they didn't shut down, a reaction that is dictated by their culture and cirumstance.

My daughter is still young, and we haven't had many birthmother talks yet, but I don't intend to sugar-coat anything, and I won't lie to her. I will tell her that I believe that her birthmother loved her. Why? Simply because most women who carry and give birth to babies love them, probably very much.

Anonymous said...

It's how they are taught culturally, and it's also human nature to look forward, to SURVIVE.

I don't KNOW anything about giving birth and how it "must feel" to surrender the child. I also don't know what it's like to be desperately afraid of losing my reputation and my family's, of risking tremendous hardship, to just NOT HAVE A CHOICE of whether I can love or not love this child, because loving her will mean devastation for everyone.

We just keep putting our cultural projections on this thing called adoption. I get tired of it, and I thank this author for having the nerve to write something that no one else will say. There is nothing that is universally experienced the same way. Surely we don't know all there is to know here either.

Anonymous said...

We did find my daughter's birth mother. Incredibly lucky and I never, ever imagined this would be possible (only possible due to my friendship with a foreign exchange college student who happened to be from the same city as my child's orphanage). Through a translator (my friend) she said that she had finally "gotten used to" life without her daughter; that she tried not to remember because it was better that way and because it made life too hard otherwise; that this was not something she had a choice about and you had to do what life required; it was finally easier (this was 5 years later). She took the photo album we had brought, gave us a small piece of paper with an address on it and asked through the translator if we would be so kind as to sometimes send photos to this address (it was not her home address) if it wasn't too much trouble. As she walked away, just after she turned her back to us, it looked to me as if she wiped away a few tears. Certainly as we talked she'd sometimes look at the ground and blink a number of times very quickly. I know that I do that when I am trying not to cry. She made a few comments of how my daughter looked so like her brother, so like her grandmother. She spent a lot of time looking at our daughter; She thanked us for being so kind.

During this entire conversation she was, from an American point of view, shy, pretty unemotional, and very polite. After she had left the translator told us she had said to him that she never imagined that she would see her daughter again and now she could be "serene" and to please not talk about this meeting to anyone.

Sounds very much life grief to me and then some sort of peace that she knew what had happened ultimately to her daughter. I know that when my immediate family members died (siblings when I was younger, parent...) my immediate grief was overwhelming, as the years went by the periods of intense grief were further and further apart (although when they did hit is was almost as bad as if it was yesterday) and that finally I didn't think of these deaths on a daily basis. Life went on, I became happy again, but when I'd really think about it, I grieved. In fact, here it is almost 30 years after my brother died and I can still sometimes cry over his death.

I think that it would take a Chinese researcher talking to a number of birth mothers to find out what was the range of feelings, responses, of a Chinese birth mother abandoning her child. We would need to interpret it in the context of how the Chinese do or do not express emotion, what they do or do not say to strangers... I would hesitate to say that somehow it is easier to abandon your child just because you are Chinese.

Anonymous said...

We adopted our daughter in 2004. She is now 5 1/2. She has asked why "the lady who had me in her tummy" couldn't take care of me. We tell her the truth and that is that we don't know for sure, but what we do know is that it is God who forms families and that it was His plan that she be part of our family. Understanding that our life has a purpose and that God directs our paths, will give our daughter the foundation of self-worth that comes from knowing that GOD loved her so much to allow her biological family to place her in an area that she would be safely found, so that she would join our family.

Anonymous said...

Brian, thank you for a thought-provoking essay. I agree with the analysis of the anonymous poster whose pro-choice family gave her *only* the choice for abortion, as that was my experience too. As a result of giving up a child through adoption or abortion a woman can either: mourn out of sight of others, bury her grief by moving on, or honestly have simply a feeling of relief. I know I experienced in the first two. The Chinese culture and life pressures may predispose women to move on and hide or not indulge in impractical feelings; this rings true to what I have learned and observed from Chinese friends. Regarding Americans: our culture has a myth that women who have abortions are monstrous and uncaring, when the truth is frequently that they are victims of circumstance and not mature or economically strong enough to either protect and care for a child or they are not emotionally strong enough to watch that child removed forever and given to someone (insert a kick in the gut here) "more deserving." Hence, one young victim is blamed for victimizing another, with no opportunity or acknowledgment or socially approved expression for her deep loss.

Regardless of my experience, I feel 1. it is harmful to tell children lies, even pretty ones. So my adoptive daughter will receive the facts and I will plainly admit my beliefs based upon her particular finding circumstances are merely that--my beliefs. Also, 2., her father and I will do all we can if she wants help locating her birth family, but (and this essay helped me realize more clearly) the truth is that the family you actually grow up with is more real than the family you didn't have. So those parents who inflate the facts complete with a birthmother who never moved on with her life and cries every night may regret concocting such stories when their daughter decides she would have preferred her original, more doting, fantasy parents. Making the birth family "more real" with vividly imagined stories can only detract from a healthy approach to an adoptive child's life. Some things will always be unknown and unknowable; that's true of everyone's life.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I just read this whole thread through again because I recommended it as reading on another blog. I agree with your premise that emotions are culturally mediated. Jane Liedtke, for example, has pointed out that as Westerners we are often unaware of the extent to which Judeo-Christian values seep into our assumptions about love and forgiveness. As she said so well, there is no forgiveness in the Chinese ethos (and certainly no shaping Judeo-Christian ethic either). There is, however, honour, duty, and saving face--and yes, a great deal of pragmatism and looking towards the future. We forget how different our cultures and ideologies are when we try to assess the actions of the gov't or when we attribute motives to others.

Having said that, I wonder if the situation will change at all as the old guard dies off and the belief in the primacy of boys dies off as well. Then it will be the loss of a child, period. And I wonder if the larger pressure of doing the honorable thing--sometimes coerced, as you have pointed out, by the husband's parents--will fade as well and there will be more room for grieving.

Culture, tradition, ideology--yes, these things can keep a tight lid on emotions, but they do not destroy them completely. Feelings are just feelings. When these cultural pressures recede you may find much more public acknowledgment of grief. Let's not forget too that in the case of a mother and a child, this is the most powerful biological bond there is. The grief is practically dictated by nature.

Still, what I appreciate most about your writing is how nuanced it is. A quality sorely lacking on many adoption sites.

AdoptAuthor said...


I find this piece uncomfortable judgmental and not at all reflective of The piece quoted - the interview with two mothers, which states:

How often does each of them think about their “lost daughter”? The answer from both was immediate and identical: every day. Both showed in their faces the regret and shame they felt for what they had been forced to do – perhaps not forced in any literal sense, but in a cultural one. Out of respect for their elders, both of these women and their husbands felt they could not fight the pressure of their parents.

When we are cut, we all bleed. When someone dies we all mourn and grieve - but in our own way.

“This magnitude of loss is, to say the least, difficult for her to overcome. Sometimes the best a birthmother can do is to remain in denial and numbness for the rest of her adult life, unconsciously encumbered by her silent sorrow.” Davidson, Michelene K., 1994. “Healing the Birthmother's Silent Sorrow, Family Systems
Research and Therapy, Volume 3, (pp. 69-89). Encino, CA : Phillips Graduate Institute.

This is a universal truth and to think otherwise is to do a tremendous disservice to mothers who have experienced childbirth losses of any kind.

It might make adoptive parents feel less guilt-ridden, but it is not truth and very unkind and cruel. these women are not cold stones manufacturing babies for americans to adopt. They are victims of social pressure as were millions of women within the US in prior decades.

Anonymous said...

Have you read the LA Times article on the forced confiscation of babies in rural areas?

Research-China.Org said...

Yes, it is a very sad article. Readers can find it here:,0,401407.story?page=1


wiskia said...

I agree with some of the posters. An American male proposes a theory about hundreds of thousands of Chinese women based on interviews with just two of them.
As far as we can tell, he is not an academic, nor a trained and accredited sociologist or psychologist. I take it he does not speak any of the Chinese languages, and, crucially, he has never given birth.
Add to the mix the fact that he is an adoptive parent and therefore possibly partisan.
He is of course entitled to his opinion based on those two interviews. However, who was the translator? Can he trust that it was an accurate translation? What circumstances were the women interviewed in? Were they comfortable and secure? I can only imagine how upsetting and intrusive it was for them. And I'm sure that he would accept that such interviews with American women who had lost children to adoption would have been conducted under very different conditions.
I note that the stories of Korean women who had lost their children to adoption in the aftermath of the Korean-American war are beginning to emerge.
Perhaps your posters would also be interested in learning about the Irish children who were adopted by Americans from the 1940s up until the 1970s? Their stories are told in "Banished Babies" by Mike Milotte. The book is currently out of print but some copies are available on
What will be apparent to the reader is that poverty, societal disapproval and absence of social supports are the underlying reasons behind adoption throughout the world. It is a fallacy to suppose that women willingly give up their children to strangers on a whim or because of cold indifference.
And just to show that I'm conscious of possible bias, I can assure your posters that Mike Milotte is an experienced researcher and journalist who has no connection with adoption whatsoever!
I suppose that what surprised me most about all the postings was the almost complete lack of any real "hard" information about the underlying economic factors in China which is driving foreign adoption.
Foreigners pay a fee to the Chinese government for each child they adopt.
The "one child policy" is not as simple as it sounds.(And of course there are some areas where more than one child is allowed per family).
Every pregnancy has to be "approved" by the local Communist Party Cadre. To keep an "unapproved" child elicits a fine which is equivalent to the cost of a house. Further increased charges are imposed for that "extra" child's education and healthcare etc.
The reason the boy is preferred as that one child is that there is no pension provision whatsoever in China. Boys are expected to financially support their aged parents, whereas girls, upon marriage, are expected to support their husband's elderly parents.
And regarding "abandonment" - there is a fine payable if a child is given directly to an orphanage. That is why the child's "abandonment" is planned and people informed as to where she may be found.
To close, I hope that all would join with me in wishing fervently that we could begin to hear and read the uncensored voices of all the poor women throughout the world who have been denied the joy of keeping and rearing their own children purely because of the accident of geography.