It was 2005, thirty-seven years after my own adoption in chilly Winnipeg. My husband and I were in sweltering Korea, having just been handed forever custody of our baby girl, Phoebe Min-Ju Jayne. She was six-and-a-half months when we brought her back to our hotel room in Seoul. Stoic at first, she was unsure of what was happening, but probably hoped these strangers who looked and smelled and felt weird would return her to her doting foster parents. We did not return her, and she screamed. She screamed into the wee hours, with me pacing back and forth, rocking, soothing, praying, and finally begging God to help me. Doyle, who is up before me 99.9 percent of the time, fell asleep at some point, which left me as the grownup in charge. How he slept through his baby’s shrieking I will never know. You know how they say necessity is the motherhood of invention? It’s really desperation that is the motherhood of invention. And I was desperate.
Carrying Phoebe facing outward in a baby carrier, I landed on a wacky idea. I turned on the taps, sat her little baby bum on the sink ledge, and let her kick her feet in the running water. Phoebe stopped crying. We stared at each other in the bathroom mirror above the sink, sizing each other up. My little Gonju. (Korean for “Princess,” this was Phoebe’s foster parents’ nickname for her.)
I stood fatigued, done in, and heartsick. Yet something in me rose up like a warrior. I would soldier on all day and all night for this frenzied, mottled baby girl. I would not give up until she knew she was safe and that I could be trusted.
It&squo;s me and you, baby. You will not win this one. This is what moms do: we fight. I will always fight for you, even when you are brawling like you are now, no matter what. We belong together now.
We stood that way for what seemed like hours. Finally, she fell asleep, and blessedly so did I. In the morning, she resumed screaming as soon as she woke up. I had harbored an absurd hope that Phoebe would have cried herself out the night before. But no. She continued to cry and sleep, reluctantly taking a bottle from one of us while giving us the stink eye the whole time.
I can’t say no one warned us this might happen. Both our social worker and our pediatrician (an African woman who was well versed in international adoptees) told us she might cry—a lot.
“She will either scream or be very, very quiet,” Dr. Addy had said. “These are the two main ways these babies deal with their grief.” If she had to choose, Dr. Addy said, she would hope for screaming. It was better than locking it all inside. Screaming meant that she had attached to her caregivers, her lovely foster parents with tears in their eyes as they handed their Gonju to me. And if she had attached to them, it meant she could more easily form an attachment to us.
Doyle and I nodded. We understood everything in theory—and not much at in reality.
Phoebe screamed much of the way home on a Korean airline, with Koreans trying to help us and making things worse. I would go to the airplane bathroom and cry my own eyes out. It was not the way I wanted to start out life with my daughter. Yet each time I walked back to my seat I felt a renewed resolve to fight for her orphan heart.
Yes, her orphan heart. If you are like many people, you may feel uncomfortable at the word “orphan.” You may think Phoebe’s orphan status was cancelled the moment they placed her in our arms.
But, in the words of Inigo Montoya of “The Princess Bride,” I do not think this word means what you think it means. Orphan, that is. We think of an orphan as someone who has lost their parents, but even though that is exactly what has happened to an adopted child, they don’t seem to count as orphans.
Dr. Marcy Axness, author of The Primal Wound, an adoptee and adoption expert, has seen this dismissive attitude countless times in her career. “In many a presentation at adoption conferences, I would bluntly say, “I lost my mother the day I was born.” I’d go on to explain how, if I were to say that to most people, their response is, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, that’s tragic.” But if I then clarify, “Oh, I’m adopted . . . so . . . um . . . you see—” “Oh, okay! That’s wonderful then. Adoption is so great . . . ”
There is a stubborn theory in society that adoption is unilaterally win, win, win! Once upon a time, a birth family is unable to care for their child so the child goes to a family that can care for it. And they all live happily ever after. The birth family wins (never mind the tragedy and trauma of not being able to raise your child), the adoptive family wins, and the child? The child wins the lottery, according to society. This narrative, delivered over and over in ways big and small, tells us that the child should be ever thankful for their grand new life and new and improved parents. Period. End of story.
I get it—I do. Who isn’t delighted to see a child find a family who loves and adores them? I follow a hashtag on Instagram called #adoptionislove, and many nights you can find me scrolling and sniffling as I click through any number of photos of gorgeous babies and children and their delirious parents. Adoption can be joy unspeakable, but there is also deep loss. And it’s okay and even good to carry both.
Technically, legally, an adopted person is no longer an orphan, but those orphan feelings often persist. When I was researching my memoir, Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me, I found a definition of orphan that stopped me in my tracks: Orphan: Bereft, left behind, and left. This broadens the definition considerably. Many of my readers could relate to feeling abandoned by their parents even if they grew up with their biological parents. Some felt left behind because they were handed divorce papers, or broken up with, or excluded in some other painful way. For others, many of us, I suspect, there is simply a sense of longing for something that is not there, and that we can’t identify.
For adoptees, in some ways, you never stop feeling bereft over the loss of your original family members, who vanished in air thick with questions. You never completely stop looking over your shoulder, peering back to catch a glimpse of those who left so long ago.
Thankfully, no matter our reasons for feeling forsaken, no matter who walked out on us, we have a Comforter and Healer in Christ. As spiritual orphans, we also felt alone and searched long and hard for a way to get our heart’s needs met. You and I share humanity’s experience of feeling bereft, left behind, and abandoned; we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (ephesians 2:3 esv).
Then something happened. God in Christ breathed life into our deadened hearts and enfolded our lonely selves into his Father arms. He called us sons and daughters, his very own cherished children, able to now receive His love and care. Wondrously, when we experience Christ’s love for us, we also learn the truth that we belong to Him forever. We can finally stop looking over our shoulders for comfort, for answers, for Home.