From Adoptee to Adoptive Parent

Our guest blogger this week is Cynthia Landesberg, a reader who has connected with us via this blog. Cynthia is a life-long Marylander who lives with her husband and 3 1/2 year old son, who is also a KAD. She most recently worked as a lawyer at a family law legal clinic, but now spends her days hanging out with her son making animal noises, eating PB&J sandwiches, and taking walks to find holes in trees. If and when her son is sleeping, she enjoys sipping tea, knitting, and the agony of being a D.C. area sports fan. Cynthia is not very active on social media, but will be corresponding with readers of her guest blog via Twitter @cynberg

Note: Our guest bloggers do not represent the views or opinions of We the Lees. They are friends and followers of our blog who have voluntarily submitted their work for posting on our site. If you are interested in submitting a guest blog on any adoption-related topic (KADs only at the present), please email us at

Two photographs, side by side. Two Korean babies, barefooted and startled, sitting on the laps of two foster mothers, who have become the face of Korean motherhood for these children. Two white name cards, identifying these lost souls, their identity now reduced by the bureaucratic process to these pictures. Two photographs taken three decades apart in the same gold-trimmed red chair- a chair that has come to represent both the beginning and the end for tens of thousands of Korean adoptees who have passed through that same chair at Eastern Social Welfare Society. I looked at my picture next to the picture of this beautiful little boy who would be my son, and it was undeniable that, in that moment, my entire understanding of myself would change forever.

Parenthood obviously is a life-changing event. However, as an adoptee who adopted her son, my entire identity was challenged. Even though I was 31 years old, an established lawyer, and settled into my life with my husband, the truth is that my identity as an adoptee had thus far been fairly unexamined. Sure, growing up in a Jewish American family drew stares, and I endured the familiar frustrations of being a transracial adoptee. However, I compartmentalized the adoptee part of my identity as something that happened to me, not something that still mattered.

I compartmentalized the adoptee part of my identity as something that happened to me, not something that still mattered.

As the adoption of my son dragged on for two long years, it became readily apparent that if I continued to be a passive participant in my own adoption, allowing it to be something that other people did to me, I would be woefully prepared to parent my own son. As I learned how to best parent my son, I started to learn about myself. Thinking about attachment styles, brain development, and the magnitude of the change he would go through, I began considering the trauma I endured. Thinking about how to maintain a connection to his culture, I finally started to learn about my own lost culture and connect with other adoptees. Thinking about how to talk to him about his birth family and foster family made me re-read the documents about my adoption and uncover my past. Learning how to be an adoptive parent helped me learn how to be an adoptee.

The most poignant moment of this journey was the day I returned to Busan, where I was born. My knowledge of my past is pretty bare. I was abandoned in front of a woman’s house in Busan in October 1983, at an address now lost beneath the metal and cement of industrialization, the streets renamed and my past erased by a city developer’s pen. I was left at six weeks old, with nothing but a piece of paper with my birthdate pinned onto an old blanket. The paper and blanket were discarded as unimportant somewhere along the way, and with that carelessness, I lost the only tangible connection to my past beyond my own flesh.  I was found by a woman at 5:30 a.m. She took me to the local police station, and they handed me over to a social worker soon after. I left Busan in the arms of a stranger, without a name.

The day I returned to Busan was crisp, but sunny. The sun’s glare was shimmering off the water in Busan Harbor, lighting the gradations of houses that shape the face of the mountains. I walked slowly away from the downtown, into the Gamcheon Cultural Village. Built into the side of a mountain, the streets are windy and steep. The houses are colorful, and the area is a mix of younger artsy people, and families who have lived there for generations. There was a sense of simplicity that masked poverty, or perhaps simplicity that this Westerner has been taught to interpret as poverty. Stone steps up and down. Carts lay exhaustedly askew on the dirt walkways. Fish gutted and hanging as a welcome awning on the front door. Laundry laced in and out of windows. Faces. Faces that looked like mine. Faces that could have been mine, if someone made a different choice for me.

Being adopted is an evolving understanding of yourself.

I meandered back to the center of Busan. I read that the Lotte Mall had the best view of Busan, so I made my way to the observation deck.  The Harbor was glistening to my right as I looked out at the mountains. The cultural village was on my left, the downtown below me, and then to my right was the approximate area where I was found. Weaving rows of homes up the mountain like a tapestry that held all the answers I would never know. I blinked, squinted, and tilted my head as if a change in perspective could break the code and tell me who I really am.  I reached up my hand, my palm covering the entire mountainside, straining to touch it, but never reaching it. I closed my fist and for the first time, I felt like I had a hold on my past and it had a hold on me. I couldn’t let go. I was as close as I would ever be to the truth, and it felt good, even if it was just air.

It took the two years of this adoption process for me to realize that I lived most of my life with a carefully crafted identity that shut out the possibility that I would ever feel what I felt in Busan that day- an infinite and insatiable need for something that I have no chance of having. And in that moment, trying to hold onto air, I never felt more happy feeling so lost.

The enduring lesson from the adoption of my son is one that was repeated many times by our social worker: adoptees experience their adoption in different ways at different times of their lives. Being adopted is not a past-tense event. It is an evolving understanding of yourself. For me, this journey of self-discovery is prodded along every day by the decisions I must make for my son, from choosing his name to preserving his Korean language, I am challenged everyday to process my own adoption so that I can help him process his. The truth is that for those two babies in those red chairs, and for all of us adoptees, our adoptions will affect generations of our families to come. It will be reevaluated with each passing life stage, a series of events set in motion by things far outside our control, but that eventually we must embrace as our own in order to own our own lives.

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© We the Lees, 2016. All Rights Reserved


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