Megan Youngmee shares an adoptee’s perspective on motherhood and finding meaning through the loss of biological connection.
Many times, adoptees are given only one side of the adoption story. You were chosen, you are loved, you are our family now. It is beautiful. You are lucky. Imagine growing up in an orphanage. You have it better than others. While this storyline is indeed true on one level, there are many layers, experiences and perspectives that fill out the whole story. Some of those other sides are not as easy to look at. They include the feeling of loss — of identity, culture, family — as well as the feeling of being misunderstood or seeming out of place. Beneath the nice part of the story, there can be unseen wounds that may include pain and intense, unresolved grief.
In more recent years, the greater conversation around adoption has been more widely discussed and accepted. But just 20-30 years ago, this was not necessarily the case. Many adoptees felt they needed to nod and repeat, “Yes, I’m so lucky. I have a family.”
In looking back at my full adoption story — a story that includes the trauma and pain of being a baby who went through an enormous upheaval and loss — I have discovered both gifts and lessons. But to truly receive the gifts and lessons of this very particular and unique journey, I have needed to reframe the story, process the hurts and, yes, even heal the old and primal wounds.
One aspect of the healing I’ve explored for many years is the loss of my biological mother and starting to see that our broken blood connection left me with many complex feelings around motherhood. A great book that helped me dive into this concept is called “The Primal Wound,” which lays out the subconscious layers of hurt that a child might experience when separated from their mother at a young age. It can create life patterns and behaviors around trust, intimacy and identity that can show up in the form of not having close relationships with women, feeling betrayals in relationships and overall reactions around trust.
A Complex Relationship Rooted in Loss
I had three mother figures in the first few years of my life — my biological mother, my foster mother and my adoptive mother, all before I turned 2. I realize that in looking back, missing out on bonding, intimacy and trust with my biological mother — who is meant to be our first model of unconditional love — was quite real to me. I ended up feeling that the idea or title of “Mother” was forced upon me in an unnatural way, and left me feeling, well, really messed up. Motherhood and family felt broken and confusing to me even with everyone telling me it was all okay, that I was loved and I was their daughter.
One mother left me on a train with an elderly woman and got off at the next stop. The foster mother was a temporary bond that had taken me out of the orphanage. The final mother was introduced to me after a long airplane ride, gave me McDonald’s fries as I landed and said, “I’m your mom now” with a hug. She looked nothing like me, and I’m sure her presence was unfamiliar and even at the age of 2, something felt off.
My adoptive mom and I have since had a profoundly complex relationship that is hard to sum into words. Our relationship went through chapters of closeness, chapters of allowing me to be in a home with abusive tendencies, chapters of her not being in my life by my choice, and finally a chapter of creating a more secure relationship based on a foundation of trust, reciprocity, raw honesty and meeting me as I am with new boundaries. I’m grateful for the journey we’ve taken and where we stand now.
However, with mother figures coming and going at such a crucial time of bonding, no wonder I had a hard time trusting women in my life. No wonder I assumed people would all leave me at some point or feel like there was somehow something wrong with me or something that would make them want to leave. No wonder there were triggers hidden along the path of making female friends, or becoming a mom. No wonder I pushed people’s boundaries forcefully as a way to see if they would leave.
There were certainly many positives that I felt as well. I felt grateful I had a family. I felt chosen and loved and was told it consistently. I knew that my adoptive parents were my real family. It just didn’t take away from my feelings of confusion or that I didn’t quite fit in with my family or local community. I wondered if I could further understand my pain and trauma — hand in hand with feeling gratitude and even normalcy in the upbringing I had and especially the relationship I had with my mom. I desired to search for meaning in all the things I felt that seemed so contradictory.
I spent time wondering what our relationship would be like if my mom and I had the same mannerisms or sense of humor, similar interests or even a face that mirrored mine even a little bit. Those were things I’d never have and so I had to process that grief and allow myself to miss something I wasn’t sure I even knew or understood.
Discovering the Momma Energy
I currently live connected to an indigenous community in Peru called the “Qeros” who quite literally raise kids more collectively. Their belief is that all mothers have momma energy and can fill mother roles for each other’s children. It is a role rather than a single identity saved for a biological mother alone. They actually call all woman “Mami” and all men “Papi” as a reflection of this cultural interaction. This helped me expand my notion of Mom — that it could be an energy rather than a responsibility put on a single biological mother.
Now I look back and I can see that through adoption, my idea of family had the opportunity to expand. In my adulthood, a few decades into my life and years into my healing process, I started to explore the idea of family as more than just my immediate named parents and brother — the titles given as defaults. I looked for kinship ties in my friendships and mentorships through the years. I started to recognize that I looked for mother figures and momma energy in places outside of my adoptive mother, who I very much consider to be my one and only Mom now.
I remember a teacher who lit up my passions for cultures and languages in 6th grade, Ms. Hossler, a woman who relished living outside of the box in my tiny, fundamentalist, conservative town. A traveler and artist, she showed me a different way of exploring the world with her immersive teaching style as she’d bring food and music into the classroom to share her enthusiasm for the world. Her laughter, child-like boldness and joy in sharing was infectious.
I remember meeting a friend’s mother, Mrs. Thompson, whose kids were all so uniquely different, yet they went on vacations together and authentically enjoyed each other’s company. This blew me away because I didn’t sense any jealousy, comparison or competition between her very eclectic mix of kids. I asked her one day, “What is your advice for mothers to help their kids grow to care for each other and love each other like yours?” She responded with, “I have only felt like there is one thing I live by regarding motherhood — that my job is to help my kids become the most authentic version of themselves and support their gifts to do just that.” Her simple yet profound statement floored me and is a cornerstone of my parenting.
I remember another teacher who observed and celebrated my creativity and academic achievement as my art teacher throughout high school, Mrs. Williams. Her kids all went to Ivy League schools and she believed in me, that I too could get into any school if I just applied. She thought I would be able to figure out how to fund it myself. I felt truly seen and supported in my gifts. I grew up thinking I’d have to go to a community college or trade school because I knew anything else was financially out of range for my hard-working, working-class parents.
She singled me out and brought in applications for top universities across the country. She paid for my very expensive-at-the-time application fees, and she sent me to the counselor’s office (years before the internet) to help me find and apply for every scholarship I could get my hands on. She left her office hours open to support me through the application process. I was able to get into a top-tier private university and have my entire tuition and living expenses paid for. To go to university across the country in L.A. was all of the sudden an open door, when it seemed like an impossibility just a year prior.
I remember a friend and fellow mother hugging me close as I cried in a public cafe, quietly whispering to me, “It’s okay to cry. This too shall pass. I’m here.” This was the exact thing that helped me be able to feel my emotions, feel validated and find motherly love in a loving and nurturing peer.
These were just some of the women who showed me the range and depth of what being a mother and supportive woman in “mother energy” could be. Example by example of kindness, insight and authenticity started to heal my own disappointments, pain and trauma around motherhood. I started to zoom out as I looked back at the guardian angels and examples that gave me a bigger picture of how to be a mother. And that it wasn’t even a role that would have been filled by one single human being.
I saw that putting pressure on any single mom, let alone adoptive moms, wasn’t necessarily fair. Each of my mother figures was born in a different world, raised by specific experiences and did the best they could based on what they knew. Each person that came into my life was a gift and a learning in how multifaceted we can be. I was shown that familial energy doesn’t have to be placed on one human just because of a title, identity or tie.
Once I could see this bigger picture, the wounds and expectations I had experienced started to fall by the wayside — alleviating my hurts and suffering in my adoption story. I could see that I might never have looked towards other women and moms for mothering had I not had this wound from the beginning of my life. That fractured part of myself started to become whole again as I learned to trust others and become a more well-rounded person through many observations of paternal bonding. This search only happened because of the pain I felt from being adopted.
Adoption is a Painful and Beautiful Story
I have kids now, 3 little boys ages 7, 5 and 3. Within our community, my kids have access to friendships of many kinds with people from all around the world. Sometimes we have guests who live with us for months and end up taking on maternal roles for my boys. At different points, the boys have all accidentally called their older woman friends “Mama.” Almost always, the women sharply turn their eyes to me as if to say, “Are you offended? Are you upset that your child would call me mother, even as a mistake?”
I consistently respond with the same, “I think it’s amazing that I can share this role of motherhood with you. They will always know that I bore them and I’m here as their mom for them every day. But I’m so grateful you have been so nurturing and mothering to my boys that they would consider you a mama too. I have no problem sharing the role because I’ve benefited from many maternal people and mama care in my life. The role of mom doesn’t have to be held on the shoulders of a single person.”
Maybe we don’t need to hold ownership of these titles so fearfully. I know my biological mom bore me and gave me many of her traits and held me to her breast the first days of my life. I know my foster mom cared for me, giving me more individual attention that benefited my health and mental well-being rather than leaving me in a huge group where I might have gotten lost in the shuffle. I recognize that my “real” mom, my adoptive mom, was the one to stay up late with me, hold me while I was sick, show up at every dance performance and be there as my mom every day. Each additional mother figure, whether teacher, friend or guardian angel who showed up with maternal/momma energy support, deepened my idea of what motherhood could be. They are all my mothers and guides. I wouldn’t be the same person without any of them.
I also realize that this idea of motherhood is infinite, and I’ve benefited from knowing women who hold this nurturing way of seeing that maybe my named — but also very real — mom wasn’t able to do day in and day out. I’ve even learned lessons from Mother Earth and her ability to renew, transmute and give all of herself without needing to get credit. This Mom role is a big idea to fill and maybe we can share the responsibility a bit more than we once thought. I’m grateful for the path I took as an orphan and adoptee to be able to zoom out and have so much new awareness of its possibilities all because of the pain and loss I experienced.
I believe that we can honor and grieve the pains and the hurts that we experienced deeply. I also believe that if we search for meaning in the story, we can uncover innumerable gifts of compassion and depth when we can see the light as well. No longer do I see the adoption reality as this OR that, but it can truly be this AND that. It can be both painful and beautiful if we can feel, explore, zoom out, reframe and keep growing.
Megan Youngmee | Korean adoptee
Read Megan’s reflections about family and identity in “Little Mirrors: Seeing Myself for the First Time.”