Little Mirrors: Seeing Myself for the First Time

It’s hard to miss that the root of the word familiarity is family. I had a dear friend and former roommate tell me, as we were heading back to our families for a holiday visit, the first thing she did when she got to her parents’ house was bury her head in the pillows and inhale the smell of home.

I had an immediate flashback to memories of my childhood when I would find the smell of my home a bit off-putting, even borderline stinky. It wasn’t because the people dwelling inside had any hygiene issues. When my friend told me about her little ritual, I realized in that moment it didn’t resonate with me because my house never smelled like home to me.

Pheromones, those little chemicals released and recognizable as a scent and closely linked to our memory, serve to bring about natural attractions in partners. It turns out they might also link us to our family lines and feelings of familiarity and hominess. It was quite a realization that the feeling of home was something I didn’t get in the same way others with biological families take for granted. Without knowing it, for years I lacked familiarity, comfort and knowledge of this deeper connection others seem to assume is normal. This little memory about familiarity through smell made this concept apparent to me for the first time in my 20s and has continued to come up throughout my life.

Growing up as an Asian in a small, less-than-diverse town meant growing up without mirrors of faces that looked like my own. It meant for much of my life I felt perplexingly different and hated that when I looked in the mirror, I was confused by the face I saw — an Asian face that I didn’t quite connect to.

For as long as I can remember, I would take interest when a family had similar features. I would stare at the slope of a jaw that clearly came from a person’s mom or notice how someone’s nose would crinkle when they laughed just like their dad’s. At that time, I didn’t realize I felt a loss that I didn’t have that, too — that sense that I had come from someone else in looks and features. I had no one in my life who would smile when they recognized their eyes in mine.

My husband and I decided to have a family with biological children after a couple years of marriage, and what a journey it’s been. Three little smushy, funny fellas joined our pair, and today they are almost 6, 4 and 1.5. One guy seems like he picked up many of my traits, mannerisms, sense of humor and interests; the other reminds me of his daddy with his goofy walk, fascination with building and fierce will. Our little baby seems like an unbelievably mellow combination of both of us.

There is a lot that is profoundly beautiful and sometimes deeply challenging about having, for the first time, my own family that looks like me. I’ve been feeling a lot of emotions around losing a family and identity I never really knew — and recognizing it on a new, deeper level now, as we have grown our family. With new joys, sometimes they can also bring to the surface feelings of loss — that at 38 I’m only now getting to experience this piece of familiarity.

Abandonment is something many of us have faced on one level or another. Loss of culture, community, extended family, self-identity and yes, parental bonds — our first model of unconditional love. Abandonment feelings are real.

It’s a strange journey to realize how much it affects us to be separated from and left by our birth families. Pushing people away or going over and above to people-please, feeling unseen or unworthy or in a state of confusion about the ideas of love and bonding and feeling that it happened at no fault of our own. Being triggered by seemingly non-threatening things that others might have no response to can be both frustrating and debilitating. The subconscious is a powerful thing.

Seeing my boys’ faces stirs in me a new love, an acceptance of and connection to my roots, my mannerisms, my perceived flaws. I fall in love with them more every day. I start to accept and love myself more, too. The nose that I hated for being too wide and too flat is now the beautiful, adorable nose of my sons that crinkles in the same place when they make silly smiles. The round head that I thought was too big is similar to the head my son says has to be adult-sized to hold all of his adult-sized thoughts — so of course, he needs a bigger hat. The warm yellowish complexion on my chubby face is now the sunshine-filled, tanned cheeks of my babies.

Megan and her son Alex, each pictured at three years old.

Through this cycle of big feelings and new recognitions, I’ve been observing and examining the harsh insensitivity with which I have sometimes responded in order to face the hurts. That rather than feel my overwhelming feelings of loss, I consistently did my best to suck it up, deal with it and move on. And that energy of sharpness and hardness has been the way I’ve treated myself and many around me in a way to self-protect, keep going and sometimes even to push others away before they could leave me.

On one particular day, as I sat in a café near my office, I asked myself internally how I can overcome being so hard on myself and harsh towards others — especially when feeling emotional or triggered. (Maybe you know the track, “Fix it, get over it, you’re fine, don’t be so emotional!”) With all of the introspection, an upcoming birthday, a renewed search for birth parents, it brought everything to the surface and it culminated in my sobbing in a public place.

As I sat in my little office café crying, another mother saw me, like really saw me.

I had just recently helped to bring her three children to the U.S. from Venezuela, where they had been separated for over two years due to insane financial hardships caused by the country’s ongoing political turmoil. To make sure they didn’t starve, she had to leave her country in search of work. But it meant she had to leave her children without knowing when they could be together again. The journey of mothers is never easy and also gave me empathy for what my mother and many mothers might feel when they are faced with societal issues, pressures and limitations that bring about separations.

Ariana, the Venezuelan momma, saw my tears and asked if she could give me a hug. Then she just sat with me and allowed me to cry without judgment or questions, just soothing sounds, and a quiet, “This too shall pass.” And on that day I actually allowed myself to receive her loving, supportive kindness and finish crying. It was the perfect momma medicine I needed and showed me such a gentle, quiet, kind way of being — the answer to the question of how to ease and counter the harshness.

It was an unbelievable moment of full circle completion. A mother separated from her kids gave me the kind of nurturing allowance I needed and made me feel seen. While I was feeling the loss of my own mother, I had helped her bring her kids back to her. Mirrors to each other and mothers to three boys.

I’m grateful for my journey and biological family to help mend some of my old hurts. It’s nice to know I have little mirrors through my children to the Korean part of myself (and even my whole self). But through this experience with Ariana, I also got to feel how the global family we create is here in ways that heal the wounds of our past and can be a clear mirror to a facet of ourselves. We all have different paths to rediscover what family is, how to find out what home is and create a sense of familiarity.

I wish for you all blessings and love, intimacy and safety in all of your relationships, starting with your relationship with yourself. May we heal and remember we are all in this together.

By Megan Youngmee

About the author

Megan Youngmee was adopted at age 2 from South Korea. Raised in a small town in Amish country, Pennsylvania, she moved to Los Angeles as an adult and worked until age 30 in marketing, communications and design for Fortune 500 companies and tech startups. After taking a sabbatical to travel and climb Machu Picchu, she reconnected with and married her childhood crush from their little town of 6,000 people after 18 years apart. Together, they moved to Peru to find balance and simplicity and started a little family of three boys, ages 5.5, 4 and 1.5. They now live in a little village high in the mountains of Peru. For the last eight years, Megan has been busy writing, designing, gardening, running a guest house, supporting non-profits and, of course, mom-ing from the Andes.

3 Replies to “Little Mirrors: Seeing Myself for the First Time”

  1. My daughter, now 23, was 13 months old when I adopted her from China. Also, living in Pennsylvania in the not-very-diverse locale of Central PA, she struggled with her ethnicity and identity. She was one of few Asians living in a very White world, both within her family and within her social and academic lives. It wasn’t until she went away to college where she began to feel inclusive rather than exclusive as her university was much more diverse than her small town upbringing. I recently had an epiphany understanding that at some point, our lives would be totally reversed. When she gets married and has children, I will be the minority odd-grandma out. Her husband will be Black and their children will be Asian/Black. Both parents and in-laws will all have a DNA connection to the children/grandchildren. I will be the only one who will have no genetic connection to the children and the (my) grandchildren will have absolutely no physical resemblance to me. I will be the “adoptee”. What I do understand, however, is that genetics does not trump love. I look forward to the day when I have an infant grandchild to love and hold who will provide me with some hint of what my beautiful daughter may have looked like as an infant through the eyes of her birth mom. Addendum: Megan, you sound much like my daughter who traveled abroad her junior year of college, still has a desire to travel and climb Machu Picchu (she got as close as Brazil during the travel abroad), and she is passionate about non-profit work and is currently working for a non-profit with young girls where her job’s pillars are women empowerment and social injustice.

  2. No one in my community understands what it is like growing up Asian in a mostly white rural area. I never belonged. Now that I have two grown biological sons, I feel that I do belong. All my life I would look at white faces and then look at my face in the mirror and wonder what was wrong with me. I acted and thought like a white person, I had no Asian influences in my life until I had my boys. My youngest looks a lot like me. I would like to get to know others that grew up like me. I came from Seoul, South Korea when I was one year old. Lived with my adoptive white family. I live in the same community I grew up in and brought my boys up here. I love my community but I still have no Asian friends.

  3. Hi Julia, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. If you are interested, our post-adoption services department offers resources for adoptees and may be able to connect you with others who have similar experiences! You can reach them by emailing pas@holtinternational.org.

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