This next part of our birth parent series will feature interviews with social workers in our overseas programs who have worked directly with birth mothers who have chosen to place their child for adoption. The first interview is with Goranid Sudmee — “Tuk” — a social worker at Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF), Holt’s partner agency in Thailand.
The following is a story that Tuk wrote about a birth mother she worked with 26 years ago and the reunion she helped to facilitate. Identifying information has been changed to protect the privacy of the parties involved. A Q&A with Tuk follows the story.
From the Field; a Post Adoption Reunion Story from Thailand
Written by Tuk (Goranid Sudmee)
Holt Sahathai Foundation, THAILAND
Translated by Pim (Nattaka Chaisinthop)
I locked the pickup truck carefully. I then walked across the park to where the Court of Justice was located. The court was now closed, of course, given the rather late hours. But I did not come here with the intention of visiting this imposing building anyway, rather it was the area beside it that I was interested in, if the information I had was accurate.
Poi*, 41, told me that she lived in the area, selling miscellaneous second-hand goods.
Twenty-six years ago, Poi, at the age of 15, came to Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF), pregnant and lost. Even though the child was conceived with a man she had loved — someone she had hoped would become an anchor in her life — when the man learned of the pregnancy, he fled, abandoning her and their unborn child.
Poi gave birth to a chubby baby girl — who was adored by Poi and her friends who Poi lived with and had adopted as her family. Poi and her friends tried their best to work hard and to bring her daughter up. They wanted to raise her as best as they could so she wouldn’t follow the same path that they did. But as time went on, Poi’s maternal instinct warned that she was fighting a losing battle. How was she to bring up a child in the kind of environment she and her friends were in? Even with all the love and hope they could give to the child, it seemed inevitable that she would one day learn from all that was around her.
And so Poi came to HSF, carrying the 6-month-old little girl in her arms. Poi wanted to give her up for adoption on the condition that she be adopted by U.S. parents. She hoped that the society in the United States would have a different way of thinking about the disadvantage and that her daughter would have a different childhood.
Poi changed her mind back and forth several times because of the love, attachment and concern she felt for the child. The social worker was very patient with her. Eventually, Poi decided to follow through and let HSF proceed with the adoption process. Poi never contacted HSF again.
Just before the end of 2007, I was contacted by a young women called Shelly*, who was 26 years old at the time. Although Shelly was born in Thailand, she grew up in the USA from the age of 3. Shelly had graduated college and now she wanted to come back to Thailand and get reacquainted with her birth country and, hopefully, meet her birth mother.
Shelly was adopted by an American couple whom she loved very much. However, she still had a void in her heart and a desire to know her birth mother. Shelly traveled to Thailand and asked HSF to help her find her birth mother.
To track down Poi, I spent about five hours driving the old pickup truck, with its tough manual gear, back and forth, back and forth in the small, narrow lanes. According to the address I got from the registration office, this was the area she was supposed to be living in. I met the person who knew Poi. After giving me the contact telephone number, I made the call to Poi straight away and arranged to meet with her.
Poi was sitting in a small corner in the busy city streets. Poi did not have a lot of things to sell, some old CDs scattered around, four to five old shirts, six “old” Buddha statues that were in fact new but had been made to look suitably old, and three mobile telephone chargers — all piled together on the single sheet of newspaper.
“When you see me like this, please don’t pity me … this is the path I have chosen. I chose to have freedom, rather than being locked away like a bird in a cage, being kept in a safe house or an institution,” she said. “My life, I’ve always been free and I want to remain this way until my last breath. In my life, I have nothing to be proud of … I grew up on bits of food that other people had thrown away as time passes by.”
Poi and I sat and chatted about her life for a long while, before moving to a quieter corner. I then told her why I’d come to see her — that her daughter, now grown up, was searching for the mother who gave birth to her. Tears of happiness ran down her face as Poi learned that her only child had now grown into a young woman with a bright future ahead of her. At the same time, she could not help but feel wracked by shame and guilt — feeling that she had committed a sin by abandoning her own child. It took another hour of talking, revisiting the reasons behind the choices she made, before Poi began to relax and accept an appointment to meet Shelly.
Four months later, in the small meeting room at HSF — with me as the social worker — Poi sat, her body trembling with nerves and excitement. She was about to meet her daughter, the daughter whom she chose to give a future to by relinquishing her for adoption. Her hands started fidgeting — as though she wanted to reach out for her, but was being held back by the floods of guilt and shame. Shelly also appeared so anxious and excited that she didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. I decided to say something to break the ice. “Here she is … but all grown up now,” I said. “Who does she look like?” Poi’s hands, visibly shaking with a myriad of emotions running through her, reached out and touched Shelly’s face with care and tenderness. “Oh this is my daughter? All grown up now, a young women,” she said. “You look a little like me, short, stocky build, your mouth, hands, fingers … just like mine. But your eyebrows and forehead are just like your father’s. Oh my daughter is so beautiful.”
Instinct between mother and daughter took over and the two of them clutched one another in a fierce embrace. There were tears of joy and sniffling sounds, mixed with heartfelt apologies that poured out of Poi. “I’m sorry, my daughter, it wasn’t my intention to leave you but I had to do it,” she said through tears.
“It’s ok. I’m ok. I have a good family,” Shelly replied, “I have a good life because of what you chose for me.”
Nearly three hours went by. There were many emotions and many tears of joy — their hands clutching one another, never separated and communicating all the feelings they had for one another. Then Shelly put a necklace that she had brought with her round her mother’s neck and Poi gave Shelly a shirt that she bought with the money she had been carefully saving up for the occasion. Mother and daughter embraced one another one more time, trying to savor the moment, before parting once more.
Shelly gave me a big hug afterwards. “Thank you for making it possible for me to meet my birth mother,” she said. “I used to have so many questions. I used to imagine… Now I don’t have any more questions. Now I’ve met her. I know the truth. Even though it is painful, it’s made me feel more at peace and gives me the courage to go on with life. The word ‘abandoned’ can no longer haunt me. My mother is a fighter. I think in her life, she has been through a lot and has lived without hope. I know that she loves me and wanted me to have a good life. My mother is so strong and courageous. Even now, she is choosing her own way in life. I know that we cannot be together, but we’ve fulfilled and enriched a part of each other’s life. Because she is my mother, I’ll always be her daughter.”
* names changed
In the mid-1970s, Holt allied with a group of Thai educators and social workers to establish a child welfare organization in Thailand. Founded on the belief that every child deserves to grow up in a permanent, loving family, the Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF) — or United Hearts Foundation — quickly became a prominent provider of child welfare services, and today remains Holt’s sole partner organization in Thailand.
In 1976, HSF began providing support services to struggling families, equipping them with the tools and resources to independently support their children. Over the years, services expanded and today include counseling, financial assistance, vocational training, educational sponsorship and income-generating projects. Training in proper health and nutrition also reinforces a family’s ability to care for their children.
To assist unwed mothers, HSF provides shelter, health and postnatal care, as well as counseling to help them cope with discrimination, and ultimately make an informed decision about whether to relinquish or parent their child.
Tuk is an HSF social worker who we often work with in Holt’s Post Adoption Services department. She has been with HSF for 27 years working in their adoption program. She works tirelessly to provide counseling to birth parents both pre and post adoption, and she understands the importance of birth parents in an Adoptee’s life. She has facilitated several reunions between adult Adoptees and their birth mothers and has a good understanding of what birth mothers in Thailand experience when making the difficult decision to place their child for adoption.
In the following Q&A with Tuk, she shares about the birth parent program at HSF and common experiences among the birth parents she serves.
Q: What kind of support/counseling does HSF provide birth parents before, during and after the delivery of their baby?
A: HSF provides counseling for birth parents and also birth families during and after the delivery of their baby. If the mothers need shelter, HSF will provide and arrange for the birth mother and family (if applicable) to spend more time with the baby. HSF provides extensive counseling to ensure the birth mother makes an informed decision.
HSF’s counseling process is to go over all the options that are available to the birth mother, including parenting. HSF provides [emotional and psychological] support — and financial support if needed for a short period of time — to the birth family should they decide to parent the child.
HSF offers foster care services on a temporary basis should the birth mother need more time. In most cases, with family support and support from HSF, the birth mother is able to take the child home. In some cases, the birth mother is unable to care for the child due to not having extended family support. It is at this time that the birth mother is faced with the difficult decision to place her child for adoption.
If birth parents decide to parent their child, HSF is able to provide extensive counseling, food, clothing and financial support due to generous donors to their program. HSF is committed to supporting the birth parents regardless of their decision.
Q: In Thailand, what are the most common reasons birth parents choose not to parent their child?
A: For the best interest of their child, as the majority of our clients come from poor and disadvantaged families who struggle financially and are unable to provide for a child. They know that another family will be able to provide for their child and provide a life they are unable to give them. A birth mother who relinquishes her child does so for the sake of her child and a desire to provide a better life than what she is able to provide.
Q: Do birth parents often come back to HSF for further counseling after they’ve relinquished their child for adoption? What are the common questions they have when they do?
A: Yes, they do within the first two years, then once in a while after that. Most of the birth mothers (or relatives) want to know how their child is doing with their new family.
Q: How often do birth parents request updates on their child after relinquishment?
The mothers choose to keep in contact with the social workers and ask for updates every other month for the first year. Once they see that everything is going well then they may ask for updates once a year.
Q: Do other family members participate in the process and inquire about the child once he or she has joined an adoptive family?
A: Yes, they do, especially the birth family members who are supporting the birth mother through the decision-making process. This is usually the child’s birth grandmother or great-grandmother. They desire to know how the child is doing throughout his/her life and hope the child seeks to have contact with the birth family once he/she turns 18.
Q: What common thoughts and feelings do birth mothers have about their decision?
A: This is a very painful process for birth parents. They feel hurt, sadness, loss, shame and guilt. These are feelings that never really go away. Birth parents know that as difficult as the decision was to make, it was best for their child. Even though their hearts are breaking because they cannot parent their child, they [believe] that what is more important is that their child has a better life than what they feel they can give.
Q: How many birth parents contact HSF to reconnect with their child once they are adults?
A: Most birth mothers come back hoping to reconnect with their child once he/she turns 18. When it is the adoptee that requests contact, we notify birth parents that their child would like contact and they are very surprised and excited. They are very emotional and confess that this is what they were hoping for since they made the difficult decision so many years before.