Courtney Young, an adoptee and member of Holt’s fundraising team, met her birth mother during her first trip to Korea with Holt. Here, she discusses family, culture and the complexities of adoption.
My niece’s recent obsession is playing princess. She’s 4, inspired by a recent trip to Disney World and the movie “Frozen,” and she reenacts the climatic fairytale over and over again. We all indulge her and it’s probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.
When I was 4, I would pretend to live in fairytales too. It was more along the lines of “Anastasia” — a little girl relinquished by her birth parents who later discovers that she belonged to a royal family. One day, if I ever reunited with my birth parents, I thought they too would be some kind of royalty or something. Of course, in my head I knew that wasn’t true, but the imagination has to start somewhere, and I had a pretty solid base for my fantasy.
When I was adopted, they used the term “closed” adoption, and I think to a lot of people that meant that all records were closed. Until I started to work at Holt, I didn’t even know that I could request a copy of my adoption files or that there is a formal process for initiating a birth family search.
My parents fit the mold of what agencies look for when seeking a family for a child — loving, adaptable, supportive, patient. Growing up, they offered me an idyllic childhood, and they always told me that if I wanted to search for my birth family, they would support me. I don’t think they knew how to initiate a search or what it would look like, but I always knew it was an option. My mother is especially selfless, humble and unconditionally kind. She made sure that there was a place in my heart for my birth mother — and for Korea. However, when I was young, I just wanted to assimilate, whether culturally or socially. I was just a kid, and I was preoccupied with living my life doing things kids do.
Fast-forward 18 years.
For some adoptees, searching for birth family is just an innate desire they’ve always had; for others, they’ll never have the desire to search. And then, there are people like me, where the timing just has to be right. I went through a period of growth in my early 20s, and a combination of the right time, people and circumstances opened the door for me to search for my birth family.
I decided to initiate a search in 2011 because I was getting ready to head to Korea for Holt — but also my first trip to Korea. Four days after I turned in my birth family search paperwork, Holt Korea informed me that they had located my birth mother and she wanted to meet me. A month later, I met her at the Holt Korea branch office in Daejeon. My experience was exceptional, especially considering how quickly it went. The timing just fell into place, not only with my upcoming trip, but in my life.
There is a part of me that doesn’t really remember anything leading up to the trip. I recall getting ready for the work part of it. I didn’t start getting nervous until I went to the Holt office for my file review. Typically, Korean adoptees have two files — a U.S. file and a Korean file. Most of the information is the same, but sometimes the Korean file has a little more. So, when I went to do my file review, I learned a little more about myself that I hadn’t known growing up. My birth mother had also written me a letter, and there was a photo of her.
While I’m a very sensitive person who feels things deeply, I don’t typically show my emotions outwardly. Ever. But when preparing to meet my birth mom, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to cry.
The only way I can really describe how I felt meeting my birth mother was that it was this heavy juxtaposition of emotions. In some ways, you’re meeting the person who made the greatest sacrifice and act of love for you in giving you life, and loved you enough to let you go — no matter how hard it was for her. On the other hand, she was a perfect stranger.
She cried and cried, hugging me. In all honesty, I was a little uncomfortable, but I knew it was what she needed, so I just hugged her back.
We talked through a translator, my friend and colleague from Holt Children’s Services, for about two hours. We both had gifts for each other, and I was a little confused about what she gave to me. She presented me with a box full of little dolls, hair accessories and trinkets. She also prepared bags and bags full of food.
Later, someone told me that in her mind, she still thinks of me as a little girl. The gifts she gave were all of the things that she wanted to give me when I was young, but she never could. The food was stuff she ate when she was pregnant with me. Everything she gave me was reminiscent, in some way, of the memories she made of me in her mind through the years. In a way, she too would pretend to be in a Disney fairytale — but “Anastasia” in reverse; while I fantasized about my birth parents, she’d imagine me, the princess she never watched grow.
My birth mother told me that she used to stay up late, secretly watching a Korean television show that helps adoptees search for their birth parents. For years, she watched to see if I might be looking for her. She told me, “I just knew in my heart that I would know if it was you. Even though I had not seen you since you were a baby, I would know it was you.”
My birth mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother, was the only one who knew about me when my birth mother found out she was pregnant. They decided that my birth mother would “go away” to school for a little while. Not even her father, brother or sister knew that she was pregnant and that she had given birth to a daughter. For years, my maternal grandmother regretted that my birth mother relinquished me for adoption. My birth mother said that my grandmother felt guilt — that they should have made an effort to figure out how it could work, how the family could have kept me.
Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother passed away six months before I arrived in Korea. I hope one day I will meet her in Heaven.
There was nothing in my paperwork about my birth father. However, when I met my birth mother, she gave me his name and shared the story of their brief relationship. I also learned that I was the mirror image of him — I still often think about what that would look like on a man.
At the time, I chose not to search for him, even though part of me wanted to. The likelihood that he has a family and children is high. Coming into the picture at this point could completely destroy that. It’s not something I need for myself.
After I met my birth mother, I returned to my hotel. I was so homesick and I never, ever feel homesick. I wanted to be at home with my parents. I missed my dog. The only thing I was certain of when I left Korea was that my visit had reaffirmed everything I thought I was fairly certain of when I was a child. I was meant to be adopted. I was meant to have my family.
I think a lot of people go into a search for birth family prepared for unsuccessful results, so they often neglect to prepare for a reunion — that their search might be successful. At least, that’s what happened in my case. Before I initiated the search, it was important for me to be mindful about the burden my birth mother would carry. It was a door that if I chose to open, would also open a wound that’s been shut for more than 20 years.
My story is just one among thousands of adoptees, so I don’t believe that it’s definitive of a “search and reunion” story. I realize that not every adoptee was blessed with a family and an experience as wonderful and fitting as mine. Adoption isn’t perfect; it’s bittersweet. It’s often the last resort — both for birth families and adoptive families.
Just like any family, my birth family and I do the best we can. We’re still a continent away and a culture apart. No amount of time now or in the future can bridge that gap or fill that void. I don’t know if my birth mother will ever forgive herself for giving me up. She’s still sad, and in some ways, I carry her guilt as my own. But I’m real, I’m honest and I have chosen to embrace the complex nature of how this relationship has changed my life. It’s just like any other relationship, with ups and downs, highs and lows, happy days and sad days.
In general, I’m a pretty private person, but I share this story because I think sometimes, in the context of adoption, there is this imaginary line of demarcation. You’re either for or against adoption, and everything that comes with it. The reality for a number of us is that we fall somewhere between and have our own personal experience. Meeting my birth family was not a 90-minute Disney fairytale. It wasn’t the story I played when I was little, and I wasn’t a long-lost princess. I was the child of a young girl herself who couldn’t take care of me, but who loved me enough to give me my life.
Courtney Young | Eugene, Oregon
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