NO MATTER HOW YOU ACQUIRE THEM, THEY'RE BUNDLES OF JOY
THE SEATTLE TIMES
Author: FRED MOODY
One of our best and most settled years _ 1983 _ was winding down. Life at long last seemed to be taking a turn for the well-ordered. We had two daughters, lovely little genetic replicas. We had a home. We were working. Most of life's big decisions _ how many kids to have, where to live, what to do for a living _ seemed to have been made. It was time to put our lives on cruise control, I thought, and drive a straight, predictable course through adulthood
Then Anne, my wife, accosted me one fine morning and said, ``Let's adopt a Korean baby.''
``Uhhhhhh'' . . . I replied eloquently. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had just coined the refrain for the next four years of our family life.
This decision to adopt was not taken lightly. Anne knew (or, as things turned out, thought she knew) everything there was to know about adoption, and one of the things she thought she knew was that adoption is nearly always initiated by the wife. ``Let's adopt a baby,'' then, really meant, ``We're going to adopt a baby.'' She wasn't so much soliciting my opinion as announcing that she was, in a manner of speaking, pregnant.
Her knowledge came from some three years of working as a counselor for Adoption Services of WACAP, a private agency with programs for adopting all manner of babies and older children. She had shepherded countless couples through every kind of adoption WACAP handled, from those of older, handicapped children to foreign-born kids and babies to Caucasian newborns. She had seen unwed teen-age mothers hand babies over to the adoptive parents they had chosen during their pregnancies. She had seen Korean babies carried off airplanes from Seoul and handed into the arms of their waiting, weeping parents-to-be.
Our lives during those years had been almost constantly awash in vicarious joy. Whenever Anne called someone _ usually after what looked to me like months, if not years, of hand-holding, tear-wiping, and complaint-taking as one or another setback intervened in the adoption process _ to say that their baby had been designated or assigned and would be arriving within a few days or weeks. I could hear the telephone-mediated shrieks of happiness from clear across the house.
Compared with her caseload of interminable, up-and-down dramas, our adoption, she assured me, would be the proverbial piece of cake, because she would know how to handle everything. All I had to do, aside from answering a few questions from time to time, was leave everything to her.
For some reason, I was willing to be deceived in this matter, and bought Anne's story wholesale. Looking back now over the long landscape of our adoption, I can see that her manner, from the beginning, belied the consistent calmness of her assurances. She was a basket case from the word ``Uhhhh.'' However easy you manage to make the procedural side of adoption (and ours was about as easy as it gets), its emotional dimension is something so massive and manifold that you can never be adequately prepared for it.
This emotional mystery, I think, comes from widespread, willful ignorance about adoption in our culture. Birth children are often called ``natural'' children when distinguished from adopted children _ implying that adoptees are ``unnatural'' _ and that distinction hints, among other things, at a general lack of appreciation for adoption. And although our extensive exposure both to adoptive families and birth families had proved to us that there is no real difference between the two (we never worried, for example, about treating an adopted child differently from the way we treated our two birth children), the lack of a rich cultural tradition around adoption (as contrasted with the one surrounding birth) makes you feel at times like yours is the only family that's ever tried it.
Step one on our adoption journey was a ``pre-adopt'' meeting, held in March 1984, at which we were told of WACAP's various programs, so we could choose which of them we wanted to adopt through. Since we already knew we wanted to adopt a Korean infant, the meeting, for us, was no more than a formality. We left it thinking that we would have our new baby after a series of meetings and interviews stretched over the next 13 months. As things happened, she didn't arrive for another three yea rs. This demonstrates the first and best-known principle of adoption: Nothing ever goes as planned.
At first, things went exactly as planned. The day after our pre-adopt meeting, our agency social worker arrived for the first of three interviews, held over a period of a few weeks, conducted so that she could gather information for our ``homestudy.'' This is a long document made up of personal autobiographies, financial statements, medical and criminal histories, social worker's observations, and letters of recommendation, which forms the basis of the agency's judgment on our suitabili ty for adoption.
There is a tremendous amount of horrifying folklore about homestudies. Adoption social workers are generally regarded as insidious, suspicious, hardhearted people bent on finding couples unsuitable for adoption. First-time subjects of a homestudy invariably are told by some folklorist that they should take any beer and wine out of their refrigerator, because their social worker will find an excuse to open it and check on their drinking habits, and that families should make their houses pristine, dress their children as if they were being taken to meet God, hide books and magazines that might be considered objectionable, and so on.
All our social worker did was come in, sit at the kitchen table, and ask questions. Later, she would write: ``The Moodys brought to our interviews a spirit of openness and cooperation along with cookies (peanut-butter), tea and good conversation.''
Obviously, she was on our side. The only bad moment during this phase of the bureaucratic gestation came when she turned to me suddenly and asked, ``Fred, what are your basic values?''
``Uhhhhh . . .''
That's not a lot to work with, but she did her best: ``Being an involved parent is important to Fred,'' our homestudy eventually read, ``and he wants to be able to spend a good deal of time with his children as they are growing up . . . Fred jogs to keep in good physical condition and enjoys going to baseball games.''
Altogether, we had two pre-adopts and three home-study interview sessions. By August, we had paid $550 for the homestudy, $325 for processing of our application, and had settled in for an eight-month wait to have our homestudy forwarded to Korea. Once it was forwarded, the wait for a baby to be assigned to us could be anywhere from two to six more months. In the time between our decision to adopt and the completion of our homestudy, the wait for a baby's arrival, for whatever reason, had increased almost by half.
This business of the floating due date _ and in adoption the due date always seems to float farther away _ is just one of the myriad ways in which adoption differs from pregnancy. Since in both cases you are expecting a baby, you would expect that would hold a similar degree of excitement and suspense leading up to the blessed event. But in the case of adoption, there is such a pronounced air of unreality and lack of control over its stages and procedures that it takes on an imaginary, almost false air, as if you are insisting in the face of all physical evidence to the contrary that your family is going to have a baby.
There is no tangible evidence of a baby's impending arrival: no expanding belly on your wife, no visits to the doctor, no fetal heartbeat heard through a stethoscope, no definite due date. There is only a series of transactions with agency workers and bureaucrats. You are interviewed by a social worker, fingerprinted by the Seattle Police Department, you apply to U.S. Immigration for a visa for someone who hasn't been born yet, and you wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Once the initial rush of interviewing and paper work is dispensed with, your lives return to normal. Nothing happens for months, and the adoption settles on some far back burner in the brain, where it burbles away, all but unnoticed, until an unexpected piece of mail or chance word dropped in conversation propels it back, briefly, to the forefront of consciousness.
I think that while some of this apparent indifference is due to the cold, procedural aspect of adoption, much of it is simple psychological self-defense. Not only do you have no sense of when your baby will arrive, but you have no sense at all of what it will be, or even if it will ever, in fact, arrive. When you are in mid-application, you feel that so many more procedural things can go wrong in adoption than in pregnancy that you can never allow yourself to get too excited or hopeful, for the devastation wreaked by disappointment rises in direct proportion to the degree of your expectation.
We were further disoriented by the broader array of choices given the expectant parent in adoption. After having lived through two pregnancies' worth of wondering whether or not our baby-to-be was a boy or a girl, it seemed almost bizarre to be sitting around with the rest of the family trying to choose the gender of our next child. In pregnancy, you take what you get. In adoption, you can decide your baby's age, gender and race in advance. All sorts of unromantic considerations creep int o what we are conditioned to regard as the most romantic of undertakings. Instead of enjoying nine months of blissful uncertainty, you endure an indeterminate period of blissless weighing of your alternatives. Do we want a boy introduced into a virtually all-female household? (The vote from the previous two children: an unequivocal ``No!'') Do we want to adopt an infant or an older child? (Our oldest daughter, five at the time, and given to romanticizing misfortune, wanted to adopt ``a 12-year-old blind girl.'') Even choosing not to choose your child's gender, in Korean adoption at least, was a form of choice; when you leave the choice up to the Korean agency, you almost always get a boy, for even though more girls are relinquished for adoption there than boys are, the demand for girls from American adoptive parents is far higher than the demand for boys.
We settled on a girl, finally, for two reasons: we knew how to raise girls, and our daughters insisted on a sister.
We also had to contend with questions never asked parents waiting to give birth. ``Why are you adopting?'' people always ask;
then, more mystified, ``Why are you adopting a Korean?''
``Uhhhhh . . .''
It was Anne, finally, who figured out the answer. ``The answer is that there is no answer _ we just don't know,'' she told me one night. ``It's just like deciding to have a baby _ there's every reason in the world, and at the same time there's no reason at all.'' And she was right: the decision to adopt, like the decision to engender, is made by the heart rather than the mind, and when looked at rationally, can only be regarded as inexplicable.
That dispensed with, and the question of gender resolved, there was nothing left but to wait, and to try to raise our final adoption payment _ $3,173 _ due when Holt Children's Services (the agency in Korea), assigned our baby to us. People tend to regard this as a staggering amount of money, but Korean adoption is actually one of the least expensive infant-adoption programs, and the money is well accounted for. $2,045 goes to Holt, so it can keep its orphanage going, $823 pays for the baby's airline ticket to Seattle, and $325 is paid to WACAP for administrative costs. (For those keeping score, our total cost _ $4,048 _ is about par for that of a complication-free birth in Seattle, which generally costs $3,200 to $4,000.)
However reasonable the cost, we were unable to raise it in time, and when WACAP wrote us in April 1985 to say they were sending our homestudy to Korea, where it would be filed for ``two to five months'' until our turn for a baby came, we had to ask, with heavy hearts, that they not send it.
Thus began an interminable delay that was to last 17 months. In the interim, we moved _ thus necessitating an ``update'' for our homestudy, which meant we were visited once again by our agency social worker _ and so much time went by that we had to reapply to the U.S.
Department of Immigration for a visa. The repetition of these uninspiring procedures, nearly three years after we had first applied to adopt, left us feeling that our baby would never come. Not only did it seem less and less likely that we would ever raise the money we needed, but we also heard a rumor that Korea, intent on improving its image for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, would soon be cutting back dramatically on its foreign adoption program. We were running, it seemed, as short of time as we were of money. The emotional numbness of earlier months now gave way to persistent, pessimistic depression.
In September 1986, fate, in the form of our friends Bill and Diane, intervened with an offer to loan us the money we needed to proceed. This solved two problems at once: Not only could we at last have our baby, but her middle name _ until then maddeningly elusive _ was chosen for us. To her long-since-selected first name, Jocelyn, could now be appended, in slightly poetcized form, the name of her fatemother: Christened well in advance of her arrival, she became Jocelyn Diana Moody. We asked WACAP to send our homestudy over to Korea. The agency did, writing that we could expect assignment of a baby in ``3 1/2 to 6 months.''
Right on schedule, we got a mid-January call from our social worker. ``I have great news!'' she squealed. ``You've gotten a referral!''
A referral is a little packet of heart-stopping information. It is a combination birth announcement and dossier, a baby's declaration of dependence upon her new adoptive parents. Pictures of the baby _ one taken a month earlier on the day of her birth, another a week afterward _ were included, along with pages of information on her health, size, circumstances of birth and relinquishment, type of foster care, and so on.
Prospective parents, according to procedure, are supposed to take in this information, then tell their adoption agency whether or not they want to adopt the child in question. I have yet to hear of anyone, after years of anticipation, reading through one of these things, looking at the baby pictures, then saying, ``Naaaahhhh.''
Born in Daegu City and brought to Holt on the day of her birth, she had been christened, by the agency, Huh Ok Kyung. ``Crying sound is loud and full of vigor,'' the report said, and it went on to predict a wonderful life for her. ``Ok Kyung reaches the average standard of her age in all areas including physical development,'' it read. ``She has been fine in the condition of feeding, elimination and sleeping since the placement at the foster home. As Ok Kyung is cared for, receiving a great amount of attention from the foster mother, it is expected she will grow up into a healthy and lovely girl without any problems.''
Little information was provided about her birth parents, aside from their ages, occupations and a short, euphemistic paragraph, with volumes of sorrow and hopelessness readable between the lines, about Ok Kyung's mother. ``(She) was not in a position to bring up the baby alone,'' it concluded. ``Therefore, she relinquished her parental rights toward the baby, wishing to have the baby adopted into a loving family for the baby's desirable future.''
Our hearts go out to this poor young woman, who has not the faintest idea what has happened to her baby, and to whom long-entrenched Korean taboos and customs prevent us from sending the news that her daughter is thriving, and that she has made our family inexpressibly happy. Under ideal circumstances, kthere would come a day when she and our grown daughter could meet, setting to rest whatever awful uncertainties might still be lurking in their minds and hearts.
Nearly three months go by from the time of your referral to the time of your baby's arrival, and those final months are unquestionably the hardest time of all. Fate _ in the form of bureaucratic delays, financial shortcomings, real-estate transactions, the sudden generosity of friends and unnumbered other normally insignificant everyday circumstances _ has assigned you this child no less arbitrarily and no less definitively than the genetic fates assign you your birth children. Had we managed our money better, had Ok Kyung been born a day later, had an agency worker in Seoul typed up her stack of reports in a different order, or had any one of thousands of other unimagined things happened differently, we would have gotten a different baby. The conviction that fate arranged everything perfectly is so strong that any other baby, you are convinced, would have been the wrong one. This child is yours from the moment you look at her picture _ and even though the day before you hadn't even known she existed, the idea now that she is being raised by strangers is agonizing.
I retreated into my customary emotional numbness and watched Anne, now gagging on the piece of cake she promised me four years ago, all but collapse from feelings of helplessness and frustration. By night she stared at Jocelyn's picture, by day she railed at the bureaucratic procedures _ visas had to be issued by both the American and Korean governments before Jocelyn could be cleared for takeoff _ keeping us from our baby. Her condition was exacerbated by our daughters' daily wail: ``When is Jocelyn coming?''
At last the phone call came telling us the day and time of Jocelyn's flight arrival, and we woke up last March 30th into a day I remember now as a long, barely believable dream. We boarded the 7:45 a.m. ferry from Bainbridge. On the passenger deck, I encountered an acquaintance. ``We're on the way to the airport to pick up our new baby,'' I said. He stared at me in utter disbelief. ``But . . . but . .
. you look so calm!'' ``I don't know how I'm supposed to feel,'' I answered.
It was true. Somehow, this lacked the drama that had characterized our mad dashes to the hospital for the first two deliveries.
Everything at the airport melts together in memory, like a slow blur. We arrived, with grandparents, our adoption counselor and her children, and a photographer in tow, an hour before the flight did. We waited, along with four other families who had children coming on the same flight. A woman came up and introduced herself as the baby's escort _ the person appointed to go on the plane and bring Jocelyn off, thereby allowing her to bypass customs. We gave her a blanket, so that we wo uld see through the International Arrivals glass wall which of the babies was ours. Then, in one of the most peculiar moments of my life, the woman asked to see my driver's license. Handing it to her, I felt like one of life's grandest moments had just b een reduced to the status of a teen-ager's attempted purchase of beer at a convenience store.
We watched the plane arrive and taxi to a stop. We dashed down the escalator to where its passengers come out of customs. The place was a madhouse. We waited, it seemed, for nearly an hour more, the babies being the last to leave the plane. I coached our photographer _ a cool, sardonic youngster who, I was sure, could be counted on to maintain his coolness under emotional fire _ as to where the baby would first appear, and when. The tension rose madly by the minute. Our daughters were going crazy, my wife already had tears in her eyes, families were being reunited all around us . . . and then suddenly someone shrieked. On the escalator on the other side of the wall were lined up five women with Korean babies. We saw ours immediately, and started shouting. Our photographer, his camera hanging unattended around his neck, wailed, ``I feel like I'm in a delivery room!''
Our escort, with Jocelyn safely in her arms, came through the doors and handed her over. She stared out at a tremendous emotional maelstrom through sleepy, confused, oddly peaceful eyes. Beautiful, shapely things, they looked like they had been added to God's creation by some celestial calligrapher. A woman's voice behind me said, ``She was the best baby on the flight _ she didn't cry the whole time.'' Someone handed me a packet of papers, including her passport, and I thought how odd it was that an infant would carry a passport. Mother and Grandmother were crying, children were shouting, and I felt . . .
well, exactly the way I'd felt in the delivery room.
It occurred to me later how surprised I had been to feel that way. The distinctly unromantic process of adoption, culminating in that most prosaic of undertakings _ a trip to the airport _ must have left me expecting something less exhilarating and wrenching than birth. But there was absolutely no emotional difference, to me, between this form of delivery and that administered in a hospital _ a circumstance suggesting, at the very least, that in our society the genetic investment i n parenthood is considerably overplayed. Babies, however you acquire them, are babies, all arousing the same profound parental instincts. It was one of the oddest, most delightful surprises of my life to discover that such a protracted, formal, frustrati ng series of bureaucratic transactions and procedures could culminate in such a heartburst of elation.
The same, alas, could not be said for Jocelyn. Only three months old, she had been taken from the arms of her foster mother _ a sweet, somber woman who had raised Jocelyn from birth and whose picture is now among our most treasured possessions _ and landed a day later among bizarre, humanoid creatures who now kept crowding around her, babbling and fondling, as if they were entitled to give her comfort and nourishment. She started crying in the car, and was not to stop for a full th ree months. Even the sight of the ``Welcome Jocelyn'' banner strung by our neighbors across our street failed to mollify her.
Huh Ok Kyung was suffering through a protracted, traumatic rebirth as Jocelyn Diana Moody. She would refuse to be comforted, stiffening and contorting her body with amazing strength. Taking a bottle, she would kick and scream and contort herself in a frenzy, then suddenly ingurgitate the thing in a single, superhuman act of suction.
Her sharklike feeding habit earned her the nickname ``Jaws.'' Desperate, nearly insane, we kept phoning her pediatrician, sure that something serious was wrong. ``She's just freaking out,'' he would insist. ``She's in terrific health.''
Near the end of June, at about 6 months old, she dramatically calmed. She started sleeping most of the night. She began looking at us with the same unqualified adoration and amusement our other daughters had sported at that age. She became the contented, good-natured baby described in her referral. She started deriving comfort and satisfaction from her bottles. She could tell us apart from other people, and looked to us for protection from strangers. She was ours, heart and soul!
Not, however, in the eyes of the law. After three more evaluative visits from our adoption counselor, and an endless, required waiting period, we were able at last to set a November date in King County Court for the finalization of our adoption. After a brief hearing and the filing of various court papers, Jocelyn _ now nearly a year old _ would be legally recognized as our own. Unconsciously, I had regarded this during the long interim as a more or less meaningless little ceremony recognizing a fait accompli, but on the day itself, I lapsed into near-panic. Court, after all, is not where you generally go to have a good time. What if something went wrong?
Our lawyer, Al Lirhus, reassured us. ``This is the best thing that happens to these judges,'' he said. ``Most of the time, they hear custody and foster-care cases, domestic-violence disputes. This is the high point of their week.''
On the appointed day, we walked through a packed waiting room into a tiny demi-courtroom where Court Commissioner Steve Gaddis, resplendent in judicial robes and sporting a comical, mischievous smile, sat behind a properly formal barrier. With grandparents and children crowding into the room around us, Anne and I stood behind a table and were sworn in. Any fears I had of last-minute legal hitches were allayed immediately. Everybody, it was obvious, was here to have a good time. We answere d a few ritual questions, and then were asked one that for some reason brought me immediately out of my reverie: ``Are you financially and emotionally able to care for this child, as long as you both shall live?''
``Uhhhhhhh . . .''
No matter. Gaddis, in a playful mood, brought our two older daughters forward as ``character references,'' and asked them their opinion on our suitability as parents. Then he invited us all up on his platform, held Jocelyn in his lap for a few moments, and sent us all on our way, a legally recognized, legitimate, ecstatic American family.
FRED MOODY IS A FREE-LANCE WRITER LIVING ON BAINBRIDGE ISLAND.
THINKING ABOUT ADOPTING?
Although Northwest families have been adopting Korean babies since the early 1960s, adoptions gathered considerable momentum in the mid-1980s. Several factors explain the boom _ Korea's official openness to the procedure (and discouragement of abortion), the rise of white couples unable to have their own children, the difficulties of adopting children in general, closer Pacific Rim ties.
Pinning down the number of Korean adoptions is elusive, since immigration officials don't break down statistics by country. Foreign adoptions in Washington state have averaged nearly 400 a year over the past three years, and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say the majority are Koreans.
Persons interested in pursuing a Korean adoption can contact the following numbers:
Adoption Advocates International. 1-452-4777. Local phone contact: Ernie Snyder, 365-7989.
Catholic Community Services. 323-6336.
Travelers Aid Society, 461-3888.
WACAP/Options for Pregnancy: 575-4550.