Space between Breaths
I come from metal, from shaky steps, from air. I arrived as a newborn at 2 years and 9 months old. I could say Umma for Mom and Nye for yes. All I knew about my birthmother was I came from her womb. I was inside her—my blood, my lungs, my lineage—close to her heart, for nine months. And then I wasn’t. My adoptive mother was a strong, independent, white woman who chose not to marry. She liked to say I came from a 747 that carried me from Seoul, Korea to the Philly airport in December of 1979.
The only evidence I have of my former baby self is a pre-flight report that was mailed to my mother from the Korean adoption agency.
Child’s Name: Kim, Eun Ja (F).
Birth Date: March 1977.
Physical condition of child: Moderate condition.
Feeding/ Eating: She eats one bowl of boiled rice with several side dishes without trouble with a spoon at table.
She enjoys having snacks such as cookies and fruits in good digestion.
Toilet Training: She takes bowel movements once daily in average and foster mother helps her.
Speech: She is of few words, and can say “Umma (mom), Nye (yes) and Bye bye”.
Ability: She loves a baby in the same foster home and plays well as sitting down calm with a doll or toy.
She is usually pleased with anyone, but not if she finds out males, so cries loudly.
According to foster mother, she is very mild, kind and usually takes conciliatory attitude.
Character: She looks not to be bright in character as she was cared at orphanage for long.
I’ve stared at this piece of paper so many times. Wanting what wasn’t written to be written, to suddenly appear. To give me answers. What does that last line mean: She looks not to be bright in character as she was cared at orphanage for long?
Somehow, with the spin of the wheel of fortune, I escaped. My beginnings may have started orphaned, but my life would not.
“It was meant to be,” is my mom’s favourite saying about the adoption process. Everything simply fell into place. At the age of forty, my mom was ready to be a mother. She bought a house with a huge yard in a suburb of Trenton, New Jersey. She had a stable government job at the New Jersey State Library with a great pension plan. Since she never relied on a man, she forged ahead and looked into adoption on her own.
I liked to think I was the chosen one. I once asked my mom if she ordered me from a JC Penny catalogue. After all, she bought everything from the catalogue: clothes, furniture, and Christmas gifts. Why not me? I liked the idea of her flipping through orphan faces, stopping when she saw mine. She’d point her finger down at my face, choosing me. Instead, my non-nostalgic mom scoffed, “You were the first available kid.”
I met her requirements: a girl between the age of two and three who was potty trained. But how did I know this? I don’t remember what space in time I must have asked this. I accumulated clues like her strong female detective main characters did in the Victorian mystery novels she devoured like candy. And although my mom loved reading and chose her career as a librarian that championed books, she had no desire to share her story (because she was private and had no patience for details). So, I was left to take those clues as writing prompts and create my own narrative around them.
When I was young, I truly thought she didn’t want a child over the age of three for fear that I would arrive damaged. She didn’t want me to remember Korea or my birthmother or some horrible, unspeakable past that would take years of therapy to sort through. She wanted me to be a clean slate. She wanted me to be completely her daughter.
But once I became a mother, I understood the truth. I entered motherhood in the traditional sense of having sex with my husband and somehow the right sperm found the right egg and I was a miracle maker, according to me (that shit blew my mind!!), carrying my baby for nine months like my birthmother had to and then surviving the horror of birth.
And then taking care of this newborn alien creature that no amount of studying parenting books, reading mommy blogs, or joining Facebook Mommy support groups could have prepared me for. Motherhood did not come naturally, I felt like a failure, I regretted the decision, and I wanted to quit. No one told me that my identity of self, which as a Korean adoptee I spent years learning, was wiped clean once I became a mother.
And my mom skipped ALL THAT, from birth to three years old! Now I believe she was very smart and knew her limits as a single mother.
In the space between the silence, there is so much lost. Unrecoverable. I will never know what the flight coming to America was like. Had I ever been on an aeroplane before? Was I scared? I will never know what the first night at home was like. Did I understand this was permanent—forever? Was I sad? Did I cry?
There are no adults—from my birth family, from the adoption agencies, from my adoptive mother—to document, to record, to tell me otherwise.
Without a birth story, I was born unseen.
My mother would never share stories with me that would paint her in a weak light. That would show her vulnerability. That would hint that she didn’t know what she was doing as a new mother. She refused to let anyone into her process. She only wanted to deliver the finished product, the solved problem.
So, it makes perfect sense that my mom never told her parents (my grandparents) and her sisters (my aunts) that she was adopting a baby from Korea. That she would become a single mother by choice, which in the late 70s to the outside world was not a common thing. But in her library world, where there was an abundance of like-minded, strong women leaders, she found Mary Joe—a single mother who adopted 8 kids internationally. My mother wasn’t a trailblazer, she just found a good mentor. It wasn’t until I was home that she finally told the family. Probably said it in the same it’s-not-a-big-deal-because-I-don’t-do-drama way that she announced all big things.
I heard that my grandfather was the most upset by this unsharing of news. He couldn’t understand what would make my mom do such a thing. Adopt from where? And by herself, not married? He refused to love me. But then I won his heart with my infectious giggle. I was his first and only granddaughter after all. He’d make me scrambled eggs with scrapple in the early weekend mornings that we visited their house in North Jersey. The same house my mom was born, grew up in, and abandoned. I don’t remember a time that he didn’t love me. I only remember the way he would give me a great big bear hug in his soft flannel shirt and how his sandpaper-rough cheek from the five-o-clock shadow beard would make me giggle.
This memory of love, from my grandfather, from my mom, I never doubted, never questioned, never wondered about. That steady, unshakable, unwavering love could summarize my childhood and my life. An adoption fairy tale happy ending.
It wasn’t until my mother died from metastatic breast cancer in May of 2005, and I was twice orphaned at the age of 28, that the fairy tale world shattered. My greatest fear had come true, that of my mother abandoning me. I went into instinctual, survival mode. I worked in order not to feel what I’ve dubbed the blackhole of abandonment. First order of business: solve the space between her silences. Second order of business: deprogram her voice so that I could hear my own. My mother loved lists, so here’s mine:
1. GRIEF. I was never allowed to cry. My mother hated crying as signalling weakness, an out-of-control-ness that no one wants to see. After she died, I cried ALL THE TIME! I walked around the world with a grief lens. Why was everyone so happy? Why was the sun still shining? I felt like I reverted to newborn status, and I needed everyone to mother me. I thought no one would ever love me the way she had. I questioned the point of living. I didn’t understand at the time that her death triggered that abandonment feeling when I was orphaned the first time.
2. BIRTHMOTHER. We never talked about my birth mother. She was not allowed in the house. When I became involved in the Korean adoptee community in my early twenties, I couldn’t figure out why everyone talked about wanting to search for their birthmother, in Korea! How absurd (and impossible!). And then all the reunion stories I did hear about sounded AWFUL! Just more pain, more rejection. I had my baggage; I didn’t need to take on my ghost birth family’s shit. So, I did not have a birthmother problem.
3. RACE. We never talked about race. I grew up with the colourblind mentality that if you pretended not to see race, then you were not racist. But since I was Korean, it meant no one saw me. Instead of the cliched adoptee birthmother search problem, I had the transracial math problem of feeling white on the inside but hating my Korean face on the outside. I thought if I could reclaim my Koreanness, I could finally love myself—inside and out.
4. GOOD GIRL. I grew up as the perfect, good girl. A good girl listens to her mother who liked to say to any questioning of her decision, “Because I’m the mother and I said so”. I was a good student, I loved school! I loved that you could work and study hard (which I had to do because I wasn’t naturally smart) and, as a reward, get good grades. My mother didn’t say you have to get straight A’s, but no C’s. Because C means average and it was understood I was anything but average. A good girl does not smoke, do drugs, drink, or have sex. As a teen when I was expected to rebel, I had no desire. I went to a Korean church instead—which is another story.
5. BAD GIRL. But even though I was such a good girl, and I needed my mother’s approval for everything, I would have these crying, uncontrollable outbursts. I called it Monster Lynne. Only my mother and my two best friends from 7th grade, Nikki and Zara, saw Monster Lynne. I didn’t know that because my mom never acknowledged negative emotions, and I had no way of processing them. So, they would explode out of me whenever I was triggered. Which always made me think I must really be “bad” to have a monster hiding inside of me.
6. MY STORY. My mother never supported my dream to become a writer because it was impractical and didn’t come with a pension plan. But I knew from the age of 8 years old that writing was the only way to make sense and put words to the unspoken. In a world that had no reflection of what I was feeling, I wrote myself into existence. In the absence of a story, I wrote my own. When I wanted to major in Creative Writing in college, my mom convinced me to choose Communications, since it was broader, and writing is communicating. When she died, I took her inheritance money and got an MFA in creative writing as the biggest FUCK YOU I could muster. (She also forbade cursing, so now I curse like a sailor.)
7. ATTACHMENT. Pre-motherhood, I thought I was an evolved adoptee. I thought 3 years old was young enough not to have any memories, young enough not to be fucked up as an adult because of childhood abandonment trauma. But after having my first baby, watching her develop. Grow. Understand. A chasm of grief has opened up.
When Emmy was 19 months old, just shy of two, (when I could have possibly been in an orphanage), she’d study me. Her mouth was half open, drool running out. I’d brush my teeth. I’d pee on the toilet (once you’re a mom there is no such thing as privacy). I’d comb my hair. Afterwards, she’d giggle and then try to do exactly what I just did. I’d say, “Emmy, where’s your nose?” And she’d run into my bedroom and grab the tissue box and hand it to me. She understood, “Where’s mommy’s phone?” She loved Sesame Street. It was her jam. She knew so much, and she wasn’t even two.
I remember thinking, what will happen when she turns three? At that age I was stripped of the only identity I knew—taken from my birthmother, my motherland Korea, losing food, language, culture, and my birthright. I was three when I became Lynne Connor and just had to accept this new life without an explanation. Without someone telling me where my Umma was.
In my twenties, pre and post, going on Holt’s Motherland Tour, I thought if I could solve the math equation of when exactly I was given up for adoption, I could measure my birthmother’s love. As if I could control the intensity of the unwantedness. As if the amount of space between birth to abandonment could determine my worth.
When I had my first baby and I was in absolute hell, I struggled so much with becoming a mother. I felt so alone. Instead of Monster Lynne, now I was Monster Mommy, because who hates motherhood? During the fourth trimester (first 4 months of a baby’s life), when Emmy would cry for long bouts and I couldn’t figure out why, I truly understood: This is how a mother abandons her baby.
Because this shit is SOOO FUCKING HARD!!!!
But when I had my second baby, who was so unplanned and unwanted, I considered abortion. When she was born, on the first night in the hospital nursery, she stopped breathing. Turned blue. Was sentenced to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where weeks-old preemies lay in plastic incubators to keep their see-through, bird-like skins warm. I was convinced that the reason she couldn’t breathe was that she knew how unwanted she was in my womb. It was all my fault.
But in that space between breaths, my love for her exploded. It was instant. I did not want her to die. She could not die.
I wanted her. I wanted her. I wanted her.
It was then that I realized a mother’s love could not be solved through math and measurements. It did not matter when I was separated from my birth mother. It just matters that I was.
This blackhole of ambiguous grief is a phantom birthmark I am cursed to live with as an adoptee. The han, that is my inherited, generational trauma, embedded in my DNA, my blood–proves that I am Korean. And all of this, all of me — exists in the space between breaths.
Lynne Connor is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.
As a lost Korean adoptee, Lynne Connor writes on themes of identity, grief, race, home & belonging. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction from Mills College and has been published in The Womanist, Noyo Review, Raising Mothers Magazine, Mom Egg Review, Gazillion Voices Magazine, Kartika Review, Adoption Today Magazine, and has forthcoming writing in the Art Book ROOTS: Korean Diaspora, all which can be found at www.lynneconnor.com. She’s a certified Amherst Writers & Artists affiliate leading creative writing workshops through Lost Lit. She resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, Grumpy Bert, pug son Remy and two young daughters Emmy and Rainey. Follow her on Instagram: @lynnecwrites.