Birth Mothers and the Exotic "Other"

In her presentation at the AAC Conference, Margie of Third Mom struck a chord with me when she talked about what she was told about Korean birth parents as she waited to adopt her children from Korea. I can only paraphrase, but it was essentially that Korean birth mothers care more about family honor than their children born out of wedlock, that they don't experience the relinquishment as we would (a story Margie believed for a time, as did I, and then came to reject, as have I).

I was told something similar about birth mothers in China. Consider this 2006 post by Brian Stuy of ResearchChina, The Myth of the Mourning Birthmother:

When I interviewed the two birthmothers last year, both matter-of-factly recounted their stories. There was no tears of remorse, although both expressed some regret that they had abandoned their children. Both acknowledged that if confronted with the same situation again, they would abandon their child again. Neither birthmother was very emotional when recounting her story, but rather showed a sense of consignment [sic]. They did what had to be done in both of their situations.

* * *

It is also interesting to note that a large percentage of families in China turn over raising of their child(ren) to the grand-parents, while the husband and wife work.

* * *

Personally, I could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise. . . .

There was no emotional regret in any of these stories, simply an acceptance that life required these decisions. No apologies, no tears, no looking back. I'm not saying that the Chinese don't love their children, but it is not often the emotionally-invested love that we in the West feel.

Yes, culture is a powerful thing (it might, for example, require that in talking to a virtual stranger we behave unemotionally and matter-of-factly, even when describing painful events!). But these versions of "birth mother" -- the one Margie was given and the one Brian provides -- paint them as not just culturally different, but as less than human. No emotion, no regret, no tears, no love -- or at least, not the kind of love we adoptive parents in the West experience. I've read it on adoptive parent forums, too, how these Chinese birth mothers throw away their children with no more feeling than when throwing out the trash.

These representations of foreign birth mothers allow us to divorce ourselves from the experience of these birth mothers, to minimize their pain, and to justify how much better off our children are with us than with them. So that we can continue to ignore them even as we internalize how painful the loss of these children would be to us, their relinquishment has to be seen as wholly voluntary, desired, accepted. We have to believe they have moved on, that they feel no pain. They are "the Other," the person who is understood only according to their difference from ourselves. It becomes very easy to do when the birth mother is from another country; we have a long history of "the exotic Other" as justifying all sorts of Western colonial intervention. "They" are just not like "us."

But we do it in domestic adoption, too, with birth mothers raised in the good ol' U.S. of A. We say, "She is a saint, she showed the ultimate in mother's love;" and then we follow up with, "I could never have done that." As Brian Stuy puts it, "Personally, I could not imagine ever giving up my child to another to raise." I don't think it's meant as a compliment -- it's not that she's so much more noble, so much more saintly, so much more loving than I, that I could never do that. She is different from me, she is less than me, she is "the Other."

In writing this, I'm focusing on the big picture, how we construct the picture of "birth mother." Some relinquishing mothers may be just as Brian Stuy describes them -- unemotional, matter-of-fact, not looking back, etc. But then, there are parenting mothers who could be described this way as well! I think, though, that the happy-happy-joy-joy version of adoption can survive only if we paint birth mothers in a particular way. And I think many international adoptive parents are highly invested in that version of birth mother as "the exotic Other."

I write this not to lay blame, but to suggest more compassion, more understanding, more "Other"-love.


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.

Recent Posts by mseymore